The Golden Age of the Illustrated Book

neilson.JPGEven though it’s a bit of an oxymoron, I consider myself a generalist children’s book specialist; which basically means I know enough about the different subcategories of collectible children’s books to scout the high spots and research the rest. The single genre that I’ve been the least successful finding books “in the wild” has to be the true antiquarian children’s book from what is called “The Golden Age of the Illustrated Book”.

The most liberal identification of the time frame for the Golden Age of the Illustrated Book is from 1865 till the beginning of World War II. And while not all illustrated books of this age were children’s books, it definitely delineates the high end collectible for this genre. For me, the true pinnacle of the “golden age” of illustration began in 1905 with the advent of the color separation printing process which resulted in books with wonderful full page illustrations which were printed on special paper that was then tipped into the book by the publisher.

These are the illustrated books, by the likes of Rackham, Nielsen, Wyeth et al. that are most often seen at antiquarian book shows or in the high end bookshops carefully locked away in glass cases. Or more traumatically, as plates broken out of the binding and sold individually.

The closest I came to throwing a tantrum in my adult life was when I walked into a small town library in Iowa and saw on the wall in their basement hallway, framed Grant Wood plates broken out his only illustrated children’s book, Farm on the Hill. (written by Madeline Horn, Scribners 1936.) When I calmed down enough to not start my incipient tirade with “what the hell…” I asked a staff member about them. It turned out that since the library was one of the original Carnegie Libraries, the book had been bought at publication in the 1930’s, and was still in circulation in the 70’s when it had been checked out and returned with 2 of the plates missing, so the librarian just finished the book’s destruction by removing the remaining plates and framing them for display. (Why they were circulating a book from the 30’s well into the 1970’s, you’d have to be from the Iowa to understand; in some libraries it can take a meeting of the library board to deaccess a paperback.)

So while I enjoy these classy, flashy books; fine bindings, tipped in plates, tissue guards and all, and I confess to having an unrequited passion for anything illustrated by Kay Nielsen, these are not the books I expect to find when I’m scouting. Age aside, these books were expensive when they were produced and tend to pass straight from collector’s libraries to specialist dealers and then onto the next generation of collector. This is a good thing because even though I have never talked to an antique dealer who admitted to breaking an intact book, the sad fact is that the majority of the monetary value of these books is in the color plates, and what was tipped in by a publisher can easily be removed by a breaker.

* The Illustration above is:
Kay Nielsen illus for Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,
In Powder and Crinoline, Old Fairy Tales
(London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1913)

Posted By Dana Richardson of Windy Hill Books

6 thoughts on “The Golden Age of the Illustrated Book”

  1. Dana,
    I have a general understanding of ‘tipped in’ from the context…but how was it done? Manually?

  2. Nielsen is my favorite as well, though I have a real fondness for Edmund Dulac. The early reprints (in 8vo, hard to find a reasonable 4to edition) can be had for good prices, usually the U.S. editions, though early English reprints can be had as well. They still have the tipped in illustrations, are quite lovely, and usually a fraction of the first English edition. Most of the reprints before 1930 are affordable and sellable and, certainly nice to have around.

    Obviously it depends on the title – Nielsen’s East of the Sun West of the Moon is hard to find reasonably, as are a number of my other favorites.

  3. Tom,

    I’ve also found that the early reprints are very marketable, but I’ve had very poor luck finding even the early reprints in decent, intact condition.

  4. We run into more at auction, though they do wander into the shop now and then – usually the Rackhams. Nielsen is the toughest. The decadents like Aubrey Beardsley are also pretty great – they’re not usually grouped in the Golden Age of Illustrated Books, but it’s the same time period.

  5. Great article. Thank you so much. Reading is critical and I love finding blogs like yours that give more information about books. I hope the quality and magic of illustrated books can continue to improve and children can really capture the love of reading!!!

Comments are closed.