The Stock Images I Love
Exploring the Absolutely Absurd and Unhinged Art of Victorian Stock Illustration
Note that this post contains a lot of images and is probably best viewed in a browser instead of in your email client.
Hi! I have something fun I want to share.
Not long ago, an aimless journey through the Internet Archive introduced me to something that has become one of my favourite things.
The Internet Archive is mostly known for the Wayback Machine - an attempt at archiving and recording the public internet in its entirety. But Archive.org is a bigger project and contains more than just websites.
They even have books.
And what I discovered in the archive is the wonder of Type Specimen books from the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. This Victorian period of modernization is known for being the dawn of so many things - industrialization, climate change, child labour - but what these type specimen books document for us is a renaissance of commercial fonts and stock illustration.
These books contain pages of specimens demonstrating all manner of ornate printable frames, rules, dashes and musical notation. There are, of course, pages upon pages of typefaces demonstrating small body copy and loud headlines - mostly using very dated and hilarious sample copy.
But this isn't the main attraction for me. No, what I love about digging through these old specimen books is the pages upon pages of illustrated engravings that could be purchased. Everything from the classic Hand Pointing...
...to wildly specific drawings like Elephant Carrying a Banner with a Jester's Face Looped Through a Ring Stuck on the Elephant's Tail…
or the slightly more meta Man Wearing a Sign with the Hyper-Specific Elephant from Before Printed On It.
These illustrations would have taken the role of a stock image library for anyone working in printing at the time - if you wanted to add an image of two men fighting to the death to your publication, you essentially had no choice but to draw it yourself, hire an engraver to make it for you, or buy one of these.
It's the same situation publications have been in ever since, and understandably the cheapness, speed and convenience of stock photos and illustration has only grown in the last hundred and fifty-nine years since those two fencing guys were put up for sale.
While I personally am underwhelmed by most uses of stock imagery in our current age - illustration, photo or otherwise - I can't dispute its convenience and even make use of it myself in my work. There isn't anything inherently bad about images being made ahead of time and re-sold for an unintended use, but the field and its disposability lends itself to the generation of a lot of low quality crap that then finds its way out into the world where it probably shouldn't have been put.
But these "stock" illustrations in these old type specimen books are different. There's something special about them. Maybe it's because the sheer effort involved in all of printmaking at that time meant that this work was inherently less disposable, or maybe the great blur of over a century just keeps me from seeing anything but charm here. Whatever the case, I can't help but marvel at how quirky, unique and at times terrifying these illustrations are.
The ‘Morticed” Illustrations that have a hole designed into them for your own content are some of my favourites. These scenes sometimes lend themselves to having a kind of advertising applied - a man pasting up a poster on a wall makes sense and feels like the Victorian-era version of a Photoshop Mockup or a Canva template for an Instagram post.
But others make you wonder what anyone drawing this detailed image could have imagined someone else would have to say that would be best communicated by this:
And all of this is from a single book! All I can think about is how much more of this must exist out there - commercial art created to be recycled on re-sold in disposable printed material. Disposable art that was meant to be broadly applicable and that has now mostly lost all application.
A quick search through Archive.org reveals just how much of this material exists. It's staggering to think about it all - all the hours spent creating these images that would be etched into metal or carved into wood, cast in lead and sold for a dollar to fill up room in a newspaper in 1890.
While it’s clear that a lot of these images are copied and reinterpreted - we see similar crests and elephants with banners and religious or political iconography across many books - it's also interesting to see how these illustrations differed across cultures. The American type specimen books are filled with presidential portraits, flags and eagles while this Japanese one features more sea-creatures, landscapes and a much broader variety in rendering styles than most others.
I particularly like these extremely tall ones from the Japanese foundry that must have been for printing alongside text or maybe even on the spines of books?
This also has me thinking about copyright. All I want to do when I see these is repurpose them and bring them back to life somehow. It brings out a Dadaist ready-made mentality in me that makes me want to claim them as my own, or at least revive them and help people recognize their merit.
How do we square that desire to take on other people’s work, twist it and make it our own, with our society’s well established tradition of commodified intellectual property?
Recently, quite notoriously, the film Steamboat Willie fell into the public domain and Mickey Mouse - in spirit if not name - became a character anybody could use in their works. The novelty of that happening with a well known character is understandable. But what about all this forgotten work?
What about the work we don’t even have an archive of - work that's been lost?
I have so many thoughts about all of this, but my main goal for this post was to share a selection of illustrations by unnamed artists and craftspeople that I really enjoy.
Commercial art is such a complicated thing - it rubs up against so many seemingly contradictory ideas and makes us question the boundaries of art and commerce (if there are any boundaries between the two).
But sometimes I feel like it's worth just enjoying the art, regardless of why it was made, and asking if we feel like making some of our own, too.
Thanks for reading Robot Fan Club! 🤖 Subscribe to get more fun things from my brain.
The images in this post came from these four Type Specimen Books:
I have retouched the images to remove the yellowing of the paper and to pair up illustrations from different pages. Other than that, I did as little editing to them as I could.
If you’d like to use the images I cleaned up yourself, or see them in their original context, all the files I worked with can be downloaded here.
🔗 Links & Thinks 🧠
I've linked it in a past newsletter, but this Linus Boman video on clipart feels too relevant not to link to again. One hundred years later, the stock art being made in the dawn of the internet age holds just as much charm as much of what I've covered here today.
I should also point you to the first place I was able to work with some of the images from these old specimen books, when I edited this video for Do You Ever Media, who have been using public domain art in a really effective way in their work. It’s very Terry Gilliam inspired animation that lends itself to an absurd setting, but I can imagine more subtle uses for this old work, too.
🔔 Simon Status Update:
What I'm Making Right Now
I’d like to establish a bit of a check-in with this newsletter to share some of the longer-term projects I’m working on that don’t fit neatly into a weekly (or weekly-ish) newsletter.
Right now I'm feeling the pull of the real world and want to make some things with my hands instead of on the computer. I have plans for many little projects that I'm hoping will find their way out of my head and into reality.
I'm also feeling a newfound clarity in how I could finish a long-dormant video about my COMPUBOT project - the video discussed in this previous post - and I'm starting to work on a new script for that! I'm finding the biggest challenge here was in figuring out what I even wanted to say about that project. It turns out that's a pretty important step!