- Wood-Engraved Borders in Strahan's Family Magazines:Toward a Grammar of Periodical Ornament
Victorian magazine pages were embellished with a wide variety of decorative frames, pictorial initials, and symbolic emblems. Twenty-first-century reading practices, however, have largely overlooked the significance of this lavish ornamentation, focusing attention instead on linguistic and illustrative content. I have argued elsewhere that the time, labor, and money Victorians invested in these purpose-made decorative devices, along with their ubiquitous textual presence throughout the period, indicate their importance to periodical studies.1 By mapping a grammar of periodical ornament in three of Alexander Strahan's family magazines, this paper aims to establish a methodology for reading ornamentation and understanding its cultural value for publishers and readers. I argue that decorative borders helped Victorians navigate an increasingly complex world by building a common visual vocabulary, with links to both an assumed cultural heritage and a transnational world of modular design, which worked to encode the identities of readers within interpretive communities. In short, ornaments were a form of visual knowledge production specific to their time and place that expressed and shaped Victorian values, beliefs, and ideologies.
In this case study, I identify a grammar of periodical ornament in the wood-engraved borders of three of the period's most popular family magazines in a single year of production. Published by Alexander Strahan, Good Words (1860–1911), Good Words for the Young (1868–77), and the Sunday Magazine (1864–1905) were directed at a non-denominational audience of devout middle-class readers across the English-speaking world. A deeply religious man from a Scots Presbyterian background, Strahan had faith in the power of print "to transform the world socially and morally" and strongly believed that visual art aided this evangelical mission by increasing the attractiveness and "proper delights" of wholesome literature.2 [End Page 380] Strahan secured some of the best artists in London, not only to illustrate his magazines but also to design ornamental devices such as pictorial initials, illuminated frames, and emblematic symbols. Many of these decorative devices were hybrids of graphic form, iconographic representation, and linguistic signs. They were ornamental in the sense that their primary function was not to illustrate text but rather to construct a visually appealing decorative framework for the printed page. As James Trilling observes in The Language of Ornament, "ornament at its most basic [is] something over and above the functional shape, added for the sake of visual pleasure."3
In order to trace this visual language of magazine margins, I turn to the borderlands of Victorian publishing: the Dalziel Brothers' wood-engraving office in Camden Town, London. For some fifty years, the firm kept a record of its output. As each publication went to press, the Dalziels pasted burnished India-ink proofs of their engravings into numbered scrapbooks in order to document their annual production. Volume 26 of the forty-nine proofs books in the British Museum's Dalziel Archive contains more than 1,500 engravings cut by the Dalziels for Strahan's three popular family magazines in 1869–70.4 This scrapbook of wood-engraved proofs forms the basis for my case study, allowing me to analyze periodical ornaments as a visual language of their own.
Ornament—as both concept and practice—permeated and shaped cultural discourse and experience in the second half of the nineteenth century. From John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851) and Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament (1856) to William Morris's "Of the Origins of Ornamental Art" (1886) and Walter Crane's Decorative Illustration of Books (1896), the Victorian period was an age of ornament. The history of nineteenth-century ornament is complex, but a key feature was ornament's perceived connection to cultural values and human qualities in an increasingly mechanized world. As Trilling puts it, for the Victorians "ornament stood not just for visual pleasure but for everything that made that pleasure possible."5 While many critics have investigated the intersection of art and industry in nineteenth-century design in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851, less attention has been paid to the wood-engraved textual ornaments that decorated the pages of...