King's College London
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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Bentley's illustrations of Gray

This work made a significant mark in the history of book illustration and has been lauded as the finest English illustrated book of the 18th century. Horace Walpole (1717-97), a friend of the poet Thomas Gray (1716-71), brought about its publication. Walpole persuaded Gray to allow the publication of six of his poems with illustrations by the artist Richard Bentley (1708-82). Bentley was working at the time on designs for imaginative Gothic revival renovations for Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s house at Twickenham.

Engraved frontispiece showing an archway adorned with plants, with figures in the backgroundEngraved frontispiece to: Elegy written in a country church yardThe elegant volume was published by Robert Dodsley in 1753, with three distinct editions appearing that same year. The work contains 25 sophisticated illustrations, comprising a large title-page vignette, six full-page frontispieces for each poem, of which several include rococo motifs, large head and tailpieces and initial letters.

The engravings were cut on copper by Johann Sebastian Müller and Charles Grignion to the same dimensions as Bentley’s original drawings. The image here shows the elaborative headpiece, initial letter and frontispiece to ‘Elegy written in a country church yard’, with its hints of the Gothic revival.

 Page of text adorned with engraved elaborative headpiece and initial letterEngraved elaborative headpiece and initial letter to: Elegy written in a country church yardThe integration of picture and text is fundamental to Bentley’s design; his drawings illustrate significant moments from Gray’s verses, while the poetry simultaneously interprets his pictures. Walpole’s library provided Bentley with ample inspiration from early 18th century engraved works from France, Italy, Holland and England. Bentley was familiar with the hand of the renowned engraver Bernard Picart, with English works by William Kent, John Pine and William Hogarth and with the rococo style of Hubert Gravelot.

Although Gray liked the illustrations, he was concerned about the presentation of his six short poems, four of which had already been published, in such a lavish manner and he refused to have his own portrait included. Gray asserted to the publisher that his verses were ‘subordinate, & explanatory to the Drawings’.

The poet insisted on the placement of Bentley’s name before his own on the title page, despite Walpole’s objections, and the half-title (‘Drawings, & c’ in the first edition, revised to ‘Designs, & c’ in subsequent editions) refers to the illustrations only.

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