Victorian Illustration

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 the illustrators 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.

This picture library includes the work of Myles Birket Foster (1825-1899), a highly successful watercolourist and also a skilled illustrator, famous for his depictions of country life. He was trained by the wood engraver and magazine proprietor Ebenezer Landells (1808-1860), one of the founders of ‘Punch’. Landells himself had been apprenticed to the great Thomas Bewick, and so it is fascinating to trace the links between the earlier art engravers and the later mass market craftsmen.

The images on this website have been carefully chosen from Victorian encyclopaedias, 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 and the extraordinary skills of the artists who helped to provide it. Humour and history, science and sport, fashion and fun – all this and more can be enjoyed through these wonderful Victorian illustrations.

A good number of our images have been chosen from ‘Illustrated London News’ volumes. These illustrations 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. Often large-size illustrations were divided into sections, each worked on by a different engraver. These component woodblocks were then combined and bolted together for the final printing. As a result you may find a slight misalignment, particularly in the sky areas of an image. However, we have repaired these imperfections as carefully as we can.