Rare Book Illustrations, Before 1800

T​he Rare Book Illustrations database contains 550 images (mostly engravings) from Library and Archives Canada's Rare Book Collection. All of the images are taken from books, often exploration or missionary narratives, published before the year 1800.

These particular images have been selected because they depict geography that is now part of Canada or events that are significant in Canadian history. The most unique feature of this site is that it tracks re-engravings—or variants—of certain images over time.

Library and Archives Canada's Rare Book Collection contains Canadiana printed before 1868 and rare works printed after 1868. Canadiana is defined as any work printed or published in Canada, or a work printed or published outside of Canada, but concerning Canada or written or illustrated by Canadians.

Rare Book Collection

Search help

  • Keywords: Searches across all of the fields in the database listed below.
  • AMICUS number: The number in the AMICUS Canadian National Catalogue that is assigned to the book from which the image is taken.
  • Artist: The artist of the image, as recorded in the image. Please note that not all images name artists and so not all entries contain this field.
  • Book author: The author of the book from which the image is taken.
  • Date (year): The four-digit year in which the book, from which the image is taken, was published.
  • Engraver: The engraver of the image, as recorded in the image. Please note that not all images name engravers and so not all entries contain this field.
  • Publisher: The name of the publisher of the book from which the image is taken.
  • Publication place: The city in which the book from which the image is taken, was published.
  • Subject: The Library of Congress Subject Heading(s) assigned to the image.
  • Book title: The title of the book from which the image is taken.

Essay about restrikes and variants

Pirates and Copycats: Early Illustrated Books

It was clear to Gutenberg, and to all of the early printers, that the main advantage of print over manuscript was that multiple copies of texts could be made quickly, inexpensively and accurately (assuming that the typesetting was accurate). Similarly, the images that appeared in these printed books were pulled from wooden blocks or metal plates, allowing numerous copies to be printed. Woodcuts, produced by a relief process much like printing, were often included within the printed page. Copper engravings on the other hand—an intaglio, or recessed process—had to be printed separately from the text and, for this reason, are more often found as separate plates bound with the printed leaves.

Before 1800, when printing an illustrated book, the forms holding the type were dismantled after the printing of each sheet and the type was re-used, over and over again, in the typesetting of the subsequent forms. Reprinting a book usually meant that the printer had to reset each form. Images issued from wooden blocks or metal plates, however, were often kept and stored away after all the prints needed for the publication were printed. Every image subsequently reproduced from the same plate, without the addition of major elements, is referred to on this website as a "restrike". Alternately, when an engraver used an earlier print for the basis of an entirely new engraving the resulting image is referred to on this site as a "variant".


If a book was expensive to produce, two or more printers sometimes shared the cost, each receiving a share of the copies and each adding a title page that bore the printer's name. These books, though the title pages differed, contained the same images.

In other instances, a book was issued in two formats: an inexpensive pocket format and a larger format more appropriate for libraries and collectors. The plates in the small format were the same as those of the large format, except that they were folded. If the demand for a book exceeded the number of copies produced by a printer, another edition bearing a later date was produced by the same printer and the same plates, if they had been kept, were reused.

Even metal plates, however, became worn after much use—the finer details disappearing and the images growing faint. To remedy this, engravers "refreshed" the plates by deepening the lines and re-engraving lost details. In a few cases, significant modifications were made at this time and the plate was changed in overall appearance. In such cases, the image has been considered as a variant on this website.

When a print run exceeded public demand, unsold copies could linger for years in the publisher's storage room. Today, unsold copies would be sold off at a discount as remainders or even pulped, but during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these books made up a considerable part of a publisher's investment. For this reason, the books were either re-issued later—a more recent date appearing on the title page—or sold off to another printer, who replaced the old title page with a new one bearing his name and the present date. In both of these cases, the plates and the printed text remained unchanged except for the title pages. These images are also classified as restrikes, although both are simply reissued originals.


In the days before copyright, even though some measures protected publishers' rights within their own countries, a popular book was certain to be copied, whether legally or illegally, by other printers. Illustrations were also often copied with varying degrees of success. Some engravers prided themselves in copying illustrations as exactly as possible; others merely took the general idea of the original.

A printed image is the mirror image of the design engraved on the plate. A design copied to a plate, directly from an original image, gives a reversed image. For this reason, many of the variants presented on this site are mirror images of the originals. With very popular works such as those of Lahontan, various editions, some with false imprints designed to hide the real printers, could be found in all of Western Europe. Copies were themselves copied, resulting in an end product that bore only a faint resemblance to the original image.

Lahontan illustrations

Travel books were often translated by foreign publishers. This meant that illustrations were copied and interpreted by engravers who were of different artistic schools than the engravers of the original.

This is true of the reproduction of an illustration from Ellis' A Voyage to Hudson's Bay [. . .], copied several times after the appearance of the originals. Soon after its publication in 1748, the illustration was re-engraved in two French translations and one Dutch translation; 26 years later, it was picked up again in Abbé Prévost's Histoire générale des voyages, ou, Nouvelle collection de toutes les relations de voyages par mer et par terre..

The native people, as originally drawn by Henry Ellis, look very different when interpreted by a Parisian engraver of the court of Louis XVI.

Ellis illustrations

It is hoped that this site, which differentiates between restrikes and variant images, will provide experts and non-experts alike with a richer, more varied and more accurate primary source of early images of Canada.

About full source information

The images in this website are catalogued in AMICUS, the Canadian national catalogue. When you request full source information for an image, it is pulled from AMICUS.


Library and Archives Canada appreciates the contribution of Michel Brisebois, the former Rare Book Collection curator, for his work in selecting the images and for writing the essay "About Restrikes and Variants". We also gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the Department of Canadian Heritage's Canadian Culture Online Program (Archived), whose financial assistance made this work possible.


Before reproducing materials, images and graphical elements from Library and Archives Canada's website, please read the copyright information found on the Terms and Conditions page.

Date modified: