Victorian Ideals Illustrated

© 2013, Nabila Islam
The Red Romance Book

Figure 3: First illustration in the narrative of “Cupid and Psyche.” Fine details reflects Ford’s high art aesthetic.

Despite a constant interest in both fairy tales and the illustrations that go with them, industrial progression brought forth a further interest in traditional folk and fairy tales. Between 1880 and 1900 the illustrations for fairy tales gained a sudden increase in popularity. Britain’s acquisition of Africa and India meant an interest in new stories from other cultures, in addition to the traditional and well-known tales. At this time, H. J. Ford became one of the two most important and powerful illustrators.

Ford consistently produced high quality illustrations of fine and delicate detail, balancing a high art aesthetic with consumerism (see Figure 3). His work combined the realistic and the fantastical, due to thorough research and ability. His coloured plates better display his Pre-Raphaelite influence compared to his black and white work, thanks to the brilliant colouring. However, reprinting the original image sometimes dulled the intense colours in an unfortunate way. The original illustrations were four times the reprinted size, thus his work, full of details, sometimes came off as overcrowded (see Figure 4).

The Red Romance Book

Figure 4: The single colour plate for this tale depicts the major female characters (Aphrodite and Psyche), one with a glow indicating a goddess nature. Reprinting this image in a reduced size means an overflow of details.

Ford gained painterly knowledge on myths and legends through his association with Sir Edward Burne-Jones, which allowed him to insert such a significant amount of detail in his illustrations. He also did the illustrations on the covers and spines. Characteristic of the period, Ford used the art-nouveau frames on the illustrations and the hand-scripted labels underneath.

The Red Romance Book

Figure 5: The ideal Victorian femininity displayed in Psyche’s flowing hair and draped clothing.

Throughout their collaboration, Lang and Ford placed a strong emphasis on English femininity, despite the origins of the tales, complicating the image of an ideal woman. There was consideration neither for new readership among the newly colonized nor for any possible appreciation of differing cultures. The illustrations throughout The Red Romance Book depict the ideal beauty from the Romantic era; fair skin, a flowing mass of locks, and draped gowns. Most of the images are ethereal and in the case of “Cupid and Pysche,” almost all the images showcase nature or animals, creating enchanted illustrations. While English ideals regarding femininity and beauty do not affect the reading of “Cupid and Pysche” to the extent as some other tales, superimposing of ideals grounded from the Romantic era and the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic is significant. Especially once a growing readership is considered, as well as the purposeful neglect of displaying other cultures appropriately.