School of Art

Contact Details

School of Art
Aberystwyth University
Buarth Mawr
SY23 1NG

Tel: +44 (0)1970 622460

Fax: +44 (0)1970 622461


Illustrators of the 1860s

On 5th March 1924 Greenslade purchased, at Puttick and Simpson Auctioneers, Leicester Square, fifty boxes of wood-engraved illustrations from Victorian periodicals. The 4,957 prints, for which he paid £8-5-0, had been systematically removed from the leading illustrated magazines of the ‘Eighteen Sixties’. It is not known who originally amassed this impressive collection, or who carefully cut them out and hand printed on each the artist’s name, its title and source. We do know however that it was a popular pastime amongst Victorian women to save such prints. In his chapter ‘The New Appreciation and the New Collector’ in English Illustration — the Sixties 1855–70 published in 1897, Gleeson White described the exact same method of storage and display adopted by the original collector; to fill cloth-covered boxes with sheets of card attaching a print to each and ordering alphabetically by artist. On its arrival in Aberystwyth, the task of cataloguing the collection fell upon Mrs Dan Jones (d.1958) which, according to the Annual Reports, she undertook over the next two years.

During the first half of the nineteenth century social and technological developments saw the rapid expansion of the printing industry and the commercial book trade. This was complemented by an enormous demand for illustrated books and magazines. By the 1830s wood engraving, developed in Britain by Thomas Bewick in the 1790s, was firmly established as the cheapest and most successful means of printing an illustration alongside the text. The first magazine to make use of wood engraving as illustration was The Penny Magazine in 1832. Punch was established in 1841 and in the following year The Illustrated London News first appeared. Large workshops or ateliers were soon established for the production of magazine and book illustrations, most notably the firms of Dalziel, Linton and Swain. The demand for illustrators was initially met by anonymous artists, but the business was soon to attract already established painters, eager to have their work engraved and reach a wider audience. The most significant development in the illustrated magazine came in 1859 with the first of many weeklies that were to flourish during the 1860s. Once a Week produced by the proprietors of Punch contained an illustrated miscellany of literature, art, science and popular information. Followed in 1860 by rival magazines, Good Words and The Cornhill, all three led the way for successive magazines with their illustrations by prominent artists.

This prolific and important period in the history of British book illustration was in fact a genre or school of illustrators spanning 1855–1875 rather than the decade from which it takes its name. Since the majority of illustrations of the ‘sixties appeared in periodicals and not in books the Aberystwyth collection is representative of the illustrative output of the period; indeed some artists are represented by several hundred examples of their work. The majority of prints have been gleaned from the three market leaders, Once a Week, Cornhill and Good Words, whilst Argosy, Leisure Hour, Sunday at Home and The Quiver are amongst the many other lesser periodicals represented.

A large proportion of the collection comprises the work of the ‘Realist’ school of whom John Everett Millais was the most influential exponent. He is represented by hundreds of prints ranging from his powerful designs for The Parables of Our Lord (1862) and ‘The Bishop and the Knight’ (1861) to the sentimentality of ‘Polly’ (Good Words 1864) having forsaken the Pre-Raphaelite exactitude of his earlier work. Other realists include George Pinwell, Whistler, du Maurier, Fred Walker, William Small, Luke Fildes and Herkomer, the humourists John Leech, Charles Keene, Richard Doyle, Kenny Meadows and ‘Phiz’, and numerous examples by the many women who found an outlet for their work in the periodicals; Helen Allingham, Mary Ellen Edwards and Emily Osbourne among them. Perhaps the most impressive engravings however are those after designs by the Pre-Raphaelites and their successors — Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Frederick Sandys, Lord Leighton, Arthur Hughes, Walter Crane and Simeon Solomon.

Literature is represented in the collection by the illustrations to serialised novels of Eliot, Macaulay, Thackeray and Trollope which range from medieval pastiches of courtly love to more potent, melodramatic scenes illustrating the contemporary preoccupation with unrequited love, sickness and death. In addition to their art historical interest, these illustrations are important historical documents, providing an invaluable source of reference to the many facets of Victorian society, reflecting the tastes and aspirations of the new urban reader.

From 1936 the Museum was gradually wound down and many of the items were placed in store. After the war two-thirds went on display again but the rest lay forgotten. It was not until 1977 that the wood-engravings, perfectly wrapped and in pristine condition, were discovered in a disused lift-shaft opposite the former Museum in Old College. Since it is still possible to buy odd volumes of the periodicals for only a few pounds, the prints are of no great individual value. However, the fact that they have been mounted and catalogued must surely make them a unique collection. The British Museum has a collection of most of the proofs but the very accessibility and convenience of the Aberystwyth collection makes them invaluable for research without recourse to a multitude of bound volumes.

Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-engraved Illustrations