John Craig, Venice
Whittington Press, 2015

Colin Martin

‘In Venice water is the ruler. It holds everything to ransom. Nothing is exempt’, warns John Craig in his long anticipated book on the city. Water is also a significant presence in his two earlier Whittington Press books: the sea in Britten’s Aldebur (2000) and fresh water in The Locks of the Oxford Canal (1985). Ever observant, he notes that Venetian bridges are ‘in some places not unlike those to be found on English canals’. It was a given that Craig would produce inimitable wood engravings and linocuts of Venice, but his perceptive prose with its echoes of John Ruskin’s appreciation of craftsmanship is equally captivating. Most gratifyingly, he describes and depicts the city’s everyday wonders rather than its spectacular, but universally recognised set pieces:

Of course the presence of fine palaces, churches, St Marks itself, the Doges Palace – so many in such a confined space is remarkable but equally interesting are the hundreds – thousands – of minute corners and details that are merely examples of doing a small job in the right way.

John Randle has acknowledged that the 80 black and white wood-engravings and ten linocuts, some printed in colour, made the book challenging to print, but its design was a collaborative process. ‘Craig’s use of white space has … been critical and the asymmetric imposition of type and images is based on his precise layouts’, says Randle. The stage is set on its dramatic title page, with VENICE overprinted in black across Craig’s linocut outline of the prow of a gondola, printed in colour similar to a mix of pure yellow ochre and white. The six upper-case letters comprising its title are printed in a puzzling typeface. An email to Randle solved this riddle. Craig had designed and cut the six letterforms from a lino block. He responded to Randle’s suggestion that the pencilled rough used in the book’s paste-up had looked better than printed letters, by carefully cutting fine lines across the letterforms at an angle of 39 degrees, using one of his grandfather Edward Gordon Craig’s engraving tools. As a result the book’s printed title now appears as well-worn as the city’s stones. Another design subtlety is Craig’s exaggerated scale of the repetitive pattern of links used on the metal trim which protects the gondola’s rim, so that it resembles a tethering chain. The great attention to detail expended on the title page is sustained throughout the book. Appropriately, given that it is a Venetian book, its text is printed using Centaur and Arrighi typefaces, in a colour similar to a mix of white and raw sienna, with a little burnt sienna added.

‘In Venice there is a marked contrast between the flat and the upright’, writes Craig. This determines the format of his wood engravings. Views into narrow canals or along pedestrian passages hemmed in by tall buildings are vertical; while views across larger open spaces or out onto the basin or lagoon are horizontal. Craig’s design for the coloured leather inlays which decorate the black leather-bound edition reflects Venice’s geometry and hints at its seafaring history. A thin horizontal inlay of red leather wraps around the front cover, spine and back cover. A wide vertical inlay of blue leather, extending from the front cover’s upper edge almost to its lower edge, evokes sky and sunlight glimpsed through a narrow canal or passage. Shorter vertical inlays of green leather, one on each cover, balance the composition and hint at the city’s ‘hidden gardens’. These intrigued Craig, who shows vegetation spilling over their walls in several wood engravings. Unfortunately their gates remained firmly shut, concealing verdant growth behind their walls, thus frustrating the use of the book’s original title The Secret Gardens of Venice.

The book’s French-fold binding style, with pages left folded at the top edge, is a new departure for Whittington. The lightweight Zerkall mould-made paper, especially hot-pressed to impart an extra sheen for the engravings, was printed throughout on the smooth side only. Three of Craig’s linocuts and a wood engraving were printed on lightweight Korean and Japanese hand-made papers, and tipped in. Craig cut most of his engravings on maple, but also used boxwood, pear, lemon wood and lino, and in a single instance, an epoxy resin block. He ‘surfaced’ all but five of his engraved wood blocks using five grades of ‘wet and dry’ abrasive sheets and partially removed the manufacturer’s texture from the surface of lino blocks by treating them briefly in a similar manner. The tonality he achieves in some smaller wood engravings, two steeples in particular, gives them the appearance of drawings. One of his linocuts, depicting a sottoportego leading beneath a tree-obscured house, is so finely detailed that it could easily be mistaken for a wood engraving.

In Venice ‘there is no plan other than that determined in the distant past by mud and water’, counsels Craig, as he leads readers through the city’s paths less taken, imparting a wealth of information along the way. On Venetian modes of transport, for example, particularly its black-lacquered gondolas. He glories in their ‘mussel-shell finish’ and cites Thomas Mann’s description of a gondola as ‘black as nothing else on earth except a coffin’. His illustrations range from a double-page linocut printed in blue-green showing a gondolier and four tethered gondolas to a tiny wood engraving of a rowlock, an ‘extraordinary piece of walnut sculpture which enables him [the gondolier] to move his craft backwards, forwards, sideways and to steer’. At the fish market he notices ‘a great tuna shining in its polystyrene coffin’ and alongside we see his wood-engraved image of it. The city is threatened by bourgeoning tourism. A coloured linocut folds out to show ‘a huge seagoing block of flats dwarfing Venice’s tiled roofs’. A small wood engraving shows a monstrous cruiser under a censorious Venetian sky. Of course visitors need souvenirs; ‘a tiny piece of glass or a mask brings some hint of Venice to an English living room’. His wood engravings of tourist fripperies range from minute glass sweets to a dramatic duo of carnival masks, one angular and male and the other lacily female, printed on mulberry coloured paper.

Sketches made by Craig while a practising architect, reproduced in Alan Powers’s Aldington, Craig and Collinge (2009), include elevations of his own family house in Oxfordshire, built in 1964, and interior perspectives of Wedgwood House in Suffolk (1975–8). His wood engravings share their economy of outline and skill in suggesting detail with these drawings. When Craig presented the practice’s plans to clients, he affixed a small wood engraving to the project title. By chance Randle saw one of these, and persuaded Craig to embark on The Locks of the Oxford Canal, followed 15 years later by Britten’s Aldeburgh. After a further 15 years, we have Craig’s incomparable Venice, whose final paragraph reads:

There are times one despairs of the rush of commercial bustling that seems to be overtaking the city, but then as one steps off a familiar ‘route’ and into a tiny courtyard, well there is Venice again as it always was and, one hopes, will be.

In the late nineteenth century, Ruskin argued that tourists ignorant of its history should be barred from visiting Venice. Craig’s text, which covertly instructs twenty-first century readers in the best approaches to exploring and appreciating the city, should be required reading.

The book is published in three editions: 175 in quarter dark brown Pirate leather with printed paper sides; 60 in half Oasis leather, with a portfolio of prints; 40 in inlaid leathers to a design by John Craig, with a fuller portfolio of prints. All copies are bound by the Fine Book Bindery. 10 copies are available as unbound sheets. (Quarter leather, £235; half leather, £395; full leather, £1,100).

Whittington Press