Some decorated book pages from the late 19th Century

William Blake

Unlike the example above, most book illustrations of the 19th Century, as of other times, are separate from the text - a vignette, or a header or tailpiece, or a discrete illustration for a story or poem. In Britain, Thomas Bewick revived the fairly moribund art of the woodblock with his beautiful small illustrations of birds and countryside in the late 18th century. Virtually all the Pre-Raphaelite illustration was of this type, and nearly all that in the illustrated books and magazines, from the Penny Magazine (started 1832), through the important illustrated works of the 1860s, to the proliferation of weeklies and monthlies in the 1880s-1900s, before they mostly fell away to scrappy wash drawings, or turned to photographs.

The separate and more rarefied tradition of integrating text and pictures to create a true decorated page starts with William Blake (see example above), living at the same time as Bewick, and inspired by medieval work. Technically more difficult, and needing much care, the decorated page tradition of Blake was always quite rare, achieving most prominence in the Private Press movement. However, many artists and many of the common magazines and periodicals had a go at the odd decorated page. Below are described eight such decorated pages by different artists, dating from the 1880s and 1890s, with one from 1901. I chose them as examples of what seems to me to be good but fairly typical work of the time, and as a sort of antidote to the separate-from-the-text illustrations cropping up all over the rest of this web site. As elsewhere on the site, click on the picture to see it enlarged, or on the artist's name to go to their short biography.

Walter Crane

The first two pictures are rather formal, as most familiar in William Morris's Kelmscott Press. I did not choose a Kelmscott Press example, rather looking for something a little less familiar. The picture above is by Walter Crane, and dates from the early 1880s, being the last of four pages in a monthly periodical.

This is typical Crane, with extreme care in composition. The page is divided into four bands, contrasting black and white, unified by the vertical designs. The white on black scenes keep a balance left to right while providing variation to the eye. The parade of classical girls is particularly harmonious - there are three groups, each of which could be a separate picture, with its own internal balance left to right, brought together by the outstretched arms and the boy with the pipes, and by the continuous line of heads and arms at the top and the feet, wheels and flowers at the bottom. The narrow frieze at the top is made up of three panels separated by the trees, this time narrowest to left and widest to right. Balance is kept by the extra leaves to left together with the warrior being equivalent in size to the whole chariot assembly to the right. Nothing is left to accident in this picture, though the whole looks free and uncontrived.

Henry Ryland

The second picture, dating from the later 1880s, is by Henry Ryland, primarily a watercolour painter but also an excellent artist in black and white. Here the pictures fit closely to the text, with the lovers apart above and together below. Unlike the Crane picture, strictly on one plane, Ryland's composition has depth and perspective, with a distant landscape above and paths through the trees below. The composition is in distinct panels - the separation of the girl and man on the top is emphasised by his horizontal space and her vertical one, with the tree to her right emphasising the break. Even at the bottom where the lovers are together, his hands scarcely overlap into the girl's space - she is in a square, he in a long panel. The whole page is drawn together by a diagonal line running top left to bottom right - from the girl at the top looking down through to her counterpart below, emphasised by her drapery and the masonry behind. Other lines follow the declination of the landscape left to right. The strongly drawn leaning tree to the bottom left is to strengthen an otherwise weak corner to the page.

Alice Havers

After those two formal pictures in line, something much simpler in wash - Alice Havers' rather sentimental decorated page. Four figures, large on the page, form a slightly curving band dividing the page, the strongest lines being that of the heads, and the boat, converging off the page to the right. Softer lines at right angles are formed by the limbs, body and wings of the boy, the reeds running through to the leaf decoration in the text, and the angel's arm, outstretched wing, and darkened title to the poem. Nicely informal.

Elihu Vedder

One more 1880s picture - the American Elihu Vedder, in an English magazine, in a lively style - ascerbic and harsh, with a simple composition, based on lines radiating out from the bottom towards the left - the skeleton's broom, the line of his drapes, the sword and the axe on the floor. Patches of black increase the diagonality of the picture. The text is on a signpost in the world of the skeleton, who is coming out from behind it, very different from the separate place of text and decoration in the previous pictures. There is depth to this picture, but a very shallow depth, bringing the viewer very close or almost in to the picture.

Our second group of decorated pages are chosen from the 1890s, bar one which just squeezes into the 20th Century (allowed, as we have now entered the 21st...), and all are in line, progressively more organic as we move from arts and crafts to art nouveau.

Robert Anning Bell

This decorated page by Robert Anning Bell is built round the figure of Orpheus, with the thorned stems of the wild rose looping back on themselves to draw the eye to the centre of the picture. The draped figure of Orpheus is typical of Anning Bell, the small angelic figures less so. Any of these figures could have been by Walter Crane, and note that, in Crane style, we are back on one plane again, despite the hint of distance behind Orpheus.

W. Graham Robertson

Now, above is a much more nouveau design. The wings of the seated sea-bottom angel divide the view of the city from the climbing girlish spirits that ascend up to the seascape at the top. The swirls of the girls' hair, the clouds in the sky, the drapes of the angel and above all the drooping leaves and flowers of the poppy to the right show the nouveau spirit near the turn of the century. The artist, W Graham Robertson, was much influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, but worked in a variety of styles.

Charles Ricketts

This penultimate page is by Ricketts, a decadent, Beardsleyesque picture of the bottom of the sea, depicting the mysterious and alien environment alluded to in the prose. The three mermaids - the sea nymphs - their elongated tails twined about each other, seem baneful indeed. Compare to the examples of the feminine in the pages above. The composition is dominated by the sweep of the pale trunk of some mighty kelp, and the other chief lines are either curved inwards, or, further behind, vertical, to suggest the depth of the picture. The white on black design, with strong contrast, is most striking.

Harold Nelson

This final page is by Harold Nelson, not such a familiar name as either painter or illustrator. He produced excellent work in black and white around the turn of the century and later, and this example comes from the Magazine of Art. Here, the artist has to cope with rather more text than in some of the decorated pages above, yet has managed to produce a complex space-filling design showing a dryad about to dip her toe into a pool. The leaves on the tree above recall William Morris designs, while the flowers and poolside are completely art nouveau. Looking at this figure and at the previous ones, it seems to me that many who like the one style will be drawn as well to the others.

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