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What is the use of a book without pictures?

As we prepared for an auction of rare, signed, limited and first edition books – which were laid out on a long table in the centre of the Saffronart gallery – I came across some stunning illustrations created at the turn of the 19th century. They seemed as important as the words in the books, and taking a cue from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I delved deeper into some of the artists behind these creations. Here is an excerpt.

(L) Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830s, is a famous example of a Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (R) An illustration for Sindbad the Sailor, 1914 by Edmund Dulac, who was influenced by Japanese art. Image courtesy of Saffronart.

A (very) brief history of 19th century illustration  

The history and progression of illustrated stories is closely entwined with advancements in printing and publishing technologies. Early medieval illustrations, known as illuminations, were created and coloured individually by hand. With the advent of the printing press, etchings, woodcuts and woodblock prints – the latter influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e art – became the preferred style of illustration. The development and prevalence of book illustration in early Victorian England was believed to represent an important shift in publishing compared to the Romantic period.

Coloured images were produced by hand-colouring, which raised the cost of the book due to the efforts involved. Publishers often chose not to include coloured illustrations for this reason, or produced two versions of the book. However, innovations in the latter half of the 19th century, such as coloured lithography, colour printing from woodblocks, and “natural” printing – where objects such as leaves were pressed to create textured impressions – helped lower the costs and make coloured illustrations more popular. 

The illustrated book has been defined as
‘a partnership between author and artist to which the artist contributes something which is a pictorial comment on the author’s words or an interpretation of his meaning in another medium’… Often the artist was the first outside reader of the text and, in a sense, its first critic. 
Seminal collaborations from the 19th century include Hablot Knight Browne’s illustrations for Charles Dickens’ novels between the 1830s and 1850s; John Tenniel’s imaginative visuals for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in the 1860s; and the artists and cartoonists of Punch magazine, including the Dalziel brothers, John Leech and Georges du Maurier.

A limited edition copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield published in 1929, illustrated and signed by Arthur Rackham. Images courtesy of Saffronart.

The 'Golden Age' and gift books 

The turn of the 20th century saw a new generation of artist-illustrators whose work was informed by various influences, including popular illustrated and satirical literary magazines, poster art, advertising, and artistic styles from different countries and cultures. Important illustrators practising during this time include Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Warwick Goble and W Heath Robinson – all of whose works appear in our auction. Primarily trained as artists, they established themselves in the world of book illustration at a time when new aesthetics and printing technologies were proliferating, and left a lasting legacy which can be seen even today.

The 20th century brought with it political tension and a war, and a desire to escape into worlds of colour and fantasy. Publishers obliged, releasing books with extravagant colour plates (utilising the new three-colour printing process), beautiful bindings and gilded covers, signatures of the illustrator, and so on. These lavish volumes, usually limited editions, were referred to as ‘gift books’ – often given as Christmas gifts – and were immensely sought after despite being expensive. Their popularity brought fame to the artists, whose work became important in its own right, and the books carried the illustrator’s name on the cover.

Read the complete article here.