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  • Prints for Books: Book Illustration in France 1760–1800
  • Lars O. Erickson
Griffiths, Antony. 2004. Prints for Books: Book Illustration in France 1760–1800. London: British Library. ISBN 0712348743. Pp. 178. $35.00.

In this work, based on his 2003 Panizzi Lectures, Griffiths incisively analyzes the causes and effects of the trends in book illustration in the last four decades of eighteenth-century France. The period saw a great increase in prints for books, and it constituted something of a golden age for the art in France. While focusing on book illustrations, he gives us insights into the broader cultural history of the period, opening up the text to a wide readership. The work gives enough detail to satisfy specialists in the field, yet provides sufficient explanation to appeal to the novice. For instance, in the first pages, he enumerates the various styles of illustration: estampe, vignette, cul-de-lampe, and fleuron, and provides examples in the first five figures of which the volume includes 90. He sprinkles lively anecdotes throughout, adding tangential support to the historical evidence. [End Page 168]

In the first section, “Publishers and Authors”, Griffiths assesses the shifting roles of authors and publishers with respect to book illustration. The reader learns that the 1762 printing of La Fontaine’s Les Contes was a landmark event because of the quantity and quality of its illustrations. The appeal of such illustrations played a huge role in the printing business, for quality illustrations could drive up profit margins. Restif de la Bretonne began to include illustrations in his works for a different reason—to thwart their piracy. Griffiths points out that Restif also innovated illustration by connecting the image with the storyline.

The second section, “Engravers and Capitalists”, describes the money-making strategies of the engravers. Griffiths states that while the book trades were heavily regulated, engravers were not. Because of the booming demand for illustrations, engravers tried many ways to get around the publishers’ monopoly. The best supplemented their income by working for themselves. Some latched on to large publishing projects; Griffiths studies the 1767 Métamorphoses of Ovid as one such example. Many engaged in long-term subscription contracts which gave them instant return on cost along with the promise of future sales. Some used engraved text to avoid completely the monopoly, a tactic that led to illustrations without text.

In the last section, “Printers and Bibliophiles”, Griffiths examines the increasing popularity of book collecting and its effect on illustrations. Initially, the causal relationship was reversed as Griffiths shows by quoting Grimm, who felt that text quality diminished due to the boom in the production of illustrations. Consequently, an appreciation of well-edited texts developed. Griffiths then traces the entry into the field of illustration of bibliophile publishers, who realized that adding a few illustrations would turn a valued edition into a rare and more valuable specimen. Griffiths analyzes the role of the Revolution as well, most notably on the elimination of publishing restrictions. Old firms, whose protections vanished, went bankrupt. Risk-taking vanished too, for—as Griffiths notes—the period’s uncertainties forced publishers to seek security by re-editing previously successful classics. For book illustration, Griffiths shows that the result was standardization of plates that could fit any publisher’s edition. [End Page 169]

Lars O. Erickson
University of Rhode Island


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pp. 168-169
Launched on MUSE
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