Eric Gill relates this tale told to him by Stirling Lee
But what a generous old boy and what a good story he told me about the wood engravers of the 1860s. That it be not lost forever, I must try to record it here. When I was a young man, he said, I used to have business with the illustrators and engravers and one day I was sent on some errand or other up to St John’s Wood.
I didn’t know my way to the house I was to go to and I found myself at the end of a lane going up between the bottoms of the gardens of the houses – one of which I wanted to get to. As I stood hesitating, I saw, a hundred yards or so up the lane, one of the back garden gates open and a man came out with a long coaching horn. He raised it to his mouth and looking in my direction, blew a great blast on it. It couldn’t be a summons to me, so I looked behind me and there was a public house with a doorway facing up the lane, and as I looked the door opened and a man with a green baize apron on came out and made a sign of recognition to the man with the horn, and then went back into the pub.
I went up to the man with the horn and asked my way and he told me that the house I wanted was the very one whose garden he had come out of. So I followed him in and up the garden path to a veranda at the back of the house and up the veranda steps into the back drawing room. There were the people I wanted to see.
The room was empty of furniture but the floor was more or less covered with piles of wood blocks for engraving. There were no tables or chairs and the two or three engravers who were there working, were working on tables made out of piles of wood blocks. Standing at their work with no apparatus but their gravers, their sand bags and their eye glasses. Hundreds of wood blocks, hundreds of engravings – and on the floor hundreds of empty bottles – and as I stood there and discussed my business, the garden gate opened and in walked my man with the green baize apron carrying a tray with bottles of beer. He left them and departed.
My business took a long time and presently down the garden again goes the man with the horn and again blows his blast. Soon again appears the man from the pub – and more bottles of beer. So, apparently it went on all day long and into the night. A St John’s Wood garden in the 1860s, engraving demanding drink, drink stimulating engraving – wood blocks and beer – an endless supply of both … until the photographer and the chemist destroyed the whole thing, took away their trade and destroyed the trade itself.
Thomas Stirling Lee was a sculptor of reliefs and portrait heads, a pioneer in carving his own marble. He made bas reliefs for Leeds Town Hall and carvings for Westminster Cathedral. He was a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers.
Eric Gill was a sculptor, typographic designer and engraver. Only in 1910 did he begin direct carving of stone figures. He is known for his many religious works, controversial secular carvings and for his engravings for the Golden Cockerel Press.
He knew Stirling Lee well and the story above is quoted in his autobiography.
Does anybody know where this place might be, in St John’s Wood?