Wood-block printing

Wood-block printing using engraved boxwood revolutionised the illustration of natural history in the early 19th century. The work of Thomas Bewick showed how detailed and accurate images could be printed more cheaply than ever before.

Most scientific illustrations of the natural world are produced for the purpose of printing and publishing. This is an important way of passing on scientific knowledge to others.

Wood-block printing was one of the earliest methods used to print illustrations. But Thomas Bewick, a talented artist and brilliant naturalist, took it a step further and his work had a huge impact on natural history illustration in the early 19th century.

Bewick engraved very detailed and accurate images of British wildlife into blocks of boxwood, which he chose because it is hard and close-grained. The properties of the wood enabled him to include more detail and to develop a style that he used to communicate a feel of his subjects and their natural habitat.

Printing from engraved wooden blocks in this way was a breakthrough because the blocks could be set together with blocks of type in the same printing press. This would have halved the time it took to print a book and made it much less expensive: it was now possible to include far more illustrations and images in publications than ever before.