The Book Beautiful

23rd July 2015

The appeal of the picture-book is universal… When the expressive elements are perfectly fused with the decorative, then we get great illustration which may outlive all changes and fashions of taste.” - Malcolm Salaman, (The Studio, 1914)  


Willy Pogany's illustrated version of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner

 The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw enormous advances in printing technology. William Morris extolling the joy of beautiful books, a revival in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the emergence of Art Nouveau all inspired publishers, authors and artists to view book design in a new light and a flurry of beautifully designed, sumptuous illustrated books ensued.

Aubrey Beardsley is probably the best known book illustrator of the 1890’s, his art adorning both classic and contemporary literature. The gift books of the fin de siècle period were produced with elaborate gilding to the covers, fine quality paper and striking black and white illustration. 

Aubrey Beardsley's Morte D'Arthur in Chivers "vellucent" bindings

The turn of the century heralded a new phase in book production, with the introduction of the three colour printing process enabling colour illustration to be used more liberally.

In 1905 Arthur Rackham was invited to provide 51 watercolour paintings for reproduction in a lavish gift edition of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. The deluxe limited edition was printed on handmade paper, bound in full white vellum and signed by the artist. This book paved the way for an array of splendid gift books; publisher’s clamoured to commission the best known artists of the day and strove to discover talented new artists, each vying to top the Christmas best sellers list. The most popular artists included: Edmund DulacKay NielsenWilly PoganyRené Bull, Warwick Goble and Florence Harrison.

Arthur Rackham's Rip Van Winkle

For a decade opulent gift books became the quintessential Christmas gift. Literary favourites from authors such as Dickens, Sheridan and Shakespeare to Wagner’s Operas and the fairy stories of Grimm, Andersen, Carroll and Kingsley were all brought to life in a period of luxury book production that is unlikely ever to be equalled. 

Edmund Dulac's illustrations to The Sleeping Beauty and other Fairy Tales

The onset of the First World War led to a dramatic reduction in demand for luxury goods and although some beautiful books were published in the 1920’s and 1930’s the era of the illustrated gift book was never recaptured.

To read more about the artists and see examples of their greatest achievements our "Book Beautiful" catalogue provides a glimpse of the wonderful books produced during this “Golden Age of Book Illustration”.  The many colour plates serve to illustrate why these books now live for their own sakes as works of art.  We hope that you will enjoy becoming a custodian to some of these treasures or bestowing that gift upon a loved one.

The Book Beautiful

A pdf of the Book Beautiful Catalogue can be viewed here. 

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