Our Victorian Picture Library

The Victorian age saw a huge growth in literacy, and the subsequent burgeoning of illustrated books and hundreds of magazines. Until the advent of photo-mechanical printing processes in the 1880s, the illustrations were drawn by highly gifted artist-craftsmen, engraving on wood or metal blocks. Deadlines were very often tight and they had to work fast, yet the overall quality of their work is outstanding.

Their work was immensely varied, ranging from humorous drawings and cartoons for magazines like ‘Punch’ and depictions of contemporary events in news magazines like ‘The Illustrated London News’ to the painstakingly accurate illustrations required for scientific, technical and educational works. They also provided charming illustrations for children’s books and annuals and family gift books.

The best of these Victorian illustrators had the supreme skill to copy paintings by eminent artists. These engravings might be used to embellish special editions and exhibition catalogues – for example, the Dalziel brothers worked with the painters Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais and Whistler. The Dalziel brothers were perhaps the most successful and eminent firm of engravers of the Victorian age. Active from 1840 to 1890, they contributed drawings and cartoons to magazines as well as working with authors and artists.

We have been running our small specialist picture library (www.victorianpicturelibrary.com) for several years now. Customers download high-resolution jpegs on a wide range of subjects. Here are just a few of the ‘Cs’: cafes, cookery, courting couples, circuses, Canada, cossacks, canoes, Chartist riots, children, coaching, criminals, canals, cheetahs, China, cockatoos, cricket, croquet, carpenters, cutlers, coal mines, cycling, chimney sweeps, charcoal burners, clerks, cobblers, corner shops, cottages, crofting, child labour – we’ve thousands, A to Z!

The images on our website have been carefully chosen from Victorian encyclopaedias, monthly news publications, art books, gift books, educational books, and magazines. They epitomise the vast range of subject matter demanded by a society hungry for education and entertainment, as well as the extraordinary skills of the artists who helped to provide it. Humour and history, politics, social history, science and sport, fashion and fun – all these and more are reflected in these high-quality  Victorian illustrations.

A good number of our images have been chosen from ‘Illustrated London News’ volumes. This influential publication appeared first in 1842, and was the world’s first illustrated news magazine. Its images were expertly drawn and engraved, mainly on wood but occasionally on steel, by Victorian artists at an astonishing speed. They were also printed at a furious rate to keep up with weekly or monthly publishing schedules. Overseas wars and political upheavals were covered in depth, with detailed illustrations showing the various armies, battles, and characters involved. Often large-size illustrations were divided into sections, each worked on by a different engraver to hasten the process. These component woodblocks were then combined and bolted together for the final printing. As a result we often find a slight misalignment, particularly in the sky areas of an image. However, we repair these imperfections as carefully as we can.

If you’ve ever scanned a Victorian line illustration you’ll probably have been very disappointed by the result. The white page margin around the image will show as a dull grey, and the illustration will be smothered in spots and dust marks – see the before and after examples here. Any print you make from this ‘raw’ original will be flat and uninspiring, and a world away from the Victorian original.

Many of the volumes we buy have seen better days. Spines are split, images badly foxed, and pages nibbled at by insects. We spend time digitally restoring each illustration, carefully removing the dust and marks of age, brightening highlight areas and adjusting shadow and contrast levels. Our finished images have all the crisp sharpness of the Victorian artist’s original.

About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends (www.friendsofcoleridge.com). My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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