October Print – Twa Corbies [1825]

My faithful readers will know that back in the Winter of ’18 I set about to create a print of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies,” published in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Sir Walter Scott in 1802. While noodling about I discovered another version of “The Twa Corbies,” published as “The Two Ravens” in Allan Cunningham’s 1825 book The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern; with an Introduction and Notes, Historical and Critical, and Characters of the Lyric Poets.

Scott’s version is so beautiful & so tight you might almost think one of the world’s greatest poets spiffed it up a bit when it came down to him from the memory of an old woman of Alva. Cunningham’s version has the feel of the common folk, and those first lines just roll off the tongue “there were two ravens sat in a tree, large and black as black might be … ” It was beyond my control. I had to do prints of both.

“Now like the Swan before my death I sing, / And like the Rauen heauy newes I bring,”

I had intended Cunningham’s version as an homage to early broadsides, “a narrative song printed on one side of a sheet of paper and sold by mobile peddler of the marketplace, fairground, and street corner” as described in Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, and elaborated on by Alexandra Hill, in her chapter “The Lamentable Tale of Lost Ballads in England, 1557-1640” – “stories set to song, often accompanied by a woodcut and a tune. They encompass the world of print and manuscript, text and image, oral and literate, as well as popular and elite cultures … at first, ballads were printed individually [that is one ballad per sheet] and mainly in black letter. The seventeenth century though saw the rise of white-letter ballads, often with two ballads side by side and two woodcuts and tunes.”

The print then needed these elements – a simple woodcut, some over-the-top promotional verbiage, the lyrics of a popular song – something featuring love or death or betrayal or scandal – and since broadsides were sung to popular songs of the day, the reader needed to know what tune to raise their voice to. And finally credit to the printer, and the quaint directional addresses that populate so much of early printing.

“the folly of these mortal bonds which are naught in the end but food for birds & worms”

I set the broadside in Italian Old Style, a white letter (Roman) type, as my black letter (gothic) type, was tied up in a book project. For the image I stayed in my comfort zone, a photoengraving of a pen & ink sketch I drew of two ravens circling a ship breaking up on the rock while the sailors, one, two three, slip into the sea. For some bling, I added printer’s flowers (ornaments) along the bottom border, following the old printing tradition of “more must be better.” But it felt not quite right, a bit too modern without the black letter type. So when my book project ended, I decided to take another run at Cunningham’s “Two Ravens.”

“Our dinner’s sure, our feasting free, / Come, and dine by the greenwood tree,”

An angel locking the door of Hell: Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r from the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

And that is when an angel intervened. “Angel Locking the Door of Hell” is a 12th century manuscript painting. The door of hell is the gaping jaws of two scaled creatures and deep in the darkness of their maws kings & queens, nuns & priests, swirl down into the darkness while the key turns in the lock that will never be opened again. Cunningham’s version differs from Scott’s in that the ravens act not in their natural role of scavenger, but as active agents of death, cursing the ship to the bottom of the sea (the North Berwick Witch Trials, anyone?) to leave a feasting along the shore. Two scaly beasts then became two ravens with a ship swirling down into the darkness of their gullets.

With my black letter type freed up from the book project, I used it in double columns for the verses of the song. I had hoped for my white letter, the type for the flowery description of the ballad, to use Poliphilus, a 15th century facsimile type, but did not have it in the size needed. I went back to my Italian Old Style (“old style” referring to type faces based on types of the 15th century). For those of you who aren’t running a letterpress shop, you might ask “why don’t you just buy more Poliphilus?” With a 50 lb. minimum order, it would have cost close to a $1000 for that paragraph, and Poliphilus was never cut in the largest size I needed for the titling. While private presses speak to the art of the book, printing has always been a capital-intensive industry. Finally, for the printer’s credit & address, I emulated early printers with the kitchen sink approach, throwing all sorts of different types – black letter, white letter, & italics – into one paragraph, and using different point sizes or all caps for emphasis.

Now, like a Township Gunther Zainer, I forwent the user of guild woodcarvers and with an X-Acto knife and a blue plastic Speedo linoleum cutter with a No. 1 gouge, I set to work to carve the block – two ravens, their beaks touching tip to tip arching the door of Hell, their feathered beards flowing into the swirling seas that pull the ship down.

“The ship sank and I heard a shriek / There lie the sailors, one, two, three, /
I shall dine by the wild, salt sea.”

For the paper I kept jiving with a 90 lb. all rag paper called Arnhem 1618 , made at a mill that has been creating paper since 1618. I’ve started to dampen my paper, which softens it before printing and with handmade papers can swell up depressions and make for a smoother printing surface. With that done, I was ready to finally print.

Twa Corbies [1825]. Broadside by T. Arthur White

I have read that one becomes an artist not to be an enfant terrible, but to live a life of self-discipline. I have read a craftsman write of how with each project he starts he strives for perfection, knowing that he will never achieve it, yet believes he will each time he starts anew. I have been there. So with full disclosure, I show you what I discovered when the last print came off the press.

“Sleepy horses, heave away / Put your backs to the golden hay / Don’t ever look behind at the work you’ve done / For your work has just begun / There’ll be the evening in the end / but till that time arrives / You can rest your eyes / And begin again”

Anon. “Angel Locking the Door of Hell. Winchester Psalter. Circa 12th century. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Nero_C_IV

Anon. The Godly End, and Wofull Lamentation of one John Stevens, a Youth, that was Hang’d, Drawne, and Quartered for High-Treason, at Salisbury in Wiltshire, vpon Thursday being the Seuenth Day of March last 1632. vvith the Setting vp of his Quarters on the City Gates. London: H. Gosen, circa 1601- 1640.

Bixler, Michael, and Winifred Bixler. “Poliphilus.” Miscellaneous Monotype Borders and Ornaments, Including Specimens of Bembo, Dante, Walbaum, Van Dijck, Joanna, Garmond, Centaur, Ehrhardt, Fourneir, Bell, Baskerville, Poliphilus, Gill Sans, and Univers. Skaneateles, NY: At the Press and Letterfoundry of Michael and Winifred Bixler, 1995. http://www.mwbixler.com/spec_htm/spbk_polibl_x.html

Cunningham, Allan. The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern; with an Introduction and Notes, Historical and Critical, and Characters of the Lyric Poets, Vol. I. London: J. Taylor, 1825.

Goudy, Frederic W. A Half-Century of Type Design and Typography, 1895-1945, Vol. I. New York: The Typophiles, 1946.

Goudy, Frederic W. A Half-Century of Type Design and Typography, 1895-1945, Vol. II. New York: The Typophiles, 1946.

Hill, Alexandra. “The Lamentable Tale of Lost Ballads in England, 1557-1640.” Broadsheets: Single-Sheet Publishing in the Age of Print, edited by Andrew Pettegree. Boston: Brill, 2017. pp. 442-458.

Morris, William. Some Notes on Early Woodcut Books, with a Chapter on Illuminated Manuscripts. New Rochelle, NY: Elston Press, 1902.

Renwick, Roger deV. “Broadside Ballads.” Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. edited by Thomas A. Green. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1997. pp. 103-109.

Scott, Walter. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. II. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1902.

Stevens, Cat. “Silent Sunlight.” Catch Bull at Four. Oxfordshire: The Manor Studio, 1972.

Stewart, Alison G. “Early Woodcut Shops.” Art Journal, 39.3. 1980: 189-194.
“By 1450, about the time movable type was invented, professional woodcutters were important enough to demand that only members of their guilds or the carpenters’ guilds be allowed to cut woodblocks for book illustrations. In 1468 in Augsburg, for example, the printer Gunther Zainer had difficulty after his arrival from Strasbourg in getting his work under way because of guild pressure and the jealousy between the older trades and the new printing industry. It seems that he had not agreed to use guild woodcutters, possibly because he cut his own blocks.”

Stewart, Terry. “The North Berwick Witch Trials.” Historic UK. n.d. https://www.historic- uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/North-Berwick-Witch-Trials/

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