Tag Archives: illustrations

A Christmas Robin from John Gould’s “Birds of Great Britain”


The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), affectionately known as the robin redbreast for its distinctive colouring, has been strongly associated with Christmas since the mid-19th century. The most common explanation is that the postmen who delivered cards and presents in Victorian Britain wore scarlet uniforms and were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts” after the birds. The robin itself was eventually depicted on Christmas cards to represent the postman who delivered them, which is why the bird is so often shown holding an envelope or sitting on a postbox.


These illustrations come from our magnificent copy of John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain, published between 1861 and 1873. All 367 lithographs in this monumental five-volume work were hand-coloured; in his introduction to the book, Gould writes: “every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought”.

Summer volunteering in Special Collections and Archives

This guest post comes from Alex Barlow, School of English, Communication and Philosophy, who spent three months volunteering with us this summer, in order to gain the experience necessary to be accepted on a postgraduate vocational qualification in information studies:

‘As I approached the end of my second year of the English Literature BA at Cardiff University, I started to think more and more about career options. I am mostly leaning towards ‘information services’ i.e. libraries and archives and thought that my own library would be a good place to start. I speculatively emailed Special Collections and Archives to explore voluntary work experience and was very excited when Alison agreed to meet me and discuss my plans. It was then agreed that I would undertake 12 weeks of work experience within Special Collections and Archives in order to gain a significant amount of experience, and to be able to really get stuck in to different tasks.

AB1Throughout the 12 weeks I have catalogued Julian Hodge’s business archive, and completely reorganised and catalogued the archives of Keith Waterhouse, Joan Reeder and Bernard Knight. Alison provided guidance but otherwise allowed me to manage the work independently, which will act as beneficial experience for my Project Management module starting in September. I also researched and found materials for use in Special Collections seminar workshops for The Illustrated Book module, also starting this September. Through these activities, I now understand how cataloguing works, and I know how to properly use the archives, which will be hugely beneficial to my studies in my final year.

AB2Not only have I gained some experience to add to my CV but I’ve also had a very enjoyable few months working within Special Collections and Archives. Alison and Peter have been very helpful throughout my time here and have been accommodating and understanding in relation to what I wanted to get out of this experience and to the kinds of work I enjoyed doing. If, like me, you are interested in an information services career and would like to gain some experience I would heartily recommend working within Special Collections and Archives.’

Illustrating the exotic: John Gould and Edward Lear’s Family of Toucans


These magnificent images are from our copy of John Gould’s Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or Family of Toucans, published in 1834. As you can see, the book contains some of Gould’s most remarkable illustrations, featuring 52 life-sized lithographed images of these exotic birds reproduced in vivid and vibrant colour.



Gould’s inspiration for Family of Toucans came while he was doing research for Birds of Europe and was invited to view a friend’s collection of toucan skins. The volume took several years to complete and many of the stunning lithographs in this first edition were drawn by Edward Lear, a young artist whom Gould discovered sketching in the Parrot House at London Zoo.



In total, Lear contributed illustrations to six of Gould’s works including Birds of Australia and Birds of Europe, but their professional partnership was neither a happy nor an equal one. As a ‘paid employee’, Lear’s exceptional work on the publications was rarely acknowledged by Gould, who even went so far as to remove Lear’s signatures from the second edition of Toucans.



Although John Gould may not have painted the final illustrations for which he took credit, they certainly could not have happened without him: he collected, sketched and described all the specimens, as well as acting as the agent, publisher and the distributor of the completed volumes. Family of Toucans was one of the earliest of Gould’s 18 monographs on ornithology and as with his later work on hummingbirds, Gould’s experience of these exotic creatures was based entirely on specimens in museums, with an occasional trip to aviaries around Europe – he never saw toucans in the wild.


Edward Lear continued to paint birds and landscapes throughout his life but is better known today for his nonsense poetry. Lear’s A book of nonsense, first published in 1846, helped popularise the limerick, and Nonsense songs (1871) introduced the world to his most famous work, The owl and the pussycat.



The pointy stick proliferation, or, How to explore the antiquities of Britain as an 18th century gentleman

Pointy stickIn the late 1700s, an interest in the study of British history and other antiquarian pursuits was the mark of a gentleman and a patriot, and many topographical books of the day reflect the increasing public interest in ancient remains. These illustrations all come from Francis Grose’s The antiquities of England and Wales, published between 1772 and 1776 and aimed at the popular market of interested readers who perhaps had neither the means nor the inclination to visit the sites in person.

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Grose’s topographical engravings are notable not just for the ancient ruins they depict in skillful detail but also for their “staffage”, the little figures invariably included for scale or atmosphere who are shown exploring the site or simply going about their daily business – men fishing in the rivers, scholars chatting by the chapel, and tiny milkmaids chased by angry livestock! But by far the most common figures to be found in these prints are the gentlemen dandies with their ever-present pointy sticks…

Proliferation of pointy sticks

Got milk?

By the end of the 18th century, a rigid cane had replaced the sword as an essential part of the discerning gentleman’s wardrobe. Walking sticks became an ???????????????????????????????important indicator of social status and a way for a gentleman to display his wealth; usually made from rattan, sticks were elaborately and expensively crafted with silver, ivory or jeweled handles. As the highways of the late 1700s still held some dangers for the lone traveller, walking sticks often retained the sword’s function as a defensive weapon, and canes with blades or even pistols hidden in the shaft were common. As these pictures show, however, the most important use of a gentleman’s walking stick was to point out matters of interest to a friend, a lady companion, or even the occasional dog!

One man and a dog

Francis Grose (1731-1791) himself was an interesting character. A soldier by ???????????????????????????????trade, he was far more inclined to his work as an antiquary and spent his summers sketching medieval ruins around the country. The first part of The antiquities of England and Wales was published in 1772 and was followed by three more volumes and a supplement with illustrations by other artists. While touring Scotland to begin work on The antiquities of Scotland, Captain Grose became close friends with Robert Burns and the poet composed Tam O’Shanter to accompany Grose’s drawing of Alloway Kirk when the book was published in 1791.



Engravers of the Lost Ark

IMG_0362I have been fascinated by tales of the Ark of the Covenant from the first time Indiana Jones strapped on his bullwhip and picked up his fedora for Raiders of the Lost Ark (never go on an adventure without your hat!), so I was thrilled to discover an 18th century depiction of the Ark in a book I was cataloguing from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection. Intrigued to see how other engravers depicted this fabled lost artefact, I set out on a quest to unearth some more illustrations from the early printed books in our extensive collections.

An unusual depiction of the Ark from a 1708 edition of Josephus’ “Jewish history” showing the cherubim supporting the mercy seat or “footstool” which appears in some later descriptions. Also surprising to note that the angels here are depicted with hooves.

Copper engraving by Bleyswyk showing Aaron’s rod and a vessel of manna said to be deposited with the Ark

According to the biblical account from the Book of Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant was built at the command of God as a coffer for storing the original stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Exodus provides detailed instructions on how the Ark was to be constructed: it was to be made of shittim (acacia) wood, 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 wide and 1.5 high, and plated entirely in gold with a ring attached to each foot so that it could be carried aloft on wooden poles. A cover of solid gold adorned with two golden cherubim with their wings outstretched was to be placed over the top.

The Ark, veiled with blue cloth and skins, at the head of the Israelite army, from Augustin Calmet’s “Historical, critical, geographical, chronological, and etymological dictionary of the Holy Bible” (1732)

The Ark was carried by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert and many of their victories are attributed to its supernatural power, from parting the waters of the Jordan to bringing down the walls of Jericho. Priests carried the Ark, usually veiled in cloth and animal skins, in the vanguard of the army and when the host was encamped it had its own sacred tent, known as the Tabernacle. During the construction of King Solomon’s massive temple complex in Jerusalem, a special inner courtroom, called the Holy of Holies, was designed to house the Ark, where it stood as a throne for God’s rule on Earth.


The consecration of the Hebrew commonwealth with the Ark unveiled at the centre, from Calmet

The Ark is believed to have disappeared from Jerusalem after the Babylonians invaded and sacked the city in the sixth century A.D., but since then it  has continued to capture the imaginations of engravers, writers, film-makers, and even the occasional whip-wielding archaeologist!

Depiction of the Ark in the Holy of Holies and an inset showing the cloud between the two cherubim which was said to reveal God's presence

Depiction of the Ark in the Holy of Holies and an inset showing the cloud between the two cherubim which was said to reveal God’s presence

Hidden killers of the Victorian home

corsetTonight’s BBC4 documentary, Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (10pm) reveals just how many ‘innovative’ domestic products and gadgets harboured deadly poisons and diseases.

Researchers from Modern TV spent several days  in Special Collections and Archives consulting illustrated Victorian periodicals, gathering stills for the documentary. Many useful images, often adverts, were found in Punch, the Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and magazines aimed at the Victorian housewife, such as The Sketch, The Queen, and Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Over 1000 images were gathered in the research process.

The documentary explores the presence of arsenic in Victorian wallpaper, lead in toys’ paint, the unsafe use of gas and electricity, and unsterilised babies’ feeding bottles. It also explores the detrimental effect that the introduction of metal eyelets had on corsetry. The eyelets allowed women’s corsets to be pulled even tighter in the indulgence of fashion, causing considerable damage to the back and internal organs, and increased the risk of miscarriage, as many women continued to wear restrictive corsets throughout pregnancy.

Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home is available on iPlayer until 11th April 2013.

Fore-edge paintings by John T. Beer in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

IMG_0314 edit2I was delighted to discover this week that the Cardiff Rare Books Collection includes two books with fore-edge paintings by the artist John T. Beer. Fore-edge paintings are watercolour illustrations applied to the outside edges of a book’s pages; the technique dates back to before the invention of printing, possibly as early as the 10th century.


A painting of George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, arriving in Wales to a hostile reception appears on Cardiff’s copy of the third edition of Fox’s journals, published in 1765 (Weber-Beer 105).

John T. Beer was a successful Merseyside clothier and an avid book collector, who turned to fore-edge painting after his retirement and produced hundreds of works between 1884 and 1900. As he was not a professional painter working on commission, Beer was able to select books from his own collection, including several incunabula, and decorate them to his own taste. As our examples show, he often took inspiration from the contents of the book.

IMG_0296 edit

“John preaching in the Wilderness”: Beer’s illustration on an early 16th century Latin Bible, printed at Lyon by Jacob Mareschal in 1514 (Weber-Beer 15).

IMG_0299 editIn the 1600s, some bookbinders even discovered they could paint just inside the fore-edges of a book then cover the outer edges with gilt to create a hidden illustration that was undetectable when the book was closed and visible only when the pages were fanned. Beer did not gild the fore-edges, but he did fan the pages before adding his illustration. Thus, the closed book shows a slightly squashed version of the scene, with the correct proportions only appearing with the pages are fanned open.

IMG_0314 edit

The “open” scene on Fox’s journal. The artist would have fanned the pages and gripped them in a vice before applying the watercolour.

Beer did not sell any of his works in his lifetime and left more than 200 fore-edge paintings and painted bindings when he died. His entire collection was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in November, 1903, when these two volumes were apparently purchased for Cardiff Library.


Fanning the pages of the Biblia Sacra to show the more “open” illustration.

Weber, Jeff, The fore-edge painting of John T. Beer. Los Angeles, 2005.

Biblia Ectypa: Christoph Weigel’s remarkable engraved pictorial Bible (1695)

P1160530There are several hundred early printed Bibles in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, but I was excited to find this very unusual edition as I was exploring our Early Continental works. The Biblia Ectypa is a fully engraved pictorial Bible, produced by the German artist Christoph Weigel and published in Augsburg in 1695. Instead of being an illustrated Bible (i.e. text embellished by illustrations), the Biblia Ectypa tells the whole Bible story entirely in beautifully-executed copper engravings.


More than 830 highly detailed engravings are employed to tell hundreds of Biblical tales, with authentic costumes, architecture and social customs all skillfully captured. Each illustration is also accompanied by a short caption in Latin and an engraved quotation from the German Bible.



P1160542Engraved Bibles attained wide circulation and great popularity in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and southern Germany became a hub of copper engraving and Bible illustration. The Biblia Ectypa was a critical and commercial success for Weigel, who enjoyed a long career in Augsburg and Nuremburg as a map and print engraver and illustrator, and as publisher of at least seventy books.





Resource guide for women’s history launched for International Women’s Day

brazilSpecial Collections and Archives is marking International Women’s Day 2013 with the launch of its latest resource guide on women’s history and gender studies. The guide covers sources from the 16th-21st centuries, including:

  • Bibliographies and reference works on British women’s history and writing;
  • Biographies of the lives of women;
  • Gendered children’s literature and comics;
  • Conduct, etiquette and advice manuals;
  • Broadsides and ballads relating to women as both victims and perpetrators of crime;
  • Memoirs, diaries and autobiographies of women;
  • Sources relating to women teachers, and girl’s eduction;
  • Journals, magazines and ballads on fashion and dress;
  • histmedHistorical works on women’s health and medical treatment, including the history of midwifery, gynaecology and obstetrics; the history of nursing as a profession; and reports of the Medical Officer for Cardiff, including data on maternity and child welfare;
  • A range of material relating to women’s lives around the world, including newspapers from Indian women’s organisations, Spanish Civil War sources related to women, sources relating to women in Australia, European Union and United Nations reports on women, and papers of female slavery abolitionists;
  • A wide range of women’s journals and magazines, from society pages to radical suffragette publications;
  • Literary works by women, including the papers of Ann Griffiths (poet), Joan Reeder (journalist), Maria Edgeworth (novelist), Felicia Hemans (poet), Mary Tighe (poet), and Lady Sidney Morgan (novelist). Information on female applicants to the Royal Literary Fund, and women writers published by Longmans;
  • Musical scores and archives from Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1891-1918), Grace Williams (1906-1977), and Nancy Storace (1765-1817);
  • Press cuttings from late 20th century Welsh newspapers on women’s issues;
  • girlgraduatePolitical papers from the British Labour Party and Newport Labour Party on women’s issues; papers of the Labour MPs Ellen Wilkinson and Marion Phillips; the diary of social reformer Beatrice Webb; archives of the Women’s Labour League, journals by Sylvia Pankhurst, and a range of suffragette magazines;
  • Books by and archives belonging to female travellers;
  • Papers relating to the history of female students at Cardiff University and its predecessors;
  • Sources on witchcraft and those accused of its practice (commonly women), in Europe and America;
  • Sources on women’s societies

“To many tower’d Camelot”: introducing our illuminated manuscript of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’

One of my favourite discoveries so far from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection is this lovely little illuminated manuscript of The Lady of Shalott, the famous ballad by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat.

Probably created in the 1910s, the book is written on vellum and signed simply “Gilbert Pownall me fecit” (“Gilbert Pownall made me”). Pownall was an artist who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and also designed the mosaics for the Lady Chapel in Westminster Cathedral.

We have yet to learn how this unique manuscript came to Cardiff – it was perhaps purchased new at the same time as our private press books – but it is a treasure we are delighted to have.

The Lady of Shalott was one of many items from our rare books collections selected by Dr Juliette Wood for her recent lecture, “Illustrating the Arthurian Legend”, part of the Cardiff Rare Books and Music Lecture Series  hosted here in Special Collections and Archives.