From the Design Desk: Making the Modern Picture Book

Last week I posted about The Cult of Beauty show at the Legion of Honor, this week I wanted to expand on what brought me to the museum in the first place—the children’s books in a related exhibit called Making the Modern Picture Book.

Illustrated children’s books became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century in England. They were called toy books, and early versions were colored by hand. Once printers developed inexpensive color printing techniques, toy books became affordable to the growing middle class.

Walter Crane was one of the most prolific illustrators of toy books, and there’s a lovely quality to his work that doesn’t feel childish at all. Below, some pages from A-Gaping-Wide-Mouth-Waddling-Frog, a nursery rhyme illustrated by Crane in 1870. I love the red and blue palette and the hand-drawn initial caps, as well as the gruesome subject matter.

Below, some of Crane’s illustrations from My Mother, a somewhat treacly poem made into a toy book in 1874. Again, he gets a lot of mileage out of a limited palette. The interior spaces are richly detailed. You can page through digital versions of both books at the Internet Archive.

And, finally, I couldn’t resist picking up a reprint of a Crane book at the exhibition’s gift shop. First published in 1905, A Flower Wedding has been reprinted by the Victoria and Albert Museum in a sweet little package. It tells the story of a wedding day, and although it ends on a strange note, the illustrations more than make up for it.

Cover: gold foil on cream book cloth.

Lovely endsheets.

The marriage procession—check out the bridesmaids’ dresses!

This spread is about the father of the bride—apparently he was quite a dresser back in the day.

This is the final spread—the bride lost her trousseau in the hubbub, but luckily the groom is loaded, so it’s happily ever after for the new couple. (Note: pile of money.)

Allison Weiner

Allison Weiner

Senior Designer at Chronicle Books and weekend crafter.

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  • Sally March 26, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Beautiful books. When ever I find an old picture book at an antique or used book store – and the illustrations are vivid, I pick it up. Just can't help treating myself to the workmanship. I don't have anything by Walter Crane. I'll have to keep my eyes open.


  • Kathleen March 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Hi, thanks for posting, these are gorgeous old illustrations!


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