Journal of Illustration Studies – Home page

December 2007 || Editorial


The Journal of Illustration Studies (JOIS) has been founded in an attempt to establish the systematic study of literary illustration as a discipline in its own right, having its own subject-matter and its own critical and scholarly methods. The underlying principle is that illustration consists of text and image in privileged relationship with each other, and that although it has been a frequent practice to discuss text and image separately, an illustrated text is a bimedial work of art, and a full account of the meanings it produces can only arise from the reading of text and image together in the richness of their bitextual relationships (to use Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s useful term). To achieve the aim of bimedial reading, a generously illustrated journal is required. It therefore appears in electronic form so that images can be reproduced easily. Electronic publication has the added advantage of economy. There are many people working in one way or another on literary illustration, but they are not quantifiable, and therefore no very substantial financial investment was possible for the new journal, which could not be made to appeal to a commercial publisher in the absence of a recognised constituency of subscribers. This journal aims to create such a constituency, and is run from the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research at Cardiff University, thanks to a generous subvention from the Cardiff School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

Illustration has long been an important cultural practice, which can be studied as an aspect of cultural history, art history, biography, history of the book, bibliography or bibliophily. All such work is valuable; but the distinctive characteristic of the new discipline of illustration studies will be the analysis of meanings produced by the reading of texts and images together, in complex interaction, with the analysis enriched and informed by the resources of traditional scholarship. If this seems an ambitious project, it is also a necessary one. Many branches of the humanities have been enlivened and made more rigorous in recent decades by the concentrated theoretical attention which has been paid to their premises and procedures. So far there have been few attempts to advance our thinking on literary illustration in general, and even the most basic assumptions and materials of illustration studies remain largely unexamined. For example, there is no consensus on what ‘an illustration’ is, or – far more problematic – what it might mean to say that an illustration ‘illustrates’ a text. Is this a one-way process, whereby an illustration is derived from certain ingredients of a text, which it leaves unchanged? If that is so, we should have to determine whether to exclude ‘Phiz’s’ images to David Copperfield from the class of illustrations, on the grounds that they are practically the only occasions in the novel as first published in which a view is given of David himself from outside, the verbal narrative being, as traditional criticism says, ‘in the first person’. If we exclude difficult cases, it is hard to see where this process will stop. The famous black page in Tristram Shandy, expressive, we are told, of extreme of grief at the death of Yorick, can easily be interpreted as an ‘illustration’. So too can the marbled page, presenting the variety experienced in human existence, even though in the original published form each marbled page is distinct, marbling being a method of producing exactly the random patterning which the narrator wishes to express. In this case it is not the exact form of the image (or pattern) which is significant, but its very randomness, which satisfactorily ‘illustrates’ the narrator’s point.
Marbled page in Tristram Shandy
Reprints fail entirely to replicate the effect of this ‘illustration’. The equally celebrated blank page is provided, the narrator claims, because each (male) reader must imagine the Widow Wadman as the most ‘concupiscible’ woman possible, and since every man’s idea will be different, space (or time) is provided for the reader’s own imagining or imaging. The blank page cannot be ‘an illustration’ in the way that Hogarth’s depiction of Uncle Toby on the Bowling Green is ‘an illustration’. On the other hand it might be construed as an illustration of the proposition that it is impossible to provide a single description which will, for all readers, represent the ultimately desirable woman – an illustration, one might suggest, of the rhetorical figure impossibilia, which is commonly announced by the formula, ‘words cannot describe’. The blank page will then not be the description, but will convey or reinforce the proposition that such a description cannot be provided. As usual, when the words ‘words cannot describe’ are used, the author goes on to convey, by other means, the meaning which ostensibly cannot be conveyed. The blank page therefore assists one rhetorical strategy among many in the novel.

It might be objected that these are extreme cases; but if they are to be discounted, so too must be many of Thackeray’s vignettes, such as that to Chapter 24 of Pendennis, which is a quotation rather than a depiction of Othello’s smothering of Desdemona, to highlight the theme of jealousy. This image does not directly present anything from the action of the chapter, but works at the level of trope, as opposed to diegesis. We clearly need terminology to designate different modes of interaction between image and text. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and would include cases where an image seemed to interact with one particular phrase in a text, in contrast to others, where a single phrase from the text is the caption to an image, but the meaning of the image and text can only be considered by reference to a far larger segment of text, perhaps several chapters long. To take an example from the present issue of JOIS, Millais’s wood-engraving, ‘Bread sauce is so ticklish’, from Trollope’s Orley Farm, which Skilton mentions in his paper, is not ‘about’ bread sauce, but about the slowly developing relations between a young man who is confined to his room after a hunting accident, and the daughter of his host, or, indeed, if the full complexity of Trollope’s narrative is to be taken into account, the host’s whole family and household.

Examples like this suggest that analysis of illustration must look for a possible trio of things in each case of ’illustration’: image, text, and caption. In many cases there is no caption. In others the caption relates closely to the segment of text to which the image seems principally to relate. Perhaps the genre of ‘problem picture’ (as Skilton argues) arises from the complex relations of ‘illustration’, with the text omitted, the omission thereby producing the ‘problem’, which arises from the fact that the Victorian public was trained to look for all three factors and their interrelation.

Given that an image may, or even must, relate to other images, and texts to other texts, while text and image have been brought by the practice of illustration into privileged interrelation to each other, and given that diegesis, extra-diegesis, imagery, trope, and so on – indeed all the factors discussed in texts by literary criticism – can be identified in both verbal text and image, it may be as well to regard both the verbal and visual aspects of illustration as ‘texts’ in their own right, and to draw on the considerable experience of intertextual analysis and description which has been built up in literary criticsm, in order to tease out their combined meanings. In the present issue, which stands in part as the editors’ prospectus for the new journal, Spinozzi makes a case for developing new theoretical approaches to give more adequate accounts of illustration, while Thomas shows that new research tools and approaches are required to enable us meaningfully to ask the new questions which the new discipline demands, particularly in relation to what she names the 'interpictorial' relation between images. Meanwhile Skilton’s paper is intended to focus attention on the analysis of particular cases in their multiple contexts, in order to establish the centrality of illustration in the creation and transmission of meanings in Victorian visual culture.

JOIS would not be doing its duty if it ignored other aspects of illustration studies, and it intends to inform its readers in areas where, its editors’ experience suggests, information is not always easily come by. As well as normal academic articles of some five or six thousand words, which will be refereed, the editors will print factual ‘reports’, normally shorter, which, rather than presenting an argument, put forward information of value to researchers in illustration. These will not be refereed. These factual ‘reports’ will treat of such topics as relevant collections of illustrations and documents, attributions, correspondence, and so on. (We have borrowed the term ‘report’ from our sister journal from the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research at Cardiff, Romantic Textualities.) The current issue therefore includes a report on the Hartley Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Future issues will carry reports on the Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration at Cardiff University, the Frederick Warne Archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Forrest Reid Collection at the Ashmolean Museum, and the collection of wood-engraved illustrations at the Department of Fine Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The initial focus in JOIS on Victorian illustration in general, and wood-engraving in particular, arises from the recent research interests of the editors. The Journal of Illustration Studies, however, will welcome contributions on literary illustration from many periods and cultural traditions, providing always that the submitted work can be understood by readers grounded principally in European and North American cultural traditions, the editors meanwhile taking a broad view of what constitutes ‘literature’. We hope that the journal will operate at the intersection of cultural history, fine art history, and literary history, and of literary criticism and aesthetics, the history of the book, bibliography, and comparative literary and cultural studies, in order to gain recognition for the new discipline of Illustration Studies.




Citing this article:
“Editorial.” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2007). 24 Apr 2017. <>