King's College London
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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Beardsley and the line block

Illustrative line block title page of the Savoy magazine, by Aubrey Beardsley, showing two elegantly dressed women in the countrysideIllustrative line block title page of the Savoy magazine, by Aubrey BeardsleyThe invention of photography in the mid-19th century paved the way for a proliferation of technical innovations in the production of illustrations. One of these was the line block, sometimes known as the process block.

The artist’s drawing was photographed and a reverse photographic negative was contact-printed onto a photosensitised metal plate. Etching by acid was used to eat away the white areas of the design and the plate was then mounted on a wooden block, inked and printed.  Like a woodcut, a line block could be printed in the same press as a book’s text.

For the artist this technique brought considerable advantages, not least the fact that a drawing need not be of the same dimensions as the space it was destined to occupy on the printed page, but could be made of any size and later reduced or enlarged photographically. Metal being stronger than wood, the line block could also handle thin lines better, a capacity brilliantly exploited by the decadent genius of Aubrey Beardsley.

Beardsley (1872-98) sprang to notoriety in 1894 with his ornate, disturbing and sexually charged illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Heavily influenced by Japanese art and characterised by asymmetry, intricate detail, large areas of black and fine curving lines, Beardsley’s illustrations are instantly recognisable.

Much of his work was done for two magazines, The yellow book and The Savoy, which have come to symbolise the fin de siècle spirit of the ‘Naughty Nineties’, acting as vehicles for the publication not only of Beardsley’s illustrations but of writings by Max Beerbohm, John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, Richard Le Gallienne, Arthur Symons and WB Yeats.

On display is an issue of The Savoy, showing the illustrative title page designed by Beardsley (who has jokingly used the pseudonym ‘Florio Giuliani’).

We are thankful to Mr Brian Read, for the Literary Estate of Arthur Symons for granting permission to use this image.

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