By Stefan Baer and Mike Durell
In 1901 the well known London based publishing house Adam & Charles Black started to publish the beautifully illustrated Twenty Shilling Series. These books were devoted to different places around the world. They all had decorative boards, sometimes even with a pictorial design and mostly with gilt lettering and with top edge gilt.
It all started with the title War Impressions, which described the Boer War. With a print run of 1500 it sold out immediately. It is today one of the rarest titles along with Japan, The Lake of Geneva and the first edition of Belgium with a black shield on the title page. (Later editions of Belgium with a red shield are much more common).
What made these books really special were the numerous plates (up to 100 per volume), printed in the newly invented three color technique. (All previously published books either had monochrome illustrations or were handcolored.) Most of these plates were reproductions of beautiful watercolors and they were "tissue guarded" which refers to a blank protection sheet for every plate.
Unsurprisingly these luxuriously decorated books were not cheap: 20 Shillings around the turn of the Century was the equivalent of one pound and about a week's pay for a London laborer. The A & C Black books were sold to the relatively affluent reader although expensive they were still cheap compared to actually making the trip. Travelling 100 years ago was not always a question of money but also very strenuous and complicated. No wonder that numerous titles from the Twenty Shilling Series are on domestic destinations within the British Isles.
A & C Black later published other series about places around the world: There was a 6 Shilling, a 7 Shilling 6d, a 10 Shilling, and the 12 Shilling 6d series. These secondary series had fewer illustrations and though still pretty were not as luxuriously produced. The Twenty Shilling Series with its 92 volumes remains the most desirable series.
Another unusual fact about A & C Black's illustrated books is that the original paintings were sold too - as mentioned in laid-in slips that were added to the first printings of the books. As unusual as it sounds, these books promoted the works of the Artists. Some of the most successful artists included Mortimer Menpes, A. Forestier, A. Heaton Cooper, Gordon Home, and John Fulleylove.
Between the beautiful production volumes, low print runs, and crisp writing, the A & C Black illustrated series remains one of the most desirable for collectors.