Essays
Art & Illustrations

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France

Being in debt was once an artful promenade — the process of eluding creditors through disguise and deceit. Erika Vause explores a forgotten financial history: the pervasive humor that once accompanied the literature and visual culture of debt. more

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

“The Mark of the Beast”: Georgian Britain’s Anti-Vaxxer Movement

Ox-faced children, elderly women sprouting horns, and cloven minds — all features attributed to Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox. Introducing us to the original anti-vaxxers, Erica X Eisen explores the “vacca” in the first-ever vaccine: its bovine origins and the widespread worry that immunity came with beastly side effects. more

The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships

The Art of Whaling: Illustrations from the Logbooks of Nantucket Whaleships

The 19th-century whale hunt was a brutal business, awash with blubber, blood, and the cruel destruction of life. But between the frantic calls of “there she blows!”, there was plenty of time for creation too. Jessica Boyall explores the rich vein of illustration running through the logbooks and journals of Nantucket whalers. more

The Revolutionary Colossus

The Revolutionary Colossus

As the French Revolution entered its most radical years, there emerged in print a recurring figure, the collective power of the people expressed as a single gigantic body — a king-eating Colossus. Samantha Wesner traces the lineage of this nouveau Hercules, from Erasmus Darwin’s Bastille-breaking giant to a latter incarnation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. more

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

“More Lively Counterfaits”: Experimental Imaging at the Birth of Modern Science

From infographics to digital renders, today's scientists have ready access to a wide array of techniques to help visually communicate their research. It wasn't always so. Gregorio Astengo explores the innovations employed in early issues of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, the world's first scientific journal — new forms of image making which pushed the boundaries of 17th-century book printing. more

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist's Palette

Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist's Palette

For all its transcendental appeals, art has always been inextricably grounded in the material realities of its production, an entwinement most evident in the intriguing history of artists' colours. Focusing in on painting's primary trio of red, yellow, and blue, Philip Ball explores the science and stories behind the pigments, from the red ochre of Lascaux to Yves Klein's blue. more

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

Comic Gold: The Easterner Goes West in Three Early American Comics

The California Gold Rush transformed the landscape and population of the United States. It also introduced a new figure into American life and the American imagination — the effete Eastern urbanite who travels to the Wild West in quest of his fortune. Alex Andriesse examines how this figure fares in three mid-nineteenth-century comic books. more

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

In the 21st-century, infographics are everywhere. In the classroom, in the newspaper, in government reports, these concise visual representations of complicated information have changed the way we imagine our world. Susan Schulten explores the pioneering work of Emma Willard (1787–1870), a leading feminist educator whose innovative maps of time laid the groundwork for the charts and graphics of today. more

Of Pears and Kings

Of Pears and Kings

Images have long provided a means of protesting political regimes bent on censoring language. In the 1830s a band of French caricaturists, led by Charles Philipon, weaponized the innocent image of a pear to criticize the corrupt and repressive policies of King Louis-Philippe. Patricia Mainardi investigates the history of this early 19th-century meme. more

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

From gift-bestowing sparrows and peach-born heroes to goblin spiders and dancing phantom cats — in a series of beautifully illustrated books, the majority printed on an unusual cloth-like crepe paper, the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa introduced Japanese folk tales to the West. Christopher DeCou on how a pioneering cross-cultural endeavour gave rise to a magnificent chapter in the history of children's publishing. more

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyse such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies. Carmel Raz on the Scottish artist’s original, idiosyncratic, and occasionally bewildering aesthetics. more

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

The Khan’s Drinking Fountain

Of all the things described in William of Rubruck's account of his travels through 13th-century Asia, perhaps none is so striking as the remarkably ornate fountain he encountered in the Mongol capital which — complete with silver fruit and an angelic automaton — flowed with various alcoholic drinks for the grandson of Genghis Khan and guests. Devon Field explores how this Silver Tree of Karakorum became a potent symbol, not only of the Mongol Empire's imperial might, but also its downfall. more

Audubon’s Haiti

Audubon’s Haiti

An entrepreneur, hunter, woodsman, scientist, and artist — John James Audubon, famous for his epic The Birds of America, is a figure intimately associated with a certain idea of what it means to be American. And like many of the country's icons, he was also an immigrant. Christoph Irmscher reflects on Audubon's complex relationship to his Haitian roots. more

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History

Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th centuries. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game. more

Filling in the Blanks: A Prehistory of the Adult Coloring Craze

Filling in the Blanks: A Prehistory of the Adult Coloring Craze

Its dizzy heights may have passed, but the fad for adult coloring books is far from over. Many trace the origins of such publications to a wave of satirical colouring books published in the 1960s, but as Melissa N. Morris and Zach Carmichael explore, the existence of such books, and the urge to colour the printed image, goes back centuries. more

"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat

"O Uommibatto": How the Pre-Raphaelites Became Obsessed with the Wombat

Angus Trumble on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and company's curious but longstanding fixation with the furry oddity that is the wombat — that "most beautiful of God's creatures" which found its way into their poems, their art, and even, for a brief while, their homes. more

Elephants, Horses, and the Proportions of Paradise

Elephants, Horses, and the Proportions of Paradise

Does each species have an optimal form? An ideal beauty that existed prior to the Fall? These were questions that concerned both artists and breeders alike in the 17th century. Dániel Margócsy on the search for a menagerie of perfect prelapsarian geometry. more

Grandville, Visions, and Dreams

Grandville, Visions, and Dreams

With its dreamlike inversions and kaleidoscopic cast of anthropomorphic objects, animals, and plants, the world of French artist J. J. Grandville is at once both delightful and disquieting. Patricia Mainardi explores the unique work of this 19th-century illustrator now recognised as a major precursor and inspiration to the Surrealist movement. more

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the "ocean garden" that gripped Victorian Britain. more

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Early Modern Memes: The Reuse and Recycling of Woodcuts in 17th-Century English Popular Print

Expensive and laborious to produce, a single woodcut could be recycled to illustrate scores of different ballads, each new home imbuing the same image with often wildly diverse meanings. Katie Sisneros explores this interplay of repetition, context, and meaning, and how in it can be seen a parallel to meme culture of today. more

Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia

Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia

The technique of intarsia — the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images — has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship. Daniel Elkind explores the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from a most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus. more

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Iconology of a Cardinal: Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Characterised as manipulative, power-hungry, and even an alter rex, Henry VIII's right-hand man Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been typically depicted with a body mass to rival his political weight. Katherine Harvey asks if he was really the glutton of popular legend, and what such an image reveals about the link between the body, reputation, and power in Tudor England. more

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

Fallen Angels: Birds of Paradise in Early Modern Europe

When birds of paradise first arrived to Europe, as dried specimens with legs and wings removed, they were seen in almost mythical terms — as angelic beings forever airborne, nourished by dew and the "nectar" of sunlight. Natalie Lawrence looks at how European naturalists of the 16th and 17th centuries attempted to make sense of these entirely novel and exotic creatures from the East. more

Pens and Needles: Reviving Book-Embroidery in Victorian England

Pens and Needles: Reviving Book-Embroidery in Victorian England

Fashionable in the 16th and 17th century, the art of embroidering unique covers for books saw a comeback in late 19th-century England, from the middle-class drawing room to the Arts and Crafts movement. Jessica Roberson explores the bibliomania, patriotism, and issues around gender so central to the revival. more