I’m off to the Woodpeckings Conference at the British Museum in London later this week to give a paper. I’ll be talking about Victorian attitudes to illustrated books.
When Victorian readers encountered Romantic-period writings, they were not usually reading Romantic-period books. Instead, they mostly encountered Romantic writing in new editions, which supplied existing works with a new bibliographical format. Retro-fitting Romantic works with illustrations offered a way to naturalise them in the new media ecology and renovate them for a new generation of cultural consumers. Victorian commentators often identified illustrated books as a characteristically modern phenomenon. When the publisher Robert Cadell claimed in 1844 that his was ‘the age of graphically illustrated Books’, he reflected a widespread understanding among publishers and booksellers that the new popularity of book illustration had recently made illustrations a virtual necessity for commercial success. This paper will argue that many Victorians thought that the progress of book illustration was another manifestation of the generational shift that separated them from the Romantic period. They insisted not only that illustrated books were characteristic of the current moment, but also that their quality was one of the things that set that moment apart from the preceding age. I conclude that illustrations were often credited with the power to renew texts from the past and make them newly attractive in the present.
The conference has been organised by the Dalziel project at Sussex University