A world of words: 17th and 18th Century dictionaries

This month’s Special Collections blog posts celebrates languages by exploring the 17th and 18th Century dictionaries housed in our Old Library. They include texts that share definitions, translations, and even advice on pruning fig trees…


Dictionaries in the Old Library, St John’s College, Oxford

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Stories from the Shelves

From the founding of St John’s College in 1555 through to the present day, the life of the Library has been one of bold choices and big changes. Our current exhibition, Stories from the Shelves, explores the Library and its readers throughout the ages using items from our special collections.

Here you can see a few of the treasures on display. Click on the images to read about the item.

If you would like to visit the exhibition and are not a member of the College, please contact us at library@sjc.ox.ac.uk.

Cataloguing A.E. Housman’s Personal Papers

A full and digitised description of the Housman papers at St John’s is in the works. Connie Bettison, St John’s library trainee from 2016-17, writes about her experience beginning the digital cataloguing process.

A.E. Housman

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) is best known today for his poetry but in his own time he was highly regarded as a classical scholar. His entrance into this world was a mixture of leaps and bounds and slow-burning effort. He matriculated as a student of Greats at St John’s in 1877 and achieved a first in Mods. Despite this, he failed his final exams. Returning to college in the years that followed while working as a clerk for the Patent Office in London, he eventually passed his exams and graduated in 1892.

After these twelve years of administration work at the Patent Office and independent study of Greek and Latin, Housman got a job as Professor of Latin at University College London. Housman taught there for nineteen years. Then, in 1911 he moved on to take a Latin professorship at Trinity College Cambridge. This was where he lived and worked until the end of his life in 1936.

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Do we need pictures? Illustration of the earliest printed books.


St. John’s holds an important collection of incunables, i.e. books printed before 31st December 1501. The process of printing with movable type was invented around 1450 in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg, as recorded by the Cologne Chronicle of 1499, a text which preserves the testimony of the first printer of Cologne, Ulrich Zell, who had previously worked with him (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 42).

There are 143 incunables in St. John’s Special Collections. The majority were 17th century donations, and most of them have a 16th century binding. In the early modern period, a book was generally purchased unbound and then given a binding by its owner. These benefactors therefore probably donated incunables they had acquired earlier on, in the second part of the 16th century, a hundred years after their publication.


Although the earliest printed book held by the Library dates back to 1465, most of its incunables were printed between 1476 and 1500.


Their places of printing represent the main bookmaking towns of the time, which were concentrated in present day Germany, Italy and France, with Lyon, Nuremberg and Venice producing most. There is also, however, a good showing of English early printed books, with eleven incunables produced in Westminster by the first English printer, William Caxton, and other books produced in smaller centres such as Oxford and St. Albans.


Distribution of the places of printing of St. John’s incunables

This incunable collection, mostly composed of folios, reflects the domination of Latin, while showing the variety of languages that were beginning to make their way in books of the time: Anglo-Norman, English, French, Italian, Ancient Greek, Arabic are all represented.Languages_graphic

The emergence of the vernacular in printed books is closely associated with the appearance of printed book illustrations: between 1460 and 1466 the first books were printed in German as were the first books to contain printed illustrations (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 48).

By printed illustrations, we refer to actual pictures reproduced through a printing process, and not only adorned initials or decorative elements. The printing of images preceded textual printing and was very common by the time the latter began. Woodcut illustrations, with relief designs, would be transferred to textiles and paper by stamping or rubbing, later on with a press, and were very popular. The most common items to be produced in this fashion were playing cards and devotional images. These would be pasted on walls, doors or inside boxes, or even sewn into clothing. Print making was a craft of its own, and with the invention of typography, it met a related, though separate, art: book printing (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 39–40).

Between 1440 and 1470, text and image printing combined in two ways.

The first of these was the production of blockbooks, derived from printmaking, which are books with text and images cut into woodblocks and printed on the recto only by rubbing.  Blockbooks declined not long after 1475; their woodblocks were often reincorporated in typographic books.

The second technique, the combination of typeset text and prints, represented a technological innovation. This began during the same period: historiography has traditionally attributed to Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg the first illustrated printed book, but more recent analyses of book catalogues have revealed that other illustrated incunables had been produced in South Germany and Italy at about the same time (ca. 1460) or even slightly earlier (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 55).

St. John’s does not own any blockbooks, but does have a considerable number of illustrated incunables. The purpose of this exhibition is therefore to examine the interaction of the two separate crafts of printing, text printing and image printing, that became widespread in 15th century Europe and met in the incunable.

1 – Alexander Carpentarius (fl. 1429), Destructiorum vitiorum, printed in Cologne by Heinrich Quentell ( -1501) in 1480. 724 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s Collge Library, HB4/Folios.2.6.5, f. d8v-e1r.


It is appropriate to start with a book printed in the German region, since printed books and printed book illustrations originate from there. This is the first edition of a contemporary work on vice. Cologne was an important centre for book making, and Heinrich Quentell had by that time a lot of experience with printed book illustration: his publication of the first Low German Bibles between 1478 and 1480 took biblical illustration a step further, fixing a pictorial style that would last for generations (Strachan 1957, 11). This book shows a fine woodcut border unusually highlighted in yellow at the beginning of the text. Borders were seldom made of one block, but several strips would be put together to make a frame. This example is quite striking: although the borders were definitely made with several blocks, the left and upper borders were made with the same one. This frame is a beautiful combination of foliage, single characters and animals, and a vivid Magi scene at the bottom.

I – A technique

Book illustration is an art with its tradition and techniques.

  • An inherited pictorial tradition

2 – Bible, translated by Niccolò Malermi (1422- ), with additions by Hieronymus Squarzaficus, printed in Venice by Vindelinus de Spira (fl. 1470-1477) on 1st August 1471. 2 volumes in folio, in Italian. St. John’s College Library, HB4/Folios.2.2.1, f. b2v-b3r.


This beautifully illustrated book, a fine example of Venetian printing produced for a pan-European market, is the first Bible printed in Italian. The first Bible printed in any modern European language was a German edition produced by Johannes Mentelin in Strasbourg in 1466 (Strachan 1957, 9). This one came not long after, and it is interesting that illustration was added to the first vernacular version, implying that the image and the text complemented each other in speaking to the reader. The illustration is done by hand, which is often the case in Italian early printed books. Although the first Italian incunable with printed illustration dates back to 1462 (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 69), some Italian bookmaking towns, renowned for their manuscript production, like Florence, did not fully embrace printed illustrations straight away. A possible reason for this could be that Italian productions were considered luxury items and required elaborate decoration that was not deemed possible with print. Moreover, the mechanical production of the book seemed too cheap a process at first for the readership of the princely Italian courts, devaluing highly prized handmade objects (Sander 1942, XIX–XXI). The importance of the illuminators, renowned for the high quality of their production, and protected by guilds, also made it difficult for printers to employ woodcut designers.

  • The woodcut

3 – Jacobus de Cessolis (fl. 1288-1322), De ludo scachorum, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) around 1483. 168 pages in folio, in English, Latin and French. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. a5v-a6r.


This is an example of the late move toward book illustration of the first English printer, William Caxton. He first worked in Bruges in collaboration with the Flemish printer Colard Mansion, and there he produced the first book printed in English in 1473, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, which he had translated himself. When he came back to England, he set up a press in Westminster, but it took him five years to introduce illustration in his books: the Mirror of the World, printed in 1481, contains 11 diagrammatic woodcuts. He probably lacked the artists, the woodblocks and the expertise at first (Driver 2004, 7–8). Moreover, Caxton’s interest really lay in the language, rather than the bookmaking: he is better known for his translations and his style, which contributed to the development of the English language, rather than the appearance of his books. Only 19 out of the 100 surviving productions from his press are illustrated, and nearly all their 381 cuts were prepared or bought between 1480 and 1485. He had six men cutting under his supervision and six working abroad for him, and it seems that De ludo scachorum and the Canterbury Tales, which are also on display in this exhibition, were cut by the same English carver (Hodnett 1935, 1).

4 – Abū Maʿshar ( -886) , Madkhal ilá ʿilm aḥkām al-nujūm (Introduction to astronomy), printed in Augsburg by Erhard Ratdolt (1447?-1527/1528) on 7th Ides February 1489. 70 leaves in quarto, in Latin and Arabic. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.a.3.25(1), f.a2v-a3r.


5 – Scriptores astronomici veteres, printed in Venice by Aldo Manuzio (1449/1450-1515) in October 1499. 752 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F – 31 / SCR, f. Iviiiv-Iixr.


These two books illustrate clearly the circulation of woodblocks. No copyright law protected designs, which circulated widely across Europe. Surviving contracts for the rent of woodcuts prove that they were intended to be sold on (Blum 1928, 5). Legislation encouraged this: in England, foreign merchants and artists were guaranteed the freedom to import and sell their products by an act passed in 1484 (Duff 1906). This was important because no woodcutting tradition developed in England in the 15th and even the 16th century: nearly all woodcuts were imported from the continent (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XXI).

Erhard Ratdolt was born in Augsburg, but moved to Venice where he began printing. He specialized in scientific publishing, particularly astronomical texts. For his edition of Hyginus’ Poetica astronomica in 1482 and 1485, he used woodblocks of gods and goddesses with zodiac signs. He eventually went back to Augsburg, taking the woodblocks with him and reusing them in two editions of Abū Maʿshar’s Flores astrologiae in 1488 and 1495, and in Leupoldus’ Compilatio de astrorum scientia in 1489 (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 54–55). He thereby introduced woodblocks with Florentine and Venetian characteristics into Augsburg’s printed output. The woodblocks in question were also used in this edition of Abū Maʿshar’s Introduction to astronomy. But it is very interesting to note that the woodblock of the sun appears reversed in the book (right) produced by the celebrated Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio in 1499: Ratdolt may have made use of an Italian pattern that was later adopted by Manuzio, or the latter may have copied the pattern from one of Ratdolt’s editions – this would explain the mirror image.

  • Colour

6 – Geoffrey Chaucer ( -1400), Canterbury Tales, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) in 1483 or 1484. 314 leaves in folio, in English. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. a8v.


This rare coloured second edition of the Canterbury Tales is one of the highlights of St. John’s collection. Caxton chose Chaucer’s work as the first product of his Westminster press in 1476/7, making it the first book printed in England. This first edition did not contain any woodcut illustrations or initials, only guide letters for initials to be added by hand. His second corrected edition, produced in 1483/4, was enriched with 22 woodcuts depicting the pilgrims. Caxton may not be known for the quantity or the quality of his book illustrations, but from these woodcuts sprang a tradition of illustration that can be tracked to the 18th century in printed editions of Chaucer’s works (Driver 2004, 8). St. John’s copy was  the only one known in 1926 (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XX), and though others have been inventoried since, it remains exceptional through the life given to its characters by its colouring.

II – The people involved

There are three important perspectives to consider when looking at book images. The primary one is that of the reader for whom images are included.

  • The reader

6 – Geoffrey Chaucer ( -1400), Canterbury Tales, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) in 1483 or 1484. 314 leaves in folio, in English. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. b1r.


Besides his lack of resources and his interest lying in language over illustration, another reason that could account for Caxton’s tardy introduction of pictures into his books was the taste of his market. Although he made a point of publishing books in the vernacular, working on translations himself, his output was aimed at those who could afford books, usually a literate elite who did seemingly not need images to access text. Caxton might have realised that book production had to make space for images in order to be more successful, or he might have been led to realise it through readers’ feedback. Indeed, in the preface of the second edition of the Canterbury Tales, he explains a dissatisfied purchaser of the first edition brought to him the manuscript ‘by whiche I haue corrected my book’: he says that this manuscript was ‘a book whyche hys fader had and moche louyd / that was very trewe’ without mentioning if it contained any illustration (Driver 2004, 7–8).  Even if it did not, the fact that the corrected edition included woodcuts definitely shows the importance of illustrations in books in vernacular, importance that can only be accounted for by their readership.

  • The artist

7 – Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Liber chronicarum, printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger (ca. 1440-1513) on 12th July 1493. 328 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5, f. XLVIIv-XLVIIIr.

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Another highlight of St. John’s incunables, the Nuremberg Chronicle, as this book is most commonly known, was specifically produced for wealthy book buyers, ready to invest in a big, lavishly illustrated book. Nuremberg was, after Cologne, the second largest city of the Holy Roman Empire, and home to many rich merchants. Two of them, Sebald Shreyer and his son-in-law, Sebastian Kammermeister, commissioned the printing of the Latin version of this history of the world and its famous cities, which was written by Hartmann Schedel, a Nuremberg physician and humanist. They also paid for its translation into German. It was intended to be a luxurious one: it included 645 different woodblocks, which, used several times each throughout the book, make up a total of 1,800 separate illustrations in the text. These depict characters, cities and scenes of the narrated episodes, and were innovative in their size and number, as well as in the use of the artistic technique of the ‘white-line’ where contour lines adjoining shadows became white rather than black (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 66).

An expert in luxury publication, Anton Koberger ran a large printing workshop able to cope with the demand of such a project. Yet it took 2 years to produce the 2,500 copies (1,500 in Latin, 1,000 in German), even though most of his presses, around 15, were allocated to the work. On its completion in 1493, Koberger also printed a separate broadsheet advertisement to promote it to the wealthy of Nuremberg:

‘Nothing like this has hitherto appeared to increase and heighten the delight of men of learning and of everyone who has any education at all: the new book of chronicles with its pictures of famous men and cities which has just been printed at the expense of rich citizens of Nuremberg.’

It was not intended for a scholarly audience, but for a wealthy lay readership who had enough money and education to afford and enjoy it. Despite this, it did not sell as well as hoped, partly because it was pirated very early on by an Augsburg printer, Johann Shönsperger, who copied the Nuremberg woodblocks and recut them to produce an edition with 2,165 illustrations – proof that the images were the real asset of such books. Consequently, many books remained unsold and the consortium failed (Pettegree 2011, 42).

The contracts behind the consortium have survived, and give a rare insight into the arrangements between the printer and the artists in charge of the woodcuts. The latter were renowned, and their names are among the earliest that have come down to us for woodcut designers. Michael Wolgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff were painters often employed by Koberger for his publications. For this particular undertaking, the two artists had to provide sketches showing how their designs would fit with the text on the page, and one of them had to be present in the printing workshop throughout the production process. They were to earn 1,000 guilders, plus a share in the profit (Pettegree 2011, 41).

  • The printer

8 – Alexander of Hales (ca. 1145-1245), Expositio super tres libros Aristotelis de anima, printed in Oxford by Theodoric Rood (fl. 1478-1486) on 11th October 1481. 480 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.3.lower shelf.3, f.aiv-aiir.


9 – John Lathbury, Liber moralium super threnis Ieremiae, printed in Oxford by Theodoric Rood (fl. 1478-1486) on 31st July 1482. 580 pages in folio, Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.3.lower shelf.2, f. aiv-aiir.


These two books testify to the printer’s control of the pictorial programmes of his books and to their overall typographical character. They were produced by the first Oxford printer, Theodoric Rood, whose first publication was the Expositio in symbolum apostolorum in 1478. Though their content is different, the opening text is encircled by the same illustrated frame. Rood had probably devised a pictorial programme which he could reuse for different texts. The text determines the organization of the page; the illustrated border adapts itself to the typography.

III – Functions of images

Images performed several functions, including decoration, clarification, promotion, content.

  • Decorating the book

10 – Simplicius of Silicia, Hypomnemata in Aristotelis Categorias, printed in Venice by Zacharias Callierges (fl. 1499-1523) on 26 October 1499. 320 pages in folio, in Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.1.lower shelf.1(2), f. Aβr, f. Aαv-Aβr.

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This is a very fine example of elaborate decoration that comes close to being an illustration. Upper borders and an initial have been inserted at the top of the page to highlight the beginning of the chapter and its title. The abstract pattern of the interweaving foliage attracts the eye which could be tempted to remain on it if it was not then drawn to the beautifully typeset text in Ancient Greek that fills the page. It is also interesting to note that the decorative elements are printed in a different colour, red or gold, which would probably have required two press runs, and therefore increased the production costs and time.

11 – Breviary (Salisbury), printed in London by Richard Pynson ( – 1530) in 1497. 135 leaves in quarto, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.A.4.11, flyleaf-f.Air.


This little book contains the Sarum rite, the Catholic liturgy as practiced at Salisbury which predominated usage in England prior to the Reformation. It was produced by Richard Pynson, who was the chief rival to Wynkyn de Worde.  De Worde was a Dutchman who accompanied Caxton on his return to England, and took over the Westminster press after Caxton’s death in 1492. Pynson worked in London too, but he was not English either: he was from Normandy, and had probably learnt printing at Rouen. Both experimented with illustration in order to broaden their clientele. Without a wealth of expertise in woodcut production, the influence of such prominent continental printers in England delayed a native tradition of book illustration: most images in books produced in England were imported from the continent or copied from continental examples (Baer 1976, 114). Pynson used woodcuts belonging to Antoine Vérard, a Parisian printer reputed for his lavishly illustrated books, in a later book, the Kalendar of Shepherds, in 1506 (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XXI).

The book opens on an evocative image showing the transmission of knowledge in a classroom, where books are given a central place.

12 – Joannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476), Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemaei, printed in Venice by Johannes Hamman (fl. 1482-1509) on the day before the calends of September 1496. 216 pages in folio, in Latin and Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F-28 / PTO / REG, f. a3v-a4r.


This astronomical work opens with a full-page illustration incorporating an armillary sphere at its centre. It is set on a table between two scholars, clearly indicating the topic to be discussed in the present volume. The elaborate border adds to the impact of the opening, implying the status of the subject.

Astronomy calls for images that show the shape and movements of constellations; astronomical works were often illustrated.

13 – Pierre Desrey ( -1520), Postillae super Epistolis et Evangeliis Dominicalibus ac festivitatibus de sanctis, printed in Troyes by Guillaume Le Rouge on 31st March 1492. 436 pages in folio, in Latin and French. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.2.upper shelf.7, f. aiv-aiir.

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The importance of this double-page spread of illustration is particularly striking. The Gospel was a good text to illustrate, as the scenes they contain were easy to depict and would definitely appeal to the memory.

14 – Giovanni d’Andrea (ca. 1270-1348), Super arboribus consanguinitatis et affinitatis, printed in Heidelberg by Heinrich Knoblochtzer around 1495. 10 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.d.5.8(3), f. 1v-2r, f. 5v.

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This booklet bound at the back of other works offers a remarkable example of the uses of printed images in clarifying a text. Family history is by nature difficult to put into words, as it very quickly gets confusing. Family trees are a more economical way to show family relationships. Before moving to Heidelberg, Knoblochtzer worked in Strasbourg where he had some new woodcuts made from a master who signed some of his works with the letter ‘b’.

  • Promoting the book

15 – Nicasius de Voerda ( -1492), Lectura libri Institutionuz, printed in Cologne by Johann Koelhoff ( -1493) on 6th April 1493. 266 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, R.scam.2.18, flyleaf-f. air.


This title page would still have been quite unusual at the time as it took a while for an entire page to be dedicated to this purpose. The possibilities of typography began to be explored and used to highlight certain words, making them stand out from the page. Beneath the title is a woodcut bearing a depiction of the Crucifixion imposed on a double-headed eagle crowned in the imperial way. This is the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire which incorporated Cologne as a free city. The book is an analysis of the Institutes, a 6th century codification of Roman law ordered by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, a corpus which would have been important in the Empire.

16 – Bishop Giannantonio Campano (1429-1477), Works, printed in Rome by Eucharius Silber (fl. 1480-1510) on the day before the calends of November 1495. 304 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.d.5.10, flyleaf-f. Ir.


This book opens with a ‘striking’ image showing a gigantic bell almost ringing out the author’s name and works. Shading gives the illustration volume, and the way it cleaves a poem (Carmen) in two makes it leap into the foreground, as if it had just swung forward. The image is a rebus on the name of the author, Bishop Giannantonio Campano, which literally means ‘bell’ (campana in Latin). More word play appears where the word pulsat (‘beat’) in the motto coincides with the bell’s clapper. On the upper part of the bell can be found the printer’s device, a group of letters where it is not easy to identify the printer’s initials. Considering how rarely books showed an image on their front page, this well-designed opening would have been very engaging.

  • Adding to the content

17 – Euclid, Elements, printed in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt (1477?-1527/1528) on 25th May 1482. 276 pages in folio, in Latin, Arabic and Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F-17 / EUC, f. c1v-c2r.

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This is the first edition of a major work in mathematics. Its publication marked a step forward in the diffusion of Euclid’s principles. The outer margins of every page contained geometrical figures which illustrate the different elements described. These are essential to the comprehension of the work as Euclid’s geometry is very visual. Formerly, students would learn from scientific manuscripts where they had to insert diagrams by hand in the blanks left in the text. The Flemish university town of Louvain pioneered printing schemes and diagrams in scientific texts (Kok 2013, xxv). This represented a significant step forward in scientific publishing. Ratdolt produced several luxury copies of this edition, in two of which he included a dedicatory epistle printed in gold: he experimented with coloured printing and is credited with being the only printer of the period to have mastered the technique of printing in different colours (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 55).

18 – Pietro de Crescenzi, (ca.1233-1320), Ruralia commoda, printed in Speyer by Peter Drach ( -1504) around 1490-1495. 158 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, R.scam.2.19, f. Giiiiv-Gvr.

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Peter Drach’s customers are well known because his account book survived: we know his books were intended for wealthy buyers, mostly members of the clergy (Pettegree 2011, 38–39). This very successful medieval work about life in the countryside was the first printed text on agriculture when it was published in Augsburg in 1471. Since then, seven editions had been produced in different countries, so it was a safe investment for Peter Drach, who could expect this book to sell well. It also had the advantage of being generously illustrated with woodcuts depicting scenes of rural life. The same woodblock is often used several times, sometimes on the same opening (as shown here), a very common practice in early printed books, and not one that was problematic for contemporary readers, whose mindset was more attuned to repetitions and cycles in life. There were fewer images in the premodern world, and so they tended to be appreciated in a more contemplative way. It was also a way of keeping the production costs down.


The encounter between printed images and printed text is explained by the close connection existing between those two crafts as well as the high demand for both pictures and books towards the middle of the 15th century.

The close connection between the two trades is evident as soon as one begins to have a closer look at 15th century books. Many cannot be classified according to the traditional categories: incunables with blockbook parts, or blockbooks with typographic passages are examples of the hybridization discussed by Paul Needham, for whom a book can be the product of an intersection of several crafts (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 76–77). The demands of the 15th century marketplace drove this experimentation with book illustration.

Single-leaf prints were very common and circulated widely. Their popularity is not reflected by the number that survived: their status as ephemeral objects, used in daily context, worked against their long-term preservation in any quantity. Books were also in high demand, and the invention of printing seems to have been stimulated by this demand rather than vice versa: manuscript book production had been increasing for several centuries reaching a high point between 1451 and 1470 (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 42). It therefore comes as no surprise that illustrated books were very successful in the later part of the 15th century, and it is estimated that one third of incunables contained illustrations (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 49).

Yes, incunables needed pictures. They largely benefited from an already successful parent technique, the woodcut, which widened their market and readership as they were made both more attractive and more accessible.

Interestingly, the relationship between  printed images and printed text evolved in the 16th century, when the book became essentially typographical (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 40). The design of the page came to be determined by the layout of the text above all, which led to the development of formal programmes of decoration that could fit in the typographical  plan (Barbara A. Shailor in Needham et al. 1999, 12). Moreover, the move to copper plates, though enabling greater precision in the drawing, also meant an increase in cost, as they were more fragile than woodcuts and more difficult to print alongside text. Therefore, printers would often choose to print images on separate plates, and to reduce their number, sometimes merely to a frontispiece or engraved title page. Many books at the end of the 17th century only show one illustration, the portrait of their author. The role of book images evolved: after the 15th century, they were usually inserted only when they were necessary to convey information, and less so for themselves. This leads some to argue that the illustrated book was actually less important in the 16th century than it was in the 15th (García Vega 1984, 40–41).


Amelung, Peter. 1979. Der Frühdruck im deutschen Südwesten, 1473-1500: eine Ausstellung der Württembergischen Landesbibliothek Stuttgart. Stuttgart: Württembergische Landesbibliothek.

Baer, Alexandre. 1976. Les premiers livres illustrés. Il était une fois ; t.1. Paris: J. Baer.

Blum, André. 1928. Les origines du livre à gravures en France : les incunables typographiques. Paris ; Bruxelles: G. van Oest.

De Simone, Daniel. 2004. A Heavenly Craft : The Woodcut in Early Printed Books : Illustrated Books Purchased by Lessing J. Rosenwald at the Sale of the Library of C.W. Dyson Perrins. New York: G. Braziller, in association with the Library of Congress, Washington.

Driver, Martha W. 2004. The Image in Print : Book Illustration in Late Medieval England and Its Sources. London: British Library.

Duff, Edward Gordon. 1906. The Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders of Westminster and London from 1476 to 1535. Sandars Lects., 1899 and 1904. Cambr.

García Vega, Blanca. 1984. El grabado del libro español : siglos XV, XVI, XVII : aportación a su estudio con los fondos de las bibliotecas de Valladolid. Arqueología y arte. Valladolid: Institución Cultural Simancas, Diputación Provincial de Valladolid.

Hind, Arthur Mayger. 1963. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut : With a Detailed Survey of Work Done in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Dover.

Hodnett, Edward. 1935. English Woodcuts, 1480-1535. Bibliographical Society. Illustrated Monographs ; no.22. London: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press.

Kok, Clazina Helena Cornelia Maria. 2013. Woodcuts in Incunabula Printed in the Low Countries. Bibliotheca Bibliographica Neerlandica ; Ser. Major, v. 2. Houten, Netherlands: HES & De Graaf Publishers.

Leo S. Olschki. 1926. Le livre illustré au XVe siècle. Florence: L. S. Olschki.

Muther, Richard. 1972. German Book Illustration of the Gothic Period and the Early Renaissance (1460-1530). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Needham, Paul, Michael Joseph, Barbara A. Shailor, Leonard Hansen, and Robert G. Sewell. 1999. Adventure and Art: The First One Hundred Years of Printing : An Exhibition of Books, Woodcuts, and Illustrated Leaves Printed between 1455 and 1555. New Brusnwick, NJ: Rutgers University Library.

Parshall, Peter W. 2009. The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe. Studies in the History of Art (Washington, D.C.) ; 75. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

Pettegree, Andrew. 2011. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven, Conn; London: Yale University Press.

Sander, Max. 1942. Le livre à figures italien depuis 1467 jusqu’a 1530 : essai de sa bibliographie et de son histoire. Milan: U. Hoepli.

Strachan, James. 1957. Early Bible Illustrations : A Short Study Based on Some Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Century Printed Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suarez, Michael F., and H. R. Woudhuysen. 2010. The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In the Library

A selection of livres d’artiste from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is on temporary display in St. John’s College Library. It has been drawn from the college’s collection of such books, a collection which Dr Peter Hacker built when he was the Library Fellow at the college. In the glossary of French Livres d’artiste in Oxford University Collections, Eunice Martin defines the livre d’artiste as “a book illustrated with original prints in which the text, illustrations, typography (or calligraphy), paper, cover and other features are designed to produce a total work of art”. Dr. Hacker developed an intimate understanding of print-making during the time of his friendship with Stanley Hayter, whose two books, Death of Hektor and Poèmes d’amour = Love poems form parts of the exhibition. Some of the most important artists of the twentieth century analysed their methods by following the piecemeal process of print-making. Jackson Pollock invented the method of his ‘drip’ painting after rigorously working in print. Hayter had guided him at Atelier 17, the workshop which he founded in Paris in 1927 and moved to New York in the early 1940s. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning were also great American artists who used Hayter’s workshop. The delay which occurs between the engraving of the copper plate (or wooden block) and the printing of the ink on the page, had become an occasion for the automatic creativity of the Surrealists in the 1920s.

'Three Wishes', an original print by Hector Saunier

‘Three Wishes’, an original print by Hector Saunier

By the permission of the artist

Prints illustrate the livres d’artiste in ‘Not An Illustration’; they do not illustrate the texts of those books exclusively.  The relationship between each of the prints and its books is structured as a relationship between a metonym and an object. This is nothing unique, of course; it is just more obviously true of the relationships between each of the books and the prints on display in the exhibition, than it is true of similar relationships in most other illustrated publications. An artist has given a great quality of decoration to each one of the books in ‘Not An Illustration’. The prints demand that we recognise the collaborative endeavours of the writers, the craftspeople and the artists who have been collectively responsible for the books.

A page opening in 'Ecstasies', a loose-leaf livre d'artiste by Geoffrey MacEwan

A page opening in ‘Ecstasies’, a loose-leaf livre d’artiste by Geoffrey MacEwan

By the permission of the artist

The basis of the selection is that the livres d’artiste are illustrated with non-figurative pictures. This is a strategy for claiming that all illustrations are abstract. We are used to defining illustrations in the terms of our assumption that they bear physical or concrete relations to specific objects. This is how we say that they are the images of objects, texts, events, collaborative artworks, etc. We rarely acknowledge that they are parts of those things. Most illustrations are figurative pictures. The selection of livres d’artiste has been made in the hope that the audience will see the illustrations – pictures which can be drawn-off from the books – in a strangely familiar way. That would be the perception of new historical equivalents to – not illustrations of – the artists’ experiences.


Rosalind E. Krauss. ‘Reading Jackson Pollock Abstractly’, in: The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1986): pp. 221-243.

Eunice Martin. French Livres d’Artiste in Oxford University Collections (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1996): p. 64.

Not An Illustration: Livres d’artiste in the Special Collections of St. John’s College, Oxford

“Experience of our age in terms of painting—not an illustration of—(but the equivalent.)” – Jackson Pollock


This is an exhibition of a selection of the college’s livres d’artiste and some other rare books which were produced in the early 1930s, in collaboration with Leonard Lye, a modernist film-maker and sculptor.

In the glossary of French Livres d’artiste in Oxford University Collections, Eunice Martin defines the livre d’artiste as “a book illustrated with original prints in which the text, illustrations, typography (or calligraphy), paper, cover and other features are designed to produce a total work of art”. The criterion for our selection is that the books are illustrated with non-figurative pictures.

The illustrations are not confined to the texts. Seen on many of the pages, they exemplify the decorative effect of the books. Each one is a part of a book, bearing a theoretical relation to a whole. This is the sense in which it is abstract: the word ‘abstract’ is a translation of the ancient Greek word, ‘trachere’, which means ‘drawn-off from’. Many of the prints remain characteristic when they are taken out of the books; all demand our perception of the complete books, which are historically equivalent to—not illustrations of—the artists’ experiences.




© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Camille Bryen

Jules Laforgue. L’imitation de Notre Dame la lune.

Paris: Jean-Pierre Ollivier, 1974.

Laforgue dedicated his collection of poems to Gustave Kahn, the French Symbolist poet and critic. The title, which translates as ‘The Imitation of Our Lady of the Moon’, refers to Salammbô, the Carthaginian priestess whose history Gustave Flaubert used as a source for a novel.

The first of six coloured engravings is printed on the left-hand page, substituting for a preface to the text. Bryen has engraved its lines at different levels of refinement, and designated a particular colour for every level. This encourages us to perceive the relationships which the colours bear to each other. On the right-hand page, both the title and the names of the author and illustrator are printed in capital letters larger than the rest, elevating the two creative contributors to the same status.



By the permission of the artist

Akira Abé

 Robert Marteau. Méchanique celeste.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 1999.

The poem is a response to an astronomical work for which its author, Pierre-Simon Laplace, rejected empirical methods of research, late in the 18th century. Three lines are printed both in the original French and in the translation into Japanese. One of eleven engravings is also printed on the right-hand page, corresponding with the poem at a particular stage in its progression. Abé engraved very fine straight lines and circles into a square copper plate. He used this relatively simple technique, which is commonly referred to as ‘dry-point’, to suggest an intricate geometrical structure. Exposed areas of the white paper contrast against the darkest passages of print, giving depth to the image.




By the permission of the artist

Akira Abé

Robert Marteau. Jeu d’enfant.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 1999.

The title of the poem appears to refer to Jeux d’enfants, the set of twelve miniatures composed for piano duet by Georges Bizet, in 1871. The text and illustrations are miniatures (and ‘children’s games’) made in other mediums, responding to Bizet’s piece of music.

Four lines of the poem are printed both in the original French and in the translation into Japanese. One of seven engravings is also printed on the right-hand page, corresponding with the poem at a stage in its progression. Abé engraved six copper plates, making the printed image continue between the rectangular ‘windows’. The circular lines either stand alone or form very complex lattices; the serpentine lines counterpoint them, forming amorphous shapes. Tiny rows of straight lines produce shadow, contrasting against exposed areas of the white paper. The text does not necessarily condition the drama of the image.



By the permission of the artist

Clemens-Tobias Lange 

‘Shen Jiji’.

Hamburg: CTL Press, 1992.

Lange had found the story in a 1983 edition of Tang Song chuan qi xuan, a volume of selected stories written in the era of the Tang Dynasty in China and compiled by Shen Jiji. He digitally processed the original text, and printed it in red ink. He also translated it into the German text that he has hand-set for this edition. One of twenty-four relief photopolymer prints covers the right-hand page, its image continuing into the next page. The expressive marks suggest an energetic execution. They integrate into a visually cohesive whole.




By the permission of the artist

Clemens-Tobias Lange 

Italo Calvino, Die unsichtbaren Städte.

Hamburg: CTL, 1990.

The novel, English translations of which are titled ‘Invisible Cities’, collects Marco Polo’s descriptions of imaginary cities, Calvino having reinvented the Venetian traveller (and author of Book of the Marvels of the World) as a literary character. A fictional representation of Kublai Khan, a contemporary of Polo who ruled the Mongol Empire and founded the Yuan Dynasty in 13th century China, listens and engages with the traveller in conversations which make up some of the chapters.

Lange printed his illustrations using a technique of mixed colour-relief which involved lino-cutting. Each print corresponds with a different Polo-narrated chapter. Here, the left-hand page carries a print consisting of layers of complimentary colours. Our reading of those layers is arrested in their ambiguity: we can certainly associate them neither with natural forms nor with man-made ones. The image only suggests generic binary oppositions such as those between the light and the dark, between things inside and things outside, and between the superficial and the deep. It is even impossible to refer it to architecture with certainty, since it does not separate a depiction of an architectural structure from a visual representation of the ground.



By the permission of the artist

Geoffrey MacEwan 

Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Ecstasies.

Sóller, Majorca: Sinclair’s Press, 2010.

This book contains eight hand-written quotations from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, a long poem which Hopkins composed in the 1870s – although it was not published until 1918. The poem depicts a shipwreck which killed 78 people, among whom were five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany under the Prussian state’s anti-Catholic Falk laws. Hopkins dedicated it to their memory.

The right-hand page has been turned over, showing two hand-written lines from the first stanza. An etching is printed in umber ink on the right-hand page, the density of the ink varying to give effects ranging between transparency and opacity. MacEwan has bitten the plate with lines which range across a clear spectrum of refinement, leaving it to us to trace his process either forwards or backwards.


McEwan2 McEwan2a

By the permission of the artist

Geoffrey MacEwan 

Guido Cavalcanti, Sonetti.

Edinburgh: The Artist, 1991.

Cavalcanti was a poet and troubadour whose writing made a central contribution to Dolce stil novo, a radical poetic movement of the Tuscan commune in 13th century Florence. The book contains a selection of sonnets which Cavalcanti wrote at an early stage in his career.

MacEwan has printed both the poems and the illustrations from wooden blocks, onto hand-made paper. Traces of red ink surround the text on the left-hand page, recording the mutual contact of the materials. The block left the jagged white lines where it had been slashed by MacEwan. The lines collectively suggest a centrifugal movement. MacEwan carefully orchestrated their structure, organising the spaces between the lines as well as the angles at which the lines tilt – the thickness of the lines and the degree either of their curvature or of their straightness.


Lye2              Lye1

By the permission of The Len Lye Foundation

Leonard Lye 

Robert Graves, To Whom Else?

Deyá, Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1931.

Leonard Lye

Robert Graves, Ten Poems More.

Paris: Hours Press, 1930.

Exhibited above is a copy of the second of two volumes of his poetry which Graves published at Seizin, the press which he and Laura Riding had founded in London in 1927. Graves had published an autobiography, Good-bye to All That in 1929, and he would go on to publish I, Claudius in 1934. He worked with Riding between these two solo publications, co-founding and co-editing Epilogue, a literary journal, and co-writing two academic books which became important points of reference for writers and critics involved in New Criticism. Riding was strongly influencing Graves’s poetry, which was becoming both drier and terser than it had been before his association with her.

Lye, some of whose writings Graves and Riding published at Seizin, produced images both for the covers of their books and for those of his own. He screen-printed a patterned shape, in blue and dark grey ink, onto a silver coloured ground, creating the covers for the edition of To Whom Else? 

Above and on the left is a copy of Ten Poems More – the print of a photograph of a stony ground with a tangled net of wire mesh covering its front and back.


Lye3              Lye4

By the permission of The Leonard Lye Foundation

Leonard Lye

Laura Riding, Twenty Poems Less.

Paris: Hours Press, 1930.

Leonard Lye

Laura Riding, Though Gently.

Deya, Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1930.

Riding collected poems for these volumes at an early point in the period she spent in Deiá, Majorca, where she had moved into a house with Robert Graves. She had become prominent before her association with Graves, being published and praised in The Fugitive, a Southern American literary magazine. She was invited to join a group of regular contributors who became known as the Fugitives. Some of these poets were integral to the foundation of New Criticism, a critical movement which made new claims for the value of literary form in poetry; in general terms, they liked the singularly formal rigour of her work.

Lye visited Riding and Graves in Deiá, and produced various covers for their books, some of which were printed at their press (Seizin). The book above and to the left is covered with a print of a photograph of a constructed relief, and wrapped in brown leather over the spine. Above and to the right is a copy of Though Gently, a sepia reproduction of one of Lye’s drawings covering its front and back.



© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

S. W. Hayter

Paul Eluard, Poèmes d’amour = Love poems.

Bath: 107 Workshop, 1984.

Eluard became friends with Hayter early in the 1920s, in Paris, where Literature, Breton’s journal, was publishing his work alongside that of others in the Surrealist movement.

Eluard published Poèmes d’amour in 1929. He had spent the past winter recovering from his second bout of tuberculosis, and had joined the Communist Party with Andre Breton’s circle in the year before. Parisian critics had very positively received Capitale de la Révolution, his previous collection of poems. This was after the failure of his first marriage and his subsequent disappearance. Poèmes d’amour confirmed his poetic maturity.

This is the last of three colour lithographs. Hayter carefully managed the interaction of the lines, making their colour either ‘stutter’, where he denied their overlapping, or ‘flow’, where he allowed it. This has structured the colour-relationships, determining the way in which the image opens for light in the movement of the lines.



© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

S. W. Hayter

Brian Coffey, Death of Hektor.

Guildford, Surrey: Circle Press, 1979.

This is a copy of the first edition of Death of Hektor, a long poem on the subject of wartime suffering. The poem is an interpretation of the myth of Troy. Coffey was an Irish modernist who worked as a poet and publisher in Paris and England. He was committed to Catholicism; he wrote a doctoral thesis on the idea of order in the writing of Thomas Aquinas, and taught at the Jesuit Saint Louis University in Missouri in the 1940s. Much of his poetry had been published in the previous decade, when he was studying Physical Chemistry in Paris – and became friends with Hayter. Having returned to Europe after the war, he began again to write and translate poems. Death of Hektor is one of the most ambitious poems he wrote in this period.

Several lines are printed on the left-hand page, having been hand-set in Garamond. One of six black and white engraved images lies on the left-hand page, illustrating the chapter headed, ‘The Fall of Troy’. The lines are tonally flat, yet compelling; the image demands both that we trace their movement, and that we pay attention to the spaces they open to us. It proposes spatial possibilities for the interpretation of the text, but does not conclude our search for meaning.



By the permission of the artist

Hector Saunier

Robert Marteau, Aux buveurs de rosée.

Renouval: IAPRESS, 2003.

Some lines from the poem are printed on the left-hand page. Saunier printed the multi-coloured ‘base’ of the illustration onto wet paper – in the manner of the technique commonly referred to as soft-ground etching. His method of intercutting and blurring the areas of colour gave the image a strong visual rhythm. The etched lines both form ‘nets’, barricading the brighter ground, and open surrounding spaces. The shape of their structure balances with that of the multi-coloured pattern.



By the permission of the artist

Hector Saunier 

Robert Marteau, Entre les nuages.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 2000.

Robert Marteau died in 2011. He began his literary career at the age of 37, publishing Royaumes in 1962. He moved to Montreal in 1972, and lived there for twelve years – taking Canadian citizenship. He lived in Paris for the rest of his life. There he published prolifically, producing (at least) a volume-a-year. He won major prizes for his poetry and one for one of his novels in the 2000s.

This opening is one of only seven in the book, and formatted exactly as the others are. The poems are printed in variously coloured inks – here Saunier has used a cadmium red ink. He screen-printed the ground of the illustrative image, giving a range of definition to the shapes which divide the space. He subsequently printed in orange from lines which he had engraved into a copper plate. The orange lines either form spaces for their colour, by hatching, or curve, marking round spaces in the blue-white ground.

Paul Eluard, Poèms d’amour = Love Poems; illustrations by S. W. Hayter, versions by Brian Coffey (Bath: 107 Workshop, 1984)

Dr Peter Hacker, Fellow in Philosophy at St. John’s College, became friends with Stanley Hayter, acquiring two illustrated livres d’artiste directly from the artist’s studio while Fellow Librarian (between 1985 and 2006). Hayter’s collaboration with Paul Eluard and his translator Brian Coffey produced Poèms d’amour = Love poems in 1984. The book is one of the two Hayter livres d’artiste stored in the college’s Special Collections Room, and can be viewed on request. Bound in limp paper, with a dust-jacket in crushed-finish green paper, it had been typeset in Bath, where its letterpress was printed on standard paper. However the engravings were printed on hand-made paper, and the half-title and main title are in lithographed handwriting thought to be Eluard’s own. This rare hand-craft typifies the livre d’artiste genre, which developed primarily in Paris during the twentieth century. The livre d’artiste came to be distinguished by the ubiquitous involvement of the artist in its production process.

Poèms d’amour = Love poems in its linen-covered box

Poèms d’amour = Love poems in its linen-covered box

Poèms d’amour = Love poems represents Hayter’s last decade in our collection. Three simultaneous multicolour engravings are inserted between letterpressed pages of poems and loose pages of lithographic illustration. Their vibrancy, energy and brilliant colour epitomise Hayter’s ‘late’ work both in painting and in printmaking. He developed a technique of multicolour printing after the 1940s, printing multiple colours from a single plate to create arresting effects. He maximised the possibilities of the technique in his last few years, employing flourescent colours in bold works such as the three engravings which can be found in the book.

The semi-abstract lithographs include figurative elements, which widely reappeared in Hayter’s paintings and prints during the 1980s. The artist was open to change throughout his career, collaborating constantly with his fellow artists in Paris and New York. The printmaking workshop he established in 1927 allowed him to do this, becoming Atelier 17 – a famous hub of artistic cross-fertilisation which provided an important meeting place for the avant-garde over sixty years. There he associated with the Surrealists in the 1930s, working with figurative imagery. He remained loyal to his friend Paul Eluard after the poet had broken away from the Surrealist movement, and Poèms d’amour = Love poems testifies to the endurance of their friendship.


A lithograph illustrating the poem ‘Les Gertrude Hoffmann Girls’

Hayter had a life-long interest in science, and had been trained in the subject at university. His scientific interest informs the lithographic illustrations of Poèms d’amour = Love poems, giving a precise indeterminacy to their lines. Science informs the coloured engravings in a different way: the psychological science of colour influences the artist’s deployment of coloured lines. Hayter made the engravings in his signature ‘whip lash’ style, embodying the evolution of his abstract expressionist work. Their full double-pages illustrate poems which are printed elsewhere in the book. They illuminate both the poems which precede them and the poems which follow them, affecting readers’ moods. And they bear a contrapuntal relation to the lithographs, their scale and colour playing against the other illustrations.


The third multicolour engraving in Poèms d’amour = Love poems


P. M. S. Hacker, ‘Hayter, Stanley William (1901 – 1988)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; online edn.
[http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39959, accessed 10th September 2014]

Eunice Martin, ‘Introduction’, in: French Livres d’Artiste in Oxford University Collections (Bodleian Library: Oxford, 1996): pp. 3-6.