During this year’s London Rare Books School Krystle Attard Trevisan, a PhD candidate at the Institute of English Studies, attended a course on the history of book illustration, and she was not disappointed.

This subject has been a passion for years and what better way to learn about it than to delve into the collections of Senate House Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)  in the capable hands of Dr Rowan Watson, former senior curator and Elizabeth James, senior librarian, at the V&A’s National Art Library.

The course was an introduction to the history of book illustration, and the subject was tackled from many different angles. We saw countless objects to make sure we received a comprehensive overview of the entire field. The course had guest lecturers, experts in their own fields. Lectures covered the roles of artists, publishers, readers, materials, technology, economy, aesthetics, and the interplay between words and images.

Starting off with early illustrated books at Senate House Library, we admired woodcut illustrations from the 15th century Nuremberg Chronicle. I was introduced to the fascinating world of emblem books – small books of poems and morals with strange allegorical representations which were a product of humanism and captured the imagination of scholars throughout Europe.

At the V&A, we studied early printing through books featuring both print and manuscript interventions. English and French illustrations of the 17th–19th centuries, were demonstrated with beautiful books of poetry and prose, like Tristam Shandy and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, historical and topographical books and volumes of prints after famous works of art. The market for illustrated books during the period was big and anything from cheap chapbooks to luxurious volumes usually featured images. Highlights included Goethe’s Faust with lithographs by Eugene Delacroix and poetry illustrated by William Blake.

V&A curators created a display of printmaking tools and prints of various techniques. We examined works by the best printmakers including woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and Edvard Munch, engravings by Martin Schongauer and Mantegna, etchings by Rembrandt, wood engravings from Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds, colour printing, mezzotints and aquatints and a large demonstration of lithography and screen printing. The opportunity to see this many printed materials in one day was priceless. The afternoon was spent at the London Print Studio where these techniques were demonstrated.

During our last day at the V&A we learnt about German book illustration in revivalist styles of the late 18th and 19th centuries. We explored popular forms of illustration in caricatures and journals, such as Punch and its French equivalent Charivari. We flipped through the original monthly supplements of Oliver Twist illustrated by George Cruikshank. A copy of King Arthur illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley was a favourite as was the ‘Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’ illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones and published by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. We also studied Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso as book illustrators.

On our final day we explored early photography and its role in book illustration. Through an explanation of the technological inventions we understood both difficulties and advantages in using photography for illustration. We ended the day by studying children’s illustrated books.

These are just a handful of the works studied during this week. I would recommend this course to anyone interested in rare books, but also to those who wish to learn about renowned artists as book illustrators, which is a topic usually ignored in art history studies. What I enjoyed most was the object-based teaching throughout the course, and the opportunity to meet and hear different guest lecturers and curators every day. It also provides LRBS attendees the opportunity to study off-site at the V&A and explore their wonderful collection.

Krystle Attard Trevisan is a PhD candidate at the Institute of English Studies researching print and book history and print collecting.

Further information
The V&A National Art Library Book collections
Senate House Library, Manuscript and Print Studies Collection
Senate House Library, Printed Special Collections