Old Book Illustrations: An Online Database Lets You Download Thousands of Illustrations from the 19th & 20th Centuries

The Gold­en Age of Illus­tra­tion is typ­i­cal­ly dat­ed between 1880 and the ear­ly decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry. This was “a peri­od of unprece­dent­ed excel­lence in book and mag­a­zine illus­tra­tion,” writes Art­cy­clo­pe­dia; the time of artists like John Ten­niel, Beat­rix Pot­ter (below), Arthur Rack­ham, and Aubrey Beard­s­ley. Some of the most promi­nent illus­tra­tors, such as Beard­s­ley and Har­ry Clarke (see one of his Poe illus­tra­tions above), also became inter­na­tion­al­ly known artists in the Art Nou­veau, Arts and Crafts, and Pre-Raphaelite move­ments.

But exten­sive book illus­tra­tion as the pri­ma­ry visu­al cul­ture of print pre­cedes this peri­od by sev­er­al decades. One of the most revered and pro­lif­ic of fine art book illus­tra­tors, Gus­tave Doré, did some of his best work in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Oth­er French illus­tra­tors, such as Alphonse de Neuville and Emile-Antoine Bayard, made impres­sive con­tri­bu­tions in the 1860s and 70s—for exam­ple, to Jules Verne’s lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed, 54-vol­ume Voy­ages Extra­or­di­naires.

As Col­in Mar­shall wrote in a recent post here, these copi­ous illus­tra­tions (4,000 in all) served more than a just dec­o­ra­tive pur­pose. A less than “ful­ly lit­er­ate pub­lic” ben­e­fit­ed from the pic­ture-book style. So too did read­ers hun­gry for styl­ish visu­al humor, for doc­u­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tions of nature, archi­tec­ture, fash­ion, etc., before pho­tog­ra­phy became not only pos­si­ble but also inex­pen­sive to repro­duce. What­ev­er the rea­son, read­ers through­out the nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies would gen­er­al­ly expect their read­ing mate­r­i­al to come with pic­tures, and very fine­ly ren­dered ones at that.

The online data­base Old Book Illus­tra­tions has cat­a­logued thou­sands of these illus­tra­tions, lift­ed from their orig­i­nal con­text and search­able by artist name, source, date, book title, tech­niques, for­mats, pub­lish­ers, sub­ject, etc. “There are also a num­ber of col­lec­tions to browse through,” notes Kot­tke, “and each are tagged with mul­ti­ple key­words.” Not all of the work rep­re­sent­ed here is up to the unique­ly high stan­dards of a Gus­tave Doré (below), Aubrey Beard­s­ley, or John Ten­niel, all of whom, along with hun­dreds of oth­er artists, get their own cat­e­gories. But that’s not entire­ly the point of this library.

Old Book Illus­tra­tions presents itself as a schol­ar­ly resource, includ­ing a dig­i­tized Dic­tio­nary of the Art of Print­ing and short arti­cles on some of the most famous artists and sig­nif­i­cant texts from the peri­od. The site’s pub­lish­ers are also trans­par­ent about their selec­tion process. They are guid­ed by their “rea­sons per­tain­ing to taste, con­sis­ten­cy, and prac­ti­cal­i­ty,” they write. The archive might have broad­ened its focus, but “due to obvi­ous legal restric­tions, [they] had to stay with­in the lim­its of the pub­lic domain.”

Like­wise, they note that the dig­i­tized images on the site have been restored to “make them as close as pos­si­ble to the per­fect print the artist prob­a­bly had in mind when at work.” Vis­i­tors who would pre­fer to see the illus­tra­tions as “time hand­ed them to us” can click on “Raw Scan” to the right of the list of res­o­lu­tion options at the top of each image. (See a processed and unprocessed scan above and below of fash­ion illus­tra­tor and humorist Charles Dana Gib­son’s “over­worked Amer­i­can father” on “his day off in August.”)

All of the images on Old Book Illus­tra­tions are avail­able in high res­o­lu­tion, and the site authors intend to add more arti­cles and to make avail­able in Eng­lish arti­cles on French Roman­ti­cism unavail­able any­where else. “We are not the only image col­lec­tion on the web,” they write, “nei­ther will we ever be the largest one. We hope how­ev­er to be a des­ti­na­tion of choice for vis­i­tors more par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in Vic­to­ri­an and French Roman­tic illus­tra­tions.” They give vis­i­tors who fit that descrip­tion plen­ty of incen­tive to keep com­ing back.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Jules Verne’s Most Famous Books Were Part of a 54-Vol­ume Mas­ter­piece, Fea­tur­ing 4,000 Illus­tra­tions: See Them Online

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

Har­ry Clarke’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions for Edgar Allan Poe’s Sto­ries (1923)

Jules Verne’s Most Famous Books Were Part of a 54-Vol­ume Mas­ter­piece, Fea­tur­ing 4,000 Illus­tra­tions: See Them Online

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Illus­tra­tions from the Sovi­et Children’s Book Your Name? Robot, Cre­at­ed by Tarkovsky Art Direc­tor Mikhail Romadin (1979)

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


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