Weaving our way down the terraced garden of Andrew Davidson’s Cotswold stone cottage to the lovely studio tucked away at the bottom, he quips ‘if one must be imprisoned for life, it has to be in a gilded cage’. His creative hub and ‘gilded cage’ for the past 26 years, the prefabricated studio that resembles a boat house separated from its river, was made to Andrew’s design from pegged green oak. Windows fill all sides so that it is flooded with natural daylight.
Set in the lee of a hill in the Stroud Valleys, and reached down tiny country lanes more suited to donkey and cart than modern cars, his home and workplace is in a beautifully tranquil spot. Here an imagination can wander free, and wander Andrew’s certainly does in creating his amazingly intricate wood engravings, or more graphic wood block colour or gouache illustrations, both conceptual and literal. Along with selling a limited edition of his prints through Tinsmiths in Ledbury, he is a commercial artist for a diverse range of clients, including international book publishers – his first ever book cover illustration was for The Iron Man, by Ted Hughes – and global companies. More recently, he has been creating charming designs of bucolic countryside scenes for Stroud-based artisan fabric and wallpaper manufacturer, Lewis & Wood.
Armed with a pot of hot coffee, Andrew makes the 19-and-a-half-second commute to his workspace each morning to ‘solve problems with images’ – as he sees the work of an illustrator. Kept company by BBC Radio 4 chattering in the background and his cocker spaniel Kip, he employs traditional printing methods for his engravings and woodcuts, using an 1859 Albion hand press. His is a level of craftsmanship that no technology could imitate.
Andrew uses ‘burins’, with V-shaped cutting tips, to engrave the complex designs. This method of engraving was pioneered by Thomas Bewick in the 18th century
When did you develop the techniques for your work?
I studied graphic design in Norwich and then graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 1982. During my postgraduate course, the teacher advised me to re-create a drawing I’d done as a wood engraving, so introduced me to the work of people like Eric Ravilious, Thomas Bewick and John Lawrence. I just feasted upon these stunning images – that was me totally hooked. With engraving there is a combination of skills required: drawing, hand-printing and also design, so it encompassed all of the elements that I love.
I have a very varied style, if you compare the engravings to my flat colour gouache prints – so don’t look too closely at my mental health! But I enjoy the diversity of my work.
Andrew’s third medium of choice, for creating more graphic images, is gouache paint
How do wood engravings and woodcuts differ?
When you engrave you use the harder end grain of the wood, so you can create work that is much finer. The blocks are made from boxwood or lemonwood and because they are taken from a section through the trunk, tend to be quite small.
By contrast, woodcuts are cruder as you use the softer side grain of the wood. This means I can produce larger prints, with sometimes the texture or figure of the wood showing through in the final print. It is an ideal medium for colour, but generally I can’t achieve as detailed or complex work.
With wood engraving you interpret details of light and shade. I see it a little like shining a torch into a dark room: you pick out the elements you see in the light, and cut them away – known as white-line engraving.
A selection of his book cover designs showcase his varied styles of illustration
How long does it take to come up with an idea for one of your designs?
I have to respond to deadlines, and sometimes I only have a day to come up with a design! People often don’t understand the method of working, believing that it is really quick. However, I believe the most important time is the thinking time: to ponder on the composition and how it is going to work. The execution and printing is almost secondary.
It does take time to think about and produce work to a really high standard, but nothing goes out of this studio unless I am happy with it. When I created the new adult cover images of the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury a couple of years ago,
I couldn’t take influence from any of the film material, so I first drew my own sketches of Hogwarts by referring to A History of Architecture by Banister Fletcher, and based it around the Oxford colleges. It was really useful to have this in my mind and refer back to it when I went on to do the book illustrations, and I wanted them to look as if they had come straight from the pages of a book taken from the library there. I have rather mischievously hidden quite a lot of things in each of the pictures, but you have to look very closely to find them.
Walls in his Cotswold cottage are papered in his Royal Oak design for Lewis & Wood
What led to you designing fabrics for Lewis & Wood?
I did a cover illustration for a book called How to Fish by Chris Yates, in a slightly simplified wood engraving style, which was spotted by someone at Lewis & Wood. I met with the wonderful Stephen Lewis, who asked if I could create an English toile-style pattern. It was a big learning curve for me, but creative director Magdalen Jebb really helped in showing me how to create a repeat pattern, resulting in my first fabric design of Deer Park. The latest is Royal Oak, of an English pastoral landscape, but the clue to the name is concealed in an oak tree within the design. The actual engraving is tiny – I had to use a magnifying glass for many aspects – but it is wonderful to see it enlarged.
Works in progress for new fabric designs
Over the years, have you had to adapt the way you work?
I used to take designs around to publishers and magazines, and they would commission me if they liked my style. It’s a very humbling job; my worst ever commission was to engrave an image of a piece of string – so I asked the immortal question: ‘how long is the piece of string?’ I have had to make massive changes to my business and the way that I work. The world is very fast, and with the internet people expect things almost immediately, so you have to be light on your toes and keep up.
He traces the reversed design onto a wood block before engraving or cutting
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
It is so rare nowadays to do anything by hand, so people really appreciate that aspect of my work. The printing press is another skill altogether: you have to know how much ink to use on the block and apply just the right amount of pressure in the press, and the paper varies slightly – I use Japanese paper because it’s so beautiful – so there will always be very slight variations. It is so important to me to retain the craft.
Andrew inks up a block in preparation for printing
His 1859 Albion press is famous for having printed the world’s smallest letterpress book
Just the right amount of pressure must be applied in the press to create each print
- See more at andrewdavidsonillustration.com