The History of Illustrated Books

The History of Illustrated Books – Part 1

It could be argued that drawing and illustration came before the written word, and without doubt illustration has been around as long as the written word. Modern book illustrations are guided by a long tradition of illustration which dates back to the 15th Century in the form of block books.

These block books were produced by carving both text and images into the same wooden block. This type of book was a progression from older manuscripts that were illuminated. A good example of this was the Pauper’s Bible.

The 18th & 19th Century

It was popular during the 18th and 19th Centuries for adult fiction to be published that had images that strongly represented the text. These books were the forefathers of the modern novel and were highly popular in Western Europe.

One of the great writers of the period who had strong links with illustrators was Charles Dickens. Before a word was written Dickens used to give his illustrators an outline of the plot, then as he began to write he would monitor the illustrations closely to see if they were representative enough of the text.

The famous Phiz (a.k.a H.K.Browne) was Dickens favorite illustrator, and he worked tirelessly under the writer’s direction to make the illustrations of the characters to be identical as to what Dickens was describing. This of course made the visual interpretation just as critical as the written one.

20th Century

The 20th Century brought big changes into illustration and how books were published, no longer was it common for images to appear to represent the text. Book illustrations were now mostly confined to the area of children’s books, or popular writing which was called low-brow.

Around the same period it is interesting to note that figurative art had also lost its popularity, it was seen to be outdated by the art fraternity. Critics of the time said art should shy away from being retinal, and should move towards abstraction. This thought process was called Dada (the death of painting). As history tells us actual painting did not die in this period and trends towards figurative art came back at the end of the century.

It’s difficult to find examples of illustrations in books during the 20th Century, and the only fictional works that had representative images were in less traditional works, and in many cases less respectable publications.

Examples of this were in low-brow publications and magazines, such as the sci-fi illustrations by Virgil Finlay. His work was quite dark but beautifully created, harking back to the illustrations for Poe’s novels. This was the evolution of illustration in literature during the 20th Century.

The Reasons for the Decline

The have been many reasons mooted why there was a decline of illustrated books in the 20th Century. The most popular theory is that illustrations were not fashionable anymore. If people wanted to look at pictures they could buy a comic!


One of the most popular publishers at the time was Dan Franklin and he cites that the reason for the decline of book illustration was due to the lack of good illustrators. And we continue our journey into the history of book illustrations in part two of this blog.