Can you picture it?

Peter Batten celebrates the art of the illustrated book…

A few days ago a parcel arrived for me, which I was eager to open. My interest had several elements. First, the book in the parcel was an interesting document from the history of the United States. Toward the end of the 1960s I was a part-time post-grad student of American Studies at the University of Sussex. At that time the Professor and Head of Department was Marcus Cunliffe, a very inspiring leader. Some readers may remember his wife Mitzi, a sculptor. Marcus had written a fine introduction to the book in my parcel, which I wanted to read. Second, the book was illustrated with wood engravings and published by the Folio Society. I collect illustrated books, so this would be an interesting addition to my library. Although I collect them, I am by no means an expert on the history of illustrated books. I do know that there was a tremendous flowering of such books in the Victorian era, and that is where my interest begins. A gifted illustrator can create a whole world of characters for a novel and his drawings will be recalled in the minds of readers long after the book has been put aside. One of the first publishers to realise this was the novelist Charles Dickens. If you have read any of his books you will probably have seen the work of the talented illustrators that he used to give his characters extra life and fascination. In this country the great age of illustration probably extended from the middle of the 19th century until about 1930. During its busiest years expensive deluxe editions of classic novels, plays and fairy tales were produced by illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. Today they sell for hundreds of pounds.

lear 001
Illustration and verse by Edward Lear from
‘Edward Lear’s Complete Nonsense’
published by the Folio Society

There was an Old Person from Hove,
Who frequented the depths of a grove;
Where he studied his books, with the wrens and the rooks,
That tranquil Old Person of Hove.

My own collection is more modest. For example I have collected three illustrated editions of Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. They are not particularly valuable, but I enjoy the work of the illustrators, especially the drawings by the great artist and writer, Mervyn Peake. The latest edition, published by the Folio Society, is by one of our busiest contemporary illustrators, Quentin Blake. At this point I should commend the Folio Society for keeping the art of illustration alive. Although I do not always agree with its choices or marketing methods, the Society does encourage some wonderful artists.

Where is all this leading? To Brighton, you may be surprised to learn. One of our finest contemporary illustrators is an artist called John Vernon Lord. John taught for many years at the University of Brighton and I believe he may still live here. Sadly I do not own a copy of his superb edition of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, but I treasure my copy of another amazing volume, ‘The Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear’. Earlier this year he completed a major project for the Folio Society, an illustrated edition of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ by James Joyce. This is a superb achievement, but I believe it retails at £90. If you would like to own a more modest example of John’s work, but equally fine, you could purchase one of his books for children, ‘The Giant Jam Sandwich’. You will not be disappointed.

If you share Peter’s hobby of collecting illustrated books, he would love to hear from you, write to


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