Old Book Illustrations: Free Archive Lets You Download Beautiful Images From the Golden Age of Book Illustration


Need­less to say, before the devel­op­ment and wide­spread use of pho­tog­ra­phy in mass pub­li­ca­tions, illus­tra­tions pro­vid­ed the only visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to reli­gious texts, nov­els, books of poet­ry, sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies, and mag­a­zines lit­er­ary, lifestyle, and oth­er­wise. The devel­op­ment of tech­niques like etch­ing, engrav­ing, and lith­o­g­ra­phy enabled artists and print­ers to bet­ter col­lab­o­rate on more detailed and col­or­ful plates. But what­ev­er the media, behind each of the mil­lions of illus­tra­tions to appear in man­u­script and print—before and after Gutenberg—there was an artist. And many of those artists’ names are now well known to us as exem­plars of graph­ic art styles.

It was in the 19th cen­tu­ry that book and mag­a­zine illus­tra­tion began its gold­en age. Illus­tra­tions by artists like George Cruik­shank (see his “’Mon­stre’ Bal­loon” above”) were so dis­tinc­tive as to make their cre­ators famous. The huge­ly influ­en­tial Eng­lish satire mag­a­zine Punch, found­ed in 1841, became the first to use the word “car­toon” to mean a humor­ous illus­tra­tion, usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by a humor­ous cap­tion. The draw­ings of Punch car­toons were gen­er­al­ly more visu­al­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed than the aver­age New York­er car­toon, but their humor was often as pithy and oblique. And at times, it was nar­ra­tive, as in the car­toon below by French artist George Du Mau­ri­er.


The lengthy cap­tion beneath Du Maurier’s illus­tra­tion, “Punch’s phys­i­ol­o­gy of courtship,” intro­duces Edwin, a land­scape painter, who “is now per­suad­ing Angeli­na to share with him the hon­ours and prof­its of his glo­ri­ous career, propos­ing they should mar­ry on the pro­ceeds of his first pic­ture, now in progress (and which we have faith­ful­ly rep­re­sent­ed above).” The humor is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Punch’s brand, as is the work of Du Mau­ri­er, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor until his death. You can find much more of Cruik­shank and Du Mau­ri­er’s work at Old Book Illus­tra­tions, a pub­lic domain archive of illus­tra­tions from artists famous and not-so-famous. You’ll find there many oth­er resources as well, such as bio­graph­i­cal essays and a still-expand­ing online edi­tion of William Savage’s 1832 com­pendi­um of print­ing ter­mi­nol­o­gy, A Dic­tio­nary of the Art of Print­ing.


Old Book Illus­tra­tions allows you to down­load high res­o­lu­tion images of its hun­dreds of fea­tured scans, “though it appears,” writes Boing Boing, “the scans are some­times worse-for-wear.” Most of the illus­tra­tions also “come with lots of details about their orig­i­nal cre­ation and print­ing.” You’ll find there many illus­tra­tions from an artist we’ve fea­tured here sev­er­al times before, Gus­tave Doré (see “Gor­gons and Hydras” from his Par­adise Lost edi­tion, above). As much as artists like Cruik­shank and Du Mau­ri­er can be said to have dom­i­nat­ed the illus­tra­tion of peri­od­i­cals in the 19th cen­tu­ry, Doré dom­i­nat­ed the field of book illus­tra­tion. In a lauda­to­ry bio­graph­i­cal essay on the French artist, Elbert Hub­bard writes, “He stands alone: he had no pre­de­ces­sors, and he left no suc­ces­sors.” You’ll find a beau­ti­ful­ly, and mor­bid­ly, 19th cen­tu­ry illus­trat­ed edi­tion of 17th cen­tu­ry poet Fran­cis Quar­les’ Emblems, with pages like that below, illus­trat­ing “The Body of This Death.”


Not all of the illus­tra­tions at Old Book Illus­tra­tions date from the Vic­to­ri­an era, though most do. Some of the more strik­ing excep­tions come from Arthur Rack­ham, known pri­mar­i­ly as an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tor of fan­tasies and folk tales. See his “Pas de Deux” below from his edi­tion of The Ingolds­by Leg­ends. These are but a very few of the many hun­dreds of illus­tra­tions avail­able, and not all of them lit­er­ary or top­i­cal (see, for exam­ple, the “Sci­ence & Tech­nol­o­gy” cat­e­go­ry). Be sure also to check out the OBI Scrap­book Blog, a run­ning log of illus­tra­tions from oth­er col­lec­tions and libraries.


via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

An Illus­tra­tion of Every Page of Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick

Har­ry Clarke’s 1926 Illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic 60s

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Aubrey Beardsley’s Macabre Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Sto­ries (1894)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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