The books of George MacDonald

The first major publication by George MacDonald (1824-1905) appeared in 1855 and he continued to publish works on an almost yearly basis until 1898. Outwardly, his books are very much in the tradition of the lower cost Victorian gift book: coloured bookbinder’s cloth bindings stamped with coloured and gilt designs, sometimes with an onlaid illustration.

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George MacDonald. Adela Cathcart. London : Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1882. MacD 1882

The books were mass produced thanks to the development of the blocking press and machine-reproduced binding techniques but they were decorative, often lovely to look at and above all, well-designed.  The Victorians valued books as gifts and MacDonald’s books were a popular choice not only for his words and moralistic message but for the beauty of their covers and the wealth of their illustrations. Many of the books by MacDonald that we hold here in Special Collections are inscribed with dedications showing that the books were gifts to children.

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George MacDonald. The princess and Curdie. London : Chatto & Windus, 1883. J Macd G pr

Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) was the main illustrator of MacDonald’s children’s books. Hughes worked with MacDonald on the evangelical magazine Good words for the young. The two became friends and Hughes seemed to be able to perfectly capture the essential sweetness and good in the characters of MacDonald.

‘The princess swimming’ from The Light Princess (1864) J Macd G l

Hughes associated with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood but was never formerly a member of the group. His work shows much of the influence that the circle had on his art: the delicate and fragile figures the lyrical line of the design. Combining realism and fantasy, Hughes captured the ‘strangeness’ of many of MacDonald’s fantasies.

‘The Goblins’ from The Princess and the Goblin (1872) MacD 1872a

The illustrations were reproduced on woodblocks by the printing firm Dalziel Brothers, the finest exponents of woodblock illustration.  Hughes’ illustrations seem particularly suited to woodcut using expressive line and intense light and shade.


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