Book illustration is supposed to have made a great advance in the last few years. No doubt it has, but this advance has not been made on any definite principle, but, as it were, in and out of a network of cross-purposes. No attempt has been made to classify illustration in relation to the purpose it has to fulfil.
Broadly speaking, this purpose is threefold. It is either utilitarian, or partly utilitarian partly artistic, or purely artistic. The first may be dismissed at once. Such drawings as technical diagrams must be clear and accurate, but by their very nature they are non-artistic, and in regard to art it is a case of "hands off" to the draughtsman.
Illustration as an art, that is, book decoration, begins with the second class. From this standpoint an illustration involves something more than mere drawing. In the first place, the drawing must illustrate the subject, but as the drawing will not be set in a plain mount, but surrounded or bordered by printed type, there is the further problem of the relation of the drawing to the printed type. The relative importance attached to the printed type or the drawing is the crucial point for the illustrator. If all his thoughts are concentrated on his own drawing, one line to him will be much as another; but if he considers his illustration as going with the type to form one homogeneous design, each line becomes a matter of deliberate intention.
Now, in the early days of printing, when both type and illustration were printed off a single block, the latter standpoint was adopted as a matter of course, and as the art developed and men of genuine ability applied themselves to design, this intimate relation between printer and designer produced results of inimitable beauty. Each page of a fine Aldine is a work of art in itself. The eye can run over page after page for the simple pleasure of its decoration. No black blots in a sea of ignoble type break the quiet dignity of the page; each part of it works together with the rest for one premeditated harmony. But gradually, with the severance of the arts, the printer lost sight of the artist, and the latter cared only for himself; and there came the inevitable result which has followed this selfishness in all the other arts of design. Printing ceased to be an art at all, and the art of book decoration died of neglect; the illustrator made his drawing without thought of the type, and left it to the printer to pitch it into the text, and reproduce it as best he could.
The low-water mark in artistic illustration was reached perhaps in the early part of this century, and the greatest offender was Turner himself. The illustrations which Turner made for Rogers's Poems show no sort of modification of his habitual practice in painting. They may have been beautiful in themselves, but it evidently never entered into Turner's head that the method, which was admirable in a picture aided by all the resources of colour, was beside the mark when applied to the printed page with all the limitations of black and white and the simple line. One looks in vain in Turner's illustrations for any evidence that he was conscious of the existence of the rest of the page at all. Something more than a landscape painter's knowledge of drawing is necessary. The custom of getting illustrations from painters who have little knowledge of decorative design has led to the invention of all sorts of mechanical processes in order to transfer easel-work direct to the printed page. The effect of this upon book decoration has been deadly. Process-work of this sort has gone far to kill wood-engraving; and as to its result, instead of a uniform texture of line woven as it were over the entire page, the eye is arrested by harsh patches of black or gray which show a disregard of the printed type which is little less than brutal. Leaving recent work out of account, one exception only can be made, and that is in the case of William Blake.
The inherent conditions of book decoration point to the line drawn by hand, and reproduced, either by wood-engraving or by direct facsimile process, as its proper method. Indeed, the ideal of paginal beauty would be reached by leaving both the text and the illustrative design to hand, if not to one hand. This, however, is out of the question; the cost alone is prohibitive. The point for the book-decorator to consider is, what sort of line will range best with the type. In the case of the second division of our classification, which, in default of a better name, may be called "record work," it is impossible to apply to the line the amount of abstraction and selection which would be necessary in pure design. To do so, for instance, in the case of an architectural illustration, would destroy the "vraisemblance" which is of the essence of such a drawing. Even in this case, however, the line ought to be very carefully considered. It is important to recollect that the type establishes a sort of scale of its own, and, taking ordinary lettering, this would exclude very minute work where the lines are close together and there is much cross-hatching; and also simple outline work such as Retsch used to labour at, for the latter errs on the side of tenuity and meagreness as much as process-reproduction of brush-work sins in the opposite extreme. The line used in architectural illustration should be free, accurate, and unfaltering, drawn with sufficient technical knowledge of architecture to enable the draughtsman to know where he can stop without injury to his subject. The line should not be obstinate, but so light and subtle as to reflect without effort each thought that flits across the artist's mind. Vierge has shown how much can be done in this way. With a few free lines and the contrast of some dark piece of shading in exactly the right place, he will often tell you more of a subject than will the most elaborately finished picture. This is the method to aim at in architectural illustration. The poetry of architecture and its highest qualities of dignity of mass and outline are smothered by that laborious accuracy which covers every part of the drawing with a vain repetition of unfeeling lines.
Where, however, the illustration is purely imaginative, the decorative standpoint should be kept steadily in view, and the process of selection and abstraction carried very much farther. Here, at length, the illustrator can so order his design that the drawing and the printed type form a single piece of decoration, not disregarding the type, but using it as in itself a means of obtaining texture and scale and distributed effect. The type is, as it were, the technical datum of the design, which determines the scale of the line to be used with it. With a wiry type no doubt a wiry drawing is desirable, but the types of the great periods of printing are firm in outline and large and ample in distribution. Assuming, then, that one of these types can be used, the line of the accompanying design should be strongly drawn, and designed from end to end with full allowance for the white paper. No better model can be followed than Dürer's woodcuts. The amount of work which Dürer would get out of a single line is something extraordinary, and perhaps to us impossible; for in view of our complex modern ideas and total absence of tradition, probably no modern designer can hope to attain to the great German's magnificent directness and tremendous intensity of expression.
Deliberate selection, both in subject and treatment, becomes therefore a matter of the first importance. The designer should reject subjects which do not admit of a decorative treatment. His business is not with science, or morals, but with art for its own sake; he should, therefore, select his subject with a single eye to its artistic possibilities. As to the line itself, it is impossible to offer any suggestion, for the line used is as much a part of the designer's idea as the words of a poem are of a poet's poetry; and the invention of these must come of itself. But once in consciousness, the line must be put under rigid control as simply a means of expression. There is an insidious danger in the line. Designers sometimes seem to be inebriated with their own cunning; they go on drawing line after line, apparently for the simple pleasure of deftly placing them side by side, or at best to produce some spurious imitation of texture. As soon as the line is made an end in itself, it becomes a wearisome thing. The use of the line and the imitation of texture should be absolutely subordinated to the decorative purposes of the design, and the neglect of this rule is as bad art as if a musician, from perverse delight in the intricacies of a fugue, were to lose his theme in a chaos of counterpoint.
If, then, to conclude, we are to return to the best traditions of book decoration, the artist must abandon the selfish isolation in which he has hitherto worked. He must regard the printed type not as a necessary evil, but as a valuable material for the decoration of the page, and the type and the illustration should be considered in strict relation to each other. This will involve a self-restraint far more rigid than any required in etching, because the point to be aimed at is not so much the direct suggestion of nature, as the best decorative treatment of the line in relation to the entire page. Thus, to the skill of the draughtsman must be added the far-seeing imagination of the designer, which, instead of being content with a hole-and-corner success, involving disgrace to the rest of the page, embraces in its consciousness all the materials available for the beautification of the page as a whole. It is only by this severe intellectual effort, by this self-abnegation, by this ready acceptance of the union of the arts, that the art of book illustration can again attain to a permanent value.
From Arts and Crafts Essays By Members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (Rivington, Percival & Co.: London, 1893)
Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield (1856 – 1942) was a noteworthy British architect, whose work includes Lambeth Bridge, Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford), The Menin Gate (Ypres), London's R.A.F. Memorial and some of the most iconic structures on Regent Street. More on his taste and his legacy.