Virgin and child, with devotional verses; modern facsimile of early woodcut,
                    c.1500 In origin, the production of printed images in Britain as elsewhere in Europe goes back to the late Middle Ages—to a slightly earlier date than the introduction of moveable type which revolutionised book production. Initially, the technique was used to produce such items as single-sheet devotional images, and a facsimile of an example of one of these that is now lost forms part of our corpus (bpi1008). In addition, woodcuts were used for book illustrations from an early date, as seen in Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in books produced by Wynkyn de Worde, many of them devotional.

The 1530s and 1540s saw something of a breakthrough. First, a new genre was introduced into England at the hands of the artist Hans Holbein in the form of the illustrative title-page. Holbein’s title-page was for Coverdale’s English Bible of 1535, and this was to become a characteristic type of printed image for the rest of the 16th and 17th centuries; in it, an attempt was often made to summarise the content of a book in pictorial form.   Thomas Geminus: flayed man, from his edition of Vesalius, 1545 Secondly, it was at this time that the first printed images were produced from engravings made in metal, the pioneer being Thomas Geminus, a medical figure probably of Flemish extraction, who produced a version of the plates from Vesalius’ famous De humani corporis fabrica which was published in London in 1545. Various plates from this book are in our corpus, including a rather striking view of a flayed man displaying his muscles hanging from a rope (bpi1038).

In the Elizabethan period, book illustration reached a climax which was long unsurpassed with John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. This used illustrations on an unprecedented scale and with great effectiveness,   Engraving of Elizabeth I, c.1600, by William Rogers especially in the martyrdom scenes that are such a striking feature of the book. Other uses of printed images in the Elizabethan period were predominantly cartographic, perhaps most famously in Saxton’s Atlas of England and Wales, while equally notable were the Armada charts produced by Augustine Ryther, which are included in our database. The other principal type of printed image, at this time as later, were portraits, of which some of the most notable were of Elizabeth I herself.

At this point, many of the artists who produced printed images in this country were of foreign extraction, including Holbein and Geminus, who have already been referred to. Others were Protestants fleeing from persecution on the continent, such as Jodocus Hondius, but a few native craftsmen are already in evidence, such as Ryther and William Rogers, whose 1589 portrait of Elizabeth I is the first print signed and dated by a native English engraver (bpi708).