Arts & Tradition

Detmold’s Illustrations: The Finishing Touch for a Beautiful Book

BY Yvonne Marcotte TIMEJanuary 30, 2022 PRINT

Today we don’t think about books much—you know, those hold-in-your-hand objects we used to study in grade school.

Before information came to us through computers, printed books were the key to knowledge. People wanted books in their homes; they filled their home libraries with books worth reading and that mattered to them. People wanted beautiful books in their libraries, and book publishers responded. Publishers bound books in gilded fabric. They commissioned the most skilled artists to illustrate the stories. The most beautifully illustrated books were published during what is known as the “Golden Age of Illustration” (circa 1880–1917).

Publishing company Hodder and Stoughton published a collection of stories by an ancient fabulist, Aesop. “The Fables of Aesop,” published in 1909, was illustrated with 25 colored drawings. The book, 12 and 1/8 inches by 9 and 7/8 inches, was bound as a quarto—large sheets folded in fours and printed on both sides to produce eight pages. Each page was then trimmed to make separate pages, totaling 80 unnumbered leaves.

The book was bound in publisher’s white buckram fabric of 100 percent cotton, and the front cover and spine were stamped in gilt; the publisher’s emblem was gilt-stamped on the back cover. The top of the pages was edged in gilt. The book was delivered in the publisher’s white cardboard slipcase. The illustrator produced 25 mounted color plates for the book, some with slightly irregular shapes.

Beautifully Illustrated Stories

“Fables” is decorated with illustrations by arguably the greatest illustrator of animals and flowers, E.J. Detmold. Edward Julius, a twin brother of Charles Maurice who was also an illustrator, showed great understanding of how animals looked and acted, and often used fantasy settings to better tell the story.

E.J. Detmold
An 1899 sketch of Edward Julius Detmold by Charles Maurice Detmold. (Public Domain)

Detmold was also a printmaker and was considered the premier animal illustrator of the Victorian Age. He placed animals in their natural settings. His animals possessed an unmistakable intelligence that draws the viewer.

The 25 fables that Detmold illustrated for the book—among them “The Hare and the Tortoise,” and the lesser-known “The She-Goats and Their Beards” and “The Oxen and the Axel-Trees”—were made for his touch.

The fable of the hare and the tortoise gives children and adults a great lesson to live by. As the tale goes, the hare could easily win a race and beat the much slower tortoise. But when the hare naps far ahead of the tortoise, the tortoise wins the race.

"The Hare and the Tortoise"
Illustration from “The Hare and the Tortoise,” by E.J. Detmold. (Public Domain)

Detmold chose to focus on the hare waking up, physically and mentally. It looks out at what just happened: The tortoise has crossed the finish line and is taking a nap. How could the hare have lost? The artist showed all the physical magnificence of the hare: its long, strong hind legs; front paws, strong and agile; and a long, sleek body. Yet, with all these superior traits, the hare is fooled by its belief in its superiority.

Detmold’s illustration for “The She-Goats and Their Beards” tells the mythical tale that nanny goats were given beards by the king of the gods to look like male goats. The males complained that this lowered the status of a more-powerful male of the species, but they were assured that outer appearances don’t matter as much as what’s inside.

“The She-Goats and Their Beards”
Illustration from “The She-Goats and Their Beards,” by E.J. Detmold. (Public Domain)

Detmold showed imposing males hovering above the smaller nannies. His beautifully designed illustration shows beards on all the goats. The smaller nanny goats have beautiful beards, but the billy goats show their strength and protective stance over females surrounded by flowers. What we notice are the eyes—the males look down and to the right; they are watchful and protective. They have nothing to prove. Detmold’s illustration allows us to think about the relative strength of each animal. Warm browns, golds, and oranges swirl around the animals. He chose to surround his creatures with autumn flowers throughout waves of curving beards.

In Aesop’s time, oxen pulled wagons that were built with axle-trees, crossbars that held the wheels. His tale “The Oxen and the Axle-Trees” tells how the axle-trees complain about holding up the wagon, even as a pair of oxen drag an overloaded wagon along a country lane. The oxen never complain yet they do all the work. This fable gives an insight into human nature: Those who suffer the least often make the most noise.

"The Oxen and the Axle-Trees"
Illustration from “The Oxen and the Axle-Trees” by E.J. Detmold. (Public Domain)

Detmold’s illustration reveals a heavily laden wagon of barrels and jars filled with an autumn harvest being led by a pair of oxen silently enduring their task on the rocky road. As a sign of the axle-trees’ importance, we don’t even see them in the picture. What we do see, though, are how magnificently these harnessed oxen do their job without complaint.

Illustrations’ Contribution to Publishing

Illustrators make books beautiful, especially traditional storybooks. Children know this. The myths, legends, fables, and fairy tales that we remember from childhood are embedded in the images that make the stories memorable.

Illustrated books draw the reader in two ways: If we look at the pictures first, we are intrigued with the characters depicted and then pulled into reading the story. If we read the story first, our eyes are drawn to the image to fill in what we may have missed in the text.

We learn from Aesop’s fables that human nature has not changed much. Detmold deepened our appreciation with beautifully designed images of animals featured in the fables, which show us how to be more human. His illustrations nudge us to pay more attention to the written word. Great illustrations can bring us back to a respect and reverence for language and art that can be found in a beautiful book.

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