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Introduction: life and work

decorated initial J

ohn Sliegh was a painter, illustrator and lithographer, and is primarily remembered as one of the most important book-designers of the mid-Victorian period. A specialist in elaborate gilt covers for Christmas gift books, his principal bindings have been studied by Sybille Pantazzi (1961), Douglas Ball (1985) and Edmund King (2003), although his life and art as a whole have never been the subject of detailed scrutiny. As Ball explains, ‘little is known of this artist’ (p.92) and remains, in the words of Nancy Finlay, ‘elusive’ (Philip Hofer Collection, p.142). It is possible, nevertheless, to establish some previously undiscovered facts. New material is offered here for the first time.

Sliegh’s life and career are complicated by a couple of factors. One is the unstable morphology of his name, which sometimes appears as ‘Sliegh’ and sometimes as ‘Sleigh’; the first is associated with his book-work and the second with his paintings. However, ‘Sliegh’ is the spelling given in the British Census returns, 1841–81, so we can assume this version is correct, and the other merely a misspelling. The name itself is Anglo-Scottish, but nothing is known of the artist’s family or ancestry. And other uncertainties have surrounded his dates of birth and death. Previous commentators have been unable to establish this basic information, observing only that he was active from 1841–71. However, the details contained in the Census indicate he was born in St Pancras, London, in 1819, and died in the same city in 1881.

Sleigh was an industrious toiler in art, and it is possible, whatever the other complications, to re-establish the basic shape of his career. Nothing is known of his training, although it may have been in a lithographer’s workshop rather than a studio or art school. But Sliegh was certainly versatile, shifting apparently seamlessly between his chosen fields, and was essentially a jobbing artist of his time. As a painter he specialized in landscape, exhibiting a single work at the Royal Academy, three pictures in Suffolk Street, and a further twelve at various London venues (Graves, p.256); none survives. The earnings derived from this activity were supported by free-lance work in illustration; like many struggling painters he turned to publishing as a means of generating cash, and drawing on wood for the expanding market in picture books was a source of precarious employment.

Developing his interest in landscape, he contributed atmospheric designs to Charles Mackay’s Home Affections of the Poets (1858) and R. A. Willmott’s English Sacred Poetry (1862). In the second of these he published rustic images in a style reminiscent of Samuel Palmer. Sliegh’s work was offered as part of an anthology of images by a variety of artists, and his small entry into the world of wood-engraving may have been procured as a result of his association with the illustrator and Punch artist Charles Keene, who was a close friend and with whom he travelled abroad. Keene immortalized their antics in a series of drawings in Punch in 1856.

Keene probably introduced his associate to the Dalziel Brothers, who engraved Sliegh’s designs in coloured wood-blocks for Odes and Sonnets(1863). Yet the Dalziels make no mention of him in their Record. This is especially surprising given that he designed several letterheads and monograms for members of the Dalziel family (Philip Hofer Collection, p.142).

The overall impression of Sliegh’s career is thus one of fragmentariness, of taking work where he could find it. At all stages of his working life, and especially at the beginning, this process reduced him to the level of a technician. Engaged as a lithographer and chromolithographer, he translated some designs from other designers. He copied Owen Jones’s work in Matthew Digby Wyatt’s The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1853), and parallel commissions appeared in the form of The Book of Common Prayer (1845), A Welcome to Her Royal Highness (1863) and The Juvenile Pianoforte Album, the details of which have entirely disappeared except for a preparatory drawing.

At the same time he was working as a free-lance graphic artist who undertook sundry commissions from his rooms at 25 Mary Street, Marylebone, and subsequent addresses. The Philip Hofer Collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, contains interesting evidence of his activities. The catalogue entry for a recent exhibition, quoting directly from the material, reveals the piece-meal nature of his employment. His business card, astonishingly still in existence, offers his services as a designer of:

Presentation Addresses/Dedications, Memorials,/and every other kind of Document, written and Illuminated/upon Vellum and Paper – or executed by John Sliegh’ … Specimens of Sliegh’s calligraphy [also] include a ‘Testimonial to Thomas Bennett’ Esq. dated February 23, 1869; a certificate for the Society of Painters in Watercolours; a ticket for the Vernon Gallery and a card for A.J. Lewis ‘At home Saturday Evenings … Music at Eight – Oysters at 10.30’ as well as a number of cards and liquor bottle labels [along with] sheet music covers [p. 142].

Moving between landscapes for the London galleries and bottle-labels, Sliegh mixed high and low art in a manner which was more common than historians may have suspected, but was nevertheless an economic necessity in the crowded art-market of the period. Self-promotion was essential, and one way of doing this was to join artistic societies. Sliegh was a member of The Crayon Club and The Junior Etching Club, two of the many artistic coteries, and work produced for these organizations has survived. A couple of drawings connected with The Crayon Club can be seen in The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and Sliegh published a highly accomplished etching of a rural scene in Passages from Modern English Poets (1861–2). We do not know if he were personally acquainted with the other contributors to this book, but it is significant that his image was published next to work by Keene and James Whistler.

Bindings by two different designers: Left: John Sliegh's The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857). Right: Albert Warren's Wayside Poesies (1867).

Yet it is only in the field of book-binding that Sliegh makes a lasting impression. His pieces include the exotic Odes and Sonnets (1863), for which he designed both the cover and decorations; a binding for Thomas Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming(1857); an extravagant gilt confection for The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857); and another, similarly ornate, for Longfellow’s Poetical Works (1865).

Despite this typically Victorian energy and application, none of his efforts seems to have led to prosperity and – like his multi-talented contemporaries E.H. Wehnert and John Franklin, whose modest lives echo his own – Sliegh was never especially successful; perpetually in need of work, he probably lived on a small income and may have experienced poverty. His position at the margins of middle-class society is vividly conveyed by the records of his accommodation, as given in the Census returns. He never married, never owned a house, and spent all his adult life as a lodger, renting rooms as self-contained accommodation, or sharing meals with the family and other residents. In 1851 he was living in the premises of one Robert Heilett (25 Mary Street, Marylebone), along with the landlord’s wife and three children; in 1861 (aged 42) he was a guest in the home of Ambrose Spratt, where he was joined by his brother, Thomas Sliegh, a ‘dealer in musical instruments’; and in 1871 (aged 52) he was resident at yet another address, and still as a lodger. Sliegh used all of his addresses as business addresses, and all work seems to have been conducted in his rented room or rooms, where he must have had some space set up as a studio and workshop.

The only surprise is his final destination. In 1881 (aged 65) he is recorded as both an ‘artist’ and an ‘insane patient’ in Bethlem Royal Hospital, the institution which housed Richard Dadd before he was moved to Broadmoor in the late forties. This melancholy fate echoes the circumstances of the fairy artist Charles Doyle, and Sliegh’s mental illness, like Doyle’s, is obscure. In the absence of any medical diagnosis we can speculate that the economic pressures of struggling to survive were a contributory factor in his decline. He died in hospital, and left no estate.

Sliegh as a binding designer: a stylistic analysis

Signed as ‘IS’, sometimes with the ‘S’ encircling the ‘I’ in the manner of Roman insignia, Sliegh’s designs for the Christmas book trade are prime examples of the extravagant, flamboyant style that characterises the genre. Issued in a variety of colours that ranges from crimson to navy blue, his bindings are heavily worked in gilt; designed as gifts and intended to be as eye-catching as possible, they set out to attract the buyer, satisfy the recipient and create a moment of excitement when they are unwrapped from plain paper. Designed to delight, they assert the cheery luxuriousness of the festive season.

Sliegh was of course one of several outstanding practitioners of celebratory designs. His rivals include John Leighton, W. R. Rogers, Robert Dudley and Albert Warren. Sliegh’s approach is nevertheless quite distinct from those of others in the field. His style is generally characterised by its extreme geometry. Unlike the bindings of Leighton and Warren, his covers do not include emblematic details which represent the contents of the books they embellish, but are figured strictly as intricate arrangements in colour and gilt. Devoid of humour (which is often found in Leighton’s designs) or narrative anecdote and prefiguration (as in Warren’s), Sliegh’s bindings have a formal purity which seems calculated rather than playful.

There is marked contrast between Warren’s design for Robert Buchanan’s Wayside Posies (1867) and Sliegh’s binding for The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857). In the first of these, Warren includes figurative details that embody the notion of pastoral poetry. The enclosing margins contain images of flowers in roundels, while the central panel is an organic form enclosed by swirling arabesques. In Sliegh’s work, on the other hand, the composition is purely decorative; though it includes a cluster of ivy-like forms surrounding the central lozenge, the treatment is far from naturalistic and is placed only as part of an ornamental arrangement.

Two bindings designed by John Sliegh: Left: Odes and Sonnets (1865). Right: The Course of Time (1857).

Sliegh’s interest in geometry is most obviously embodied in his use of concentric designs which organize a series of motifs into a series of formal contrasts. The effect is sometimes startling rather than appealing. In the front cover for Gertrude of Wyoming, for example, he presents a central mandorla within a simple gilt margin; the mandorla is embellished with flange-like forms and the lettering is huge in relation to the overall surface of the upper board. Bold and imposing, a calculated contrast of space and simplified outlines, it is unlike the overcrowded designs of the period; figured purely a fascination with form and shape, it bears no relation to the text within and asserts its value as a piece of autonomous design.

Two bindings designed by John Sliegh: Left: Gertrude of Wyoming (1857). Right: Longfellow’s Poetical Works (1865).

The British Library has two copies of this work, both published in 1857, and both bound by Bone and Son. The same design by Sliegh is blocked on each copy, the one having blue morocco vertical-grain cloth, the other with red morocco horizontal-grain cloth. Elaborated lettering is also a feature of Evangeline, published by Routledge in 1856. The British Library copy has red morocco horizontal-grain cloth, and was bound by Edmonds & Remnants. The close up on the monogram shows consistent use of the monogram, even though these copies were bound by different binders.

The same sort of formal clarity can also be traced in the front cover for Odes and Sonnets (1863), which is series of geometrical contrasts, as if were an abstract diagram. The central panel is a severe oval with another, containing the title, within it; this is framed by two concentric margins, with four roundels placed in the interstices; the effect is a curious combination of extreme luxuriousness and formal austerity.

Sliegh’s tendency to treat the cover-design as an hermetic composition in its own right features throughout his other creations, and it is interesting to reflect that he must have regarded himself as a designer of patterns rather than a book-artist. The motifs deployed in his covers are closely related to his colour designs for Odes and Sonnets, and treats his bindings in the same manner as his initial letters, borders and headings.

A source for his bindings (as for all of his design work) is Owen Jones’s catalogue of patterns, The Grammar of Ornament. Published in 1856, Jones’s book provides a series of colour plates which represent some of the most typical designs of a series of historical periods. Inspection of Sliegh’s work reveals his indebtedness to Jones’s imagery, especially in his adoption of medievalist or specifically Gothic styles. There is a clear relationship, for instance, between the design of Odes and Sonnets and ‘Middle Ages no. 5’ in the Grammar; other bindings can be linked to a variety of Jones’s designs.

Works with bindings designed by Sliegh or containing his illustrations

Book of Common Prayer, The. London: Murray, 1845. Decorations copied by Sliegh after Owen Jones.

Campbell, T. Gertrude of Wyoming. London: Routledge, 1857. Illustrated by Birket Foster, with a cover design by Sliegh.

English Sacred Poetry. Ed. R.A. Willmott. Illustrated by J.D. Watson, F. Sandys, etc.. including three illustration by John Sliegh.

Home Affections of the Poets. Ed. Charles Mackay. Illustrated by Birket Foster, etc. Contains a single illustration by John Sliegh. London: Routledge, 1858.

Longfellow, H. W. Evangeline. London: Routledge, 1856. Illustrated by John Gilbert; cover design by Sliegh.

Longfellow, H. W. Poetical Works. London: Routledge, 1857. Illustrated by John Gilbert. Binding by Sliegh.

Odes and Sonnets. London: Routledge, 1863; first published in another form in 1859. Illustrated by Birket Foster. Cover, spines and coloured decorations by Sliegh; engraved by the Dalziels.

Passages from Modern English Poets. London: Day [1862]. Illustrated by Keene, Millais & Whistler; contains one etching by Sliegh.

Poets of the Nineteenth Century, The. Ed. R. A. Willmott. London: Routledge, 1857. Illustrated by Millais et al. Cover designed by Sliegh.

Pollock, R. The Course of Time. London: Blackwood, 1857. Illustrated by Birket Foster, John Tenniel. Cover design by Sliegh.

Welcome to Her Royal Highness, A. With a poem by Alfred Tennyson; decorations designed by Owen Jones [executed by John Sliegh] London: Day, 1863.

Wyatt, Matthew Digby.Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century, The. London: Day, 1851–53. Sliegh was the lithographer producing other artists’ designs.

Other contemporary material

Jones, Owen. The Grammar of Ornament.London: Day, 1856.

Wayside Posies. Ed. Robert Buchanan. Illustrated by Pinwell, North, etc. Binding designed by Alfred Warren. London: Routledge, 1867.

Secondary Works Cited

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: The Library Association, 1985.

British Census Returns, 1841–1881. Accessed through Ancestry.co.uk

[Finlay, Nancy]. Entry in The Philip Hofer Bequest. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard College Library, 1988.

Graves, Algernon. A Dictionary of Artists, 1760–1893. 1895; Bath: Kingsmead Reprints, nd.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880. London: The British Library & Newcastle: The Oak Knoll Press, 2003.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Pantazzi, Sybille. 'Four Designers of English Publishers' Bindings, 1850-1880'. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America55 (1961): 88-99.


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Last modified 24 October 2013