Towards a bibliographic model of illustrations in the early modern illustrated book

  1. 1. John Bradley

    Department of Digital Humanities - King's College London

  2. 2. Stephen Pigney

    Goldsmiths - University of London

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Towards a bibliographic model of illustrations in the early modern illustrated book
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Bradley, John, Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, UK,
Pigney, Stephen, Goldsmith’s College, London, UK,
James Knapp, in his book Illustrating the Past in Early Modern England (Knapp 2003) points out that the History of the Book research has been ‘re-evaluating the relation of books to texts’ (p 9). However, he then goes on to say that an ‘overwhelmingly large amount of visual material’ could be found ‘on the pages of early modern English books’ (p 37), and that these books tell a complex story that interconnects books not only with their texts but with their illustrations too. In this paper we will take up Knapp’s observation about visual material in books and will present a bibliographic conceptual model of the relationship of images, texts, and their makers that could support the enhancement of our understanding of the creation of books from the early modern period.

We come by an interest in this topic honestly, since we were collaborators, with the project’s Principal Investigator Professor Michael Hunter (Birkbeck) on a project called British Printed Images until 1700 (BPI1700) that has resulted in what the front page of its website calls ‘a database of thousands of prints and book illustrations from early modern Britain in fully-searchable form’. At present, bpi1700’s materials come from the extensive collection of primarily single-sheet prints held by the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Clearly, although the focus of bpi1700 has been on single-sheet prints up to now, the project is anxious to progress into the question of illustrations in printed books.

To understand the scale of such an undertaking, it is useful to realise that many early printed books contained illustrations. James Knapp claims that English printers in the mid 16th century commonly used many illustrations for books on historical subjects (Knapp 2003: 2). Luborsky and Imgram catalogued more than 5,000 woodcuts and engravings in English books printed between 1536 and 1603 alone, and a further study published by bpi1700 reveals thousands more for the period 1604-1640. There is plenty of material to work with. However, the numbers tell only a part of the story: what is the nature of the interaction between an intellectual study of the illustrations as prints with the intellectual study of the books as books, so that their parallel, but interconnected, histories can be more clearly recognised?

To help us explore these issues from a bibliographic perspective, we took up the approach described in the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) (Tillet 2004) to identifying the nature of the published illustrations and the books themselves. FRBR was developed primarily to clarify the bibliographic analysis of modern printed books, and is developed out of four different senses in which the word ‘book’ can be used. The base sense of book, as a physical item that takes up space in a library, is called an ‘item’. A particular publication is called a ‘manifestation’, and roughly corresponds to an edition in modern publishing. FRBR identifies a higher level of structure in its entity ‘expression’, which, as Tillett describes it, organises a particular text by a specific language or media of delivery. Finally, the fourth and top level of abstraction is the ‘work’, the ‘conceptual content that underlies all the linguistic versions’, and represents things like the story being told, or the ideas in the author’s head (Tillett 2004: 3).

Although bpi1700 was about printed images rather than modern printed books, FRBR had already proven to be useful in our growing understanding of the nature of prints. Bpi1700’s ‘impressions’ were the actual paper objects held by the museums, and represented by digital surrogates in bpi1700, and these seemed to be modelled best by FRBR’s ‘item’. Metadata about them were provided for bpi1700 by our partner museums. Of course, many impressions would be printed from a single plate that had been created by the print maker. Thus, among all the holdings in the museums it was not unusual for the same print to turn up more than once. Out of this realisation came the concept of bpi1700’s ‘work’ that fit FRBR’s ‘work’ category: a bpi1700 work represented a single plate or woodcut and captured the creative act of the print maker when she or he created it. Finally, in early modern times a plate was often modified over time, and these modifications would then be witnessed in surviving prints. A print of Charles I might first show him as a boy, but another impression from what was manifestly the same plate would show him as a young man instead. Between the production of these two impressions, the image of the king on the plate had been modified. Bpi1700 called each of these surviving versions of the plate a ‘state’ (using terminology already in use by print cataloguers), and concluded that this most closely corresponded to FRBR’s ‘manifestation’ category.

Early Modern printed books (in the time of the hand-press), on the other hand, although apparently closer in nature to what FRBR was developed for than print images might be, did not turn out to be entirely aligned to modern print practice for which FRBR had been designed. Works and editions were much more fluid than they are today and early modern books have therefore presented a challenge to the conventional cataloguing rules developed to handle more modern material (see the discussion of this in the context of ‘rare books’ in Moriarty 2004). We chose to examine the British Library’s English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC 2011) for information about our books. It operates at two levels. Its top level consists of records that correspond broadly to book printings – this, in turn, maps broadly to FRBR’s ‘manifestation’ category, since Moriarty (Moriarty 2004: 40) reminds us that in the hand-press era a reprinting of a book was really often like a new edition because it required the hand re-assembly of the type to print the pages again. Within each printing entry ESTC stores information about particular copies (which broadly correspond to FRBR’s ‘Items’) which are grouped by holding institution. There is no explicit structural object corresponding to FRBR’s ‘Work’ or ‘Expression’ in ESTC, although one can use the search forms provide to filter data by author and title, which conceptually allows for materials to be selected by something similar to FRBR’s Work.

So, if we consider both the books’ texts and their illustrations as both having an intellectual history that interests us, we have, then, two parallel and interconnected FRBR hierarchies in operation in early modern printed books. The issue is made more interesting by the fact that in the early modern period plates and/or woodcuts for illustrations were owned by printers and were often reused in more than one book. So, the same illustration might appear accompanying two completely different texts. Although a printer might decide to reprint a book, he or she could at the same time decide to change the illustrations that appeared in it to, say, increase the market for it. Furthermore, illustrations from plates had to be printed by a process separate from that used for the text, and these illustrations had to be inserted into the text pages by hand – a process subject to variability and error. Finally, because book binding was often arranged by the book buyer to be applied after she or he purchased the printed pages, book buyers often added illustrations they liked into printed books – a process called extra-illustration and described in more detail in the Folger library’s online exhibition ‘Extending the Book’ (2010). Thus, a bibliographic model that accommodates both the text and the illustrations – that represents the intellectual history of these two intertwined objects needs to accommodate a complex set of reasons why a set of illustrations (with their creative history) appears with the text of a particular book (with its separate history too).

In our presentation, we will examine some examples of illustrations in early modern books and show how this intertwining operated in practice. We believe that the parallel and intertwined existence of books and illustrations reveals a new and interesting story in the history of the book. We will present our model that represents the parallel FRBR-like nature of the images and the book with their complex web of possible interconnections, and we will discuss some of the possible significance of this for those interested in exploring the role of illustration in these early printed volumes.

(This paper is based on a presentation given by the authors at the Digital Humanities Day at Sheffield Hallam University on 13 December 2010, but will be extended beyond what was presented there with a more detailed presentation of the model for the data, as is suitable for a DH audience.)

Bbi1700. British Printed Images before 1700. Online at

ESTC (2011). English Short Title Catalogue. British Library. Online at

Folger Shakespeare Library (2010). Extending the Book: The Art of Extra-Illustration. An exhibition January 28-May 25, 2010. Online version available at

Knapp, J. A. (2003). Illustrating the Past in Early Modern England: the representation of History in Printed Books. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Luborsky, R., and E. Ingram (1998). Guide to English Illustrated Books 1536-1603. Tempe, AZ: MRTS.

Moriarty, K. S. (2004). Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) and Its Predecessors: A History of Rare Book Cataloging Practice in the United States. A Master’s paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. November, 2004. 100 pages. Advisor: Jerry D. Saye.

Tillett, B. (2004). FRBR? A Conceptual Model for the Bibliographic Universe. Washington: Library of Congress Cataloguing Distribution Service. Online at

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2012
"Digital Diversity: Cultures, languages and methods"

Hosted at Universität Hamburg (University of Hamburg)

Hamburg, Germany

July 16, 2012 - July 22, 2012

196 works by 477 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (7)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None