10 Beautiful Illustrations From Seriously Rare Books


Pictures printed in books published before the development of chemical photography, in the 1820s, were so much more significant than those printed today. In these pre-photographic times, pictures were essential for the recording and sharing of knowledge, whether scientific, geographical or cultural.

Unlike the camera, which (as the old saying goes) 'never lies', humans frequently embellish the truth and more than a little artistic license has been taken with several of the pictures listed here. This makes them no less fascinating, however, as historical reasons can usually be found for such embellishment.

Because many pictures served the same purpose that photographs do today, they had to at least appear accurate. Pictures were, therefore, drawn with an astounding level of detail, which makes them a pleasure to behold to this day.

1. Seamonsters (1557)

From Konrad Lykosthenes's Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon

This picture, which portrays sea monsters of varying degrees of ferociousness, not only appeared in Lykosthenes's book of signs and marvels, but in many other publications of the day. It was common for such high-quality engravings to reappear in several different books due to the cost of their production.

2. Swimmers in a River (1587)

From Everard Digby's De arte natandi

This book, the title of which translates as “The art of swimming”, was the earliest to be published on the subject in England. Its illustrations depict a variety of different strokes and swimming positions.

3. Ancient German Tribesmen (1616)

From Philipp Cluver's Germaniae antiquae libri tres

Philip Cluver travelled extensively as a soldier before becoming a pre-eminent figure in the development of modern geography. The picture above, which shows tribesmen feasting together, is taken from a book about the ancient Germans.

4. Anatomy Lecture Theatre (1617)

From Johannes van Meurs's œIcones, elogia ac vitae professorum Lugdunensium apud Batavos

This rather unsettling engraving illustrates the anatomical lecture theatre at the University of Leiden. Humans and skeletons alike gather to watch a human dissection.

5. Study of a Flea (1665)

From Robert Hooke's Micrographia

Hooke was the first person to ever use the word ‘cell’ in a biological sense. His Micrographia, from which this picture of a flea was taken, was the first great work devoted to microscopical observations.

6. Hippopotamus (1681)

From Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica

This monstrous hippopotamus appears in a book about the history and culture of Ethiopia. Tales of the strange beasts that inhabited this exotic country mystified European readers.

7. Trumpeters and Kettle Drummers (1687)

From Francis Sanford's History of the coronation of the most high, most mighty, and most excellent monarch

Sanford's book, and the images therein, chronicle James II's accession to the throne. This image clearly depicts the clothing and other regalia sported by members of the King's coronation parade.

8. World Map by Tobias Lotter (circa 1756)

Tobias Lotter created many wonderfully detailed 18th century maps. He married the daughter of Matthaus Seutter, an established cartographer, and his sons Mateus and George continued the family tradition by becoming cartographers themselves.

9. The Chief of Santa Christina (1777)

From James Cook's A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world

This portrait was based on the work of Cook's artist William Hodges. Cook encountered the Chief of Santa Christina during an exploration of the southern seas. Unfortunately, Cook was killed during an exploration of Hawaii before the work could ever be published.

10. Dutch Fashion (1791)

From Kabinet van mode en smaak

This book, the title of which translates as “Gallery of Fashion and Taste”, was compiled to reveal the latest trends in late-18th century Dutch fashion. The hand-coloured image above depicts a lady wearing Dutch national dress.