The Power of Illustration: Making Marine Science Fun since 1872!

I mentioned in my origins post how there is quite a bit of ambiguity surrounding the illustrations in The Ocean World: being a Description of the Sea and some of its Inhabitants by Louis Figuier. Since there is an abundance of illustrations throughout the book, understanding their purpose in relation to the text is critical for understanding the book as a whole.

My previous post on The Ocean World‘s origins noted how the illustrations appear to match typical 19th century science illustration styles. As Michael Twyman explains in Printing, 1770-1790: an Illustrated History of Its Development and Uses in England, the proliferation of science books in the public led to a need for cheap and easy printing methods. Most scientific illustrations of the time were therefore printed from either lithographs or wood engravings, both of which were relatively cheap and reusable. Lithography involves wetting stones and then applying greasy ink, which gives illustrations characteristic matrices of dots. Wood engravings, on the other hand, are a type of relief printing in which a sharp tool called a burin is used to etch a picture into a piece of wood. The raised portion of the wood is then covered with ink and applied to paper to create an image. Wood engravings have distinct lines (usually white) running across the page. The pictures below compare illustrations printed in The Ocean World, by lithography, and by wood engraving.

Clockwise from top left: The Ocean World illustration, beetle lithograph, ear diagram wood engraving. Note the white line texture of the The Ocean World image that is similar to the wood engraving texture below it, compared to the dot-like matrix of the lithograph.

I believe that the in text illustrations such as the one pictured above are probably wood engravings. The first reason for this is the white line texture of the illustrations that is characteristic of wood engravings. The second reason is that the pictures appear on the same pages as the letter set type, which means they were likely produced using relief printing. Relief printing illustrations allows the printer to not mix printing techniques. As for the illustrations that appear on their own pages, they are blank on the verso side, which is characteristic of intaglio printing. Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing–lines are etched into a plate and ink is filled into the lines. The plate is then applied to paper under pressure to create an image. This form of printing is more precise and detailed than relief printing, which is consistent with this book because the full page illustrations are all very detailed.

We can deduce from textual evidence in the book that the illustrations’ main purpose was to help readers better understand scientific concepts and provide a visual reference for marine organisms. Every illustration has a legend that provides a brief description, and every figure is referenced at least once in the text. This methodology indicates that the pictures were intended for academic, rather than decorative use. Many of them depict marine organisms such as fish and mollusks, but a great number of others are diagrams of different processes and anatomy. All of the technical drawings are extremely detailed. Most of the diagrams are less elaborate because they illustrate physics concepts such as the rotation of the sun. These were probably kept simple so that readers who were not experts in the natural sciences could still easily interpret them.

An extremely detailed (and beautiful) illustration of a sea sponge compared to a relatively straightforward anatomical diagram. 

The purpose of these illustrations may go beyond pure academic reasons, however. If we analyze the illustrations within the context of both Figuier and the editor Wright’s intended audience, there is evidence that the illustrations were used to keep less scientifically inclined readers invested in the text. As I discussed in my audience post, The Ocean World was probably intended for an intelligent, but not exclusively scientific reader. Although the majority of illustrations are anatomical representations of organisms, there are quite a few depictions of historical scenes and landscapes. For example, one illustration depicts the inside of a Parisian church that has a giant pearl shell basin. This image could have been chosen because it shows how humans utilize nature for its inherent beauty. Readers may have been more interested in the science if they were shown how their knowledge could connect to human uses of marine organisms, especially in well known cultural contexts.

Some of the illustrations also emphasize a more romantic view of nature and provoke an emotional response from the reader, which appears to be another attempt to keep the reader invested. Good examples of this phenomenon are a scene of horses being electrocuted by eels and a giant cuttle-fish caught by a group of fishermen.

Horse electrocution scene and cuttlefish spearing scene. The detail of these images probably necessitated the use of intaglio printing. 

The first image is described in the adjacent text as depicting a fishing method used by a group of islanders to catch eels. The horses’ expressions are full of fear and confusion. They are much more emotive than the bland anatomical drawings prevalent throughout the rest of the book. The second image seems to be thrown in simply for its shock value. The cuttle-fish is significantly larger than the boat it is strapped to, and its wide eyes look straight ahead at the reader. Both illustrations evoke curiosity and wonder in the reader–what are these creatures, and how do our lives connect to theirs? Both of these illustrations were probably included to keep readers from getting bored by the biological jargon and technical drawings. Overall, my research suggests that The Ocean World has a much more multifaceted intended use than it appeared to at first glance, which has caused its content to be an interesting hodgepodge of science, history, and anthropology.


Literature Cited:

Twyman, Michael. Printing 1770-1970: an Illustrated History of Its Development and Uses in England. London: British Library. 1998. Print.