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Of Book Illustration And Book Decoration

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.

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 Duerer's woodcuts. The amount of work which Duerer
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

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.


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