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date: 26 May 2017

Illustrated Victorian Fiction

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

The word illustration comes from the Latin illustrare, meaning to light up. Before the 19th century, its primary meanings were to light up spiritually or physically; to make noble; and to explain verbally. Only in 1813, did illustration’s current meaning—a subject’s visual representation—emerge.

This new meaning reflected the importance of visual images to 19-century readers, who experienced a revolution in the book’s form. In the early 1800s, books were largely unillustrated, perhaps containing a frontispiece (often a stock decorative illustration with little connection to content). Walter Scott and Jane Austen built their careers upon unillustrated fiction. However, by the 1830s and 1840s, technological innovations—wood engraving (developed by Thomas Bewick in the 1790s) and steel engraving (developed in the 1820s)—made it possible to integrate images and letterpress with cheapness and efficiency. A new type of fiction was born, one melding text and image as partners in meaning-making: Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), illustrated largely by career book illustrator Hablôt K. Browne; Oliver Twist (1837-1839), illustrated by noted caricaturist George Cruikshank; William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839-1840) and The Tower of London (1840), both illustrated by Cruikshank; and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), illustrated by himself. All used visual elements—wrappers, chapter initials and heads, full-page images, and tailpieces—to establish character and setting, create ironies, and predict plot, uniting pen and pencil in a single art form. In May 1842, the Illustrated London News’s first issue heralded the meteoric rise of illustration: art, it suggested, had wedded literature, migrating from natural history and science into poetry and fiction, where readers had crowned it with laurels.

By the 1860s, now recognized as the golden age of book illustration, the book arts flourished. Family periodicals such as the Cornhill Magazine, Once a Week, and Good Words highlighted the work of prominent fiction writers and artists (many of them Royal Academy members) as an essential aspect of middle-class culture. Editors paired George Eliot with Frederick Leighton (Romola, 1862-1863) and Elizabeth Gaskell with George du Maurier (Wives and Daughters, 1864-1866), both in the Cornhill; Harriet Martineau with John Everett Millais (her “historiettes,” 1862-1863) in Once a Week; and George MacDonald with Arthur Hughes (At the Back of the North Wind, 1871) in Good Words. The “high” art of grand narrative painting began to draw on book and periodical illustration: Luke Fildes’s Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (displayed at the 1874 Royal Academy) was based on his illustration “Houseless and Hungry” (published in the Graphic, 1869), and Millais sold to private buyers watercolor versions of his illustrations of Martineau’s historiettes.

The late 19th century witnessed another revolution in illustration, with photographic reproduction available from 1881. Images again became easier and cheaper to produce, enabling George Newnes, the Strand Magazine’s editor, to promise illustration on every page. As a result, the 1890s saw a bifurcation in illustrated texts: popular periodicals such as the Strand and Pearson’s Magazine exploited the text-image relationship with innovative layouts, and integrated images wrapped around letterpress (as in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, published in 1897 in Pearson’s, with illustrations by Warwick Goble), whereas the avant-garde Yellow Book turned away from representational illustration in favor of stand-alone artwork by such artists as Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert. The legacies of Victorian illustrated fiction are apparent in the early 20th century, when cinematic adaptations of Victorian novels wowed mass audiences; when the modernist revolution challenged conventional book design; and when children’s literature saw a second golden age in which illustrations by Arthur Rackham and E. H. Shepard ensured the success of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), The Wind in the Willows (1908), and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926).