Women artists: book illustrators in the 1890s

Did you know that Birmingham School of Art was regarded was as a centre of excellence for book illustration and production in the Arts and Crafts style in the 1890s?

 Georgie Cave France, illustration for 'Little Tom Tucker',  Nursery Rhymes and Songs , 1895

Georgie Cave France, illustration for 'Little Tom Tucker', Nursery Rhymes and Songs, 1895

Growing literacy rates in the nineteenth century had led to a rapid increase in the demand for illustrated books. By the 1860s, wood engravings could be reproduced mechanically using photographic techniques, enabling the production of cheaper, mass-produced books – but at the expense of quality. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a revival in the manufacturing of fine quality, hand-printed illustrated books using traditional techniques and materials by Arts and Crafts practitioners such as William Morris. 

With its strong Arts and Crafts ethos, Birmingham was quick to respond to the demand for these from wealthier customers. Among the books produced at the School were A Book of Pictured Carols (1893) and Nursery Songs and Rhymes (1895). In each case, a number of the illustrators were female students. They included Kate Bunce; Georgie Gaskin (under her maiden name of Cave France); Violet Holden; Celia Levetus; Agnes Manley; Mary Newill; Florence Rudland; Mildred Peacock and Winifred Smith.

 Mary Newill, frontispiece to  Nursery Rhymes and Songs  with border by Georgie Cave France, 1895

Mary Newill, frontispiece to Nursery Rhymes and Songs with border by Georgie Cave France, 1895

Some of these women gained a national reputation for their book illustrations. Georgie Gaskin developed a reputation as an illustrator of children’s books while still a student, producing the illustrations for ABC: An Alphabet (1895); Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1896) and Hornbook Jingles (1896). In 1895, The Studio devoted an entire feature to Mary Newill, stating that her black and white drawings were ‘quite remarkable for their vigour of line and complete mastery of a convention which by its apparent simplicity tempts many to disaster.’ Meanwhile, Walter Crane described Celia Levetus as ‘one of the leading artists of the Birmingham School’ in his influential book The Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896). Among her later works were illustrations for two volumes of William Blake’s poetry, Songs of Innocence (1899) and Songs of Experience (1902).

How do these illustrations compare with the type of work being done today? Do they inspire you to try using more traditional techniques?