The celebrated English artist, J. M. William Turner (1775-1851) was not only painter; he was also an illustrator. He created images for a number of books of poetry and literature by such writers as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and John Milton. Most successful perhaps, were his books by Samuel Rogers, which drew on his sketching practice and travel experience.
The esteemed art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) received one those books, Italy (1830) for his thirteenth birthday and later wrote, “There can be little doubt that the illustrations to Italy and the Poems first made Turner known to the vast multitudes of the English people. One of the most vivid recollections of my own boyhood is the wakening up of a new sense of an ideal world of beauty as I lingered over the lovely landscapes on these delightful pages … there are many whose recollections of these two volumes harmonize with mine, to whom they were an education, and who learned from them to admire Turner before they had actually seen one of his paintings”
While Turner’s illustrations were created with paint and pencil, they were all translated into engravings by other artists, as needed for publication back then. Turner was known for working closely with the engravers, asking for multiple proofs before approving. Turner knew what illustrators know: that the printed piece was the finished piece – the public saw the book, not his watercolors. Both Turner and the engraver of each image signed the illustrations.
All the illustrations were designed as vignettes – irregularly shaped art without hard borders, which was popular in that booming era of illustrated books. Vignettes, like letters, interact with the white of the page.
The author of The Engraved Work of JMW Turner, R.A. (1908), W.G. Rawlinson described Turner’s illustrations this way:
“Of all the artists who ever lived I think it is Turner who treated the vignette most exquisitely, and if it were necessary to find some particular reason for this, I would say that it may have been because there was nothing harsh or rigid in his genius, that forms and colours melted into each other tenderly in his dream world, and that his sense of gradation was the most delicate ever possessed by man. If you examine a vignette by Turner round its edges, if you can call them edges, you will perceive how exquisitely the objects come out of nothingness into being, and how cautiously, as a general rule, he will avoid anything like too much materialism in his treatment of them until he gets well towards the centre … Turner’s [vignettes] never seem to be shaped or put on the paper at all, but we feel as if a portion of the beautiful white surface had in some wonderful way begun to glow with the light of genius.” -from the Tate.org