Classic Authors Illustrated: Robert Louis Stevenson

book illustrations book illustrators classic authors classic literature edmund j sullivan illustrators louis rhead n c wyeth robert louis stevenson walter crane

Of all authors of classic fiction, very few have lent themselves quite so well to the medium of book illustration as has Robert Louis Stevenson. Our mental images of the formidable Long John Silver, the faithful green parrot perched on his shoulder, and the epic quest for buried pirate treasure, are as much an indelible part of our collective consciousness as are Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter and March Hare, owing largely to the illustrators and the fanciful images they contributed.

Stevenson placed great importance on illustrated editions of his work for their potential to enhance their commercial appeal, circulation, and entertainment value. As such, he was very selective about which illustrations would be published in a book of his. The first English illustrated edition of Treasure Island, for instance, was so precious to him that he would write of it in a letter to his father: “I would send you my copy, but I cannot; it is my new toy, and I cannot divorce myself from this enjoyment.” On the flip side, a proposed American edition contained illustrations that he called “disgusting,” and fought tooth and nail to prevent from being published. He was evidently successful, as the edition in question was not published until several years later, this time with illustrations he approved of. [Source:]

In this article, as with my article on Oscar Wilde, we'll be exploring various illustrated editions of Robert Louis Stevenson's works. Many of these editions were published after his untimely death in 1894, and it was indeed these editions, (especially those by N. C. Wyeth, whom we will also be discussing,) that cemented our collective vision of his stories and characters that much further. Although he was picky, I think he would have enjoyed these tremendously, if for no other reason than that their sheer popularity helped to make him a celebrated icon.

Edmund J. Sullivan (1869-1933)

Edmund J. Sullivan was the son of a fine artist, but he wisely decided to go in a different direction, primarily focusing on graphic art and illustration, which was just entering its famous Golden Age. His unique style blended aspects of traditional mid-19th century engraving work and Art Nouveau.

One of his illustrations for the 1913 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, depicting a skeleton with a crown of roses on its head, was appropriated for the famous Grateful Dead poster in 1966. This is perhaps the only immediately recognizable illustration of his, singularly owing to this graphic adaptation.

Here are a few images from his 1928 edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His dramatic use of crosshatching to define light and shadow lends itself well to macabre subjects, and this made him a good fit for illustrating this particular story.

Walter Crane (1845-1915)

One of the first illustrators of the Golden Age, Walter Crane, along with contemporaries Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, is known for helping to establish the children's book as we know it today. Many of his children's illustrations, such as the ones for his 1874 edition of The Frog Prince, are brimming with color at a time when colorful illustrations were a rarity.

This illustration, which was the frontispiece (and only illustration) for Stevenson's 1879 travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, is still effective, even though it's outside the scope of what he is primarily known for. It has an overtly wood-engraved appearance, as it pre-dated the reproduction technologies of the  Golden Age, and hence was not reproduced directly, but rather “translated” into an engraving by a middleman. This old fashioned and arguably manufactured look, however, makes it a lot more appropriate for a work of non-fiction than for fiction, giving it the feel of an old textbook.

Louis Rhead (1857-1926)

Louis Rhead showed such promise as a youngster that his father, an artist whose classes he often attended, sent him to study in France at the tender age of thirteen in 1872. Eleven years later, he emigrated to the United States from his native England, and was offered a position as art director for the publishing firm D. Appleton & Co. Although his primary medium was posters, he shifted his focus to book illustration as their popularity faded. Hence, we see him, years later, illustrating many works of classic literature, including a few by Stevenson, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, and Charles and Mary Lamb. (As a side note: one of his illustrations for the 1918 edition of Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare is available as a print from our catalog.)

His pen technique is highly intricate, which lends itself well to classic works such as Stevenson's, but what really makes these classic editions stand out is their decorative title pages, one of which I've included in the examples below.

These illustrations are from Rhead's 1921 edition of Kidnapped.


N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945)

But perhaps the most prolific of all Stevenson's illustrators was N. C. Wyeth, who, like Louis Rhead, illustrated many contemporary editions of classic works such as those by Stevenson. His most successful edition by far was that of Stevenson's Treasure Island (1911), which was so financially successful that he was able to use the proceeds to buy his house and studio. It also firmly established his metier as a classic book illustrator.

Subsequently, he illustrated other Stevenson books, including David Balfour (1924) and Kidnapped (1913), both of which are represented below.


David Balfour

And that's it for this article. Which of these illustrators do you like best? Are there any you wish I had included? As always, please let me know in the comments, as I always love to hear your thoughts.

Till next time!

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