Report: 1st Reading Group Session

The inaugural meeting of the ‘Illustration: So What?!’ Reading Group took place on May 19th 2014 at the University of Roehampton, introduced by Mary L. Shannon and Susan Matthews. We convened for a varied and lively discussion, reflecting the nature of our chosen subject as well as the fields of scholarship represented at the table.

Susan Matthews opened the session with her observations regarding the etymology of ‘illustration’. The careful consideration given to the development of our contemporary usage of the word, in contract with its earlier meanings, emphasised just how much has the publishing industry and book design and decoration have evolved, even in recent times. This point is perhaps particularly poignant for the illustration scholar with a background as an illustrator, such as myself. As students – and scholars – it is often considered that illustration has existed since the earliest days of human creativity, and is at the heart of creative and intellectual development. The implication that in name at least this is not the case is quite profound; the acknowledgement that a timeless occupation is actually only 198 years-old (according to the OED definition) is a novel perspective. The idea that the Romantic illustrators were working in a newly named field, perhaps makes them more radical than was previously thought.

The core text, J Hillis Miller’s Illustration (1992), provided a number of interesting points for discussion. It was observed and agreed that Miller used ‘illustration’ with a multiplicity of meanings – with a particular penchant for added connotations of ‘light’. This, of course, married perfectly with discussion of pre-1816 definitions of ‘illustration’ as well as with the glowing glass books of Olafur Eliasson in his 2013 artwork A View Becomes a Window. Examination of Miller was as stimulating and varied as the contents of his book, with the group drawing parallels between all texts discussed as well as to fields as diverse as theatre and architecture.

The first meeting of the ‘Illustration: So What?!’ Reading Group did, as promised, throw new light on the idea of illustration. With future meetings planning to discuss texts just as varied as those considered here, and likely to be approached with the same enthusiasm and varied perspectives, I have no doubt that further light will be shed on this very rich area of study.

– Bee Hughes (PhD student, Liverpool John Moores)

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