Alexander Anderson: master engraver, nice guy

Alexander Anderson, 1818 by John Wesley Jarvis. Doesn't he just look like a sensitive guy in this portrait?

I am particularly fond of Anderson's plain old commercial work and lettering.
Also, winsome yet unsettling tailpieces and vignettes like the two immediately above, and children's primers (like "dunce" above)
influenced Edward Gorey's style of illustration.

In rooting around today, attempting to do some research on engraving for a new book, I came across the massive and awe-inspiring collection of work by Alexander Anderson. Anderson (1775-1870) is considered one of America’s earliest and finest wood-engravers (completely different from the steel bank note engraving I was looking for and thus, of course, I spent my entire day perusing unrelated materials...), similar in style and artistry to the great (earlier) British engraver Thomas Bewick.

Born in New York City to Scots immigrant parents Anderson was completely self-taught. In his young adulthood he made and sold engravings in his spare time to help finance his way through the Columbia medical program. He married early, and practiced medicine only briefly, giving it up and turning to engraving full time when his wife and infant son died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1798. He remarried and went on to have six children. It is through his family that some of his original work --proof scrap books and original artwork, some tools--was saved and handed down (evidently with touching marginalia like "I saw Grandpa make this, Spring 18xx, when I was 10"), eventually residing in the New-York Historical Society.

True to form, the Historical Society has nothing online and the items are likely collecting dust in their acid-free, archival sarcophagi.
The New York Public Library, on the other hand, has a truly magnificent and overwhelming digital archive of sixteen of Anderson's scrapbooks, containing close to 10,000 wood-engraving proofs of his work for books and journals but also for business letterheads and other commercial ephemera. He drew everything: anatomical illustrations, children's primers, Egyptian scenes, steamships, slave scenes, polar bears, printing presses, lottery tickets, domestic parables, factories, famous men in history, scenes from Shakespeare, and labels for toothpaste. Anderson's work spans an incredible seventy years— he made his last engraving in 1868, at 93 years of age— and it's amazing to see the stylistic changes in dress, transportation and lettering styles.

I've posted a few of his simple vignettes and commercial lettering only since I find those most evident of hand craft and the most poignant, really. Everything he did seems to have an effortless charm and impeccable execution —even lowly commercial work. All this craft and beauty for utterly inconsequential things like pins; an artisan of the throw-away.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure how I landed on your blog but I am glad I did.
The eclectic visuals and often witty commentary have me enthralled, plus, I love old stuff, other people's memories. Much nicer than reality TV.
X David, NYC

angela said...

Thank you David for the very kind words. I'm glad you landed where you did.


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