Illustrated Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Illustrated Novel

Margaret J. Godbey

The history of illustration ranges from ancient Egyptian papyrus to twenty-first-century computer-generated images. Illustrations accompany religious texts, works of nonfiction, poetry, and narrative prose fiction, but the illustrated novel developed in the eighteenth century, primarily in France and England, and reached its height in the nineteenth century. The term illustrated novel refers to an extended narrative with multiple images that, together with the text, produce meaning. Therefore, the illustrated novel is not a work graced by a single decorated cover or frontispiece. Yet certain novels remain intertwined with a particular frontispiece or cover design. The interdisciplinary nature of illustrated novels recognizes the difficulty of determining what constitutes a “novel” or an “illustration,” and thus it fuels a variety of critical approaches including, but not limited to, reception studies, art history, cultural studies, bibliographical studies, and semiotic analysis. Although illustrator and author often collaborated over the original text and illustrations, subsequent editions contain illustrations an author may or may not have endorsed. Some authors illustrated their own work, and some novels had multiple illustrators. The form lost its appeal in the twentieth century as illustration flourished in children's literature and migrated to the luxury book market. Nevertheless, critical interest in the illustrated novel continues to grow.

Illustration and Publishing

Advances in print technology and the emerging form of the novel drove demand for the illustrated novel and spurred artistic experimentation with various materials: wood, copper, and steel (see PAPER). Economic expansion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created an audience capable of sustaining authors and artists. In France and England, illustrations were used to help a book or author stand out in the exploding literary market (see PUBLISHING). The profit from illustrated editions justified the cost of artists, engravers, and materials. The first edition of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) by Victor Hugo appeared with two title-page vignettes after Tony Johannot (1803—52). The 1836 edition appeared with a frontispiece and ten steel engravings. The spectacular 1844 Perrotin edition contained headpieces, initial letters, and tailpieces plus thirty-four wood-engraved and twenty-one steel-engraved plates by Edouard de Beaumont (1812—88), Louis Boulanger (1806—67), Charles-François Daubigny (1817—78), Johannot, Aimé de Lemud (1816—87), Ernest Meissonier (1815—91), and Auguste Raffet (1804—60). English artists such as John Everett Millais (1829—96) and Frederic Leighton (1830—96) produced images for illustrated novels and placed high art into the hands of the middle class (Harvey; Maxwell). Walter Scott's “Magnum Opus” edition included illustrations by celebrated artists Edwin Landseer (1802—73), John Watson Gordon (1788—1864), and David Wilkie (1785—1841) to increase sales and ease his dire financial situation. The presence of illustrations, the number of illustrations, and the celebrity of the artists involved reveal important information about a book's commercial status.

Methods and Artists

The first European illustrated books used woodcuts, and were printed by Albrecht Pfister (ca. 1420—66) between 1460 and 1465 in Bamberg, Germany. The artist cut away sections of wood, leaving only the raised image. This format could print words and images on the same page. By the 1600s, copper engraving rivaled woodcut. The soft surface of copper allowed artists to create finer details and richer textures by using incised lines to transfer ink, but copper was expensive and its images required a separate page. Thomas Bewick (1753—1828) revolutionized the process of book illustration with end-grain wood engraving. This method, used in A General History of Quadrupeds (1790), produced more copies from a single plate and could print images with type. The mass-produced book could now be an illustrated book.

Steel-plate engraving, invented in 1792 by the American Jacob Perkins (1766—1849), was also employed for book illustration. Although harder to work with, steel produced more copies and held finer levels of detail and shading. In 1840, because of his strong preference for steel, J. M. W. Turner (1775—1851) refused a commission for Scott's Waverley novels when asked to switch from steel to wood. Aloys Senefelder (1771—1834) invented lithography by applying grease and ink to a stone surface in 1796. Lithography, and the emerging process of PHOTOGRAPHY invented by Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (1765—1833) in 1826 and Louis Daguerre (1787—1851) in 1839, were adopted for illustrated books, but neither was suitable for large-scale publishing. The illustrated novel required attractive, quickly produced, highly detailed images durable enough to print thousands of copies from a single plate.

The techniques of earlier artists and specific cultural situations influenced the form and function of the illustrated novel. Emotional intensity is apparent in the black-and-white woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer's (1471—1528) 1498 biblical text Apocalypse. Francesco Colonna's (1433?—1527) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) revealed artistic possibilities for intertwining text and image. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the Rococo sophistication of artists and engravers such as Hubert-François Bourguignon, known as “Gravelot” (1699—1773), Charles Eisen (1720—78), and Jean-Michel Moreau (1741—1814) elevated the French illustrated book to such heights that “illustration overshadowed the text” (Ray, 31). In England, demand for prints of William Hogarth's (1697—1764) The Harlot's Progress (painted 1730, engraved 1730—32) revealed a market for didactic visual narrative. During the Revolutionary Era (1776—1815) in Europe and America, illustrations were a vital form for influencing public sentiment through comic images, satiric caricature, or tragic feeling (see PARODY). From this productive history emerged three principal characteristics of literary illustration: passionate emotion, exceptional composition, and distinctive narrative. The illustrated novel draws on the rich history of book illustration to employ an intertextual vocabulary, or visual language, of allusion (see INTERTEXTUALITY). Visual references move freely between paintings, texts, illustrated periodicals, and the illustrated novel (Le Man; Skilton).

Any brief discussion of representative illustrated novels must be painfully incomplete. However, certain novels remain closely linked to their illustrations. Familiar pairings include caricatures by George Cruikshank (1792—1878) for Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist (1837—39, rev. 1846), author and illustrator William Makepeace Thackeray's allusion-filled engravings for Vanity Fair (1847—48) and the realism of Millais's images for Anthony Trollope's Orley Farm (1861—62). In contrast with illustrators who endeavored to support the author's text, fin-de-siècle artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872—98) resisted the term “illustrator.” Beardsley's distinctive sensuality embellished a book via its cover, binding, and decorative images. Both Théophile Gautier's 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (illustrated ed. 1898) and Oscar Wilde's play Salomé (1894) remain linked with Beardsley's art.

An illustrator's close association with a novel might occur posthumously, as demonstrated by Gustave Doré's (1832—83) iconic illustrations for the 1863 edition of Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (see Fig. 1) and Rockwell Kent's (1882—1971) stark illustrations for the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville. After a cautious initial run of a thousand copies, the Kent edition has remained continuously in print and is credited with reviving popular and scholarly interest in Melville.


Figure 1 Gustave Doré, “Adventure with the Windmills,” illustration from Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, engraving, 1870. Photo Duncan Walker/istockphoto

Serialization and the Illustrated Novel

Serialization allowed readers to enjoy the pleasure of a narrative with prints by famous artists. Illustrations served a practical as well as an aesthetic purpose: they advertised the story, illuminated themes, reminded readers of specific characters, helped keep multiple plot lines coherent over weeks or months, and supplied readers with information not explicit in the text. A monthly part might contain a lavish cover illustration, two steel engravings, and 32 pages of text. A final double number might contain four illustrations, 64 pages of text, and additional material such as the chapter list and preface.

The first illustrated novel in monthly parts was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836—37), sold for one shilling per part and written by a then unknown Dickens. By the fifteenth installment it was selling forty thousand copies per issue, quadrupling the two-week sales record set by Scott's novel Rob Roy (1817). Dickens's humorous stories were to have accompanied comic prints by Robert Seymour (1798—1836), but following Seymour's suicide Dickens's narrative became the dominant focus. Hablot K. Browne (1815—82), known as “Phiz,” completed the illustrations and went on to illustrate ten of Dickens's novels.

Browne and Dickens had a close but difficult collaboration. Robert L. Patten outlines the steps Browne took in order to produce illustrations for part four of David Copperfield:

It is likely that Browne saw [the] proof of his first subject early in the month. That left him a little more than a fortnight to design the first plate, get it approved by Dickens, design a second...get it approved, trace each plate onto two different steels, have his assistant pull proofs, print both plates in duplicate—making some twenty-four thousand copies of each plate, or twelve thousand per steel—and get all the copies to the printers in time for the plates to be bound up with the text and wrapper for sale on Saturday, 1 September. (96)

The speed of production speaks not only to Browne's skill, but also to the artistic relationship between author and artist. Published after Dickens's death, Cruikshank's pamphlet “The Artist and the Author” (1872) argues that he was responsible for the plot and certain characters in Oliver Twist. Although disputed, his claims suggest the collaborative relationship necessary between the serialized illustrated novel's author and illustrator.

Critical Issues

Illustrated novels are fertile ground for cultural studies and literary criticism. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, questions concerning aesthetics, the relationship between image and text, and how meaning is conveyed were prompted by rapid cultural changes. What could be seen by the human eye, what remained invisible, and how accurate one's interpretations could be were questions of deep interest and concern to Victorians (Flint). The eye could be misled, words could be misunderstood, but if descriptions were based on visual experience, on observation, or “fact,” then words could attach meaning to those images. Together, words with images could create narrative “truth.” For example, visual representations of historical objects seem to authenticate Scott's historical fiction. Cruikshank's caricatures tightly intertwine text and image to emphasize Dickens's social critique.

In contrast, Thackeray's illustrations for Vanity Fair contain deliberate ambiguity. The plate “Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra” (Fig. 2) may support the text's explanation for Jos's death, or provide an unspoken, more violent one. Thus, Thackeray deliberately calls into question the reader's ability to interpret either text or image. Further questions arise from John Leech's (1817—64) illustrations for Dickens's story The Battle of Life (1846). Leech supplied an illustration for an event that is described but does not occur. Readers remain unaware of this divergence until later in the text. Patten points out that this moment reveals fundamental questions faced by authors and illustrators: “who, author or illustrator, is going to show what, actual or imagined event, when?” (93).


Figure 2 William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: “Becky's Second Appearance in the Character of Clytemnestra,” engraving, 1865. Photo © Duncan Walker/istockphoto

Paul Goldman and David Skilton both emphasize the importance of original illustrations. Skilton explains that “literary illustration in fact occupied a central place in Victorian visual and verbal culture” and asserts that illustrated novels should be recognized as the “bimodal works they are” (par. 1, 24). Yet questions remain. Are illustrations necessary to the work? If so, then how? If not, why not?

Illustrations can liberate, suggest, or open up speculation to the reader through their originality or their relationship to other images, but they can also limit, impose, or fix certain interpretations. Although integral to the serialized and three-volume novel throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and America, illustrations were also viewed as secondary, operating merely in service to the text or as distractions from the text. Regarding her novel Romola (1862—63), first serialized in Cornhill Magazine with illustrations by Leighton, George Eliot wrote of the “inevitable difficulty—nay, impossibility of producing perfect correspondence between my intention and the illustrations” (G. S. Haight, ed., 1956, Letters iv:40). In his preface to the New York edition of The Golden Bowl (1909), Henry James called illustration “a lawless incident.” The presence, or absence, of original illustrations, as well as the addition of alternate illustrations, calls attention to a novel's publication history, its reception, and its cultural status.

Indeed, the relationship between image and text, like that between authors and illustrators, can become uncomfortable over time. For modern readers, original illustrations may present certain difficulties. Edward Windsor Kemble's (1861—1933) illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain are rarely reprinted because, as Earl F. Briden argues, Twain seems to be “in effect authorizing a pictorial narrative which runs counter to major implications of his verbal text” (384). Charles Howland Hammatt Billings's (1818—74) illustrations for the 1852 and 1853 editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe also reveal stark differences between nineteenth- and twenty-first-century sensibilities about race.

Decline of the Form

Several forces contributed to the decline of the illustrated novel as a popular form. First, the single-volume novel replaced the serialized and three-volume novel. Second, psychological realism and modernism's fragmented subjectivity resisted isolating the single moment and diminished interest in illustration. Third, the desire to break away from preceding literary forms after WWI (1914—18) contributed to a waning interest in the illustrated novel. Finally, eliminating illustrations was an effective way to contain costs.

Perceptions about illustration shifted during the “Golden Age” of children's book illustration (1865—1939). Illustrations are deemed essential to certain works of children's literature, which have “entered into the national consciousness” of generations of readers (Bland, 367). These include illustrations by John Tenniel (1820—1914) for the 1866 reprint of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Tenniel rejected the 1865 printing), E. H. Shepard's (1879—1976) images for the 1931 edition of Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame, and illustrations by Quentin Blake (1932—) for numerous works by Roald Dahl.

In addition to children's literature and scholarly editions reprinting original illustrations, the illustrated novel continues in luxury editions of classic texts illustrated by recognized artists. The 1903 edition of Àrebours (1884, Against Nature), written by Joris-Karl Huysmans and illustrated by Auguste Lepère (1849—1918) was a tour de force of literary illustration, of which only 130 copies were printed. Contemporary examples include illustrated collector's editions of Jane Austen's novels. Whether the cultural currency of the graphic novel, developments in publishing technology, or the novel's changing form will revive the illustrated novel remains to be seen. What is clear is that an extensive body of recent scholarly work addresses the complex relationship between text and image.

SEE ALSO: Reprints, Typography.


1. Bland, D.A. (1969), History of Book Illustration.

2. Briden, E.F. (1995), “Kemble's 'Specialty' and the Pictorial Countertext of Huckleberry Finn,” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. G. Graff and J. Phelan.

3. Flint, K. (2000), Victorians and the Visual Imagination.

4. Goldman, P. (2005), Beyond Decoration.

5. Harvey, J.R. (1971), Victorian Novelists and Their Illustrators.

6. Le Men, S. (1994), “Book Illustration,” in Artistic Relations, ed. P. Collier and R. Lethbridge.

7. Maxwell, R. ed., (2002), Victorian Illustrated Book.

8. Patten, R.L. (2002), “Serial Illustration and Storytelling in David Copperfield,” in Maxwell.

9. Ray, G.N. (1986), Art of the French Illustrated Book, 1700 to 1914.

10. Skilton, D. (2007), “ The Centrality of Literary Illustration in Victorian Visual Culture,” Journal of Illustration Studies (Dec. 2007).