Gazing at The Imperial Dictionary
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Gazing at The Imperial Dictionary


Figure 1. Imperial Dictionary (1850), 1:513.
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Figure 1.

Imperial Dictionary (1850), 1:513.

Halfway through the nineteenth century, Blackie and Son, a Glasgow publishing firm with branches in Edinburgh and London, produced the first general dictionary of English to rely heavily upon pictorial illustrations integrated with the text. Its title was The Imperial Dictionary, English, Technological, and Scientific, Adapted to the Present State of Literature, Science, and Art; On the Basis of Webster’s English Dictionary. A typical page from The Imperial Dictionary (and not all pages are illustrated) is shown in Figure 1. Although the philosopher John Locke had recommended using pictures to explain lexical meaning as early as 1690, 1 and though Nathan Bailey had made tentative use of the device in the first comprehensive dictionary of English, his Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), 2 full implementation was delayed until after the development of a sufficiently fine-grained and economical reproductive technology, the reformed mode of wood engraving that Thomas Bewick popularized at the end of the eighteenth century. 3

In the generation after Bewick, the technique of wood engraving became an increasingly precise and mechanical means for printing facsimile images (though the engraving was still done by hand, laboriously). It had special advantages over other reproductive media. Unlike metal engravings, which required expensive special handling (that is, printing on separate sheets), end-grain woodblock engravings could be printed side by side with letterpress type. And this economical arrangement brought an aesthetic and cognitive bonus: image and text could be attractively and relevantly integrated on the page.

The best substance for wood engraving was boxwood because of its toughness and close texture. The wood blocks were framed from inch-thick slices cut across the trunk, which would normally be a foot or less in diameter; the surface of a typical block might measure four by six inches. Although [End Page 156] it was possible to construct relatively large engraving surfaces by gluing two or more of these blocks together, small drawings or vignettes were ideal subjects for the wood-engraving process. If today’s purchaser of a dictionary expects it to contain many small black-and-white illustrations, his or her expectations derive ultimately from the now obsolete reproductive technology that made possible the success, almost a century and a half ago, of Blackie’s Imperial Dictionary.

Blackie and Son published The Imperial Dictionary in two hefty volumes in 1850, completing serial publication in thirty parts, which had begun in 1847. 4 (The inexpensive parts, only 2s. 6d. each, were aimed at the less affluent corner of the growing market for educational books—in keeping with the firm’s long-established practice.) 5 The title page of The Imperial Dictionary listed John Ogilvie as the editor; in later editions, he is listed as the author. His job involved retrofitting Noah Webster’s American spellings and definitions to the British market, and defining important words—especially “technological and scientific terms”—that Webster had ignored when he published his magnum opus, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828; revised edition, 1841), which supplied Ogilvie with most of his text. 6

Some two thousand wood engravings are scattered throughout The Imperial Dictionary, well printed, on a page that still looks well designed. (The number was increased to twenty-five hundred when Blackie published a Supplement in 1855.) Selecting the illustrations was mainly the responsibility of Robert Blackie, an active partner in the firm, the youngest of the three sons of the founder, John Blackie Sr. Robert received his art training from W. L. Leitch, a fellow Glaswegian who would later move to London and become a drawing instructor to the royal family. 7 Robert visited studios in Paris and took instruction from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. At a young age he began to put his training to use by supervising the illustration of the firm’s many illustrated books. 8

The preface to a later edition of The Imperial Dictionary boasted that the pictures “form a peculiar and important feature in this Dictionary—a feature in which it stands altogether unrivalled.” 9 The preface to the original edition emphasized that “[i]n...