Edward Bawden’s Illustrations for Gulliver’s Travels

An introduction to two beautiful works.


  • Fiona Dakin
  • Exhibitions

Thanks to a generous donation from Quentin Blake, House of Illustration are now the proud owners of two preparatory sketches for Edward Bawden’s illustrated edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as published by the Folio Society in 1965.

The first (above) was, interestingly, not used in the finished book. It depicts Gulliver among the Lilliputians, surely the most well-known section of the book. In this opening section, Gulliver comes across a previously unknown land, Lilliput, where he finds that “the common size of the natives is somewhat under six inches high, so there is an exact proportion in all other animals, as well as plants and trees”. Though Gulliver is human, Bawden situates his viewpoint at the level of the local Lilliputians, with Gulliver towering in the distance as if it is they who are the same size as the viewer, and he who is a giant. The foregrounded Lilliputians are dressed in eighteenth-century aristocratic fashion (Gulliver’s Travels was finished in 1735), which along with the unusual positioning of the perspective perhaps hints at a key aspect of Swift’s satire which is often overlooked in its modern manifestations (…remember that 2010 Jack Black film?). As the first section of the book progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Lilliputians are an allegory for various negative aspects of real-life human society: vanity, political corruption, warmongering… By bringing the reader down to their level, creating the illusion that the citizens of Lilliput are human-sized, Bawden emphasises Swift’s damning allegory of humanity, and makes the reader complicit in their wrongdoings. He perhaps even suggests – by bringing a twentieth-century audience literally in line with the Lilliputians – that Swift’s criticism is still relevant to modern society.

The second sketch (above) is from the second section of the novel, and was developed into an illustration in the final book (left). This section takes place in Brobdingnag which, contrary to Lilliput, is inhabited by seventy-foot giants. The image depicts a young farmer’s daughter who has been taken into court and charged by the Queen (perhaps the figure depicted with a fan in the background) to care for Gulliver. He lives in a box because Brobdingnag furniture is too large for him to use. We can see that the final image is quite different from its sketch: the wide eyes and somehow stony colour palette of the farmer’s daughter in the sketch give the figure an almost statuesque look, especially when combined with the arched ceilings. However, in the final image she is much more clearly a child, in a more ordinary room.

Beyond the interpretation of the text, these sketches give us a fascinating insight into the process of illustrating such a well-known book: the re-workings, the discarded ideas, and the final product.