November 30, 2011, by C Fawcett

Book illustrations in Briggs and Porter Collections

Recent increasing use of our rare book collections has highlighted their potential for the study of book illustration. The collections offer a wide variety of illustration, from early woodcuts and engravings, to chromo-lithographs and photographs. Illustrative material is not always identified in catalogue entries, but two collections, the Briggs Collection of Children’s Educational Literature, and the Porter Collection of ornithological books are particularly rich in this respect.

Engraving of boys seated on long benches, in a medieval school room,  with the Master seated at the front

A School, from J.A. Comenius’s “Visible world”, 1689. Briggs Collection LT109.A/C6


There are almost 2000 books in the Briggs Collection, which mainly date from the 17th to the mid-19th century, and typically contain simple woodcuts and engravings designed to embellish the text, and catch children’s interest.

An early example of a child’s picture book was Orbis sensualium pictus by Johannes Amos Comenius (1592-1670). He was one of the first educators to see the value of illustration in children’s textbooks, and to use pictures as an aid to learning. His approach was widely copied.

Colour illustration of Jack crouched down holding a goose whilst Mother Goose watches him

Mother Goose, from “Favourite pleasure books for young people”, 1859. Briggs Collection, PZ6.7.F2



In other books, the illustrations serve a purely decorative function. As new printing  techniques reduced the cost of colour printing, children’s books were increasingly enhanced by vivid pictures. Readers of Favourite pleasure books for young people (published in 1859) were told that its illustrations “were printed in colours from a succession of engraved wood-blocks, at a machine worked by steam”.

Then as now, when the illustrations were uncoloured, children often took the opportunity to practise their artistic skills by colouring them themselves. There are some engaging examples of this in the collection.


Illustration of two adult snow buntings with their young

Snow bunting, from John Gould’s “The birds of Great Britain”, 1873.Porter Collection, osXX QL690.G7 GOU

In contrast to these simple and usually cheap illustrations typical of children’s books in the 19th century, the Porter Collection of ornithological books holds examples of the highest quality images. Bird illustration is a specialised art form; in addition to absolute accuracy, the artist was also expected to show some characteristic or habit of the bird. The illustrations were therefore of real scientific value, complementing the text to show the subjects’ colouring, plumage, and environment. Photo-gravure and lithographic technology were used to reproduce the drawings in print, and the colour was added afterwards by hand.

Illustration of two adult birds perched on tree branches next to a nest of  their

Greenfinch, from John Gould’s “The birds of Great Britain”, 1873.Porter Collection, osXX QL690.G7 GOU



The works by John Gould (1804-1881) are an outstanding example. During his lifetime Gould published around fifty folio volumes on birds of the world, introducing exotic species to an eager public audience.  The books were aimed at the top of the market; large format, with beautiful colour plates, they were expensive to produce, and beyond the pocket of the ordinary man or woman. Many were published by subscription, and adorned the libraries of the well-to-do.

The Porter Collection holds a number of Gould’s works, together with a range of other ornithological works dating from the late 18th century to the mid 20th, and featuring the work of artists such as A.W. Seaby, Archibald Thorburn, D.M. Reid Henry, Lilian Medland, H. Grönvold, and many more. It is a wonderful collection for researchers into natural history illustration.

Posted in From the collections