The best vintage and antique illustrated books in the public domain (with free downloads!)

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” – C.S. Lewis.

As you can probably guess, I’m in the crew that believes old books need to be revisited, celebrated, and referenced far beyond the time in which they were published. Absolutely, I love fresh ideas and keeping up to date with new illustrators – you’ll often find me lurking around the new release shelf at the library or in a cute bookshop. But there’s just SOMETHING about the old stuff that my brain and soul craves.

We live in a time where information is at our fingertips. Want to know what kind of butterfly that is? A google image search will have that for you in a snap. So I think for me, one of the best things about illustrations from antique books (and in particular, vintage natural history books) is knowing that the artist was also much of the time the discoverer or pioneer of the subject. The time they would have taken to fully understand the subject before illustrating it and sharing it with the world, and the stalwart curiosity driving them – and then the skill required to translate it onto paper!

It’s also fascinating to compare our current norms and ideals to the sensibilities of past times. Some differences are hilarious – check out our vintage recipes in the food illustration gallery for some ‘classy’ interpretations on how to served tinned fruit! But of course, not all are funny – you only need a quick scan through the vintage advertising gallery to find some travel posters that are so backward and culturally insensitive that we cringe thinking we might have ever been so awfully ignorant.

“Old books” of course is a very broad topic, but we’ve gone with what we think are the most beautiful, or interestingly illustrated. Which, of course, is still a HUGE amount, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my favorites! Some are early or first editions of classics that are still in print today, and some are books almost lost to the archives of a dark, cold library basement. If you’re new to the world of vintage book illustrations then take this as a quick intro, and if you’re familiar with many of the classics, let’s see if we have any favorites in common!

public domain vintage color book illustration emerald city of oz

The Emerald City of Oz, from the Wizard of Oz series

Did you know that there are actually 14 books in the Land of Oz series? And, you guessed it, they are some of the most gorgeous vintage books around! This early edition of L.Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz (the 6th book in the series) gets full points from me.

While some may think of early printing processes as restrictive due to the ability to only print with a handful of colors, I think it works to make a big impact on the cover and the illustrations within the book. I love the spearmint green and the way it pops with that tomato red, and the strong, balanced composition reflective of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco trends of the time. We’ve got more from this antique wizard of oz series for you to download free!

Sacred Halcyon Kingfisher Bird Vintage Illustrations

The Birds of Australia, by John Gould

This was the first major ornithology book about Australian birds. I’m a bit of a bird-nerd, and we just spent 2 years traveling around Australia in a caravan, so this one is particularly special to me. The lithographs in it are some of the most intricate and perfect I have ever seen – we were lucky enough to see some of the originals in the South Australian museum.

John Gould was an obsessive naturalist, ornithologist and curator at the Zoological Society of London, but I’m totally fascinated by Elizabeth Gould, his wife. While John’s name got all the glory, it was Elizabeth who produces the majority of illustrations for his books. She was a busy mother of their children in a time where women were not usually supported in their other work, but she somehow managed to make time to produce these stunning, world-class works of art. She tragically died before the book was complete, so another artist was commissioned to finish off the work. I’ve just discovered a semi-fictional account of her life story, so I’m excited to jump into that soon. In the meantime check out our gallery of vintage bird illustrations, including more of Elizabeth Gould’s work!

Two Fairies

The Fairy Book, by Warwick Goble

Anything by Warwick Goble gets a big tick from me. Dreamy landscapes and characters, masterful use of watercolor, and spellbinding stories all come together in the most wonderful vintage fairytale books. His best-known is The Fairy Book, (written by Dinah Craik, but illustrated by Goble) but he also illustrated a number of late 19th-century books such as The Water Babies, Treasure Island, and even the first edition of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Strongly influenced (hmmm, cultural appropriation perhaps?) by Japanese and Indian artwork, he also produced artwork for a number of Eastern-inspired books of stories. More on Warwick Goble here, or if you just want to immerse yourself in vintage fairy illustrations check out the full gallery!

public domain aesop animals illustration from vintage childrens books

Aesop’s Fables, Art Nouveau edition

The Baby’s Own Aesop is a gorgeous book from 1908, featuring the illustrations of the one and only Walter Crane. Aesops original fables were condensed down into fun limericks for children and paired with delightful and skillful illustrations. Produced smack bang in the Art Nouveau period, the illustrations in this vintage nursery rhyme book show all the hallmarks of the era – decorative curves and curls, fine detailing, organic “whiplash” lines. There’s also that signature focus on framing, composition, and the contrast of fine and heavy outlining which brings all that whimsy together and gives it strength.

Walter Crane is one of the best-known Art Nouveau illustrators, and he not only produced artwork for books, but for wallpapers, tiles, and stand-alone fine paintings too. For more childrens book illustrations check out our full gallery.

Ascidiae Ernst Haeckel Vintage Sea Anenome Illustrations

The best antique Marine Science book!

Artforms in Nature is the work of german biologist Ernst Haeckl, who worked in lithograph and halftone to mass produce his illustrations. There are some beautiful illustrations borne from the world of natural science just by the fact that nature IS the highest form of art, but Haeckl’s work really stands out. It seems he’s one of the first to see the potential of sharing science as art, and you can tell by the detail of his work that he must have been completely absorbed in his subjects. My favourite thing about this vintage science book is the how he created a work of art on every page, by carefully arranging complimentary forms of jellyfish, anemones, urchins, and ammonites in compositions that bring out the best of each. We’ve got a full gallery of vintage marine biology illustrations (including Haeckl’s work) for you to explore and download free!

vintage black retriever illustration public domain

The Illustrated Book of the Dog

This antique animal book by Vero Shaw makes the cut because it strikes me as fantastically ridiculous, but I shouldn’t giggle at man’s best friend. Dog’s have been sources of fascination and friendship for humans for centuries and so it’s no wonder that this book was widely circulated and celebrated. Beautifully illustrated with painstaking details in the fur and grass, this antique book covers a wide range of dog breeds from Labradors to beagle and every popular breed in between. Love it too? We’ve got a whole gallery of vintage dog illustrations for you to explore.

So, what did you think of my round up? If you want to do some exploring of your own we’ve got over 5000 vintage illustrations for you to dive into. And best of all, they’re all in the public domain so you can download them and use them however you like! Enjoy.

Vintage Book illustrations of Animals

vintage rhino color illustration

African scenery and animals

Illustrations By: Daniell, Samuel

Published 1804-05

Vintage Porpoise Rissos Dolphin And White Sided Dolphin Illustration From The Public Domain

British mammals

Illustrations By: Thorburn, Archibald

Published 1920-21

Esquimaux Dog Canis Familiaris Vintage Illustration

Dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes:

Illustrations By: Keulemans, John Gerrard

Published 1827-1900

Actiniae Vintage Sea Anemone Illustration

Kunstformen der Natur

Illustrations By: Haeckel, Ernst

Published 1904

Largest flower in the world Vintage Illustration

Marvels of the universe

Illustrations By: Johnston, Harry

Published 1913

tengmalms owl

The Birds of Europe

Illustrations By: Gould, Elizabeth | Gould, John

Published 1837

Tortoiseshell And Tortoisehell And White Persians Vintage Cat Illustrations In The Public Domain

The book of the cat

Illustrations By: Simpson, Frances

Published 1903

vintage st bernard dogs illustration public domain

The illustrated book of the dog

Illustrations By: Shaw, Vero Kemball

Published 1881

tiger illustration By Richard Lydekker

The royal natural history

Illustrations By: Lydekker Richard

Published 1893-1896

Vintage Illustrations Of Cheetah In Public Domain

Zoological sketches

Illustrations By: Wolf, Joseph

Published 1861-1867

Vintage Book illustrations of Birds

Vintage Book illustrations of Sealife

Nautilus Shell

Delices des yeux et de l'esprit

Illustrations By: Knorr, Georg Wolfgang

Published 1764-1773

Various Coral 10 Vintage Illustration

Deliciae naturae selectae

Illustrations By: Knorr, Georg Wolfgang

Published 1766-1767

Amphiprion A Larges Bandes And Laticlavius Vintage Fish Illustrations In The Public Domain

Histoire naturelle des poissons

Illustrations By: Cuvier, Georges

Published 1828-1849

Octopus Illustration by Jean Baptiste Verany

Mollusques méditeranéens

Illustrations By: Vérany, Jean Baptiste

Published 1851

Polybostricha Vintage Jellyfish Illustration

Monographie der Medusen

Illustrations By: Haeckel, Ernst

Published 1879-1881

tuna various fish Vintage Illustration

Oeuvres du comte de Lacépède

Illustrations By:

Published 1836

Vintage Book illustrations of Human Anatomy

Vintage Book illustrations of Botanical

Hibiscus

Edwards's botanical register

Illustrations By: Edwards, Sydenham

Published 1829-1847

bibiscus roseus

Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse

Illustrations By: Step, Edward

Published 1896-97

anotheca flower flower illustrations

L'Illustration horticole

Illustrations By: Lemaire, Charles Antoine

Published 1854-1896

Bitter-wood-Quassia-amara

Le Règne végétal; divisé en

Illustrations By: Réveil, Oscar

Published 1870-72

Vintage Book illustrations of Insects

Vintage Book illustrations of Fairy Tales

Children Of The Forest Sitting On A Rock With Rabbits Squirrels And Owls

Children of the forest

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Elves & fairies

Illustrations By: Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul

Published 1919

Fairy flying over a pond with a crystal ball

Fairyland

Illustrations By: Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul

Published 1926

The Sleeping Beauty Awakes Vintage Fairy Tale Illustrations

Favourite French fairy tales

Illustrations By: Douglas, Barbara

Published 1921

Hanselgretelothe00grimrich 0291

Hansel and Gretel and other stories

Illustrations By: Nielsen, Kay

Published 1921

Enter an Elf in search of a Fairy

In fairyland

Illustrations By: Doyle, Richard

Published 1870

A Boy And Girl Out In The Snow With A Sledge

Olli's ski trip

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Pelle The Boy Holding A Lamb

Pelle's New Suit

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Girl And Boy Placing Basket Behind The Wood Cabinpeter And Lottas Adventure 05

Peter and Lotta's Adventure

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

A Brown Bear Cuddling A Dog Princess Sylvie 08

Princess Sylvie

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Vintage Anthropomorphic Illustration Of A Elephant

Public and Private Life of Animals

Illustrations By: Grandville, J. J

Published 1867

Annika Playing In The Sand With A Bucked Surrounded By Gnomes

Talented Annika

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

public domain aesop animals illustration from vintage childrens books

The Baby's Own Aesop

Illustrations By: Crane, Walter

Published 1908

Three Fairies playing around a bunch of flowers

The Book of Fairy Poetry

Illustrations By: Goble, Warwick

Published 1920

fairies dancing around in the moonlight

The fairies: a child's song

Illustrations By: Gertrude Thomson, Emily

Published 1883

Girl And Boy Fly On The Tree Dragon As A Dragon Attacks Them. Princess Looks On

The Land of Long Ago

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

A Group Of Animals And A Girl And Boy Surround The Sun Egg

The Sun Egg

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Thumbelina Little Girl Crying On A Water Lilly With Fish Looking At Her 05

Thumbelina

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

A Family Boarding A Row Boat

Uncle Blue's New Boat

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

Tree House With Steps And A Swing

Woody, Hazel and Little Pip

Illustrations By: Beskow, Elsa

Published

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