In January 1665 Samuel Pepys sat up until two in the morning reading Robert Hooke’s newly published Micrographia – ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’, he noted in his diary. Most books and manuscripts are self-effacing vessels for the words and images of writers and artists. As one goes back in time it becomes increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to know how interested these writers and artists were in the reproduction of their work.
The poems of Sappho, for example, now survive in fragmentary form on pieces of ancient papyrus dating hundreds of years after the poems were first composed. But it is possible to see how the possibility of printing – what might be called the genius of the printed book – has been superbly realized since the innovations of Johann Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century.
Gutenberg’s Latin Bible is a remarkable technical and artistic accomplishment – the successful rendering of a manuscript page in type. William Caxton, who introduced printing to England, brought an entrepreneurial spirit into the incipient book trade. In the sixteenth century the humanist scholar Erasmus grasped the opportunity to reach large numbers of readers through the printing press, wrote the first bestsellers, and oversaw the printing of works by his friends.
By engaging directly with printing techniques, writers and artists were able to control with great precision the reproduction of their work. Albrecht Dürer brilliantly developed the potential of engraving to establish a new visual language of great power. Hooke’s Micrographia, which so delighted Pepys, made the microscopic world newly accessible with its combinations of engraving and descriptive prose. William Blake and John Audubon succeeded in translating their visionary and unusual projects into print, the former working in miniature, the latter at the largest possible scale. Though modest about his artistic abilities, J R R Tolkien illustrated The Hobbit himself and was reluctant for any artist to illustrate The Lord of the Rings, ‘whether genius or not’.
The close relationship between the printed book and technical innovation was demonstrated when Henry Fox Talbot introduced his experiments in photography in book form, anticipating the photographic techniques that would dominate book production in the twentieth century.