Faced with a new book, an illustrator ponders. Should the illustrations decorate the page or interpret the text? Should they interpret it scene by scene or accompany it at a distance as a visual counterpoint? Will they be simple visualizations, getting the costumes, settings and characters as ‘anyone’ would wish to see them, or a more personal interpretation? Will they be chapter headings, full pages or vignettes? How many have been commissioned, how frequently will they occur? Will their even placing coincide with illustratable moments, or will favourite scenes have to be ditched and minor ones brought forward?
When I am reading a book for illustration, it bristles with Post-It notes marking possible opportunities. And, whichever option I choose, there is an overall stylistic decision to be made: some illustrators bring their own, instantly recognizable style to every book they do; others try to find a new manner appropriate to the job in hand.
The Christmas books produced in recent years by my friends in the Society of Wood Engravers offer a mini-survey of such options. They have provided the artists with the chance to illustrate grown-up literature – something usually confined to publishers like the Folio Society (not that there is anyone quite like the Folio Society) or the private presses. And they are beautiful in themselves. The format is a classic one in the fine-print world: a 10 x 7-inch, single-section booklet bound in card covers with wrappers of Ingres paper, each in a different colour. On the one hand, these build up into a little rainbow of hues that reflects the books’ diversity. On the other, the quality of the papers and the printing makes the books a treat for hand as well as eye, a tactile pleasure as well as a delight to read. They are printed letterpress in editions of 500 each.
Perhaps I should first explain what ‘letterpress’ and ‘fine-print’ mean. Commercial printing today – all normal printing – is by off
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