The Fables of Aesop

The collection of moral tales traditionally associated with the name of Aesop has a long and complex literary and bibliographical history. Aesop's fables were among the earliest printed books to be illustrated, and there are several examples before 1500. A Flemish edition of 1567 illustrated and published by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (1520-c. 1590) was one version which inspired many future interpretations, including two English editions which appeared almost simultaneously in the mid 1660s - one published by John Ogilby, the other by the artist Francis Barlow.


John Ogilby had first published his English translation of Virgil in 1649 as a quarto, but decided to issue it in a more lavish format in 1654 with illustrations based on drawings by Franz Cleyn, with some plates etched by Hollar and the rest by Pierre Lombart and others. He followed the same pattern with his Aesop, which had appeared in quarto in 1651, but which he then published as a folio with illustrations again based on drawings by Cleyn, and most of the etching by Hollar. The work appeared in 1665, with 82 fables each with its own full-page illustration printed on a separate leaf, with accompanying letterpress text. Hollar was responsible for 57 of the illustrations (P334-P390), plus the preliminary print depicting Aesop surrounded by animals (P333).

Francis Barlow (1626?-1702) was a well known English artist, sometimes referred to as the father of English book illustration, who had been working on his own edition of Aesop, also intended for publication in 1665. Barlow was responsible for both the original drawings and the etching of the plates. He was unable to publish his work in 1665 but it appeared the following year, with text in English, French and Latin. Barlow's designs are half-page, with the text of each fable printed letterpress below, which necessitated each sheet passing through two separate presses.

It is likely that the Great Fire of London took its toll on both the 1665 and the 1666 editions, as both are now scarce. Ogilby's was re-issued in 1668, together with his Aesopic's or A second Collection of Fables also with Hollar etchings (P391 to P408G), and Barlow's in 1687 with additional plates and a corrected text. The fact that two books, both intended for a high-end market, could be successfully issued at this time attests to the consummate skill of the artists, engravers and printers, as well as the enduring appeal of Aesop:

Examples are best precepts; and a tale Adorn'd with sculpture better may prevaile, To make men lesser beasts, than all the store Of tedious volumes vext the world before.