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


Woodcut illustration of Robin Hood shooting a bow, as shown on the title page of the workWoodcut illustration of the title page of: A true tale of Robin HoodThroughout the 16th and 17th centuries copperplate engraving increased in popularity as a method of book illustration, all but supplanting the woodcut by the 18th century. The woodcut did not entirely disappear, however, and in one sector of the book trade it continued to thrive. This was in the production of chapbooks, small pamphlets of popular tales, sensational histories, ballads and tracts aimed chiefly at a rural and semi-literate readership and sold at fairs or door-to-door by itinerant dealers, or chapmen.

Described by Richard D Altick as ‘the poor man’s history’ and by Milton in his Areopagatica as ‘the countryman’s Arcadias’, chapbooks met, however imperfectly, their readers’ desire for knowledge and provided food for the imagination.

Chapbooks were cheaply printed on poor quality paper, using worn type, and were generally illustrated with simple woodcuts. The durability of the wooden block enabled the same illustration to be used for multiple editions and popular illustrations were often copied onto new blocks.

These practices explain two salient characteristics of 18th century chapbook illustrations, their worn and battered appearance and the often archaic style of clothing in which the figures depicted are dressed, many of the illustrations being derived from woodcuts originally drawn a century or more earlier.

This image shows the title page of A true tale of Robin Hood. The use of the word ‘true’ is a common feature in chapbook titles, history being seen as a more worthwhile and improving genre than folk tale or ballad and the word thus lending an air of veracity to what was often a work with little factual content.

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