History of Book Illustration

Before the invention of printing, manuscripts were the only form of publication. Using ink and other pigments, texts were written on vellum, papyrus or paper. In the Middle Ages, from the 13th Century on, manuscripts gained a particular importance. The majority of the splendid manuscripts still in existence today were produced in the scriptoria of the monasteries. Illuminated initials and other important parts of the text were accented in red and blue, partially ornamented and illustrated by colourful miniature paintings. The most important books produced were liturgical works such as books of hours, psalters, and breviaries, whose artful compositions of script and images still evoke wonder in researchers and collectors today.

In the early years after the invention of printing, manuscripts remained an important medium since many people were sceptical about printing technology. To be able to stay competitive with printed books, manuscript-makers were particularly focused on producing fine illustrations. As a result of this emphasis on illustration, this period represents a high point in manuscript illumination.

The first stage in the development from the handwritten to the printed book is embodied by the incunabula which were produced between the invention of printing (c.1450 AD) and 1500 AD. The total number of incunabula produced within this time period is estimated to be between 27,000 and 29,000 titles with various print runs. Of these works, comprised of various forms (books, brochures, single sheet prints) about 500,000 exemplars are still existent today. Among the most famous incunabula are the Bible of Gutenberg (Mainz, 1452-54 AD) and the World History by Hartmann Schedel, printed in 1493 at Nuremberg by Anton Koberger. Strasbourg, Augsburg, Bamberg, Cologne and Basel were also important places of printing during the incunabula era.

The types of books produced were almost as diverse as books produced today. Besides bibles, sermons and collections of letters, popular printed texts also included reference works, travel books, books on herbs, and a wide range of scientific and literary texts. From the beginning of printing, many books were illustrated. Up until the 16th Century, illustrations were done using woodcuts, which were then often elaborately coloured after the printing process. From the end of the 16th Century on, copper engraving became the more established technique for illustrating books.

In the 17th Century, the development of printing stagnated, especially in Germany, as a result of war. Paper and printing colours hadbecome very expensive and elaborate prints became rare. There were exceptions, however, and important atlases and books of town views were produced during this time. The Netherlands was a particularly important place of book production and the works of Blaeu and Janssonius, which often contained hundreds of copper engraved maps and views, were produced here.

During the Enlightenment, the popularity of books increased leading the printing houses to publish more works ingreater print runs. Again, more emphasis was placed on quality and decoration. This led to a flourishing of copper engraved illustrations. They were found both in literary and scientific works. A particularly beautiful example of a work on natural science is the richly illustrated, multi-volume Natural History by Buffon.

In the 19th Century, copper engraving as a means of book illustration came to be replaced by steel engraving, which made much higher print runs possible. As a result, the value of books from the 19th Century onwards is usually comparatively low.