The History of Book Illustration

This week Central Collections Manager, Rhian Isaac discusses The History of Book Illustration through our collections here in Central Library.

Illustrated texts pre-date the printed book by thousands of years but unfortunately much has been lost from early civilisations, such as Greece, China and Rome due to the fragility of the material. Ancient Egypt is the exception because of the durability of papyrus and the fact that material was carefully and deliberately buried has ensured some remarkable survivals.

20180212_162340Unfortunately we don’t have any original Ancient Egyptian texts but we do have a wonderful facsimile of The Book of the Dead. These were the earliest illustrated books created by the Egyptians and were intended to help the deceased in the afterlife. This book is enormous, so won’t feature in the exhibition but will be available for you to look through at our show and tell event.

Illuminated Manuscripts

Before the introduction of printing to Western Europe during the mid-15th century, all books were written by hand. The Latin for hand, ’manus’, and for writing, ’scriptum’, give us the word manuscript. Making a manuscript was slow and demanding and very expensive.
Leeds Library Missal_0056

The most luxurious manuscripts were illuminated. This refers to the use of bright colours and gold to embellish initial letters or to portray entire scenes. Sometimes the initials were purely decorative, but often they work with the text to mark important passages, or to enhance or comment on the meaning of the text.

We are very lucky to have a beautiful illustrated Book of Hours in our collection and we will have a single leaf from an illustrated manuscript on display so that you can see the beautifully intricate artwork involved.


Book illustration had to evolve once printing was introduced in the 15th century.

Woodcuts were used in most of the earliest illustrated printed books. It was very common for some copies of 15th century books to be coloured by hand to copy the pictures in hand drawn manuscripts.

You can see this in our copy of Gerard’s Herball.


Woodcuts and later wood engravings were made approximately the same height as type so that they could be combined and printed with it. For this reason woodblocks were commonly used for illustrated publications until the end of the C19th.

Generally with 15th and 16th century European woodcut printing, artists drew designs that were then cut by members of guilds. Hans Holbein and Albrecht Durer are examples of major woodcut designers. Albrecht Durer led the gradual shift towards woodcut images that relied more on monochrome hatching than hand colouring. The hatched lines could produce tone and texture and gave them an extra dimension.

Albrecht Durer was possibly one of the young artists employed as an illustrator for the


Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum), which has been described as a marvel of early book production and illustration. It contains over 1800 woodcut engravings and is recognised as one of the most lavishly illustrated books ever made. The later 1497 edition that we have in our collections is much smaller than the 1493 original and sadly does not have as many illustrations but it is still a wonderful piece

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