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Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke, eds. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room

Farnham, Ashgate, 2012. 224 p. ISBN: 9781409411659
Sophie Stokes-Aymès
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Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke, eds., Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012. 224 p. ISBN: 9781409411659

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1Victorian illustration is fertile ground for scholarly research and Reading Victorian Illustration is a rewarding addition to the corpus of previous contributions in the field of illustration studies. It was written and edited by an ‘international panel of distinguished art historians, literary critics, cultural historians and historians of the book’ (3). The nine chapters are not the follow-up to a conference but the outcome of ‘a community of interest and expertise’ (see acknowledgements) on the part of a network of connoisseurs, scholars, and curators specializing in Victorian studies, printmaking and British art. This makes for an ensemble which is both an interdisciplinary showcase—embracing a range of different methodologies and approaches—and a homogeneous collection of essays—most chapters being interrelated.

2The focus is on the ‘golden age’ of illustration in the Sixties but sometimes reaches beyond this time frame back to the 1840s and forward to the end of the century. The book dwells on four main aspects: historical style, production and technology, the relationships between text and design, and cultural context (5). It builds on previous scholarship—which the authors have contributed to establish—and opens up to the future of illustration studies. The chapters tackle various well-known subjects—some of them being now part of the mainstay of Victorian illustration studies—as well as topics which so far have been under-researched, providing responses to what Lorraine Janzen Kooistra calls ‘critical occlusion’ (98).

3The editors’ introduction contains key bibliographical landmarks and it shows how Victorian illustration was received, disseminated and reassessed by later generations of critics. It also describes the scope of the book as ‘unashamedly ambitious’ (3). Not only does it aim to question assumptions about such notions as ‘the heyday of wood-engraving’ but it also attempts to secure ‘recognition of “illustration studies” as a discipline in its own right, and not as a subject uneasily positioned in the hinterland between literary criticism, art history, book history, librarianship and cultural studies’ (7). Significantly, the current need to gain due recognition in academia is reflected in the effort to raise the status of illustration in the 1860s.

4This is more widely discussed in chapter 1 (‘Defining Illustration Studies: Towards a New Academic Discipline’). Paul Goldman takes stock of material and scientific hurdles, and charts the contours and requirements of the discipline, including the (ideal) conditions for defining a canon, building a bibliography and for including illustration studies in academic syllabi. He defines under-researched areas (such as archives, or the history of engraving workshops) and overlooked sources, and importantly stresses the need to be acquainted with printing techniques.

5In chapter 2 (‘Facsimile Versus White Line: An Anglo-German Disparity’), William Vaughan examines how the techniques of wood-engraving and woodcut were variously emulated (e. g. Adolph Menzel’s influence on Du Maurier and Charles Keene) or rejected in Britain and Germany (where facsimile engraving prevailed). Vaughan shows how cross-fertilization entailed reaction against competing aesthetic models in the context of changing technologies and the demise of wood-engraving as it was superseded by process.

6Simon Cooke tackles the popular genre of the Christmas gift-book in chapter 3 (‘A Bitter After-Taste: The Illustrated Gift Book of the 1860s’) and explores the underlying subversive critique of middle-class values and consumption, focusing on such themes as Christmas, Empire, the home and parenting, landscape and picturesqueness. He takes into account reader and critical response to what was judged to be incongruous and unsettling—how representations of poverty, death, or the rural poor undermined the ‘Christmas cheer’ (66)—and measures the degree of freedom artists such as George Pinwell, Arthur Boyd Houghton and Birket Foster were granted by publishers.

7The next chapter (‘Happy Endings: Death and Domesticity in Victorian Illustration’) deals with a prolific subgenre of illustration which has been overlooked: mid-Victorian death-bed scenes. Julia Thomas contends that these images, their drama and pictoriality, influenced textual scenes, photography and painting, and arguably death-bed practice. She discusses how Evangelical spirituality, changing practices and representations, private and public spheres (e.g. the Royal death of Prince Albert as domestic scene) were inscribed in these illustrations and how the afterlife of potent images (such as the death of Dickens’s Little Nell) was secured.

8The iconography of and changing attitudes to death are also tackled in chapter 5 (‘Science and Art: Vestiges of Corpses in Pre-Raphaelite Illustrations’) by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra who explores another under-researched topic: the relation between Pre-Raphaelite art and scientific discourses (namely geology and anatomy). She determines how ‘cultural tracers’ (an expression borrowed from James Secord) such as Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) influenced secular visions of the human body’s afterlife and the iconography of corpses. Perhaps the most stimulating aspect of the chapter is her discussion of how this imagery is ‘over-determined by technologies of reproduction’ (113) and her final extended metaphor: once the artist’s design has been interpreted by the engraver, there only remains a ‘vestige of the original’. This leads her to compare the Victorian woodblock to the ‘fossilized remains of an extinct ancestor’ (113).

9In chapter 6 (‘“Fleshing out” Time: Ford Madox Brown and the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery’) Laura MacCulloch also addresses the epistemological role of printing technology, this time in the field of historiography. Ford Madox Brown’s illustrations to the Bible Gallery are discussed against the background of the national passion for genealogy and history, biography and picturesque writing. She stresses the importance of the research carried out to provide local colour and historical accuracy (e.g. for costumes and decoration) and the influence of contemporary archaeological digs and exhibitions of Assyrian artifacts.

10Visions of history are explored further by Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge in chapter 7 (‘Making History: Text and Image in Harriet Martineau’s Historiettes’). Martineau’s highly popular historical anecdotes were published in Once a Week and centred on the private lives of individuals caught in dilemmas at crises of British history. Likewise John Everett Millais, who provided the illustrations, painted historical scenes depicting ordinary people. The characters ‘enmeshed in history’ (142) testify to a new sense of historicity, which is reinforced by the way meaning is elaborated in serialized publications. The authors show how the interaction of letterpress and illustration ‘theorize[s] history itself’ (142) as an inscrutable horizon since the reader only experiences ‘the reading of history in its unfolding’ (157).

11Chapter 8 (‘“Reading the Pictures, Visualizing the Text”: Illustrations in Dickens from Pickwick to the Household Edition, 1836 to 1870, Phiz to Fred Barnard’) returns to highly familiar ground. Contrary to what the slightly misleading title suggests, Philip V. Allingham mostly explores the famous case of Dickens’s publishing policy and relationships with his illustrators—John Leech rather than Phiz. The chapter is a useful reminder of working procedures in illustrated periodicals against the background of changing tastes and technologies. Critical approaches to the visualization of texts and the interaction of image and text are only briefly referred to. The last pages tackle more directly the dynamics of serialization, retrospective reading, and anticipation in David Copperfield, and focus on the work of the overlooked illustrator Fred Barnard.

12Chapters 1 and 9 frame the book. In the last chapter (‘“Spoils of the lumber-room”: Early Collectors of Wood-Engraved Illustrations from 1860s Periodicals’) Robert Meyrick discusses ‘the praxis and predilections of the collector’ (196), another understudied subject. He describes how in the 1890s the pioneer collector Forrest Reid—the author of the quote in the title—retrieved 1860s periodicals, removed and collected the illustrations they contained, and he moves on to show how much scholarship owes to the practice of collectors. This generation of critics and collectors (Gleeson White, Joseph Pennell, or Harold Hartley) played a decisive role in elevating ‘the ephemeral to the status of art’ (179) and creating a market. Meyrick gives an insight into a number of areas that call for further research: early collections and exhibitions, workshop practice, publication ventures, the re-issue of individual prints, or the ‘ethics of clipping’ (197) against the need to preserve the integrity of the illustrated book.

13All chapters deal in a more or less detailed way with the degrees of interaction between word and image, and stress the fact that the relationship is an unstable one, denying any straightforward interpretation. In chapter 3 Cooke underlines ambiguous or subversive textual and visual elements in Christmas books. In chapter 4, Thomas shows how narrativity is inscribed within sequential images and she detects paradoxes and conflicting representations and values that often tie in with the ‘gap between image and text’ (96). In chapter 7 Leighton and Surridge also tackle the ‘dynamics of serial reading’ (142, as defined by Linda Hughes and Michael Lund) and the ‘bitextual work’ (141; a term famously coined by Kooistra) elaborated by the interplay between seeing and reading. A reservation may be expressed however about the use of expressions such as ‘visual text’ (146) or ‘reading illustrations’ in some chapters (as ‘one would read the illustrations as one read the text’, 175), since illustrations are precisely not texts.

14Interpictoriality—the cross-references between illustrations or between illustrations and other visual media—is also taken into account by many contributors as a paradigm of Victorian illustration (81). Significantly the book has a constant preoccupation with how these pictures were made and the impact and constraints of printing technologies.

15It is therefore no wonder that the book is well illustrated, containing 42 reproductions that are usefully listed by chapter number. The dust jacket bears a handsome reproduction of George Pinwell’s ‘Shadow and Substance’ that encapsulates the pleasures of reading, seeing and reflecting on words and images. Writers on visual culture have to face the difficulties inherent in the reproduction and cost of images. Whenever illustrations are not provided, the authors have made for it by using ekphrases that usually work quite well.

16A full index and a detailed bibliography are also provided. Perhaps more editorial details could have been given for certain periodicals such as The Argosy, The Sunday at Home and The Sunday Magazine. Arguably certain references that are cited in the context of the history of reception and scholarship could have been placed among primary sources (e.g. the Times 1913 article ‘The British Museum: Additions to the Print Department’ or the 1907 article ‘English Illustration by Gleeson White’). Alternatively some titles listed in primary sources should be referenced in secondary sources (e.g. the 2011 Cambridge History of the Book, Francis Barrymore Smith’s 1973 Radical Artisan, Deborah Cherry’s and Ute Kuhlemann’s unpublished doctoral theses, or even Betty Elzea’s 2001 Catalogue raisonné of F. Sandys’s works). Within the various chapters, critical references are used in a clear and useful way, apart from one reference to ‘recent research’ missing on p. 174, and a couple of references lacking precision: ‘Robert Buchanan, online resource’ (61) and ‘Art Exhibition’ (192). One may also regret the absence of a webography as so many databases and resources on Victorian illustration are now available online.

17Students, scholars, amateurs and collectors will enjoy reading this stimulating book. They will be rewarded with a wealth of information and a variety of approaches. New or future contributors to the field of illustration studies will find in it a number of inspiring and original discussions and ideas.

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Sophie Stokes-Aymès, « Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke, eds. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2015, consulté le 24 janvier 2019. URL :

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Sophie Stokes-Aymès

University of Burgundy

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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