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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jpconnolly@crimson.ua.edu, Assistant Editor

January/February/March 2013
Volume 59, Number 1

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Book Illustration in the Victorian Age

by Gwen Vredevoogd

With books now being read on mobile devices like iPads, Kindles, and even smart phones, it’s easy to forget how much the format of a standard book has changed since the nineteenth century. Publishing techniques and books themselves have transformed so much in the intervening years that it’s hard for us to imagine the effort and care that went into editing, typesetting, illustrating, and preparing a manuscript for publication 150 years ago. Then as now, visual elements enhance the reader’s understanding of a work in a way that changes the reading experience. As Alice wonders before she goes down the rabbit hole, “What is the use of a book … without pictures or conversations?” (Carroll 1870).

Many consider the late nineteenth century to be a high point for book illustration. This time period pre-dates widespread use of photography as illustration and publishing techniques were improved to the point that many more readers could afford to purchase books. At the same time, the magazine industry was hitting its stride in England, and artists drew illustrations or political cartoons for magazines like Punch. Notable among this group were George Cruikshank and Hablot Knight Browne, or Phiz. The illustrations were often for comic intent and this style crept into book illustration as well (Goldman 2004).

Photo of 'Cranford by Mrs. Gaskell and an illustrated page within
Top, cover of Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell; with illustrations by Hugh Thomson. London: Macmillan, 1891.
Above, an illustration inside the book.

Victorian era book illustration spans several distinct styles and employs various techniques (although wood engraving was by far the most common). In Victorian Illustration, Paul Goldman divides Victorian styles of illustration into three groups: the Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School, and the High Victorians, so we will borrow his categories.

The Pre-Raphaelite painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt brought a seriousness and great skill to their work as illustrators. They would draw scenes from the work that would be etched or more often engraved by someone else to be included in publications. Often fine artists would work with craftsmen to create illustrations as bold as the text they were meant to enhance.

The production process was slow due to the high standards employed, but early books from this press were stunning.

By the 1880s the Arts and Crafts movement was well underway, and the Kelmscott Press — the publishing house founded by William Morris — promoted their ideals. The production process was slow due to the high standards employed, but early books from this press were stunning. Less elaborate than the Kelmscott Press publications, the Vale Press founded by Charles Ricketts (1866–1931) produced materials that were easier to handle as objects, and they are adorned with lovely engraved decorations and illustrations designed by Ricketts (Ray 1976).

Many of the illustrators of the nascent gift book industry, as well as illustrators of children’s books, fell into what Goldman calls the Idyllic School. Prominent illustrators of children’s books of the day were Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886), for whom the Caldecott Medal is named, and Kate Greenaway (1846–1901). Caldecott’s work was very popular because of its economy of line and good humor. Greenaway’s work, also popular in its day, often depicted quaint, old-fashioned scenes of children (Ray 1976).

Photographs of 'Through The Looking-Glass and four illustrated pages within.
Top, cover of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by John Tenniel, 1889. On either side are Individual pages from the 1870 edition. Open book above is from the inside papers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1890.

Marymount University holds an eclectic special collection that includes interesting book illustration examples in the John T. and Agnes J. Gomatos Reading Room. Illustration highlights of the Gomatos collection at Marymount include:

Photographs of 'Through The Looking-Glass and four illustrated pages within.
Top, cover of Myths of the Rhine translated from the French of X.B. Saintine by M. Schele De Vere; illustrated by Gustave Doré. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1875.
Above, inside page from the same book.

With the help of a Faculty Development Grant, Dr. Tonya Howe has designed a website, http://cerisia.cerosia.org/gomatos/, to make the resources of the Gomatos collection electronically accessible to the public and to serve as an extensible tool for the sharing of student-authored digital media relevant to the collection. Marymount University plans to digitize additional selections that are past copyright protection to make them more widely available, but for now classes and visitors can make appointments during regular business hours to use the materials in this special collection. For more information on accessing the collection, visit http://www.marymount.edu/academics/lls/collections/specialCollections/gomatos.aspx.


Gwen Vredevoogd is Collection Development Librarian at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. She has been an academic librarian for fifteen years, coordinating collection management to support the curriculum, managing electronic resources, providing reference and liaison services, and teaching information literacy sessions. She selects literature, design, and fine art materials in all formats for the library. She has an MLS from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in English from Ohio University.

Works Cited

Caroll, Lewis. 1870. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan and Co.

Goldman, Paul. 2004. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries.

Ray, Gordon N. 1976. The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790–1914. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library in association with Dover Publications, Inc. VL


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