Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

New Lecture: Illustration and the Book

Date posted: Wed, Aug. 26, 2020

If you are at all like me, chances are that your earliest childhood memories of reading are as intimately associated with book illustrations as they are with the stories themselves. I vividly remember being both terrified and inexplicably drawn to the picture of the ‘Sea Witch’ found in a copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in London in 1925, that had once belonged to my mother. The illustrator was a Scottish painter named Monro S. Orr (b. 1874), who had an incredible talent for communicating mischief through his art. Although I haven’t laid eyes on the book since about 1966, my guess is that they were chromolithographs. Whatever they were, to my childish eyes, they were magnificent, and drew me into the world of ‘Great Claus and Little Claus’, ‘The Snow Queen’, and ‘The Little Sea Maid’. The volume had been well-loved before it came to me, but sadly, it didn’t survive my lovingly rough hands. Someday, I must get my hands on another copy to accompany me into my dotage!

There are any number of reasons why we illustrate books. As instructional aids, they are essential for everything from Euclid’s Geometry to anatomical texts like Vesalius’s De fabrica, to engineering publications such as Sir William Dugdale’s The History of Imbanking and Drayning of divers Fenns and Marshes, illustrated by the great Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). A travelogue is far more interesting when accompanied by views described by the author; and could we really imagine Dickens without Phiz or Alice in Wonderland without Tenniel? A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, because it allows the reader to enter into the narrative, not just through the author’s prose, but through the illustrator’s imagination. Of course, there is always a hint of manipulation involved in this artifice. I will always see the Sea Witch as Mr Orr intended, and not as my younger relations envision her, courtesy of Disney. That is the strength of book illustration.

Over my years at the Fisher, one of the things that has consistently peeved me is the way some people dismiss the idea of print illustrations in books. Perhaps we have become so familiar with the point, click, copy, and paste method of reproducing images in the digital world that we have lost sight of the incredible art and complicated science associated with book illustration until very recently. The carving of wooden blocks, the engraving of metal, the use of stones; the proper inking – not too much, not too little; the making of grounds, the acid bath; using the right press, with just the right pressure, and ensuring the exact registration: let no one ever say of the images in these books, ‘Oh, they’re just prints.’ My latest lecture (click on link, or view below) looks at the principal techniques used to insert such images into books from the period of the Middle Ages until the twentieth century, when photography and offset lithography changed everything. It is by no means exhaustive, but simply meant to help people understand the wide variety of ways illustrations make their way into books, and perhaps spark a little bit of awe along with the joy such imagery provides.

- P.J. Carefoote, Head, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections