Illustrated Children’s Books

Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Johnann Comenii (or Comenius) is recognised as being, arguably, the first book to be illustrated specifically for children. Crude woodcuts are used to illustrate the text but in a format that is still used today. This is purely an instructive book, and books for children would remain so, for many years. Orbis remained in publication for a century: this gives an indication of its popularity, longevity and also lack of alternative imaginative texts. Chapbooks were the most common form of illustrated texts for many years and it wasn’t really until books became cheaper to produce and greater emphasis was placed on education, that children’s books became a key part of the book trade.

Victorian works dwelt heavily on having a moral and educational purpose. The illustrations may represent an event in the text but were quite often “borrowed” images from other titles. Little Mary’s Reading Book (1845) has chapters set out as lessons and the images were adult in style and almost added as an afterthought.  It was priced at sixpence being a cheaply produced product and, importantly, it was part of a series to encourage further sales. The plain cover and lengthy title of The Costume, Manners and Peculiarities of Different Inhabitants of the Globe calculated to instruct and amuse The Little Folks of All Countries (1849) does not readily sell the book but the colourful illustrations and their relevance complement the accompanying text. It is educational but there is an attempt at fun, in the text.

Little Charlotte’s House in Burmah (1868) published in a full cloth binding with a decorative front board,  was still educational  in purpose but the subject matter of a young girl being taken to live in India was designed to be both exotic and appeal to the more educated classes. A full colour frontispiece with black and white images within the text, mirrored the format of adult books.  The Painted Picture Play Book (1858) served a very different purpose. Published by Dean & Son, who had recognised the potential of the children’s book market, it was designed as a lavish production, full of images and little text. The text was still educational and often judgemental, but the selling point was the images. The illustrations are uncredited and taken from a variety of sources. Struwwelpeter was a whole different text. First published in  1845, and in English in 1848, it used the dramatic, violent illustrations to emphasise and enhance the morals within the text.

By the end of the 19th century, the educational and moral titles were still in abundance but alongside them there were more colourful and less didactic publications. The three main authors and illustrators of this more enlightened period were Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. All three were extremely popular and their books sold well. Illustration was to the fore and made to appeal to both children and adults. Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway’s characters were generally gentle and idealistic in style whereas Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations were humorous in style.

The beginning of the twentieth century is often considered to be the golden age of book illustration, often in a range of formats (and prices). As well as the standard release, there would be large formats, extra illustrations, signed and limited print runs. However, the illustrator was often the most marketable aspect.  Shown below are two such lavish productions: The Sleeping Beauty and other Fairy Tales, illustrated by Edmund Dulac (1910) and Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (1910). Both are large format, de luxe limited editions, with Sleeping Beauty signed by Edmund Dulac. Sleeping Beauty has a full leather binding with fine gilt detailing to the covers and thirty tipped-in colour plates. Meanwhile, Green Willow has full vellum binding with gilt design to front and forty tipped in plates.

Two interesting French picture books: Bébé Sera Soldat by Paul de Sémant published before the First World War in 1907 and Le Paradis Tricolore by L’Oncle Hansi published in 1918. The first title presents army life in an exciting way and as an ideal for most boys to aspire to. The second title is more of a propaganda piece and celebrates the return of Alsace back to France, with some jolly cartoon-style soldiers. In a way, this work is slightly misleading when taken at face value, as Hansi (Jean-Jacques Waltz) was a militant writer who used his works to poke fun and generally irritate the German authorities, especially relating to the Alsace.

After the war, book styles changed again. Whilst large format publications were still produced, publishers were generally more conscious of costs. Mr Skiddleywinks (1927) is a good example: large format  well, and humorously  illustrated by Harry Neilson  but no colour plates. An interesting comparison can be made with the published Dean & Sons. Mentioned earlier, was the relatively lavish Painted Picture Book (1858), shown below is a Dean publication from 1919: Big Bear Stories. A small, pocket book, cheaply produced with colour illustrations and minimal text. The format keeps the production price down and being one of a series, points the parent’s to other titles: a sensible and common tool of marketing.  Relevant pen and ink illustrations within the text , have always been a staple of children’s books. Once on a Time by A. A. Milne (2nd edition 1925) is illustrated  by the highly respected Charles Robinson with neat, expressive images but are a long way from the lavish work he did prior to the war.

Denys Watkins-Pitchford was both a writer for adults and children. Whilst he was writing and illustrating prior to the Second World War, the main body of his work is post-war.  Many of his illustrations are scraperboard in style and, as such are bold, dramatic and instantly recognisable as his work.  Edward Ardizonne is similar in that his style is instantly recognisable. His illustrations have a warmth and gentleness to them: they don’t instil fear when compared to Victorian illustration, despite the subject matter of some of the books.  

Other titles relating to Children’s Books and their Illustrators are available. Please email for details of books which are in stock: