“Seeing” Works of Art: The Development of the Illustrated Art Book in Britain from the Late Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Century

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Viewing and understanding works of art is fundamental to the formation and dissemination of art-historical knowledge. Image reproduction becomes a necessary substitute when the original artwork is unavailable for in-person viewing. Before the prevalence of mechanical reproduction of images in the 20th century, hand-made prints effectively reproduced and disseminated images of artworks. Images of paintings and sculptures in royal and aristocratic collections in Europe began to publicly circulate through publications since the 17th century as printmaking technique advanced. These publications glorified the collectors, and, more importantly, accelerated the spreading of the renown of the artists and their artwork, thereby responding to the increasing interest in and demand for viewing art of the public. The emergence of art books with reproductive prints and explanatory texts during the 18th century further made a profound impact on the shaping and disseminating of the knowledge of art. Existing studies in art books in Europe have primarily focused on the development in continental Europe while little attention has been paid to the British context. This article traces for the first time the emergence of “illustrated art books” in Britain from the late 18th to early 19th century. It analyzes representative publications such as A Collection of Prints, Engraved After the Most Capital Paintings in England and The British Gallery of Pictures in order to explore the development of the idea and practice of “seeing” artworks in books and how such concept of the “progress of arts” was realized in these books. In particular, the ambition to narrate a general history of European painting in one book that combined image and text in the early 19th century presents a new notion of illustrated art history books.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)290
Number of pages1
JournalTaida Journal of Art History
Issue number50
StatePublished - 2021


  • Britain
  • Illustrated art book
  • Illustrated catalogue of collection
  • Museum on paper
  • Reproductive print


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