Book illustration

The Golden Age of Book Illustration

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the art of illustration, particularly for publication in books, magazines and advertisements, had a shining moment. Household names such as William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, Kate Greenaway and Beatrix Potter were producing work during this time, along with many of their colleagues, students and admirers. Inspiration came from all walks of life, encompassing everything from the fantastical world of fairytales and myths, to the everyday drudgery of household chores and mending.


Some particularly famous examples of collaborations between the eminent illustrators of the time and successful storytellers include Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley’s rendering of Salome, and Kay Nielsen’s work with Disney. Top illustrators were in high demand, branching out from the publishing world into textiles, home furnishings and more, most famously in the case of William Morris. Morris fabrics are still eagerly sought after today, being used for curtains, furniture, clothing, bookmarks, kitchenware and pottery, showing that illustration can go far beyond the printed page.

In comparison to the way that we create and view different media now, this Golden Age of Illustration seems quaint and labour intensive. Entertainment these days comes in the form of reading magazines via an e-reader, spinning wheels on a smartphone, and seeing adverts posted to social media feeds. Mostly, we look at screens rather than paper. However, this is just another example of how transferable illustration skills are, with modern illustrators creating just as impressive work using graphics tablets and PhotoShop or other software rather than pen and ink. Now, let’s take a look at some of those celebrated greats from the Golden Age.

William Morris 1834 – 1896

Synonymous with the Arts and Crafts movement of the mid-19th century and celebrated for the careful use of nature’s motifs in his work, William Morris is still one of the biggest names in illustration, even over 120 years after his death.

He established the private Kelmscott Press (1891-1898) in Hammersmith, London during his later years, and printed some of the most exquisite illustrated texts ever seen. In fact, the entire purpose of the press was to prove that modern printing processes could capture beauty in the same way that medieval hand painted texts and older works did. He was inspired by the incunabula of old and wished to recapture the respect and admiration held for these texts.

Chosen subjects included poetry, myth and fairytale, architecture and history. Each page featured intricate designs, with vines curling down the margins and flowers populating the negative space. Volumes also included full page drawings showing scenes from the text, printed on handmade paper and using traditionally produced black ink, rather than any modern chemicals.

Kate Greenaway 1846 – 1901

There is a good reason why one of the most prestigious prizes for literary illustration is named after this artist, and it is simply that her work made such an enormous impression on the field. Another London-born illustrator, like Morris, Greenaway started out creating immensely popular greetings cards on a freelance basis before moving on to the illustration of books.

Her background was in the precise reproduction of geometric designs and botanical drawings, and she brought this training to her own style when she began illustrating stories written by successful authors of the age. She is best known for her illustrations of fairytales and stories aimed at a younger audience, including books that she both wrote and illustrated herself.

She worked mainly with the chromoxylography process, printing coloured images using hand engraved wooden blocks. This was a popular method at the time, but her illustrations became the most sought after. Her characters’ appearances harked back to clothes of the previous century and inspired a wave of new fashions amongst the young Arts and Crafts crowd.

Aubrey Beardsley 1872 – 1898

Despite his tragic early death at the age of 25, Beardsley made a lasting impression on the world of illustration. His signature Art Nouveau style drew inspiration from Japanese mark making, Aestheticism and caricature, inspiring the later French Symbolists and the Poster Art Movement.


Although his death from tuberculosis meant that he never had the opportunity to fully mature as an artist, Beardsley managed to illustrate some of the most important and well-remembered literary efforts of the age. Some of his most famous book illustrations include those for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the 1894 reissue of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works.

His bold use of contrasting black and whites, plus the detail found in furnishing, jewellery, clothing and facial expressions in his pieces, is instantly recognisable. He is usually associated with the macabre, the erotic and the uncanny, leading him to work more often with ‘outsiders’ such as Poe and Wilde, as well as co-founding his own magazine publications where he could have a freer hand.