by Robert Irwin, 2011


In this richly illustrated book illustrations of various western editions of The Arabian Nights from the eighteenth to the twentieth century are presented and analysed. Visions of the Jinn is simultaneously a closely focused study of a special case in the history of book illustration, an account of the evolution of an important strand of visual fantasy and a presentation of a hitherto neglected area of Orientalism.

A well-known authority on The Arabian Nights, Robert Irwin in this study considers illustration as a form of commentary on the text, rather than as a notionally independent art form. At the same time he investigates the limited visual sources available to the earliest illustrators, whose images had a distinctly European look. In the nineteenth century some attempt was made to illustrate Arab costume and architecture, but authenticity was rarely a primary motive, and later illustrators, drawing on a wider range of sources, created a tradition of fantasy. The author also analyses the various techniques used in book illustration over the years, from early engraving to lithography, chromolithography and photolithography, and the different audiences, adults and children, at which the illustrated editions were aimed.

Many of the artists whose work is analysed here, such as Arthur Boyd Houghton, Gustave Doré, Walter Crane and Edmund Dulac, are well known; others are almost forgotten, and Robert Irwin provides a wealth of detail about some of the minor characters—Albert Letchford and Henry Justice Ford, for example—who have made a distinctive contribution to the history of illustration and deserve to be remembered.

The Arabian Nights was first published in Europe as a work for adults, but came to be adapted and illustrated mainly for children. It is no longer universally read, but it has continued to attract modern illustrators such as Pauline Baynes, Eric Fraser and Errol Le Cain. The rich tradition that they build on has become a fascinating part of western visual culture, as the splendid illustrations of this book vividly demonstrate.


Chapter 1. In the Beginning was the Word
Chapter 2. The Boxwood Jinn
Chapter 3. Photographing the Jinn
Chapter 4. Colouring the Jinn

Author Information

Formerly a lecturer in the Mediaeval History Department of the University of St Andrews, Robert Irwin is a writer, critic, editor and broadcaster. He has published six novels, as well as nine non-fiction books dealing with Middle Eastern culture, including The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994). He has also edited the Penguin edition of Malcolm Lyons’ translation of The Arabian Nights (2009). He has travelled extensively in the Arab lands. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. He is also the Director of a publishing company and an editor at The Times Literary Supplement.

Review Highlights

Visions of the Jinn is part bibliographical exposition, part dazzling magic lantern show: its 164 colour-saturated facsimiles, photographs and black-and-white images and their accompanying analysis offer a visually stunning and sensitive account of the European response to this important text.’
Elizabeth Lowry in The Times Literary Supplement

‘A scholarly but lively overview of the history of illustrating the Nights in the West...superb.’
Jane Jakeman in The Art Newspaper

Sample Text

Preface: Most of the work for Visions of the Jinn was done in the congenial, scholarly environment of the private collection of the Arcadian Library and this book draws mainly, though not entirely, on books to be found in that library. This is not a comprehensive survey of every illustrated version of the Arabian Nights. Such a book might be valuable for dedicated bibliographers, but it would seem tedious to everyone else. An awful lot of editions of the Nights have been published which contain incompetent or kitsch illustrations – and often by artists who were so obscure that nothing whatsoever is known about the rest of their life and works. Instead, I have concentrated on illustrated editions of artistic merit or of significance for other reasons, and I have thus mostly restricted myself to English and French versions. In selecting the illustrations, I have again and again faced the dilemma of whether to select pictures which represent the artists at their most typical or at their best. I have usually opted for the latter, but I have not been consistent in this.

Over the centuries different editions of the Nights have given widely varying titles to the various stories and spelt or misspelt the proper names in all sorts of ways. While retaining all these variations in citing the original works, where possible I have also given the titles and names as they appear in The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, translated by Malcolm Lyons and published by Penguin Classics in 2009. In the course of my research I spent day after day of deep peace in the Arcadian Library where I handled beautifully bound books and gazed at pictures of jinn, princesses, sorcerers, ogres and pirates. If that counts as work, then I am very fond of work.

Introduction: A lady on a divan telling stories to a turbaned sultan; men with scimitars running down a dark and narrow street; a jinni issuing like a vast dark cloud from a flask; a prince in a pavilion guarded by lions; a veiled lady at the entrance to a shop; a young man on a flying carpet circling over a domed palace; a man clinging to driftwood in a stormy sea … These days, thanks to illustrated children’s books, comics, films and video games, people are much more likely to have a sense of what the world of The Arabian Nights should look like than to have actual knowledge of the stories themselves. It was not always so. The earliest editions of The Arabian Nights had no pictures, and even when, in the late eighteenth century, fully illustrated editions began to be published, their illustrations gave little sense of the exotic medieval Arab environment in which the stories were set. Only from the nineteenth century onwards were there some attempts to get Arab costumes and buildings right. In their different ways, William Harvey, Arthur Boyd Houghton and Frank Brangwyn took especial pains to show the Orient as it was. In the late nineteenth century illustrators began to draw for visual inspiration on such oriental sources as Persian and Mughal miniatures and Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and realism gave way to mock oriental stylization.

Style apart, a history of the illustration of the Nights must also encompass developments in the technology of book illustration, beginning with the early steel and copper images, proceeding on to the revival of wood engraving and from there to the invention of lithography and the development of chromolithography and photolithography. Marketing is also part of the story. Increasingly and especially from the early twentieth century onwards, editions of The Arabian Nights were sold on the strength of their illustrations and the names of the illustrators. There were more collectors of illustrated books by Rackham, Dulac or Van Dongen than there were collectors of the Nights as such.

‘What is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865). But, then again, what is the use of a picture in a book? Is it there to instruct or inspire? Is the picture chiefly a prop for the imagination, or does it provide visual annotation to the text? Does it offer rest for the eyes after so many words, or are illustrations primarily advertisements or lures set out by publishers in order to attract potential purchasers in bookshops? Should the picture merely duplicate the prose? Are the pictures mostly for children in order to help them through so much prose that is difficult?

Then there are the strategies of book illustration to be considered. What sorts of books get illustrated? Which bits of which stories get illustrated? Different artists read the same stories in different ways and go on in their illustrations to impose their readings on the stories. For many readers it is all but impossible to imagine the characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland looking anything other than as Tenniel depicted them. Similarly, E.H. Shepherd has been remarkably successful in imposing his vision of the world of Winnie the Pooh on generations of readers. On the other hand, there is a danger that the obtrusive illustrator may destroy the reader’s inner image. What should be the balance between text and image? At first, the illustrations to the Nights by, say, Smirke or Harvey, were firmly subordinated to the story, but, from the late nineteenth century onwards, editions were published in which the text seems to be hardly more than the pretext for the illustrations as in cases of stories illustrated by Dulac and Chagall. Some books, such as Don Quixote and The Rubáiyát of Umar Khayyam, lend themselves to illustration. The Arabian Nights is another such book.

Chapter One: In 1701 the orientalist and antiquarian Antoine Galland (1646–1715) published a translation from Arabic into French of a manuscript of ‘The Voyages of Sindbad’. The translation was well received and, having been informed by someone that this collection of adventures formed part of a larger collection of stories known as Alf Layla wa Layla, or The Thousand and One Nights (though this information was not correct, as the Sindbad cycle of stories was originally free-standing), Galland decided to translate the larger collection. Three of the four volumes of the manuscript that he worked on are today in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The manuscript appears to date from the late fifteenth century. It is not illustrated and, in general, pre-modern Arab manuscripts of the Nights were not illustrated. (There are partial manuscripts of the Nights in the John Rylands Library in Manchester and in Berlin that have pictures, and a manuscript in Tübingen of the Nights story ‘King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu‘man and his family’, also with pictures, but in all three cases the illustrations are crude and of no aesthetic interest whatsoever.) It is certain that there were earlier Arabic versions of The Thousand and One Nights, going back at least to the ninth century, which have not survived. Moreover, the medieval Arab collection drew on and adapted yet older Indian and Persian stories. The material came from diverse sources and was put together by diverse hands. There was no single narrative voice and this had an important consequence for its later illustration in the West, since unlike other texts that were popular choices for illustration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the amount of visual cuing provided by the narrative varied considerably from story to story. For example, in ‘The Story of the Semi-Petrified Prince’, the interior of the palace is evoked in some detail, but in other, later tales a palace is often just a palace. So with some stories the illustrators must have found themselves constrained by the text, while with other stories the austerity of the narrative might set their imaginations free …

Chapter Two: Most of the books discussed so far were expensive and aimed at a gentleman’s library. But in the course of the nineteenth century things changed, as both the population and the overall rate of literacy increased. A proliferation of illustrated magazines, many of them sold at station bookstalls, made it easier for illustrators to earn a living. In the nineteenth century the illustrated book became the norm and it was hard to sell books without pictures. Paper itself became cheaper as there was a switch from making it from rags to using esparto grass. There was a hunger for reading matter, a market for weekly serializations and a drive towards self-improvement. In England the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was founded in 1827. A Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850. The passing of the Education Act in 1870 would increase the pool of young readers. Cheap illustrated editions of The Arabian Nights started to appear. The Pictorial Penny Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1845) was planned to appear in fourpence-halfpenny parts, but only one volume was ever published. Edward Lane’s translation, The Thousand and One Nights (1838–40), was also aimed at a wide readership. Later yet came Willoughby’s Illustrated Standard Edition in one shilling parts (1852–4), with over 600 engravings by French artists. But it was Lane’s translation and William Harvey’s wood-engraved illustrations to that translation that were of real importance. Harvey’s illustrations were the first to have pretensions to visual scholarship, as they ran in parallel to Lane’s scholarly annotations to his translation of the Nights. It is to the technical background of Harvey’s illustrations to Lane’s translation that we now turn.

Since the sixteenth century copper and steel engraving had almost entirely replaced wood, even though woodblock illustration was cheaper. Copperplate allowed more fine detail than crude woodblock engraving and it was easy to cross-hatch. The engraver worked with a burin (a kind of chisel of tempered steel) with a mushroom-shaped handle, a much finer tool than was commonly used by those working in wood. Copper engraving is an intaglio process—that is to say the design is cut into the copper, unlike the traditional woodcut where the image is created by cutting away round it. There were disadvantages to copper engraving, as it was an elaborate business getting copperplate onto the same page as type, and it needed expensive paper and the plates wore out. Therefore it was often reserved for frontispieces. Steel plates were more durable, but much harder to engrave. A better technique was needed for mass-market publishers who wanted to print on cheaper paper …

Chapter Three: From the 1860s onwards it was possible to market an edition of the Nights on the strength of its illustrations. Illustrated books reached a public that sketched or did watercolours and who were sensitive to matters of style and technique in a way most of today’s gallery-goers are not. Though the 1860s had been the golden age of woodblock illustration, the same decade saw the introduction of photographic lithography. In this technique, which is also known as process line block, the drawing was photographed and the negative was then exposed onto a zinc plate covered with light-sensitive gelatine. The areas to be shown in white were eaten away and the relief surfaces were then transmitted to the page. Only black and white were registered, with no intermediate greys. There was no depth to the image either. Line blocks allow lots of curves and angled lines, and were ideally suited for the work of artists such as Beardsley, as he and his imitators used line to hint at volume. Artists were able to make their pictures sharper and more detailed by drawing their images half as large again as what was reproduced, and they were no longer dependent on the interpretation of the engraver (though it is worth bearing in mind that in many cases a first-rate engraver was actually able to improve on the artist’s original sketch).

By the 1880s photolithography was properly established as the cheapest method of illustration. Before their bankruptcy, the Dalziels had moved on to printing newspapers, comics and other miscellaneous typographical commissions. Eventually, around the turn of the century, line block was in turn superseded by half-tone printing in which gradations of light and dark could be reproduced, as light and shade were photographically represented by dots of different size. These simulated the effect of the various intermediate shades of grey found in a photograph. This became the fashionable mode of illustration. Half-tone demands specially coated paper and it was more expensive than line block. In the 1880s half-tone screens were used for the reproduction of tonal drawings. Half-tone eliminated the need for skilled engravers, and by 1901 Edward and George Dalziel were obliged to declare that woodblock engraving had had its day and that the innovations in photomechanical processes were entirely satisfactory …

Chapter Four: The art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) had written appreciatively of the children’s book illustrator Kate Greenaway’s pictures of exquisitely coloured, idealized children in flowery landscapes: ‘And more wonderful still,—there are no gasworks! No waterworks, no moving machines, no sewing machines, no telegraph poles, no vestige in fact of science, civilization, economic arrangements, or commercial enterprise!!!’ In the second half of the nineteenth century Victorians escaped into fantasy and exoticism, fleeing from ‘black ink, soot and Sabbath clothes’, as the historian of book illustration, Michael Felmingham, put it; or, as John Mackenzie has observed in his book on Orientalism, when discussing painting, ‘the fascination of the East lay in the manner in which it offered an atavistic reaction to modern industrialism, with its urban squalor, moral and physical unhealthiness, mass demoralisation, social discontents and the transfer of loyalties from the individual to the labour organization with its politically explosive potential.’ There were then so many illustrated versions of the Nights in circulation that a repertoire of images developed from which artists were able to borrow. It was taken for granted that the Nights, suitably abridged and bowdlerized, was a children’s book and it was illustrated accordingly.

In his time, Ruskin was the most influential art critic in England. In The Stones of Venice, he had written, with reference to Fra Angelico’s use of colour, as follows: ‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.’ Even so, he thought that the study of form and light should take precedence for the artist over the study of colour. He seems to have thought of delight in colour as something innocent and childlike: ‘The whole technical power of drawing depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say a sort of childish perception of these fat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,—as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight’ (The Elements of Drawing, 1857). It is interesting to compare Ruskin’s observation with Crane’s reflections on what sort of images were best suited for children. Incidentally, since Ruskin considered book illustration to be an inferior artistic form, he tried hard to persuade Greenaway to abandon book illustration for oil painting. She, however, judged that book illustration provided a more secure income …