26 August 2013

Chromoxylographic Coding

While taking Terry Belanger's course on book illustration processes at the Rare Book School this summer, I became enchanted with chromoxylography: the printing process in which a color image is built up from the successive printing of multiple woodblocks, each responsible for a single color. Not only are color wood engravings beautiful but -- as I discuss a bit below -- the process of making them strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for how we code.

So what are chromoxylographs? Although you can find examples of color woodcuts or wood engravings in many centuries, the form peaked in the nineteenth-century as a relatively cost-effective way of reproducing high-volume yet beautifully detailed color illustrations, especially within the burgeoning market for children's literature. The work of Edmund Evans -- who engraved the drawings of  Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and others -- is particularly spectacular.

[Walter Crane, The Baby's Bouquet [1879]. Engravings by Edmund Evans. A scan of every opening is available here and through Project Gutenberg.]

(Sidenote: Evans wrote an autobiography, published by Clarendon Press in 1967 as The
Reminiscences of Edmund Evans. Although Oxford's editor laments the lack of historical information in his otherwise "rambling" prose, the book is full of charming tales of Evans as a young apprentice in the printing industry -- how he once ran some illustration proofs to a somber Dickens, sitting alone in his darkened house; how Thackeray was an asshole to him (Evans hoped to meet the esteemed author in heaven, so he could ask him why he'd been such a jerk); his musings about how excited he was to meet angels, so they could tell him what it was like to live in pre-Christian Rome, and what the heck electricity is. He thought Darwin's theory of evolution was God's gift to England; and he may or may not have been crushing on Kate Greenaway. Rambling or not, it's an informative and delightful short read.)

Its hard for us, accustomed to high-definition of digital photography and today's color screens, to wrap our minds around the difficulty of reproducing a tonal image. I've found it helps to imagine printing as a kind of binary system: either the page is inked, or it isn't. There's no such thing as "gray" when you're printing black on white, only the appearance of gray produced through crosshatching, or with more subtlety through later processes like aquatint etching. So if you want to print a color image, you have to either print every single color separately -- not a very economical choice; beautiful chromolithographs of this sort often went through the press dozens of times -- or devise a way to create the appearance of multiple shades from a few basic colors. This latter method points toward chromoxylography.

So what is the process of producing a color wood engraving? First, the engraver would cut the basic outline of an illustration into the endgrain of a block of wood. This is the key block, responsible for the black (or brown) outline of the image. Then the engraver would pull a proof of this block and send it to the illustrator to be colored by hand. This hand-colored proof becomes the basis for designing and cutting each block of color. Thus a basic outline -- a sense of the entirety of the image, both in shape and color -- must be in place before the engraver translates the polychromatic (analog) painting into a series of single-color (binary) blocks. Once you have your set of blocks, they can be reproduced as metal stereotypes, which would last through many tens of thousands of printings.

[This is a close-up of the bannister in the illustration shown above. Although the image quality is pretty poor, you can make out 4 colors: red, yellow, blue and black (the key block). The different greens are produced from blue and yellow. There's a better quality reproduction of this image in the color plates of Bamber Gascoigne's How to Identify Prints; here, I've reproduced his example by taking a picture of my own copy of The Baby's Bouquet.]

Note that, as a process for reproducing color, this is really not much different from the additive RGB system used in most modern screens. No doubt many interesting things could be said on the relationship between the two, if I knew more about the development of RGB and the 8-bit color system (anyone want to collaborate on an essay?). For now, it's sufficient to note that most of the color we see in reproductive media (in Benjamin's sense of "reproduction") is an illusion produced by combining lots of discrete units of a very limited palette.

[A nice example of color wood engraving. You can see many more lovely examples here.

Aside from the inherent interest of chromoxylography, it strikes me as a concise metaphor for how we code -- especially how we code for web applications. When we want to make a website do something, we start with an illustration, a vision -- in my case, this is usually a sketch drawn in a book I keep for storyboarding ideas.

Then, sitting at my computer with my sketchbook open beside me, I produce a kind of "key block" outlining the basic elements of the site and their functionality in relation to each other. Usually this takes the form of some very basic JavaScript or jQuery attached to blank blocks with bright background colors. Like the printed key block proof, this proof-of-concept draft enables me to begin imagining how to translate my notebook sketch -- a document not constrained by my actual programming skills -- into the limited set of actions available in a given programming (or mark-up) language.

This process of translation is really where the metaphor begins to make sense; for programming is an exercise in magic through constraint. As with chromoxylography, there's something distinctly beautiful in the efficiency of programming -- something that makes the object produced under limitations more curious than the illustration it aims to reproduce. I marvel at how an engraver mentally juggled his knowledge of color and shape -- the interactions of blue and yellow under varying line widths -- in order to produce a delicate, shifting green, in the same way that Donald Knuth, in his famous defense of code as art, marvels at the little bits of trickery discovered in another's source code. Being an expert wood engraver and being a decent programmer both require one to hold continually in mind the Big Picture -- and to do so while seeing that Big Picture as the sum of all its many tiny interlocking parts. It's being able to zoom in and out without changing focus or losing your place in a massive puzzle.

I've been thinking about this metaphor -- chromoxylographic coding, coded chromoxyolography -- as I finish putting together my syllabus for a (creative) writing class I'm teaching on Digital Narratives. The course starts with each student writing a short story, fiction or nonfiction. Then, over the course of a dozen or so weeks, we rewrite our narratives in seven different media: print (i.e. a designed object for print), hypertext, sound, image, game, unfolding in time (a Twitter drama, a blog novel, netprov), and unfolding in space (ARGs, mobile narratives). Each rewriting, or remediation, will be fairly self-contained: our hypertext versions won't use sound or image; our sonic iterations won't have accompanying text. The point is to test the same basic narrative under a variety of fairly strict conditions, seeing what works with what narrative structure, what doesn't, and generally pushing the limits of narration itself.

About halfway through designing the course, it struck me that we're using a type of chromoxylographic process: our initial stories are our key blocks, while each remediation shows the same narrative in a single color. Alone, each color block might only faintly hint at the story of the key block; the final project -- in which students can combine different forms -- then brings all these single color blocks together into a multimedia story. Thus the success of our digital storytelling depends on how well we learn to blend different lines of color, mixing sound with image, the interactivity of clicking with the ludic nature of play. While this stripped-down iterative approach leaves the process of producing actual multimedia narratives until the end of the course, I'm hoping that testing each form under strict conditions will lead to a tighter, more purposeful use of digital media in the final projects.

06 August 2013

Prints & Needlework (I): Embroidered Portraits

The wonderful Vim Pasupathi recently posted on Twitter a photo of a lovely little embroidered portrait, held at UCLA's Clark Library:

[Embroidered portrait at UCLA's Clark Library. Image taken by Vim Pasupathi and used with permission.]

The Clark's catalog identifies this man as the Thomas Dekker.* Not that cute kid on all those 90s TV shows, but the early modern dramatist.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is definitely not Thomas Dekker. For one, this man seems to be clothed in ermine, possibly some kind of parliamentary robe. Second, he's standing in front of a lavish manor house -- not an uncommon thing for the owner of such an estate to have painted behind his shoulder, but surely an odd choice for a probably low-born playwright. I'm guessing if we identified the house or the plant behind him (any thoughts?), we'd have a shot at identifying the man. Barring that, or a deeper investigation into provenance (maybe there's another Thomas Dekker?), the best we can do is say that this embroidered portrait seems to depict a late-seventeenth-century member of the nobility who wanted to be remembered for his lavish home, long locks and (the laurels indicate) his poetry.

Vim's intriguing find has spurred me to do something I've wanted to do for months: begin posting some of my in-progress research on the relationship between prints and textiles in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Although there are many wonderful books on early modern textiles, and many more on that thing we lumpishly call "print culture," the rich connections between prints and needlework are sorely understudied. What work has been done tends to examine them only in triangulation with some third factor (gender, literature), giving a somewhat skewed perspective as to the depth and variety of needlework extant from the period.**

So: what's up with embroidered portraits?

To answer that, I have to tell you a story.

A few summers ago, driving back from the Northeast, I decided to take a detour off I-95 to visit Agecroft Hall. For those who don't know -- which in my experience is, surprisingly, just about every scholar I mention it to -- Agecroft Hall is a Tudor manor house located outside Richmond, Virginia. Not a replica of a Tudor manor house, an actual Tudor manor house. It was bought at auction for $19,000 in 1925 by an Anglophile tobacco heir, Mr. Thomas C. Wiilliams, who then had the decrepit structure disassembled beam by beam, crated across the Atlantic, and reassembled outside Richmond, where it was to be the storied centerpiece of a planned housing development that Mr. Williams wanted to build on his family's farm. Think neo-feudal suburban chic for the upwardly mobile.

Sadly, Mr. Williams died before he could fully enjoy his (new?) home, and the estate stands now as a museum, complete with a Tudor knot garden and a variety of period furniture, including a lovely painted bed and a tapestry from Mortlake. If you're interested, Bob Vila can tell you all about it.

[Agecroft Hall, in Richmond, VA.]

I visited on a hot August day, with the temperatures soaring over 100F. The only people there, besides me, were a wilted family of four, alternately confused and bored, and our tour guide, a lovely elderly woman with a fan's enthusiasm for all things Elizabethan. As she led us up the carved staircase (imported from Warwick Priory), she pointed to a small case along the hallway. In it was this gem -- an embroidered portrait of Charles I:

[Embroidered portrait of Charles I, currently held at Agecroft Hall]

Although its hard to tell from this digital image (a scan of a postcard), the work is extraordinarily fine -- not at all like the more cartoonish embroidery of "Dekker." Whereas our "Dekker" seems to be the product of an amateur needleworker, this portrait of Charles I was most likely produced, and reproduced, in a professional workshop. In fact, the Met holds a very similar copy:

[Embroidered portrait of Charles I, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

You can see how detailed the stitching is in the Met's high-res image (for more close-ups, visit the Met's page):

This image of Charles will be familiar to friends of the seventeenth century. Reproduced from a 1632 royal family portrait by van Dyck, it was widely disseminated in print through Wenceslas Hollar's engraving, which became the frontispiece for the Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae after the King's execution.

Rebecca Hackett has a great discussion of these two embroidered portraits and their relationship to the cult of the Martyr King. Circulated as miniatures to be hung in cabinets or on walls, these portraits served as displays of loyalty among exiled royalists -- signs of one's allegiance to the unjustly executed monarch. Of course, a print could (and did) just as easily serve that purpose. So why do we find so many embroidered portraits of the King?

To answer that question gets at the uniqueness and interest of embroidery as a medium for portraiture in the early modern period. In an age that lacked (for all intents and purposes) color printing, needlework in silk or wool offered up richly colorful reproductions, cheaper than a van Dyck but more delicately textured than a black-and-white print. As this frontispiece shows (from a copy of the Eikon Basilike at the Beinecke), readers might paste or sew fabric over an image to make it more colorful or special; here, someone has used scraps of purple and white satin to "dress" the king with color:

[Copy of Eikon Basilike at the Beinecke Library.]

Moreover, unlike ink and paper, embroidered portraits could be wrought in a variety of materials that related to the subject. A number of extant needlework portraits of the Martyr King claim to have been worked in Charles' own hair --

-- thereby linking his reproduced face to his actual body: to own a portrait of the King was, in a sense, to own a bit of the King himself. Other embroidered portraits might incorporate actual jewels into the subject's costume, as in this beautiful miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, wrought with gold and silver thread and embellished with pearls:

[I'm grabbing this image from here. It was sold at Sotheby's in April 2004 for $153,600 but I'm not sure where it went.]

Her face and hands are bits of painted vellum -- skin for skin.

The wide range of colors and textures available in silk, as well as the relative durability of sewn thread over blobs of paint, seems to have made embroidered portraits an especially attractive embellishment for books, and many extant examples are found on bookbindings. This copy of Francis Bacon's Essays (1625, now at the Bodleian) is worked with a portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, copied from an engraving by Simon de Passe. As this edition is dedicated to the Duke, the portrait brings the book's inner order to its outer cover, acting as both a visual index of the book's contents and an authoritative stamp of approval: Villiers watches over the book. (I believe this was a presentation copy -- so in fact Villiers is watching over himself watching over the book dedicated to him.)

[Embroidered binding on a copy of Francis Bacon's Essays (1625), at the Bodleian.]

So common are portraits on embroidered bookbindings that Cyril Davenport counts them as one of the three main categories of needlework bindings in his classic study of the subject. Here's a post-Restoration example (also from the Bodleian) of a Bible covered with an embroidered portrait of Charles II. Catherine of Braganza is depicted on the back.

[Embroidered binding on a copy of the Bible. Late 17th-century; now at the Bodleian.]

Of course, once a portrait was worked on a book cover, it might easily be cut out and reused on valances or cushions -- or images from other textiles might be remade into book covers. This charming portrait from a seventeenth-century cushion is framed in a mirror, as if the cushion's owner is staring at a reflection of himself.

[From a 17th-century cushion in the Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Image from Artstor.]

Though hardly as delicate as the Charles I portrait now at Agecroft, you can see how the medium lends itself to a certain tactility not available in print. I would love to see this in person; no doubt the spangles glimmer in the the light.

Yet, even though embroidery offered what print lacks, both forms were crucially linked in the early modern period. The thing we call "print culture," especially the availability of high-quality engravings, made these kinds of embroidery possible for a wider audience of amateur needleworkers, just as the demands of needleworkers critically shaped what "print culture" was -- the kinds of images that were printed, how and where they were sold -- in the latter half of the seventeenth-century. In fact, I've come to think that, in a very real sense, we can't understand book use in early modern England without knowing a little something about needlework, too.

After all, books are sewn objects.

*  *  *  


As I was finishing up this post, echoes of earlier selves began to haunt me. I remembered the work of Jenny Hart, an embroidery artist who specializes in whimsical portraits -- portraits that look very much like our lop-eyed "Dekker" above -- and the interview I conducted with her as an assignment during my master's program. (My professor, Henry Jenkins, later posted the interview on his blog.) I loved embroidery before I became an early modernist -- I was convinced we should read needlework as a medium, although I didn't know what that meant yet (still don't; but we forge ahead) -- and, at the time, I was still myself an amateur needleworker. As a teenager, I had embroidered Leibniz onto a skirt (which I still love and wear -- it's held up well over the years!) --

-- and I later reproduced one of my favorite photographs of Louie Armstrong belting out a note on a red polyester skirt. (I recently dragged this out of the back of my closet to wear during my talk on sound with my jazz historian colleague Darren Mueller at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference; it seemed perfect for the occasion!)

Definitely the work of an amateur. But, there you are: needlework portraits, reproduced from prints. How did I get (back) here? Like a Tudor manor house absurdly dropped into the middle of Virginia, my past refuses to quietly fall into disrepair; it insists on being rebuilt one beam at a time, same same but different. I cringe a bit, sharing this with you. Especially that interview. But -- maybe -- this act of sharing will lead to a purge. Maybe after this, personal history will disappear, and my brain cells will be free to study whatever they want! Quantam mechanics! City planning! The ancient Egyptians! The world will be wide open!

..... more likely, I'll just keep trying to make embroidery relevant to everything else I study. Whether pulped for paper or burned for firewood, the panels of Agecroft Hall can never not be the wood of a Tudor manor house.

* I've only seen the short online entry. Its likely some catalog card or curator at the Clark could shed more light on why this was once identified as Dekker, and who it might actually be.
** If you find any the posts in this series useful to your own research, that's awesome. Please get in touch. I simply ask that you cite the post in anything you publish on that topic. Although I'm mostly posting images of cool things I've found, it's still the case that what you're reading is not the result of 5 minutes of wikipedia-ing but is based on many, many hours (days, weeks, months) of reading, studying, emailing and poking around libraries and special collections.