What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures?

Taking our cue from these wise words by Lewis Carroll’s Alice, we explore the work of exceptional European illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of the fascinating, fantastical illustrations by these artists can be seen in our upcoming StoryLTD auction of First Editions, Signed and Limited Edition Books.


The history and progression of illustrated stories is closely entwined with advancements in printing and publishing technologies. Early medieval illustrations, known as illuminations, were created and coloured individually by hand. With the advent of the printing press, etchings, woodcuts and woodblock prints the latter influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e art became the preferred style of illustration. The development and prevalence of book illustration in early Victorian England was believed to represent an important shift in publishing compared to the Romantic period.

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(L) Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830s, is a famous example of a Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (R) An illustration for Sindbad the Sailor, 1914 (Lot 60) by Edmund Dulac, who was influenced by Japanese art. Image courtesy of Saffronart.

Coloured images were produced by hand-colouring, which raised the cost of the book due to the efforts involved. Publishers often chose not to include coloured illustrations for this reason, or produced two versions of the book. However, innovations in the latter half of the 19th century, such as coloured lithography, colour printing from woodblocks, and “natural” printing – where objects such as leaves were pressed to create textured impressions – helped lower the costs and make coloured illustrations more popular.

The illustrated book has been defined as:

‘a partnership between author and artist to which the artist contributes something which is a pictorial comment on the author’s words or an interpretation of his meaning in another medium’… Often the artist was the first outside reader of the text and, in a sense, its first critic.

Seminal collaborations from the 19th century include Hablot Knight Browne’s illustrations for Charles Dickens’ novels between the 1830s and 1850s; John Tenniel’s imaginative visuals for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in the 1860s; and the artists and cartoonists of Punch magazine, including the Dalziel brothers, John Leech and Georges du Maurier.


Lot 71 is a set of two copies of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, illustrated by Arthur Rackham and W Heath Robinson, estimated at Rs 50,000 – 60,000 ($725 – 870). Robinson considered the book to be his greatest achievement. Image courtesy of Saffronart.


The turn of the 20th century saw a new generation of artist-illustrators whose work was informed by various influences, including popular illustrated and satirical literary magazines, poster art, advertising, and artistic styles from different countries and cultures. Important illustrators practising during this time include Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Warwick Goble and W Heath Robinson – all of whose works appear in our auction. Primarily trained as artists, they established themselves in the world of book illustration at a time when new aesthetics and printing technologies were proliferating, and left a lasting legacy which can be seen even today.


Lot 59 is a limited edition copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield published in 1929, illustrated and signed by Arthur Rackham. Estimate: Rs 1 – 1.2 lakhs ($1,450 – 1,740). Images courtesy of Saffronart.

The 20th century brought with it political tension and a war, and a desire to escape into worlds of colour and fantasy. Publishers obliged, releasing books with extravagant colour plates (utilising the new three-colour printing process), beautiful bindings and gilded covers, signatures of the illustrator, and so on. These lavish volumes, usually limited editions, were referred to as ‘gift books’ – often given as Christmas gifts – and were immensely sought after despite being expensive. Their popularity brought fame to the artists, whose work became important in its own right, and the books carried the illustrator’s name on the cover.

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Lot 57 is a first edition of Rip Van Winkle from 1905illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Estimate: Rs 40,000 – 50,000 ($580 – 725). Images courtesy of Saffronart.

Prolific British artist Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939) illustrated approximately 150 books and created thousands of illustrations and paintings. He took evening classes at the Lambeth School of Art for eight years while working as a clerk. Known for his robust, somewhat grotesque fantasy illustrations, he was inspired by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymus Bosch and Honoré Daumier. Though he illustrated several books before then, his breakthrough came in 1905, when 51 drawings created by him for Rip Van Winkle (Lot 57) were lauded, leading to many more commissions for both children’s books and adult themes, such as Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm (Lot 56), Undine (Lot 58), Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, The Vicar of Wakefield (Lot 59) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lot 71).

According to Rodney Engen,

The Rackham gift book set a trend among publishers. Each beautifully presented volume was issued for maximum sales. Published three months before Christmas and accompanied by an exhibition and sale of the original drawings at the Leicester Galleries, London, the formula sold in its thousands.

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An illustration by Arthur Rackham for Little Brother & Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm, 1917. Lot 56 is a first edition copy numbered 203 of 525 and signed by the artist. Estimate: Rs 1.1 – 1.3 lakhs ($1,595 – 1,885). Image courtesy of Saffronart.

Rackham’s aesthetic influenced many artists, and continues even today – filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, for instance, has referred to Rackham’s work as an inspiration for characters and landscapes in his films Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy.


Rackham was not the only artist bringing worlds from fantasy and imagination to eager readers. French artist Edmund Dulac (1882 – 1953), Danish artist Kay Nielsen (1886 – 1957), and Britain’s Warwick Goble (1862 – 1943) all contributed to revitalising such illustrations for gift books, and were regularly commissioned by publishing houses such as Hodder & Stoughton.

Edmund Dulac was born in Toulouse, France and became a naturalised British citizen in 1912. Initially trained as a lawyer, his artistic oeuvre included not only book illustrations but also newspaper caricatures, theatre costumes and sets, portraiture, and designs for banknotes and postage stamps, which dominated his later career. Dulac contributed art to books such as Jane Eyre, Sindbad the Sailor (Lot 60), Princess Badoura (Lot 61), the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Lot 62) and The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales (Lot 65). 


Lot 60, Sindbad the Sailor and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac and published in 1914, is estimated at Rs 90,000 – 1.2 lakhs ($1,305 – 1,740). Image courtesy of Saffronart.

Rackham’s junior by 15 years, Dulac was influenced by him, but both artists had different styles while Rackham’s illustrations were characterised by the line, Dulac preferred blending a wider palette of colours and drew upon themes and techniques from Asia and the Middle East. His illustrations were inspired by Japanese and Chinese art, as well as Persian and Indian miniatures. In books such as Sindbad and Badoura, for instance, he uses a faux-Arabic script for the title, ornamental floral and geometric borders, and arches and minarets that situate the stories contextually.

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Edmund Dulac was a French British magazine illustrator, book illustrator and stamp designer. He began his career in London illustrating the novels of the Brontë Sisters. ⁣ ⁣ Dulac's most famous works of art include beautiful illustrations for books like the Arabian Nights, Sleeping Beauty, Stories from Hans Christian Andersen and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. ⁣ ⁣ Our upcoming books auction features 4 books illustrated by Edmund Dulac. Come see these books at the Saffronart gallery in Mumbai ahead of our Auction on 25-26 June 2019⁣ ⁣ ⁣ #edmunddulac #edmunddulacillistration #illustration #arabiannights #sinbadthesailor #rubaiyatofomarkhayyam #rarebooks #bookauction #storyltd #mumbai

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Lot 74: First edition copy of Folk Tales of Bengal by Lal Behari Dey, illustrated by Warwick Goble, who became known for creating art for books with Asian themes, and was possibly inspired by Dulac. Above: A selection of illustrations by Edmund Dulac featuring in the auction. Images courtesy of Saffronart.

Copenhagen-born Kay Nielsen, who was educated in Paris and later lived in England for a few years, preferred subtler, warmer colours and androgynous figures characteristic of the Nordic aesthetic. He is best known for his illustrations for East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a collection of Norwegian folklore for children published in 1914 (Lot 68), which were reproduced through a four-colour process not commonly used at the time. His illustrations “collide[d] light and dark in sublime, often disquieting quantities, with patterns of feverish detail abutting vast stretches of negative space.” Nielsen later went on to work with Disney for a few years, creating conceptual art for films such as Fantasia (1940), among others.


Illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielsen for East of the Sun, West of the Moon, published in 1914 (Lot 68, first trade edition). Estimate: Rs 2.2 – 3 lakhs ($3,190 – 4,350). Images courtesy of Saffronart.

The preface of East of the Sun highlights the vital role of illustrators in making words come to life:

The quaintness, the tenderness, the grotesque yet realistic intermingling of actuality with supernaturalism, by which the original Norske Folkeeventyr are characterised, will make an appeal to all, as represented in the pictures of Kay Nielsen. And these imperishable traditions, whose bases are among the very roots of all antiquity, are here reincarnated in line and colour, to the delight of all who ever knew or now shall know them.


The auction of First Editions, Signed and Limited Edition Books will take place on StoryLTD.com on 25 – 26 June 2019. It is preceded by viewings at Saffronart’s Mumbai gallery from 18 – 26 June 2019 (excluding Sunday), where these books will be on display among other lots from the sale.


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