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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration
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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Hand-coloured lithograph showing a camel being led, with a colourful adornment of carpets, shawls and ostrich feathers on its back, under which a bride is hiddenHand-coloured lithograph of a camel conveying a bride to her husband'A picture is worth a thousand words’ – this commonplace adage reflects a widespread appreciation of the value of the visual image as both an aid to understanding and a stimulus to emotional or aesthetic response.

That appreciation is reflected in the long and varied history of book illustration and in the constant striving by printers, illustrators and inventors to develop better ways of reproducing illustrations accurately and economically.

In the early 1450s the Mainz merchant Johann Gutenberg developed the means of printing text with movable metal type and although he himself did not print any illustrated books, his successors were not slow to see their potential attraction.

One third of all books printed before 1501 were illustrated in some way. In the 15th century the printed book was spurned by many wealthy collectors, who preferred to stock their libraries with illuminated manuscripts, each one painstakingly and individually illustrated. The early printers, keen to attract wealthy buyers, sought through illustration to emulate this tradition and some books, such as the Bible, were more commonly produced in illustrated editions than is the case today.

As more and more books were printed, techniques of book illustration evolved, reflecting the demand for more sophisticated and detailed images. The woodcut lost ground to the copperplate engraving and its derivative techniques, such as mezzotint and aquatint, and these in turn were gradually supplanted in the 19th century by the lithograph and by techniques reliant on photography. The 19th century revival of the wood engraving, however, shows that technical evolution need not always be irreversible; the age of mechanisation brought with it a hankering for the individuality of the hand craftsman.

All items in this exhibition are from the collections of the Foyle Special Collections Library, King’s College London; including the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) Historical Collection and the Rare Books Collection.

Exhibition curators: Stephanie Breen and Katie Sambrook

PLEASE NOTE: This exhibition originally ran from 22 January - 15 April 2014 in the Weston Room of the Maughan Library, King's College London and is now available to view as an online exhibition only.

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