The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Book illustrations Part 1

Until recent times the chief methods of producing illustrations for printed books were woodcutting, metal engraving, etching, and lithography. But during the last five-and-twenty years the province of everyone of these arts has been invaded by photography; and the various processes by which illustrations in black-and-white and in colour are now produced are bewilderingly numerous. All these methods, whether handicraft or mechanical, may be divided into three groups distinguished by the nature of the surface of the block or plate from which the picture is printed. In the first of these the design is in relief, and, in printing, it is impressed into the paper. To this group belong woodcuts, wood engravings, and some of the modern mechanical processes such as zinc etchings and half-tone blocks. In the second group the lines composing the picture are sunk below the surface of the plate, and, in printing, the paper is pressed into these lines, so that the picture is in low relief upon the surface of the paper. By this, the intaglio method, are produced copper-plate and steel engravings, and certain of the photographic processes such as photogravure. The third group comprises pictures printed from flat surfaces, and includes lithographs and, again with the aid of photography, collotypes.

Although the printing of pictures from woodblocks preceded the invention of typography, the printer of books in movable type did not at first make use of the art of the engraver-or woodcutter, as the maker of early woodcuts should perhaps be called-to illustrate the printed book. In fact, in its beginnings, the printed book had more affinity with a manuscript than with either the woodcut picture or the block-book, and it was to the illuminator that the early printer naturally turned for the decoration and illustration of his productions.

It was not long, however, before the printer perceived that the woodcutter's art might, with advantage, be utilized for the adornment of his books; and that, not only for decoration in the shape of initial letters, borders, and other ornamental adjuncts, but also for pictures which would elucidate the text or add to the attractiveness of popular works. These woodcuts consisted of a flat block of wood upon which the design was drawn and the surface of the wood afterwards cut away so as to leave the lines of the drawing in relief. Occasionally soft metal was used in place of wood. The height of the block being adjusted to that of the type, the picture or ornament could be printed in one and the same operation as the page of text.

The first printer to make use of illustrations was Albrecht Pfister, of Bamberg, who about 1461-2 issued several popular German books containing woodcuts. But the history of illustrated books does not properly commence until some ten years later when pictures begin to make their appearance in books printed at Augsburg, where there existed a guild of craftsmen who cut blocks for printing playing-cards and pictures of saints, for both of which there was at that time a large demand. Ulm, another important centre of woodcutting, followed the lead of Augsburg, and the practice soon spread: Nuremberg, Cologne, Strassburg, and Mainz being among the chief German towns which produced illustrated books in the fifteenth century.