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The Art Of Illustration

Tenniel Alice in Wonderland


Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”


A very good question indeed, Alice! Pictures have been made since cave paintings and papyrus scrolls, and they bring a whole new dimension to works of literature. Can they ever be a bad thing?

As when classic works of literature are turned into films, there’s nothing more grating than when the visual representation doesn’t match what readers had in their heads. Jim Kay has the formidable task of illustrating new large-scale editions of all seven Harry Potter books: “You don’t want to be known as the person who ruins the most popular children’s book in history.” In his words, it’s “like wearing nettle pants standing on a prickly mat”.



J.R. Skelton’s illustration of Grendel from Beowulf


How could an illustrator begin to depict the horrors and delights we envisage for monsters like Beowulf’s Grendel, beauties like Helen of Troy, the landscape of ‘Kubla Khan’ – or supernatural beings like God and Satan?

Some argue that illustrations actually curtail children’s imaginations, preventing them from conjuring pictures of their own. In a world saturated by visual stimuli and dazzling screens, this ability risks being lost altogether.

Words paint their own pictures as we read them, and in poetry, where the language is so rich, complex and nuanced, illustrations seem unnecessary. An extreme example is that of Imagist poetry, a movement spearheaded by Ezra Pound, which sought to capture the “luminous details” of things directly without superfluous words or ornament: “The image itself is the speech”.


‘Autumn’ by Amy Lowell

All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.


Any accompanying visual image would be “superfluous” to the concentrated purity of the poetry.

However, this assumes that the only purpose of illustration is to represent, offering a pictorial equivalent of the words. The best illustrators avoid such a reductive approach entirely. In the words of Emma Wright of The Emma Press:


When I started illustrating poems, back when I was working on Rachel Piercey’s pamphlet The Flower and the Plough, I felt very conscious about not illustrating the poems too literally. I was worried that I might inadvertently flatten the poems by pinning down the meaning to my own interpretations, so I tried to focus on the way each poem made me feel and try to capture that instead, in the hopes of creating something complimentary to the text.


The Flower and the Plough


Wright spells it out when she refers to “the way each poem made me feel”. What illustration can do so skilfully is create an immediate, unmediated, sensuous response in the viewer. As soon as the page is turned, we enter an atmosphere that gives our reading experience a particular context. Whether that is:



Book of Kells

The Book of Kells


Edward Lear

A Book of Nonsense, Edward Lear


Delacroix Faust

Eugène Delacroix illustration for Goethe’s Faust


Beardsley Cave of Spleen

Aubrey Beardsley illustration of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock


Rackham Midsummer

Arthur Rackham illustration of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream


David Jones Ancient Mariner

David Jones illustration of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner



Jessie M. King illustration of William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems


Or, in an example of Wright’s work, the “paradoxical paralysis” when trying to engage meaningfully with politics.


Emma Press Stop

Emma Wright illustration of Ellie Danak’s ‘Stop’ in Campaign in Poetry


In certain cases, text and image are inextricably married together, as in the artists’ books of my last post. We see it with Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, for example, or in Eastern ‘picture-scrolls’.


Ono no Komachi

Poet Ono no Komachi, 18th c. Japanese manuscript scroll


Blake Songs

Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake


Poet-artist William Blake also mastered this; several of his poems only exist in a visual context as part of illuminated prints. Reading the title Songs of Innocence and Experience on its own, one wouldn’t necessarily think of ‘experience’ in a negative light. For us today, to be ‘experienced’ is desirable, having knowledge of things, a learned wisdom. However, Blake illustrates his page with two cowering figures scantily clad in leaves and briers – clearly, this is Adam and Eve. We thus immediately pick up connotations of sin, the Fall from Grace, ‘experience’ as causing expulsion from Eden, and frame our responses to the poems accordingly.

Then there are the pictures that stand alone as beautiful artwork, celebrated as much if not more so than their literary antecedents.


The Lady of Shalott 1888 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

‘The Lady of Shalott’, John William Waterhouse

Inigo Jones

Inigo Jones designs for the masques of Ben Jonson

Cranach Adam and Eve

‘Adam and Eve’, Lucas Cranach

Chagall Song of Songs

‘Song of Songs IV’, Marc Chagall


(On that point: One of my favourite ever exhibitions was ‘The Age of Enchantment’ (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2007), one entirely devoted to the world of the illustrated book, featuring artists like Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, Jessie M. King, Harry Clarke and Annie French. Find the catalogue if you can!)


Age of Enchantment


There are also many wonderful examples of poetry/picture partnerships today. I remember the thrill of seeing an artistic response to my poem in an issue of Popshot – the illustrated magazine of new writing. Each image starts from the text, using it as a launch pad to shoot off and blaze in a striking universe of its own.




The Emma Press has a marvellous list of titles, the majority of which include an illustrative element. Most recent is what Wright claims to have been her hardest job yet: AWOL, a pamphlet by John Fuller and Andrew Wynn Owen comprising letter-poems written to each other on the subject of travel and illustrated with full-page drawings in watercolours and ink. It’s the first in a series of what she calls “adult picture books”, where eventually other artists will be brought in to collaborate with poets.


Emma Press AWOL


Illustrations, as their etymology denotes, add light – illuminating lurking nuances or flashing glimpses of rich other worlds into our minds. A good poem doesn’t need an accompanying picture, but, when done with sympathy and ingenuity, by golly they can shine.


Grand Medieval Bestiary

from The Grand Medieval Bestiary



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Image Credits:

Image: Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck’