Friday, 7 January 2011

Illustration on the doorstep

Aubrey Beardsley, Arbuscula, proof copy from the Leonard Smithers Collection, 1898. (University of Leeds Special Collections)

The exhibition over at the University of Leeds’ Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, ‘Fancy and Imagination’ profiles book illustration in England at the turn of the last century. It is well worth a visit. Although centred on Beardsley’s style and his grotesque erotica, other less well known illustrators are also on display with good examples of the actual books. I was interested in particular in William Morris’s vision of the integrity of book binding, design, type-setting and illustration which is clearly in evidence as they have several examples of embossed book covers, bindings and actual pages as well as the illustrations themselves.
One other issue that is of continuing interest is the integration of contemporary technologies with older formats. This is something every designer and illustrator has to contend with and is of particular relevance today. The late 19th century innovations in photomechanical methods of reproduction were integrated with traditional techniques such as woodblock engraving. Line block work could be positioned alongside woodblocks on a letterpress bed and locked together with both metal and wood type. The techniques of relief printing could also be harnessed in cover embossing and there are several beautiful examples of embossed covers on display in the exhibition.

The illustrated quarterly, such as the Yellow Book, could be seen as an early example of zine type formats, again the integration of illustration and text being vital to the ‘feel’ and the signification that this was at the time new, raw and vital.

Thinking of raw and vital images from the same time of these book illustrations, I saw an example of the suffragette penny recently. Stamped over a 1903 penny, the words ‘Votes for Women’ still resonate through time. The idea still comes through almost as powerfully as it must have done at then, the ringing hammer blows of the maker as she stamped each letter right across the copper face of the then king, reverberate and chime with more contemporary concerns with subvertising and the use of banknotes to signify ideas.

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