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.