Dr Shafquat Towheed discusses Edward Lear's The Book of Nonsense.
Dr Shafquat Towheed:
The 1846 first edition of a Book of Nonsense, is produced using lithography. Lithography’s a different production process from printing with wood blocks or printing with type. And what happens with lithography is that you have a flat surface. It literally means writing on stone and originally the plates were made of limestone but more often they were made with zinc.
Lithography is invented in 1798 in Germany. By the 1820s it’s quite widespread in its use across Europe, but it’s mainly for very high quality fine art reproductions, and the process that it utilises is the fact that oil and water don’t mix.
So you have a flat surface which is prepared with gum arabic, which is the adhesive, and then you apply ink in the areas that you want reproduced, and the blank areas don’t take on ink, and then that’s either printed directly onto the paper in terms of very good quality art reproduction or it’s put onto a rubber cylinder and then transferred on to the paper.
So lithography is a flat process. It’s different from wood cuts, where the wood is raised, it’s, the rest of the surrounding is cut away and you have a raised surface, and it’s different from etchings or engravings, which are done on copper plate, where you have engravings made into the surface of the metal that absorbed the ink.
The advantage of lithography is it’s able to reproduce visual images at a much higher quality and a much higher resolution.
The 1846 printed text of Lear’s the Book of Nonsense, what we see is not really text and image. We tend to think of it as text and image, but actually it’s all image, because the entire book was produced using lithography. And the reason for doing that was because they wanted the illustrations and the handwritten poems to look as if they were handcrafted rather than machine produced.
So there’s a slight illusion going on there, I think, but it is rather beautiful. It meant it was quite an expensive work to produce.
The first edition of Lear’s first collection of nonsense verse, The Book of Nonsense, was printed in a very unusual way using a technique called lithography which was normally used to reproduce art works. This technique was expensive but it allowed Lear to have his pictures and poems printed together as a single, integrated design. It also ensured that his illustrations were reproduced to a high standard. William Blake had experimented with different techniques to achieve the same ends at the start of the nineteenth century. Blake’s poetry, however, was obscure and he was only ever able to produce small numbers of copies. Lear’s poetry, in contrast, was created for children and new technologies meant that his book could be manufactured on a scale that meant that, even though it was still costly, it could reach a wide readership.
We now expect to find illustrations in children’s books. Indeed, some illustrators have become as well known as the authors they work with. This was not the case in 1846 when Edward Lear first published The Book of Nonsense. It was very different to other children’s books produced at the same time which had lots more text and far fewer images. We might think that the changes Lear helped to initiate were driven by shifting tastes or by new ideas about what books for children should look like. This is partly true. But Lear was also taking advantage of an innovative printing technology. Older methods of production made it prohibitively expensive to include many illustrations and almost impossible to integrate text and image in the way The Book of Nonsense does. New technologies allowed authors and publishers to experiment with unusual formats which helped to change readers’ expectations of what a book should look like.
More about Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs
Reading in and out of the nursery: Learn how Victorian children would have enjoyed an expensive book like Edward Lear's collections of nonsense verse.
Learn some nonsense by heart: Go on an adventure to find a nonsense alphabet of animals and learn some nonsense by heart.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.