Book illustration: why illustrated literature? (By Stetson Cooper)

Whenever the concept of illustrated literature is on the mind, the first things I think about are all of the storybooks I read as a child. There was Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Besty Lewin, which depicts a group of farm animals learning to use a typewriter to demand better treatment from their farmer. Another one of my favorites was Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, where the text of the book describes a path the chicken Rosie is walking, whereas the illustrations accompanying the descriptions shows a fox trying, and failing, to hunt her along the way. When children’s books are illustrated, it’s done in a way to establish setting, plot, and to allow the child’s mind easier travel into the world the author is creating. However, our attribution of illustrations almost exclusively to children’s books is a recent phenomenon. Illustrations to accompany literature started as hand-drawn illuminations of scholarly texts (mostly bibles and biblical stories), which advanced into wood-cut illustrations after the invention of the printing press. In the 19th century, illustrations were treated as a delight of the page, typically pressed into a book using nickel or metal based ink. Once the new technology enabling illustrations was available, they were a commercial commodity.

In the early to mid 20th century in the United States, illustrations were popularized by the expansion and development of popular media, including comic strips and advertisements in the forms of posters and billboards. As illustrations became important in new media, society’s reaction to their inclusion in books was more passive. Their inclusion and arrangement in books became more stylized and and added to the personality of the books they resided in, rather than expanding on or aiding the text the book was describing. Illustrations, while still being created for the direct purpose of a text, also were used to aid in the creation of the aesthetic of the entire work as a whole.

In my discussion of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two differing illustrations were examined in two different editions of the book by the Thomas Y. Crowell company, one being printed in 1943 (left) and the other in 1950 (right):

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In each printing of both books, this image is the first thing seen by the reader. The 1943 printing shows a crumpled woman bound by thorns, face obstructed, unable to play her music. The 1950 image is exactly where the prior illustration is placed in its edition, however the contrast is drastic: her hair is smoothed, round, and out of her face, a simple style typical of women in the turn of the decade. Both illustrations were drawn by Willy Pogany, both have the same central image of the woman and the guitar, but why are there so many intense changes? One explanation can be found in the historical contexts of the printings: 1950 was the beginning of a prosperous era for the United States in the face of the global aftermath of World War II, and the significant changes made in the second illustration is evident of this; the woman is upright, drawn with a pleasant face, loosely holding the guitar and looking upward. It is a much more simple, toned down version of its predecessor as a result of its placement in history. The editors of the collection felt that, in this period of prosperity, a book of love sonnets should be made prettier and daintier to appeal to the public. The fact that these images are the first illustrations seen before entering the content of each book attributes to their ability to create the book’s holistic aesthetic.


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