Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Modern Book Illustrators and Their Work, edited by C. Geoffrey Holme and Ernest G. Halton

British book illustrations of the Art Nouveau period
Published in 1914, Modern Book Illustrators and Their Work is an art book reproducing about 170 book illustrations by 50 artists. Some of those artists are only represented by one image while others may account for as many as eight or nine. The artworks are presented in alphabetical order by the name of the artist. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the illustrations are reproduced in black-and-white. While there may be a few genuine etchings or wood engravings among the selections, almost all appear to be pen-and-ink drawings. Seven painted illustrations are reproduced in full color. Scanned copies of this book can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust and the Internet Archive.

According to the book’s introduction, the majority of the selected illustrations were created after 1890. Salaman describes “the ‘90s” as a sort of golden age of book illustration in which artists made marked advancements over the previous decades. “Modern” is a relative term, of course. These illustrations were made slightly before the career of Rockwell Kent, who would be considered America’s quintessential modern book illustrator. To today’s viewers, these drawings will seem decidedly pre-modern. Most of them are drawn in an Art Nouveau style or mimic the style of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, similar to the kind of illustrations produced by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. For illustrators or printmakers looking to emulate those styles, this would be a good sourcebook of images from which to draw ideas and techniques. A minority of the artworks exhibit a realist style that might have been influenced by French painters like Jean François Millet and Gustave Courbet.

The subject matter of the art falls into two main categories. The first would be fanciful depictions of fairy tales, folk tales, mythological subject matter, or literal “faerie stories” (i.e. populated by fairies). The second category is Dickensianesque images of England, either drawn in a comical style like the caricatures of Daumier or in a more realist style when depicting landscapes, cityscapes, or members of the working class.

Just about every illustration in the book demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship and intricate detail. Contemporary draughtsmen can learn much from their composition, design, and ornament. Though the style depicted is not as forcefully eye-catching as later black-and-white masters like Kent, Lynd Ward, or Barry Moser, this volume is a delightful time capsule of this whimsical and picturesque era in book illustration. Lovers of old books will enjoy browsing through these images and imagining the stories they might have accompanied.

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Illustrations from the book:

Dion Clayton Calthrop, The Homes of the Four Winds, from The Guide to Fairyland

Sydney R. Jones, Nijmegen, Gelderland, from Old Houses in Holland

Donald Maxwell, The Weavers, Canterbury, from Adventures with a Sketch Book

R. James Williams, The Three Little Crones, Each with Something

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