Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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This rubric covers artworks produced specifically for reproduction and thus usually associated with narrative, as a means of giving visual form to ideas, scenes or events, or to clarify or merely decorate text. It does not set out to cover imaginative artworks created as an end in themselves: these are dealt with under Fantasy Art, although we touch upon them here, as we do upon Comics artwork, since there has been much cross-fertilization.

The origins of fantasy illustration are to be found in medieval illuminations – mostly of religious texts – of the 13th and 14th centuries, which featured stylized depictions of Heaven and Hell and of their fantastical inhabitants. Although perhaps it could be argued these are revelations, it is probably safe to refer to them here as works of the imagination. If printed these were woodcuts or wood engravings, which methods governed the style and limited the content of the illustrations.

Imaginative illustrations began slowly to reappear as the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century brought about a gradual increase in book production. Such books included volumes of myths and fairy tales, but any illustrations they contained – usually anonymously engraved on wood or metal – featured little fantasy other than crude depictions of weird creatures based on the hellish depictions of painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald. Even books for children were not, at this time, greatly concerned with fantasy (see Children's Fantasy): it was thought that children required books that instructed rather than entertained. Among the first children's books published in the UK purely for entertainment was The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast (1807) by William Roscoe (1753-1831), with illustrations by William Mulready (1786-1863). This proved enormously popular; a spectacular reissue, with new illustrations by Alan Aldridge, appeared in 1973.

The beginnings of modern fantasy illustration came in the first years of the 19th century, the only substantial influences before then being William Blake and Henri Fuseli. Blake was essentially a medieval religious visionary with a romantic imagination, and his self-published Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), plus his various "Prophetic Books", contained illustrations very much in the medieval tradition, with holy figures in flowing garments, bat-winged Demons and hellfire. Bat-winged Spirits appeared also in some of the works of Fuseli, one of the most important early masters of the horrific, some of whose provocative and disturbing canvases were copied as engravings to illustrate the 1802 edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost and the 1805 Boydell edition of The Plays of W. Shakspeare (see William Shakespeare).

By the third decade of the 19th century the roots of most of the basic themes which characterize modern fantasy illustration had been established.

1. Fairyland and its denizens. Elves, gnomes, etc., had been a part of traditional UK folklore since medieval times and possibly before, but the portrayal of such beings with gossamer wings and clothing made from petals and leaves was a 19th-century invention. In an age of increasing industrialization, this kind of sentimentalizing of Nature and the countryside was particularly attractive. The theme would be developed into a genre of forest idyll in the popular paintings of artists like Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901), John Anster Fitzgerald (1832-1906), John Simmons (1823-1876) and Richard Dadd, and by numerous illustrators for the books of Fairytales published in increasing numbers through the 19th century. The engraved illustrations by William Henry Brooke (1772-1860) for Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825) by Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) are a fine early example: on the title page these tiny people are shown riding dragonflies and lizards, climbing cornstalks and wearing bluebell flower and acorn-cup hats. The 19th-century master of this genre was Richard Doyle, whose finest work was In Fairyland (1870), with text by William Allingham (1824-1889). The great popularity of fairytales and similar stories brought many distinguished illustrators to the subject, including George Cruikshank, who issued his own moralizing versions of fairytales in the series George Cruikshank's Fairy Library (1853-1864). Most successful was Arthur Rackham, whose eloquent pen-line and watercolour illustrations for books like J M Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1907 edition) were enormously popular. W Heath Robinson produced some luxuriant pen drawings to illustrate a 1914 edition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The portrayal of fairies as beings of the woodlands has been a consistent feature of this subgenre; one of the most enduringly popular examples has been the Flower Fairies series (Flower Fairies of the Spring [1923] and five further volumes) by Cicely Mary Barker, and the style is still to be found in the work of modern fantasy artists like Alan Lee (1947-    ) and Brian Froud in their Faeries (1978).

Other artists' portrayal of fairies were based on the putti of renaissance painting and the cherubs in the ceiling frescoes of the Baroque period. Charles Robinson favoured this style in his drawings for Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885); Robinson went on to illustrate well over 100 children's books, and a great many artists followed his example in portraying fairies as plump babies with tiny bird-wings. This tendency led ultimately in the UK to the apple-cheeked cuteness of the work of Mabel Lucy Attwell (1879-1964) in her 1921 edition of Barrie's Peter Pan and Wendy and her 1915 edition of Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies and, in the USA, to the awful, chubby-faced "Kewpie Dolls" of Rose Cecil O'Neill (1875-1944).

2. Anthropomorphized animals. These featured in the anonymous illustrations to Charles Perrault's Contes de Ma Mère Loye (1697) and in those by George Cruikshank for the tales of the Grimm Brothers. Sir John Tenniel frequently featured weird birds and animals dressed in the regalia of lords and churchmen in his illustrations for Punch, probably influenced by the great 19th-century masters of the genre, Ernest-Henry Griset (1843-1907) and Isidore Grandville; the latter's edition of de la Fontaine's Fables (1838) had been published in the UK in 1839 and was followed by Scènes de la Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux (graph 1842); his influence certainly prevailed in the line illustrations of the prolific Randolph Caldecott, whose own series of fairytale books included A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go (1878). Caldecott's work in turn inspired Beatrix Potter when she came to illustrate her own Peter Rabbit (1901) and its sequels. The tradition was continued by E H Shepard in his illustrations for A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1931). Louis Wain (1860-1939) built his reputation almost entirely upon his flair for drawing Cats that walked on their hindlegs, smoked cigars and wore monocles or mobcaps.

Meanwhile, in the USA, Arthur Burdette Frost (1851-1928) illustrated Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories with rather less charm but more accomplished draughtsmanship. These same stories were illustrated for the UK market in 1906 with great zest and humour by Harry Rountree, a highly skilled and imaginative artist from New Zealand who contributed many remarkable fantasy illustrations for magazines like Little Folks plus a long list of children's books. Ernest Alfred Aris (1882-1963) showed a similar engaging humour in his illustrations for his own children's books, which were published on both sides of the Atlantic, and for E Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers (1917). This was the tradition that much later nurtured Maurice Sendak.

3. Heroic fantasy. This mode of fantasy illustration has featured in paintings and engravings since the 14th century. The mid-15th-century painting of St George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello (1396-1475) in the National Gallery, London, shows a beast that is clearly recognizable as the ancestor of those painted for the covers of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books and countless others. (see also Genre Fantasy.)

Sword and Sorcery has as one source the adventures of Heroes like Hercules and Odysseus, and these tales have also frequently been illustrated, as have the stories of Arthur (first published with illustrations in 1557) and the heroes of Welsh and Irish legends (see also Matter). That said, the direct precursors of modern heroic-fantasy illustrations were not seen until the first half of the 19th century, and their roots lay in the engravings of earlier artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The paintings and pen-line illustrations of John Everett Millais and other Preraphaelites, along with the 19th-century war painters, provided source material for later illustrators of Sir Thomas Malory like A G Walker (1861-1939) in The Story of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1900), W Russell Flint in Le Morte Darthur (1910-1911 4 vols), Rackham in The Romance of King Arthur (1917), William Hatherell (1855-1928) in a 1937 edition and Julek Heller in Knights (1982).

The form and compositional conventions of modern heroic-fantasy illustration, however, are firmly rooted in the US tradition. Howard Pyle, justifiably referred to as the father of US illustration, adopted a formal approach to composition in many of his drawings and paintings, featuring a heroic or pioneering figure as though the subject were posing for a photograph. This compositional device was emphasized by followers like Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), J C Leyendecker (1874-1951) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) until it became an almost static, tableau-style arrangement. Many modern fantasy illustrators now arrange their subject matter in this "staged" fashion; some, like Frank Frazetta, succeed in maintaining a fluidity of movement within the composition while others, like Boris Vallejo, allow the arrangement to remain comparatively static. In the work of Maxfield Parrish the convention was pushed to its ultimate conclusion: the canvas is actually arranged as a stage on which figures are formally grouped and posed.

The vast, hellish vistas featuring fiery skies and volcanic fissures seen in the work of Bruce Pennington and others derive from the work of John Martin, who in the 19th century painted huge, spectacularly melodramatic canvases of apocalyptic subjects. His mezzotints for Paradise Lost (1827) and the Bible (1834-1835) are the first recognizably modern fantasy illustrations: their epic sweep and dramatic lighting show them to be another direct ancestor of the High-Fantasy book cover of today.

4. Horror fantasy. Horror was, in the 15th century, a common element in Christian depictions of Hell's inhabitants. Still very unsettling to the modern consciousness are the paintings of Matthias Grünewald and Hieronymus Bosch, and theirs and other gruesome creations have provided the inspiration for countless horrific beasts throughout the last five centuries. Henri Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781) was another early precursor of modern horror illustration, as were the remarkably disturbing illustrations for Dante provided in 1860 by Gustave Doré, which feature grotesques of the most fiendish description, all drawn with convincing clarity and lit with an eerie, spectral glow; this set of illustrations was the inspiration for a section of the movie Dante's Inferno (1935).

The animate corpse in a winding sheet, complete with glowing eye sockets, was fairly common in late-19th-century sensational literature, but the horror illustrator's predilection for blood and gore is a more recent phenomenon – although Harry Clarke, in his obsessive, decadent (see Decadence), Aubrey Beardsley-inspired illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919) had few inhibitions. From such elements grew the horror creations of Danny Flynn and John Holmes in the UK and Bernie Wrightson and Richard Corben in the USA.

5. Exotic/erotic fantasy. This, as seen in the work of modern illustrators Chris Achilleos and Boris Vallejo, has its early roots in the sculpture of the late 18th and 19th centuries: young female nudes were posed to represent Sirens and nymphs, or possibly Virtue, Compassion and Vanity – and, because of the Classical context or the morals theoretically espoused, were considered not pornographic. This light eroticism is evident also in the graphic work of the Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). The linking of the exotic with the erotic occurs in many 19th-century Arabian-Fantasy paintings and illustrations by Romantic painters like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) – in his circular painting The Turkish Bath (1863) – and is evident in the romanticized depictions of ancient Greece and Rome by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) and in the watercolours of John Riley Wilmer (1883-1941), among others. The image of a diaphanously clad young woman posing with an exotic animal was frequently used in late-19th-century UK popular painting by artists like Arthur Wardle (1864-1929) and John MacAllan Swan (1847-1910), and the same imagery is evident in the published illustrations of Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917). Decades later it still appears in the work of Frank Frazetta and others, though now usually with less of the diaphanous clothing.

The exoticizing of the human figure by the addition of animal attributes – zebra stripes, fish fins, etc. – originated with artists' impressions of Mermaids, which were drawn as though literally creatures who were half-woman, half-fish. Chris Achilleos and Rowena have used such devices to increase the fantasy element in conventional "cheesecake" art.

6. Science fiction. Although clearly a branch of fantasy, Science Fiction has now achieved the status of a separate genre. Sf illustration may be said to originate in the work of Isidore Grandville in Un Autre Monde (graph 1844) and Albert Robida (1848-1926) in his long series of futuristic illustrations for the French popular magazine La Caricature between 1880 and 1886.

Media, Techniques and Styles

The history of illustration techniques and styles has been governed by the development of printing methods and, in the second half of the 20th century, profoundly affected by the frequent introduction of new art materials. The woodcut and wood engraving were the media first used in illustration, as they allowed both text and picture to be printed at the same time by the letterpress process: etching and lithography required illustrations and text to be printed separately. In the 18th century copper and steel almost entirely replaced wood as the media for engraving, although some artists were unhappy about the loss of control this change entailed, since it required the services of an artisan to copy the original artwork onto the plate. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) drew directly on the endgrain of hardwood and did his own cutting, and the great success and sensitivity of his work initiated a slow return to popularity of the woodblock. By the 1860s, however, it had become possible photographically to reproduce the drawing onto a zinc plate and etch out the white areas – a method known as process reproduction. Artists could now see their b/w line drawings reproduced exactly as created, and were able to increase the clarity and definition of the printed image by emphasizing outlines and drawing the original 50% larger ("half-up") than the required reproduction size. They could draw in a freer, less formal style and with a more expressive line, and so leading artists of the day, like the Preraphaelites John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were attracted to book and magazine illustration. While Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), Laurence Housman, Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866-1931) and others opted to take advantage of the new technology by drawing in a loose, fully rendered style, others such as Aubrey Beardsley decided on a flatter, decorative use of line and patterned areas. Artists who owe a considerable debt to Beardsley include Harry Clarke, Alastair and Sidney Herbert Sime, all three of whom produced work that displayed the eerie morbidness of what became known as the Decadent School (see Decadence). A delicate, lacelike variation of this style was developed by Annie French (1873-1965) and Jessie M King.

During the early 1880s halftone screens allowed the reproduction of tonal drawings, and within a few years colour printing became possible by means of the three-colour process. At first the latter required a strong black outline to ensure a clear picture, and this technological necessity moulded the decorative flat linear style of leading popular children's illustrators like Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane.

Photolithography, invented in France in 1855, was used in the late 19th century to print on tins and boxes. In 1905, however, Ira Rubel accidentally discovered offset lithography, which was eventually to supersede letterpress as a means of printing on paper. Colour printing by the (now) four-colour process allowed reproduction of full-colour paintings; that said, high-quality paper and great care by the printer were essential, so colour illustrations were printed separately from text and "tipped in" (i.e., glued at one edge and mounted in the book by hand). An exact colour match could not be guaranteed, and the result often lacked freshness, but imaginative artists like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, W Heath Robinson and Willy Pogány made refined use of line drawing coupled with subdued colour, and thereby became the leading lights in a golden age of UK illustration. The delightful, dreamlike quality of the painted illustrations for the 1908 edition of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book by the twin brothers Charles Maurice Detmold (1883-1908) and Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957) exemplified another strand in the development of a recognizably UK illustration style that informed the later work of Dulac and ultimately that of Alan Aldridge.

Meanwhile pen-and-ink line remained a very popular illustration medium because of the cheapness and clarity of the printed result. The prolific H J Ford and the brothers C E Brock and H M Brock were among the more successful of hundreds of b/w illustrators who contributed to the steady development of fantasy illustration in the UK.

In the USA, illustration developed in the colour magazines as well as in books. The oil techniques of the Old Masters were adopted by Howard Pyle in his illustrations for the fiction pages of Scribner's, and he passed on these working methods to his many students and followers. This classic approach, in the hands of N C Wyeth, Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Harold Von Schmidt (1893-1982) and many other remarkably gifted painters, contributed to the development of a great tradition in US illustration that in due course nurtured the talents of Frank Frazetta, among others. With the introduction in the 1960s of media that speed up the drying of oil paints and the development of acrylic colours, the continuation of this tradition seems assured: original talents who have been instrumental in providing new inspiration for fantasy illustration include Robert Peak (1928-1992) in his Star Trek and other film posters, Robert McGinnis (1926-    ) in his many hundreds of book covers, Bernard Fuchs (1932-    ) and Robert Heindel (1938-    ) in their book and magazine illustrations – all can be seen to have influenced younger fantasy artists like Bill Sienkiewicz (1958-    ).

Recent UK illustration has developed along significantly different lines. There was very little painted artwork in UK magazines, and book publishers preferred to integrate illustration and text, so illustration was forced to follow a different course from fine art. Line illustration continued as the most common technique, with imaginative masters of the medium like Robin Jacques and Charles Keeping gradually introducing colour into their work as increasingly sophisticated means of transferring artwork onto the page improved the colour accuracy of the reproduced image.

Another innovation of the 1960s and 1970s was the airbrush which, although by no means a new tool, was refined into an attractive alternative to the traditional brush, and has had a profound effect on more recent fantasy art. Pioneers like Michael English (1940-    ) and Philip Castle (1942-    ) used it to endow a super-real smoothness to their paintings of human flesh and glass and metal surfaces, providing inspiration for the chromium pinups of Hajime Sorayama (1947-    ), while others like Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews have used it to different effect in their fantasy landscapes.

The introduction of watercolour dyes, like the Dr Martin's range, has also been significant: although they fade in bright sunlight, the unusual brilliance and subtlety of colour they offer have made them attractive to illustrators like Dave McKean who work in a wide range of mixed media.

Computer-generated art is now having a profound effect on illustration styles. The attraction of having thousands of subtle shades and textural effects at their fingertips has induced many artists to experiment with computers, and it is probable that this is the tool which will eventually prove to have the most revolutionary stylistic consequences of all.

In terms of current printing technology, laser colour separation is giving way to digital analysis of colour. This provides a very true reproduction of artwork originals, and illustrators are no longer restricted in their choice of media, technique or artwork surface. In fantasy illustration, UK artists have absorbed the US tradition plus influences from Japan and elsewhere, and now the style and techniques adopted for fantasy cover design are very similar on both sides of the Atlantic, although the US predilection for exaggeratedly heroic figures remains distinctive: US artists like Ken Kelly and Ken Barr paint their grotesquely muscled heroes and lurid monsters with utter conviction, while the work in similar vein of UK artist Simon Bisley contains a self-mocking humour. But the influences and traditions that have given rise to the paintings of Don Maitz, Bob Eggleton (1960-    ), Richard Hescox and John Berkey in the USA are the same as those that inform the art of Jim Burns, Peter Andrew Jones, Geoff Taylor (?   -    ) and Christopher Foss (1946-    ) in the UK. Currently, then, fantasy illustration is losing most of its regional traditions to take on an international flavour. [RT]



This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.