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Words & Pictures, By Jenny Uglow

Sun and shade in a sketch of British art

This is a bonne bouche for lovers of book illustration. It will appeal to those who enjoy poring over engravings, knowing that entire narratives can be found in images by such artists as Hogarth or Bewick. Jenny Uglow has written biographies of both. She is as much at home in Hogarth's London, teeming with venialities, as in the purer air of the Tyne Valley whence Bewick, 200 years ago, acquired the knack of conveying plumage, wind-blown foliage or drystone walls in his natural-history illustrations.

In this new book, Uglow shows how certain 18th- and 19th-century writers and artists connect, collaborate or, without meeting, make contact through shared views. She begins in darkness, with Paradise Lost, written after Milton had gone blind, and Pilgrim's Progress, Christian's journey to the Celestial City largely imagined by Bunyan in the gloom of a prison cell.

Various illustrators brought out their different lineages – classical sources creep into illustrations of Milton, while Bunyan's more medieval visions invite an emblematic approach. Blake produced 28 scenes from Pilgrim's Progress, but they were never engraved. It was the romantic John Martin, in his famous mezzotints for Paradise Lost, who "hurled" Milton into a different age, "where human concerns... shrink beside mushrooming industry, growing cities and spreading empire, and arguments about geology and evolution".

There is not a great deal here, or in the chapter on the friendship and shared agenda which united Henry Fielding and Hogarth, that is particularly new. But never before has the information been presented in this way: astute comment mingles with a common touch, wry humour with pointed observation. These essays themselves belong to the art of the miniature, for they glitter with intensity.

William Wordsworth is paired with Bewick. Both dealt with "incidents of common life", in an easily understood style. Both had a fascination with the solitary figure and returned obsessively to childhood scenes. Yet in many ways Bewick's vision is more closely allied to that of Dorothy Wordsworth.

What emerges is the "peculiarly British tradition" promised in the sub-title. It is both straightforward and subversive, conveying with energy and warmth a celebration of life as well as a defiance of authority. It takes a sturdy interest in the everyday while touching on things sublime. Sometimes it jams together aspects of "high" and "low" art in its search for a popular vein that is brisk, idiosyncratic, and follows its own tune.