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The nineteenth century was one of huge advancements in the printing industry. This important period of our history included both the rise and fall of wood engraving: A technique for reproducing very fine, detailed illustrations; which was easier, quicker and cheaper than steel or copper engraving. The rise kicked off a revolution in the industry, but wood engraving was ultimately superceded by the even quicker and cheaper process of photomechanical printing.

At the forefront of the rise and popularity of wood engraving were the Brothers Dalziel, a London based firm of printers, publishers, draughtsmen and engravers. The founder of the firm was George Dalziel (1815-1902) who came to London from Wooler in Northumberland in 1835. Travelling aboard a ship which ran aground off the coast of Great Yarmouth, it took George a week to reach his destination. After some time working under the tutilage of engraver Charles Gray, young George founded his own firm in 1839, then based in the Victoria area of the city.

George was one of twelve children: Eight boys and four girls. Their father was Alexander Dalziel (1781-1832), who was a talented artist. Some works (in oils) of his which have recently been seen at auction include a still life of fish with a lobster and cockles set on a kitchen table, a gentleman and his horse and a portrait of a prize bull. Seven of Alexander's eight sons were accomplished artists in their own right. In addition to George, another three and one sister joined the firm of the Brothers Dalziel:

The popularity of wood engraving ensured the Brothers Dalziel was a fast growing firm. Some early works were signed by one or other of the Dalziels, but they produced so many engravings that they were often completed by staff members, who would simply sign "Dalziel".

Wood engravers in London were known as "Woodpeckers" or "Peckers" during Victorian times. The Dalziel brothers had a network of contacts which included draughtsmen, artists and publishers - many of the leading players of the day. They worked and socialised with figures such as Ebeneezer Landells, William Harvey, John Tenniel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Gilbert, John Everett Millais, Arthur Hughes, Frederick Leighton, Frederick Warne and George Routledge. The Dalziel name appeared in most major illustrated books and periodicals (including Punch and the Illustrated London News) of the nineteenth century, and the firm was to grow into the largest of its kind in London.

This engraving is from the 1956 edition of The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Early success came in 1842/3 when the brothers worked on the Abbotsford Edition of the Waverley Novels (Sir Walter Scott). Although the books were not a commercial success, they established the Brothers Dalziel as a wood engraving force. In 1850 the they were commissoned by George Routledge to produce a portrait of Sir Robert Peel. So began a long relationship between engravers and publisher which lasted until the Brothers Dalziel went out of business in 1893, and was to coincide with the huge popularity of wood engraving as a medium.

In 1851 the firm worked on an illustrated catalogue for the International Exhibition of that year and in 1857 they established the Camden Press (1857-1905), which allowed the Brothers Dalziel to both commission and print their own books.

They also produced all the illustrations for the Alice in Wonderland books of Lewis Caroll (1865 and 1871) and many of the illustrations used for advertisements by Cadburys Chocolate.

However, the bubble was to burst as further industrialisation saw the expansion of photomechanical techniques. In 1893 the Brothers Dalziel went out of business. During fifty four years of trading, the firm had remained in London, as follows:

  • 49, Camden Street, Mornington Crescent - 1839 to 1854
  • 4, Camden Street North, Camden Town - 1854-1857
  • 53 Camden High Street - 1857-1863
  • the same premises but renumbered to 110 Camden High Street - 1863-1893

An example of how prolific the Brothers Dalziel were is that the British Museum holds around 54,000 proofs of engravings completed by them.

A select bibliography of books engraved by the firm is available here.