When Randy Miller encountered a series of wood engravings in an out-of-print history text nearly 30 years ago, he was immediately intrigued. “The illustrations were so very appealing,” he says, recalling the handsome, incised designs. “It then occurred to me, who did them? How were they done? And more, importantly, why aren’t they being done anymore?”
Miller headed for the Boston Public library to research the subject. There he discovered the work of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), a noted English engraver credited with resurrecting the centuries-old art of wood illustration. A metal engraver by profession, Bewick experimented with new methods of incising, producing detailed blocks that captured the subtleties of light and shadow. The art advanced, and for much of the 19th century wood engravings were a common means of illustrating books and periodicals. “Bewick invented the art,” avows Miller. “He loved working in wood.”
Wood engraving flourished until the late 1800s and early 1900s when commercial photography became popular. “Photography was the death knell for wood engravers, especially those employed by newspapers or magazines like Harper’s,” Miller explains. “They were thought of as strictly production people, and were no longer needed. It wasn’t until the 1920s that wood engraving came back as a medium for artistic expression,” he adds.
When a sculptor offered him a gift of a dozen engraving tools, Miller gratefully accepted and tried his hand at reproducing the simple landscapes that first caught his eye. In 1972, the fledgling craftsman abandoned Boston for Alstead, New Hampshire, a quiet village situated in the western hill country. Soon after, a local writer inquired if he would be interested in engraving the illustrations for a short essay collection. Miller obliged, and shortly afterward was commissioned to engrave a series of illustrations for My Village, Sturbridge, a children’s picture book. In 1977, the book was named one of the Ten Best-Illustrated Children’s Books by The New York Times Book Review.
Like most engravers, Miller first sketches the design on paper, then transfers the design onto end-grain blocks of maple, using carbon paper. Although early engravers preferred to work with boxwood. Miller uses maple, a hard, dense wood that is readily available and able to withstand the pressure of the printing process. While good usable boxwood is impossible to come by today, Miller has stockpiled a number of previously carved blocks, hoping to engrave new images on the blank side.
He uses burins, gravers and liners – thin blades of tempered steel of varying thicknesses and beveled edges – to create the block designs. “Only the wood that hasn’t been touched by the tools makes contact with the paper,” he says.
In the past 25 years, he has produced just over 200 engravings, including commissions for the New Hampshire Historical Society and Boston’s Fanueil Hall. limited-edition prints, which depict favorite New England landscapes, historic buildings, and Shaker subjects, are displayed in the studio of his 1815 home. Miller also works as a research editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. To mark its 208th anniversary and celebrate its passage into the 21st century, The Almanac commissioned Miller to redesign its frontispiece.
In September, The Almanac unveils its new frontispiece, which will depict Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. She will replace Father Time, who has been around since 1809. Miller’s design took three months to complete.
The Almanac commission represented a chance for the craftsman to revisit the past and perhaps leave his mark on the future. “As I was engraving, I would think, here I am repeating history,” he says. “It’s amazing to think the technique hasn’t changed in 200 years.”