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

Burchell's Travels

The explorer and naturalist William John Burchell (1781-1863) set off on a four-year exploration into the interior of southern Africa eight months after his arrival in Cape Town in late 1810. Burchell was particularly interested in botany, having worked as an apprentice at the Royal Gardens in Kew and also as the official botanist to the English East India Company in St Helena.

While carrying out his extensive fieldwork in southern Africa he collected some 63,000 biological specimens. He published a two-volume account of his exploration in 1822-4. Although the work covers only the first year or so of his journey - a projected third volume never materialised - Burchell’s Travels is considered one of the most important sources ever written on the region.

View of an African settlement with trees, foliage, huts and figures. Illustrated using the aquatint techniqueA view in the town of Litákun, illustrated using the aquatint techniqueThe hand-coloured plate on display, ‘A view in the town of Litákun’, was drawn on the spot by Burchell who had undertaken formal training in landscape drawing in his youth. An accomplished artist, he made some 500 field drawings during his journey into the interior of southern Africa.

Here the plate-maker has added some etched lines to the aquatint to delineate the trees, foliage, huts and figures. Burchell was also a keen ethnographer and the plate is accompanied by a detailed description of the town and its inhabitants.

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