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Looking at illustrations

In this video we look at the importance of illustrations in printing.
Today Jane and I will be investigating the various ways books were illustrated in the early modern period. We’ll be exploring not only how images were produced, but also how these wonderful illustrations interacted with the text. Woodcuts dominated book illustration in the period circa 1460 to 1550. They predated the invention of the printing press and were quickly adopted, as they were the easiest method of illustrating books at the time. The reason for that was because they are cut in relief. That is, the wood block is cut so that the area of illustration stands out. This means that woodcuts could be easily printed alongside type, unlike metal engravings and etchings.
The woodcuts from Sebastian Brant’s famous satire The Ship of Fools reflect some of the chief characteristics of early woodcuts. A black border separates them from the rest of the text. And attempts at tone are fairly basic. Look carefully at the various online links provided to the many German and Latin editions of The Ship of Fools and you will see that the same woodcuts were reused again and again in different editions. This was a common practise given the cost of their production. The first few decades of the 16th century witnessed a high point of the woodcut.
Trinity College Dublin has a copy of the most beautifully designed book ever printed, the famous epic poem “Theuerdank” composed by the emperor Maximilian to commemorate his marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. The book with its flowing font includes 118 woodcuts designed by some of the leading artists based at Augsburg. This woodcut by Leonhard Beck depicts Mary with her father, Charles the Bold. Few readers could afford a parchment copy of the “Theuerdank” but the Icones historiarium veteris testamenti of Hans Holbein, which was an illustrated history of the Old Testament, was more readily available, as it was reprinted several times and its woodcuts used in various publications.
Though on a much smaller scale than the “Theuerdank,” Holbein’s woodcuts demonstrate what a master artist could achieve using the relief method. Holbein designed the illustrations. But he did not engrave them. At this time, illustrators and engravers were usually considered to be separate professions. The 16th century botanist Leonhart Fuchs draws attention to this in his book on herbal plants, De historia stirpium of 1542, which includes the woodcut of the illustrators and beneath them the engraver. The intaglio method of etching and engraving where the design was incised into a plate usually made of copper also predated printing. But unlike woodcuts, they were not so easily integrated into the printing process.
Much greater pressure was needed to push the paper into the inked grooves of the metal plate and because of this, etchings and engravings were often printed separately. Dürer led the way in producing outstanding engravings in the early 16th century. And by the mid 16th century, engravings and etchings gradually replaced woodcuts as the preferred method of book illustration. As this engraving of the famous 17th century French etcher Jacques Callot demonstrates, engraving offered artists such as Anthony van Dyck the opportunity to produce much more nuanced illustrations. Illustrations were used to enliven a text and attract readers and potential buyers.
That is one of the reasons why frontispieces– the illustrations at the very front of the book– are often much more detailed than the illustrations inside. This is an especially common strategy in children’s books that are produced quickly and cheaply to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing market. This copy of Jemima Placid has an engraved frontispiece and 28 wood engravings inside the text. The scene described on pages 18 and 19 is depicted in the frontispiece and depicted again in the much cruder engraving on page 20. In comparing these images, you can easily see the differences in quality and style. These inconsistencies suggest that at least two different printmakers were employed in producing this book.
Other publishers commissioned work from famous artists to boost the sales of their books. This copy of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy includes a frontispiece by the printmaker and painter, William Hogarth. Hogarth was well-known for his political cartoons. And by placing his work beside Sterne’s, the publishers announced to the reader that this book, too, will be subversive, bawdy, and funny. But though we credit the illustration to Hogarth, if you look down at the very bottom of the image, you will see two names and abbreviations– W. Hogarth invit, meaning W. Hogarth invenit, W. Hogarth created this, and S. Ravenet sculpt, meaning S. Ravenet sculpsit, S. Ravenet engraved this.
The illustration is a collaboration between William Hogarth and his assistant, the French engraver Simon Francois Ravenet. He has been credited as a key figure in the revival of engraving in England in the 18th century. As we have seen from these illustrations, this period was a very innovative time. And it is just as important to look at the images as well as the words in these books.

Look carefully at the various online links provided to the many German and Latin editions of the Ship of Fools below.

You will see that the same woodcuts were re-used again and again in different editions. This was a common practice, given the cost of their production.

  • Explore these four versions of the Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff (German version) and Stultifera Navis (Latin version)) below.
  • You can navigate these books by clicking on the arrow keys located at the top of each link.
  • Describe in the comments a woodcut you have found to be reused multiple times.
  1. Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff (Basel, 1494). Source: German edition of the Ship of Fools from the Sächsischen Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden.
  2. Sebastian Brant, Stultifera navis (Basel, 1497). Source: Latin edition of the Ship of Fools from the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany. See also Sebastian Brant, Stultifera Navis (Basel, 1497). Source: Universitätsbibliothek Basel, DA III 2, / Public Domain Mark.
  3. Sebastian Brant, Stultifera Navis (Basel, 1498). Source: University of Houston, Texas.
  4. Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff (Frankfurt am Main, 1553). Source: Zentralbibliothek Zürich, 25.43: b, / Public Domain Mark.
Note: In the video, at 3 minutes 44 seconds, images from the frontispiece and page 18 are displayed, but page 20 is described in the audio.
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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

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