Illustrating the Fantastic

Post by Rob Monroe, Bibliographer, BWB Antiquarian, Rare, and Collectible Books

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It is in the first line of Lewis Carroll’s classic that Alice ponders on the possible use of a book without pictures. Adults reading this passage will likely smile at the childish naivete, especially those unimpressed with wood engravings such as the illustrations within the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. However, I doubt that even the stodgiest of readers cannot find value in the incredible book illustrations that were to come in the early 20th Century.

Because of innovations in the world of art and printing, books became filled with beautiful, full-color illustrations in the early decades of the 20th Century, especially those containing tales of fantasy and adventure. With high-quality color printing as an affordable option, publishers gave readers a more intense and evocative experience of the worlds of fairies, dwarfs and giants.

The Art Nouveau movement was especially influential on Willy Pogany, an extremely prolific illustrator of books for both children and adults alike. His illustrations for Wagner’s Tannhauser are definitely intended for the latter, as they perfectly capture the sensuality and passion of the Art Nouveau style. Note: This book has sold.

Charles Robinson’s illustrations of Anatole France’s Bee bear a similar feeling of lush extravagance, especially in his depiction of the dwarf king throne. Robinson’s art is incredibly effective in expressing the sense of wonder that Bee must have felt during her time living with a band of dwarfs.

The illustrations by Herbert Paus for The Bluebird Chooses hint at the Art Deco movement what was just about to take hold in Europe, adding a slightly harder edge to the story’s vibrate dreamworld. Paus’ watercolors appeared in countless magazines and advertisements of the age.

Perhaps one of the most famous illustrators of the early 20th Century is Arthur Rackham, whose sinewy goblins and sinister witches populated many collections of fairy tales and fanciful stories between 1896 and 1940. The following illustrations come from a collection of tales by Edgar Allan Poe, which contains some of the more grotesque images Rackham has ever conjured. It’s not unusual for books containing Rackham’s work to sell for thousands of dollars.

With such provocative and beautiful illustrations, it isn’t hard to see the use of these books. While the stories are imaginative and engaging, these beautiful illustrations bring our enjoyment of these tales to a whole other level. Just as the stories have become timeless classics, the works of these artists have become classics on their own.

Do you have a favorite book illustrator? Are there any books that you will always remember because of the illustrations inside?


  1. Jean M. Trawick says:

    His illustrations are so exquisite that I often skip over the prose until I have devoured them and can move on!

  2. Graeme Base. the most beautiful children’s books for all ages.

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