- Nineteenth-Century Illustration and the Digital: Studies in Word and Image by Julia Thomas
Nineteenth-century Illustration and the Digital: Studies in Word and Image is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the subject matter indicated by its title: illustration studies, particularly of the nineteenth-century, and the digital archives that are expanding the research horizons of this field. Drawing on a comprehensive range of critical scholarship and digital projects, Julia Thomas uses the concise Palgrave Pivot format to nimbly encapsulate the central topics that preoccupy Victorian illustration studies at the present moment while anticipating future directions of the field.
Victorian periodical scholars have long argued that illustrations are neither ephemeral nor subordinate to letterpress. Over the past two decades, case studies presented by, among others, Brian Maidment, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Peter Sinnema, Lisa Surridge and Elizabeth Leighton, and Thomas herself have demonstrated that illustrations offered distinctive interpretive affordances to readers of Victorian print. As evidenced by recent work such as Kooistra's "Charting Rocks in the Golden Stream" and Paul Fyfe's "Ways of Seeing Victorian Periodicals," the analysis of nineteenth-century illustration [End Page 314] is increasingly informed by digital media criticism on visuality, graphics, and design as argument (see, for example, Johanna Drucker's influential Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production). Although illustration studies draws on cross-disciplinary criticism of the visual, its theoretical framework and praxis are necessarily unique. As Thomas notes in her first chapter, "Frontispiece," the objective of illustration studies is to analyze "how illustrations signify, how they make their meanings and how these meanings are embedded in the historical moment of their production and reception" (6). Investigating these questions requires attention to the contextual and material specificity of illustrations as encountered in historical print and as remediated in digital environments, and Thomas draws on her experience as primary investigator and director of the Illustration Archive and the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration to model such attention in her execution.
Throughout the book, Thomas returns to the central theoretical questions of illustration studies: how we conceptualize illustration; how we understand the relationship between illustrations and letterpress (and, in so doing, engage with the assumption, held by the Victorians but also by many twenty-first century scholars, that images play merely a supporting role alongside text); and how we understand the relationships between illustrations that were produced and circulated within the highly pictorial print culture of the Victorian period. Thomas reveals that the answers to those questions are contingent on medium: the print form in which an illustration first circulated; the digital file that remediates the print image; and the print or digital archive in which we search for and study collections of illustrations. It is the latter that this book focuses on in most depth. Thomas stresses that the archive is interpretive; through its structure and its options for user interaction, it models assumptions about what an illustration is and how it signifies. The book's thematic chapters explore facets of the interpretive work mobilized by the archive: illustration visibility in our cultural records ("(In)visibility"), searchability in digital environments ("Searchability"), and crowd-sourced metadata development ("Crowdsourcing"). Thomas identifies the theoretical and practical challenges of digitally archiving print images and surveys how different projects, including the Illustration Archive and the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration, have addressed them. Particularly in the chapters on searchability and crowdsourcing, Thomas offers advice on digital archive creation, and particularly metadata, that any novice keen on creating an image repository would do well to heed.
Having equipped readers with theoretical and practical tools, the book concludes by gesturing to the digital future of illustration studies. In "Tailpiece," Thomas emphasizes that digital archives are "uniquely positioned" to reveal the complex interactions among images and texts and "to enable new and nuanced analyses of how illustrations signify" (101). Access to large illustration corpora is a major asset of the digital archive. The scale of analysis enabled by digital technology affords a new vantage point from which [End Page 315] to study the...