Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition by Jenny Uglow

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Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition by Jenny Uglow

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: Illustrations can play an important part in our experience of reading. This is a short, but well-written and informative account of the relationship between words and pictures in books in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and is recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571242504

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From childhood, we start by looking at the pictures in books and these images often remain with us for a long time, particularly as we respond to them in a more sophisticated way than we do to language. However, words can stimulate our imagination in a way that a picture cannot, and when reading we create images in our minds. Words and pictures should work together in books, but illustrations can interrupt as well as stimulate our imagination.

This well-researched and interesting book looks at the relationship between words and pictures in books in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is well-written and informative and, not surprisingly, is also nicely illustrated.

It is a slight book, just 161 pages, but there is much to interest. Uglow bases her examination of how words and pictures work together (although some of those responsible seem to have had a rather difficult time of it) on the illustrators engaged on classic works by Milton and Bunyan, on William Hogarth and Thomas Fielding, and on William Wordsworth and engraver Thomas Bewick.

The book starts with how various artists have responded to an existing text. Milton's Paradise Lost, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress have been interpreted by a number of artists since they were first published in the 1660s and 1670s respectively. Paradise Lost is a visual and visionary tale, with its depictions of heaven, hell and Eden, and looks back to classical mythology and the Bible. Bunyan's work, on the other hand, draws more on the reader's imagination, but has connections to the medieval and folk tale traditions. It is therefore to be expected that illustrators would look to these different traditions to complement the written works. The book looks at how artists such as William Blake have worked with these traditions, and the use of different methods such as engravings and woodcuts, mezzotints and lithographs.

In the 18th century, artist William Hogarth and writer Henry Fielding had much in common, despite having very different backgrounds. They shared a love of wit and theatre and were part of the creative 'set', but were satirical and both attacked corruption, hypocrisy and the misuse of power. Using their different media, they investigated and represented these themes, in poems, essays, novels, paintings and engravings.

The 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth focussed on inner experience and the workings of the mind, but also wrote ballads about people he knew and their quirks. He made direct reference to Thomas Bewick, an ornithologist and notable wood engraver, in his poem The Two Thieves, recalling Bewick's engravings of country life and his skills as a naturalist. Bewick's finely crafted scenes were highly regarded by critics and Wordsworth called him a poet. Uglow examines Bewick's works from this standpoint and discusses how images can convey a richness similar to poetry.

In the last section of the book, Uglow turns to a different kind of relationship, the writers and artists who collaborate from the start, although the main examples show the tension between the two roles. Lewis Carroll was very exacting as to his requirements from illustrators. He made sketches showing what he wanted and carefully checked that John Tenniel carried out his wishes. (Tenniel berates him as a conceited old Don.)

Charles Dickens was equally emphatic. His first illustrator, Robert Seymour, committed suicide after a dispute with the author about one of the illustrations for The Pickwick Papers. Charles Hablot Browne ('Phiz') was made of sterner stuff and worked with Dickens for over 20 years, but they parted company in 1859 after a squabble.

In this book, the words and the pictures are complementary. There are interesting examples of a range of artists' work, in black and white and colour, and I enjoyed examining them in terms of the writers and the context in which they were made. In such a small book, it is inevitable that some illustrators receive only a little attention, but I think rather than finding this disappointing, it has whetted my appetite to look at individual artists in more detail.

The Bookbag thanks the publishers for sending a copy for review.

If you have enjoyed this book, I would recommend that you follow this up by looking at the works of any of the illustrators mentioned in the book, such as William Blake, Gustave Doré and George Cruikshank.

Booklists.jpg Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition by Jenny Uglow is in the Top Ten Books About Language.
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Buy Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition by Jenny Uglow at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition by Jenny Uglow at Amazon.com.


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