Illustrated Book Spotlight: Evangeline (1909) by H. W. Longfellow, Illustrated by John R. Neill

One of the saddest chapters in Canada's history is an event known as The Great Upheaval, which was an event that took place in the mid-1700s, during the French and Indian War. In this event, 11,500 Acadians were forcibly removed from their homes by the British. (Acadia was a region which now consists of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Northern Maine, and New Brunswick.)

This event was immortalized almost a century later by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his classic 1847 poem Evangeline. The main character is a fictional Acadian girl who loses her lover during the Great Upheaval, and spends literally the rest of her life looking for him. (The poem famously ends with her finding him, and then, moments later, dying in his arms.)

This poem lends itself well to illustration, the earliest illustrated edition being published in 1854, and numerous other illustrators have tried their hand at it since. Among these are Howard Chandler Christy, F. O. C. Darley, and presumably many others, but my favorite of all the ones I've seen is this edition, published in 1909 by Reilly & Britton, and featuring profuse illustrations and page decorations by John R. Neill.

The cover (below) is possibly the most elaborate part of the book, with its meticulous hand-lettering, and gold-leafed edges. Also, Neill's use of watercolor adds a very nice touch. This definitely sets our expectations for what's to come when we open the book, and, it turns out, we are not disappointed!

The endpapers above, which greet us when we first open the front cover, are astoundingly detailed, and already we can appreciate Neill's skillful use of crosshatching. His use of only two colors is consistent throughout the book, and, although it must have been primarily a cost-saving measure for the publishers, to us it's nice and subtle, so we're not easily overwhelmed with too many bright colors.

As a side note, Neill was also illustrating The Road To Oz around this same time period, as it was also published in 1909. The Road to Oz is widely recognized to be one of the most elaborately illustrated Oz books, and it makes sense that Neill's extreme use of detail would carry over into his other works of this time period.

The same style and technique can be seen in his double title page below.

As you can see in the frontispiece (below,) his medium has now switched, so he's not using pen and ink, but he still maintains his use of two colors.

I have also included the title page, mostly to call attention to the hand-lettering. This might have also been done by Neill, though it can be hard to say for sure, as there's no indication that it was. It still looks very impressive, and is in keeping with the style of the book.

While the above is hard to attribute with any certainty, the copyright page below is unmistakably drawn by Neill. It, like many of the illustrations in this book, strongly resembles his work on L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

Below is the page decoration that appears most frequently in the book. Neill's use of the lighter color throws the dark text front and center in emphasis, and yet he still makes use of his highly-detailed crosshatch technique, making for a lavish presentation.

Not one to skimp on elegance, Neill also marks each new section or subsection of the book with detailed full page illustrations including hand-lettering. Below are his title compositions for the whole book, part one, and part two.

His page decorations for the beginnings of part one and part two are also worth including in that they differ from the above page decoration that is used on all the other pages.

And below are all the other illustrations in the book, in chronological order. You'll notice, with the exception of two pen and ink drawings, the vast majority are halftone drawings. Why this is, I can't say, because there doesn't appear to be any real logic behind Neill's frankly unpredictable switching of mediums. But nonetheless, these illustrations are very impressive, and, to my mind, they have easily made this the best illustrated edition of Longfellow's Evangeline.

(To order a print of the above illustration, click here.)

Have you ever read this poem before? What's your favorite illustrated poem? Let me know in the comments, so we can have a conversation.



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