Context is everything.
Consider, for example, the term vignette. As encountered in booksellers' catalogs, it usually means one of two things. As a literary term, vignette refers to
a short, well written sketch or descriptive scene. It does not have a plot which would make it a story, but it does reveal something about the the elements in it. It may reveal character, or mood or tone. It may have a theme or idea of its own that it wants to convey. It is the description of the scene or character that is important.
This, however, is not what a bookseller's catalog description means when the term is used to refer to a book's illustrations. In that sense, the meaning conveyed is
(1) A small ornamental or decorative design, used on a title-page or as a head- or tail-piece to a chapter or division of a book. (2) Any illustration not enclosed in a border or squared off at the edges but shading away....
Just as there have been masterful practitioners of the literary vignette (see, e.g., Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street), so have there been masterful practitioners of the illustrative vignette. The most famous of all such illustrators was the 18th century British wood engraver Thomas Bewick.
Bewick is best known for the many wood engravings and vignettes he created for the 2-volume A History of British Birds, which appeared in 1797 (Land Birds) and 1804 (Water Birds), and the earlier (1790) A General History of Quadrupeds. Unlike the wood engravings in these volumes, which depicted closely observed specimens of animal and bird life, the vignettes in each volume (which Bewick called tail pieces) represent a sort of visual jeu d'esprit--i.e., Bewick used them to comment on the social foibles of British society. As Laura Cumming noted about a recent exhibition of many of these vignettes, some of Bewick's images (most are no larger than 2"x3") are so incredibly detailed as to beggar belief that [they] could possibly have been made by human hand:
In the vignette above left, for example, [a] man tries to herd his cow through the torrential river to avoid the toll fees on the bridge, but loses his costly hat in the process. The important thing about this and similar images, as Tom Lubbock points out in a recent article,
is that they don't have a de-fined edge. They're not bounded by a formal rectangle or oval. The image is just a patch, an irregular but roughly ovoid area, floating on the white page. If you look at where the scene comes to a stop, you see that its borders sometimes correspond to the contours of some object in the scene. The image's edge is the edge of a rock, a hill, a bush, a tree. Or sometimes, with a stretch of ground or water or sky, the image just fades out at the margin. Either way, unlike most pictures, these vignettes lack a window frame:
Whatever the image,
[t]he figure is more or less in the centre of the image. Its surroundings become its personal space, its present situation, its own little world - almost its thought-bubble. Bewick's vignettes are images of immediate experience. They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the present tense, and to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.
Of course, many other artists have created vignettes for books, but few have captured as well as Bewick the human condition in such a small space. Because original copies of Bewick's Quadrupeds and British Birds are quite expensive in anything approaching Fine condition, most book collectors will likely have to settle for a reprint (such as that depicted below left). For an excellent recent biography of Bewick, pick up the title depicted below right....