Victorian Infographics: Reynolds's Pictorial Atlas of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, & Machinery

July 29, 2015

Victorian Infographics: Reynolds's Pictorial Atlas of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, & Machinery

One of the most exciting aspects of recent print & design culture is a renewed emphasis on infographics. The bestselling books and popular blogs of designers like Edward Tufte , the "Leonardo da Vinci of data," and David McCandless of Information is Beautiful, have highlighted the educational and creative possibilities of good infographics, and it's difficult to spend a day online without running into at least one chart or graph that's gone viral. But we're certainly not the first generation to be caught up in the visual display of information. In Europe and the United States the Victorian Era saw a flowering of infographics as the industrialisation of printing made it easier and cheaper to create books with detailed colour illustrations. The expansion of the middle classes meant that there were many more parents interested in buying educational books for their children, and the drive for worker's and women's education also fueled demand. Finally, the expansion of science and the era's rapid technological changes fueled curiosity about the changing world that could often be satisfied by illustrations in books, newspapers, and magazines.

One of the publishers who successfully tapped into this emerging demand was James Reynolds, a London printer who was active between about 1825 and the mid-1860s. Reynolds specialised in educational books, charts, card sets, and maps, and he formed a productive, long-term partnership with the engraver John Emslie. Their first joint production was a set of astronomical cards depicting various aspects of the solar system such as the orbits of the Earth and the Moon, solar phenomena, the sizes of the planets, and the origins of tides, eclipses, and seasons. These cards "responded to a perceived market for popular science products and were intended for informal learning within the home. They could be bought in sets or singly and, at a price of 1 shilling, were affordable to middle class audiences" (Royal Museums Greenwich website). Originally issued in 1842, the set of twelve cards was so popular that it was reprinted for decades. Emslie and Reynolds published numerous books together, and Emslie went on to win a prize medal for his educational diagrams at the International Exhibition of 1862.

The present volume, Reynolds's Pictorial Atlas of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, & Machinery compiles a number of the pair's already successful images, making it a beguiling collection of Victorian infographics that were probably first issued as prints in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s (no text is included aside from that within the thirty-five double-page illustrations). The atlas includes everything from the Earth's prehistory to chemistry and biology, world history, civics (the text of the Magna Carta), flags and currency, an unfortunate and very much of its time illustration of the "races of man", a comparison of the heights of buildings, and engineering and technology diagrams such as the workings of engines, watches, printing presses, and the telegraph, and the production of glass and iron.

One of my favourite diagrams in the book is "The Stream of History", which visualises the rise, expansion, and fall of empires over the course of time, from the ancient world to the present day. This style of history chart was very popular during the Victorian era - a bookselling colleague, Simon Beattie, recently blogged about a version that is seventeen feet long! The one in this book takes up two double-page plates, making it, at four pages, the largest illustration in the book.

Also of interest are the two diagrams that relate the geological and biological history of the Earth as understood in the early 19th-century. "Popular Geology" depicts "the order in which the different strata lie upon each other" and includes information about the different types of fossils present in each stratum.

"The Pre-Adamite Earth" illustrates "the animals, reptiles, birds, ... &c which existed in different epochs prior to the creation of man, and whose remains are found entombed in the various strata. From the discoveries of Buckland, Cuvier, Mantel, Lyell, &c".

It is unclear whether this book was published before Darwin's On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859 - two libraries that have copies date it to 1864 - but these illustrations were originally published in the 1840s and 50s. They demonstrate the tension at the heart of early-19th century biology, when the new scientific understanding of the Earth's history, based on observations of fossils and geological processes, had yet to entirely replace the Biblical narrative, even among researchers.

Filled with a variety of detailed charts and diagrams, this is an attractive and engaging example of a Victorian educational text focused on the technologies and scientific advances that were radically reshaping the world. 

Below, more Victorian infographics from Reynolds's Pictorial Atlas: