The Gilded Page

“What is the use of a book without pictures?” asked Alice. And well she might.

Illustrating books used to be an act of intense personal devotion. The early Christian monks dedicated their lives and eyesight to the production of some of the most stunning artistic pages ever created. They took their inspiration from the natural world around them which they saw as the creation and gift of God, and wove what they observed into the pages of the Bible, using the most precious of materials to create their masterpieces.

It would be humbling to create anything so inspirational today, and while I am sure there are plenty of artists out there who may do so, I keep coming back to the Illuminated Gospels as exemplars of how book illustration can lift the mere written word to an overwhelming sensory experience.

With this in mind, I ponder how illustration is used today to enhance writing. Many textbooks will, of course, use illustration to underline the content of the book, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica to the Kama Sutra. Children’s books naturally make extensive use of pictures to help tell the story to pre-literate infants. Many of us enjoy comics (or “graphic novels” if you are sensitive about it). Persepolis is a great example of how illustration can help to tell important stories.

What is left? Fiction does seem to be the poorer cousin for a lack of regular illustration. I treated myself a couple of years ago to an edition of The Lord of the Rings which included illustrations by Alan Lee. His artwork really adds to the book – although thank you also to Peter Jackson for a faithful rendition of the story onto screen which has provided me with further imagery that is more portable than the hefty paper version. Between my own mental efforts, Peter Jackson and the miracle of e-books I can carry the whole of Middle Earth in glorious technicolour like a veritable goddess holding a world in the palm of her hand.

Back to fiction though.

Why don’t we illustrate it more often? It is true that whole page illustrations can break the flow of a story. However, it seems to be a modern affectation. Picking up old books in those mothball-scented, dusty establishments that sell them cheaply (or occasionally, if in a tourist centre, expensively), one is immediately aware that pictures used to be much more commonplace. I am inclined to think it is related to the growth of television. Just as descriptive passages used to be long and detailed (look at Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens) in order to acquaint the reader with unfamiliar environments, now everyone has seen everything on television and we need less scene-setting to be able to imagine the surroundings of the story. We even know what the surface of Mars looks like, for we also have the mighty Internet.

Even though I like to conjure pictures in my head without interference from a selected artist, still I like those old books. I would like to bring back as standard a small amount of illustration in fiction – perhaps the initial word of a chapter, as per the monastic illuminations where we began this discussion, or small sketches no more than a quarter of the page, to prompt my imagination when I am tired or losing interest.

It seems to me that the more senses I use to absorb a story, the more I am engaged with it and the more I take from it. So let’s hear it for illustrated stories!

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