Journal of Illustration Studies – Home page

December 2013 || 1_9200

Illustration Studies and the Infinite Archive

by David Skilton

Literary illustration is, it seems, more visible in many places than it used to be. Prizes for illustrators are multiplying, and Quentin Blake’s vision of a gallery devoted to illustration will be realized when the ‘House of Illustration’ opens its doors in London next year, behind the Eurostar terminal. Yet all is not well. When illustration features in the media, it is most frequently in the context of children’s literature, or an assumption is made that images exist principally to assist the verbally challenged, or simply as embellishment for marketing purposes. Meanwhile an older attitude persists which views images in books as separable from the texts – indeed as preferably separated from them – so that they can be appreciated, where their fine art qualities are sufficient, as independent works of art, albeit an art which, being often involved in the mass marketplace, features near the bottom of a traditional list of aesthetic prestige. This lack of prestige is also a matter of rarity and monetary value. As Sir John Harington remarks in the ‘Advertisement to the Reader’ in his 1591 translation of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, images cut in brass are better than those cut in cheaper substances, because ‘the more cost, the more worship’.

Looking at the gains Illustration Studies has made, the growing number of illustration databases is the most striking development, and that not just for the commercial picture researcher but for scholarly research too, since they enable researchers to view images from a large number of works which could not possibly be located on one library table at the same time, and which in all probability could not even have been identified from library catalogues. Of course databases are only as useful as the metadata provided for their users. Because of the financial clout of their employers, commercial researchers in advertising and public relations often find their convenience best served. They tend to be looking for images which will, almost transactionally, express or enhance a given message, and it may be that the exact provenance of the images they choose is comparatively unimportant, though ownership may be a prime concern. As far as scholarly work is concerned, on the other hand, a wider range of complete and reliable metadata is required. It may not be sufficient to know the book from which a certain image has been scanned, since it may be important that it first appeared in a periodical at an earlier date. It is always essential to know the dimensions, location and orientation of an image as it originally appeared, not for the sake of reproduction and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), but to enable the image to be investigated in the context in which it must (in most cases) be understood, even if it has been subject to re-interpretation in a later age. There are too many collections of images accompanied by woefully inadequate metadata.

The urge to put ever more numerous images online is admirable, but we need to insist more vocally on the provision of metadata suitable, if this can be achieved, for all classes of users. With the best of intentions, some libraries make freely available a large number of scans which they have made for students and teachers for learning and teaching purposes. The economy of effort often leads to economies of standards, as scans may be made from primary or secondary sources, first editions or reprints, indiscriminately. Following Google’s lead to the New York Public Library for reproductions of the illustrations to Oliver Twist will deliver brass rather than gold in the form of a number of Cruikshank’s images copied from a reprint, and misleadingly dated 1892. This date is ‘correct’ as far as the record of scanning is concerned, but quite wrong when it misinforms a school student about literary history. The British Library was guilty a few years ago of releasing a large number of photographic illustrations in digital form, but identified only by the call number of the volume they came from and the caption to the image. Full metadata has now been added, but, as with the case of the NYPL, the mistake indicates an all too familiar lack of planning where digitization is concerned, as though putting something online must always be a good thing. How welcome then is the promise by the Bibliothèque nationale de France that, having put a huge number of scans of prints by Gustave Doré online to coincide with the large Doré exhibition opening at the Musée d’Orsay in February 2014, it will proceed to add full metadata. Let us hope that no bureaucrat thinks it would be a saving to stop this happening – a misapprehension that would, of course, mean that the expenditure on the first part of the operation was largely wasted.

Defective information in print reproduction of earlier illustrations is also nearly universal except in works devoted explicitly to one or more of the arts of reproduction. Even great publishers, such as Yale University Press and Cambridge University Press, sometimes reproduce images with inadequate information about artist, engraver, date, their place of first publication, their exact locations in the work they are part of, and their dimensions and their orientation. This is a serious failing, but it is probably true that more images from illustrated works are now viewed digitally than in printed form. Our present situation is that a scholar researching a particular illustrated work is more likely than ever before to find the illustrations online. Nevertheless researchers into illustration as an important historical, commercial and signifying process will still find drawing their material together more problematic. Library catalogues will rarely help them, images will usually be divorced from their verbal contexts, will often be accompanied by inadequate bibliographical information, and will only in a few cases be iconographically tagged so as to make image searching a real possibility. Herein may lie the greatest danger to the development of the systematic study of illustration, not to mention a broader awareness of illustration in the community as a whole. More and more works, old and new, are being read in digital form. For economy, second-rate printings are frequently chosen for digitisation, and, whatever the edition, images are often omitted. Even the whole-page digital publication of a first-rate illustrated edition may be displayed online at a resolution suited to the print but not the images. J-STOR is working hard to overcome this problem, but it will be many years before high-resolution copies of images are universally a click away from the whole page, if they ever are.

Even more serious in the longer term will be the exclusion of illustrated and other bimedial works from information searches. There is every reason to believe that computer searching of multiple databases will become more and more significant in all areas of cultural, scientific and business activity. The possibility of the so-called ‘infinite archive’ is not mere fantasy, although all academics would be prepared to take a wager that some of their information will be excluded from it. Verbal searching is the norm, and is becoming increasingly powerful. Monoglot lexical searches or KeyWord In Context (KWIC) searches will soon look very primitive in the face of polyglot semantic searches, leaving image searching and bimedial searching way behind, and in practical terms almost unusable. So computer scientists must be persuaded that bimedial searching is crucial for the continuity of our civilization. Nobody will make a financial investment in Illustration Studies per se sufficient to meet our needs, but when the problems facing verbal–visual searches in all fields are recognized, Illustration Studies will be resourced on a par with any discipline. It may be that the need to carry out Big Data research on brain-scans will profit Illustration Studies more than any funding it receives directly. This is the time to make common cause with researchers across the whole disciplinary spectrum!

It is not universally agreed what Illustration Studies should study, but the term emerged to distinguish the study of illustrated literature in which word and image interact in some, complex way, from the more limited objectives of bibliographical description and aesthetic appreciation. In 2008 an international group of specialists in literary illustration met in Oxford, funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area). Unfortunately though they met with the intention of initiating Europe-wide collaboration in their area of research, funding abruptly ceased, and apart from personal networks, all they were left with was a draft definition of the subject-matter of Illustration Studies, which was not then published because it had not been adequately mulled over. But here it is, with all its imperfections: ‘Illustration Studies examines meaning-production by the interaction of words and images in the privileged environment known as “an illustrated work”’. The word ‘privileged’ was intentionally imprecise, and was selected to convey that illustrated works are open to many, expansive interpretations, and are not ‘particular’ in the sense of constituting a limited and limiting sub-set of literary works. Illustration Studies, or the study of illustration, will therefore, the HERA group thought, concern itself with the contribution to the meaning of specific works of the images they contain, and with the whole cultural practice of ‘illustration’, and its significance in the history of the book, in the publishing history of individual authors, and in the entire visual culture of any relevant period. Thus some students of ‘illustration’ may limit their objectives to examining Retzsch's illustrations to Goethe, Leighton’s to George Eliot, Doré’s to Dante, Rabelais, Milton and Coleridge, or Wilton Priestner’s 1985 illustrations to Voltaire’s Candide, in order to exclaim at their attractiveness or otherwise and their consonance with the visualization of particular readers – what used to be called their ‘fidelity’ or ‘accuracy’. Others may read individual works more closely, responding to the totality of their textual and visual qualities with the sophisticated attention which the best literary critics apply to verbal texts, including, not least, the effect of socio-economic and cultural contexts on the images accompanying them.

Some scholars will assess the role of illustration in a novelist’s rise to popularity or in a new periodical’s success. Still others may wish to account for the later transmission of the ‘image’ of a certain author or work, and marvel that Sherlock Holmes is best recognized by a deer-stalker, which was not mentioned in the original texts but added by Conan Doyle’s illustrator in the Strand Magazine, Sydney Paget. We may even one day be able to pronounce with something approaching authority on the complex matter of the contribution of literary illustration to the cinema, comic-strip and advertising – subjects on which many are willing to make large pronouncements but less able to provide supporting evidence for the processes whereby established arts actually help the creation of new ones. Perhaps for future generations it will be part of the standard account of the development of the modern novel to understand why novelists like Henry James and Virginia Woolf, who were such enthusiasts of ekphrasis, were so set against illustration. Are they to be classified with Ludvig Holberg, who is often, on scant evidence, said to have been simply iconophobic? Whatever we may learn in the future, it seems that we shall remain grossly ignorant about much of our literary and other culture if we do not get to grips with better ways of conserving, accessing, manipulating and not least analysing literary illustration.

It is the ambition of all well-intentioned critics to make meaningful links between theoretical formulations and empirical examples. Theorists wish to find instances which support their mental structures. (Some few are even scientific enough to test their theories against the least tractable of observed evidence.) Those who pile up small pellets of knowledge will sometimes mould them into higher architectural forms which claim adherence to some extrinsic rules of design. There must somewhere be a meeting between these two approaches. Consequently the editors of the Journal of Illustration Studies endeavour to publish studies which start from various positions and pursue diverse objectives, but always providing that the subject of study is ‘illustration’ or ‘illustrations’ as indicated above. The discipline is not yet at such an advanced stage of development that it can neglect the advantages of contrasting differing approaches (or ‘confronting’ them, as many other languages express it). The editors therefore do not publish articles principally in order to endorse and propagate their authors’ views, but in order to stimulate discussion, exploration, development and understanding.

With this in mind, it is a delight to open this issue with Professor Roy Eriksens’s analysis of the motivation and consequences in certain instances of not having illustrations with verbal texts. He proposes that in the early modern period an image could become ‘vividly present in [a] shared visual imagination and memory – a communal visual archive, as it were’, and that as such it would be ‘actually embedded in the text as a virtual illustration’. There then follow two contrasting treatments of Bli verden, a bimedial work by an avant-garde Norwegian artist-poet, Gunnar Wærness. Professor Jahn Thon works towards an analytical method which will account for the practical questions the work raises, while Professor Andreas Lombnæs applies more theoretical ideas; both, importantly, recognize the living links between baroque and avant-garde verbal–visual intertextuality. Finally, to indicate the scope and promise of Illustration Studies in Norway, as is appropriate on the occasion when the Agder University in Kristiansand is taking over the conduct of the Journal, we enter new territory with Dr Bjarne Markussen’s article on an illustrated translation of the work of the Sami poet-artist, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a study which is deeply rooted in historical and legal as well as aesthetic understanding.

Citing this article:
Skilton, David . “Illustration Studies and the Infinite Archive.” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2013). 18 Mar 2019. <>