What is the history of illustration in books and periodicals?

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For nearly seven centuries all artists in the Western hemisphere were employed to display the wealth and power of their patrons. In the nineteenth century, however, a change occurred and the publishing industry – replacing all traditional patrons – emerged as the chief employer of artists. The publications succeeded both church and court as the great showcase for artists, and illustration, a creation of the Industrial Revolution, became the significant avenue for the artist. (Susan Myer, "American Illustration")

If we discount cave painting illustrations of the experience and culture of early groups of people, then according to David H. Tucker writing for Encyclopædia Britannica, the first individual in Western Civilization who thought to incorporate the power of printing with the art of illustration was Herbert Ingram of London, who, in 1842, inaugurated a newspaper with woodcut illustrations (woodcut: a image cut into a block of soft wood, covered with wet ink, then imprinted on paper or fabric). Ingram's paper, Illustrated London News, was 16 pages of letterpress with 32 woodcuts illustrating the reported news stories (Tucker, "Illustrated Magazines"). Ingram's innovative idea of illustrating London's news spread internationally resulting in other illustrated newspapers:

  • England, English Illustrated Magazine (1883–1913)
  • France, L’Illustration (1843–1944)
  • Germany, Leipziger illustrierte Zeitung (1843) a
  • Germany, Die Woche (1899–1940)
  • United States, Leslie’s Weekly (1855–1922)
  • United States, Harper’s Weekly (1857)

At first, the woodcuts were the work of artists' representative imaginings of what was being illustrated, but eventually illustrators were sent to the field to make illustrations of events as they occurred, sometimes at great personal risk as when the South African War was illustrated by on-the-scene artists.

Early History of Illustration

According to the Encyclopedia of Art, the modern idea of illustration had its historical origins in "illumination," that illustrated the people and subjects of religious texts, that began in the 7th century: The art of illumination spanned five centuries from c. 600 to 1100 and occurred in churches from the Coptic church of North Africa to the Byzantine church of Byzantium to the Irish and Anglo-Saxon churches of Ireland and England. The art and practice of illustrating texts through the artistic style of illumination continued through the times of Charlemagne I (c.750-900), the Ottoman Empire (c.900-1050), Romanesque (c.1050-1200) and Gothic (c.1200-1450) periods and the Renaissance (c.1430-1580).

Beginning with Charlemagne, kings sponsored artists and commissioned their works, so the illustration of texts through illumination was the province of both kings and churches. The Renaissance in Germany led to the implementation of Gutenberg's 1450 invention of the printing press as the force that drove illustration from king's and churches' courts to the realm of popular entertainment in newspapers and periodicals. This concept can be exemplified by the work of German graphic artist and painter Albrecht Durer who famously illustrated Four Books on Human Proportions (1528) and Instructions on Measuring with Compass and Rule (1525) as well as other works. Other German illustrators of the Renaissance were:

  • Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)
  • Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545)
  • Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543)

Newspaper Illustration History

If Ingram can be said to be the first to incorporate printing and illustrating according to our modern idea of illustration, then it must be said that the way was paved for him by early newspapers and early book illustrators like: 

  • England: The Times, 1785
  • France: Journal de Paris, 1771
  • England: The Tatler, 1709
  • England: The Spectator, 1711
  • French Rococo illustrators: Francois Boucher, Jean-Honore Fragonard
  • English illustrators: William Hogarth, Henry Fuseli, William Blake (poet-illustrator), Thomas Bewick

By the time Ingram inaugurated Illustrated London News, a long partnership between printing and illustration--a partnership resulting from art breaking free from the province of kings and churches--had established a clear path and a firm foundation for the new ventures in the 1800s that made illustrated newspapers and periodicals the highlight of the era.

At the end of the nineteenth century and during the early decades of the twentieth, books and periodicals provided the major source of public entertainment. Consequently, the contributors appearing in those pages — the writers and illustrators – assumed an importance of unprecedented proportions. ... [It] is not easy for the contemporary reader to imagine the extent of the artist's influence on the public mind. (Susan Myer, "American Illustration")

American Periodical Illustration History

In 1820, the state of illustrated works--newspapers, books, periodicals--in America was comparable to that of England and European countries: There were some done but mostly low quality woodcuts. In the fifty years leading up to 1870--the period that saw the blossoming of illustrated works in England and Europe beginning with England's Ingram in 1842--the illustration industry underwent radical innovations due to technological developments that resulted in a vigorous supply of and demand for illustrations in all print media. Remembering that early illustrations were illuminations in religious books, in 1820 illustrations in books were limited to frontpieces and a few expensive illustrated "gift books," while by 1870 illustrated children's books, books on science and illustrated novels were to be found in abundance, with illustration being almost a requirement for publication.

As was the case with England's The Spectator, in America weekly and monthly periodical magazines became a dominant print form. In fact, as Susan Myer says in "American Illustration," periodicals, along with books, became the dominant form of entertainment in America as they did in England and Europe [see quote above]. Significant American periodicals of the 19th century (1800s) were Harper's New Monthly Magazine, founded 1850 (after 1899, simply Harper's), still in print and online; Ladies' Home Journal, founded 1883 and instrumental in persuading president Lincoln to found a national day of thanksgiving for the preservation of the Union and of freedom and equality and still in print and online; Appleton's Journal, a monthly literary magazine, founded 1869 (Appleton's Magazine after 1881), ceased publication in 1909.

Popular periodicals, with circulation runs of 200,000 or more, often offered illustrated travel articles that were of special interest to Americans who had never traveled away from their hometowns. Illustrators--like the early illustrator Hogarth in England, and Howard Pyle, Newell Convers Wyeth (Pyle's most brilliant student) and Harry Fenn in America--developed a thriving popularity and fame of their own, often adding easel painting to their illustrating work. For example, from 1903 onward for thirty years, Wyeth illustrated more than 4,000 periodicals, books, children's books, calendars, advertisements and posters until retiring to focus on his now famous landscape painting.

American Newspaper Illustration History

While American newspaper illustrations may have begun, as Ingram's did in England, as woodcut prints derived from the artist's imagination, pictorial journalism--or journalism illustrated by artist's renderings--began to thrive under the social and cultural pressures of the American Civil War, which people wanted detailed accounts of since a civil war involves fellow citizens rather foreign nations. As a result, newspapers included on-the-scene illustrations of war battles; by this time, illustrations included artists' renderings plus early photographic images. Certain Civil War illustrations were so extensively circulated that every American was exposed to them. An example is the illustrated images (mostly early forms of photography) of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, which were circulated in 1865. Illustrations accompanying American news reports allowed people to be apprised of national disasters and current events, of technical, engineering and architectural feats of accomplishment.

History of American Illustration Techniques


Beginning in the 15th century, around 1430, intaglio image printing (the opposite of relief printing) was in steady use even up into the 1800s. Invented in Germany in 1430, intaglio is a printing method whereby illustrations are made by etching or engraving a design, a scene, a portrait or other image on metal that is then overspread with ink. The ink slides off the flat areas and collects in the etched or engraved lines and spaces. This metal plate produces an image on paper (or fabric) when impressed upon it.

Intaglio has limited use since it cannot work in conjunction with letterpress printing methods, as are used for printing books, newspapers and periodicals, thus intaglio cannot be used for illustrating these letterpress print media. Intaglio was often used for specialty books that were impressed and assembled page by page; these books were sold as "gift books" and sometimes required special paper. The "gift book" or "souvenir book" was costly and produced in small production runs.

In 1830, Godey's Lady's Book developed an innovative way to incorporate intaglio metal-plate print pages into the magazine to show lady's fashion through what was called "embellishment" pages (not illustrated pages). Other magazines, like Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and Graham's Magazine, picked up this innovative new way to use intaglio within magazine text. It was said by historian Frank Luther Mott that, ironically, the embellishments did not illustrate the text of the magazine but rather the text illustrated the images presented in the intaglio printed pages.


While intaglio was still in steady use, Englishman Thomas Bewick developed a relief printing method using endgrain Turkish boxwood blocks. The relief method was extremely well suited to incorporation on letterpress pages and thus opened the was for illustrations of newspapers, periodicals and books. The endgrain of a block of boxwood is polished and engraved with a design that can accommodate intricate detail. The surface is inked while the engraved lines are free of ink. The inked surface is then impressed as part of the letterpress process since they can be set directly alongside letterpress typeface. Benwick's most famous woodcut-letterpress publication was the 1790 A General History of Quadrupeds.

American Alexander Anderson, of New York, borrowed Benwick's innovative woodcut process and reproduced an American edition of Benwick's Quadrupeds in 1804, fourteen years after Benwick's original first edition. By the 1840s, American publishers had accepted Anderson's introduction of Benwick's technology. The publishers Harper & Brothers made a great success of it in their new periodical Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1850, and in the earlier Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible, 1846.

Woodcut and the Rise of American Monthly Periodicals

Harper's successes led to the rise of monthly illustrated magazine industry in America. Circulations of newly launched woodcut illustrated monthlies rose dramatically from initial numbers of readers in the thousands to growing numbers of readers in the hundreds of thousands over just two to three year time spans. "Americanization" of illustrated monthlies--to distinguish American periodicals from their English predecessors--was helped along by the travel articles of David Hunter Strother, alias Porte Crayon, who wrote humorously about locations in Virginia for various kinds of sporting and hunting.

Woodcut and the Rise of American Weekly Newspapers

When Englishman Herbert Ingram began the woodcut-illustrated London news weekly Illustrated London News, he had working for him in the engraving department a young man by the name of Frank Leslie (born Henry Carter) who later moved to New York and did for American journalism what Ingram had done for English journalism.

Frank Leslie founded a New York illustrated weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, in 1855, and, though it was not the first American illustrated weekly, it was the most innovative. Leslie developed a way by which large woodcuts could be incorporated with typeface in the leetterpress process by means of bolting small woodcut blocks together to form large blocks (they were composed of multiple small blocks). The artist then drew his illustration on the bolted large block, which was then disassembled and each small block (with a portion of the illustration drawn on it) was given to an engraver on a team of engravers. The large block was reassembled for printing when the component engravings were finished and collected.

This method increased speed of production while simultaneously increasing size and quality of illustration. In response to Leslie's successful illustrated weekly, Harper & Brothers quickly launched their own weekly, Harper's Weekly. Harper's Weekly, with a previously established base of readers because of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, came to dominate the weekly market and to introduce later famous American illustrators, such as Winslow Homer and caricaturist Thomas Nast. As on-the-scene illustrations of events became the rule rather than the exception, during the American Civil War Harper's Weekly had up to a dozen illustrators in the field working as war artists, among whom was Homer Winslow, famous for his later illustrations and landscape paintings.


Susan E. Myer. "American Illustration: A Brief History." Housatonic Museum of Art, Housatonic Community College.

Kevin E. O'Donnell. "Book and Periodical Illustration." American History Through Literature. Ed. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, 2006.

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The history of illustration in books is quit different as far as time and initiative from that of illustration in periodicals such as magazines. 

Illustrations in books date back to the 15th century with "block books". This was the available method shortly after the creation of the printing press wood cuts. The method was to cut both text with its corresponding illustration onto the same block so they would print out together. 

The woodcuts of the 15th century were updated to copperplates that would be engraved during the 16th century, and then etched on during the 17th century. Engraving wood became a popular medium for illustration throughout the 18thc thanks to Bewick, and shortly after illustration became revolutionized with the invention of the lithograph by Johann Alois Senefelder. The ease of production that the lithograph brought to publishing made it way easier for illustrations to become a part of literature in books. Later on, polychrome and photography took the place of illustrations, Kodak being one of the pioneers. However, the Victorian era is the quintessential example of the return to illustration, even with the technology available for photography. Worth noting are the book covers of Oscar Wilde plays and poems by Aubrey Beardsley, the designs by the Victorian ultimate himself, William Morris, Normal Rockwell, Picasso, Pyle, and Duhrer to mention just a few.

Periodicals such as magazines and journals took the illustration idea from 19th century media. Pamphlets, handouts, and other non-periodicals would be used to advertisement, sometimes even libel (in the modern sense of the word), and other forms of information. It was Herbert Ingram's Illustrated London News, whose first publication featured 16 stories, 32 woodcut illustrations, and the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury among other accolades. Later on, France and Germany got a heads up and began to publish their own illustrated news, which caught up quite well in magazines such as the Gazette, Scots Observer, Punch (perhaps the most popular illustrated periodical of its time), Telegraph and, of course, the Yellow Book

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