by Alexis Horst, Library Assistant
To escape the drudgery of an overwhelmingly rational world, many Victorians—from all echelons of society—sought refuge in the unknown, the macabre, and the fantastic. Penny dreadfuls featured sensationalist, bloodthirsty characters such as Varney the Vampire, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Spring-Heeled Jack; seances, spirit photography, and crystal-gazing became popular pastimes of the wealthy (even Queen Victoria held seances to communicate with her late husband, Prince Albert); and children delighted in playing with the fairies, gnomes, and elves that (supposedly) lived in their gardens.
Contemporary literature, theatre, and visual art reflected this fascination with ‘the unnatural’, using fantasy to critique and explore issues affecting modern society, or, to simply express a sentimental yearning for less-complicated, more pastoral times. Victorian fairytale illustrations (congruous with their literature) usually depicted the latter, occasionally delving into more ‘exotic’, fantastical realms, rife with monsters, distressed damsels, and evil wizards. The four books on display are a mix of maudlin and mystical: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Stories from the Arabian Nights, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac, and Stories from Hans Andersen, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac.
Both artists preferred three-color, or trichromatic, printing—a letterpress technique which photographed an original artwork through separate primary color filters (red, yellow, and blue), allowing the engraver to enhance minute details on each block, adjusting tone and saturation to accurately reproduce the colors of the original work.