Thackeray's decorated initial B

ennett’s moral focus is given a particular form in his illustrations for Quarles’ Emblems and The Pilgrim’s Progress. A review in The Bookseller described the artist as ‘a pleasantly severe caricaturist’ who ‘derided the follies of the time’ (p.16), and the emblem books, enshrining canonical texts, gave him an opportunity to combine topical observation with a timeless, universal critique of the vanity of human wishes. These publications extend his other work in the form of animal emblems in Aesop’s Fables.

In his work for Quarles’ Emblems he collaborates with W. H. Rogers, who designed the binding and contributed at least half of the illustrations. The images by Rogers are strictly in the manner of Renaissance design, and Bennett similarly deploys the conventions of the highly compressed image as a dense field of moral signifiers. Emblem XII is a good example (pp.50–53). The text is Isaiah LXVI: II: ‘Ye may suck, but not be satisfied with the breast of her consolation’. Quarles explains the lines’ admonition never to take ‘surfeit where thou should’st but taste’, and Bennett’s design makes this message clear in a grotesque configuration. Two figures are fed by a pair of breasts attached to a fleshly globe, the symbol of the world; one is a plump infant dressed as a jester and the other a diseased and starving child, complete with an angel’s withered wings, who has to sieve whatever is left of the milk. Sharply contrasted, the characters connote the negative outcome of excess: the obese child takes more than he needs and, morally speaking, will ultimately become the foundling, afflicted with illness and without spiritual nourishment.

Left to right: (a) Emblem XII. (b) Emblem XIII. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The contrapuntal arrangement of the figures stresses the idea that ‘Who strains beyond a mean, draws in and gulps disease’; moderation is the message, symbolized in the movement between bloated excess and moral poverty. At the same time, Bennett gives his universal sign a contemporary significance. Extending beyond Quarles’s text, he shows his children as Plenty and Want, the physical embodiments of class difference in a Britain which in the 1860s was almost as sharply divided on economic lines as in previous decades. The figures recall Dickens’s Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol (1843), and the notion of topical relevance is stressed, bizarrely, by placing the symbolic scene at the side of a railway line, complete with a telegraph line, a passage under the line, and a signal-box. Presented in the form of a universal dream-image, the image functions as an iconographic scheme visualising universal truths as Quarles configured them, and as a piece of journalism.

Incongruous juxtapositions recur throughout Bennett’s other designs, arresting the viewer with their combinations of the modern and the timeless. He especially captures the emblems’ morbidity, presenting a series of grotesque figures which sometimes represent the texts but are more often his own invention. Figured as a series of jarring composites, his illustrations unite apparently unrelated objects and animals in the form of hybrid creatures and unsettling locations. The effect, especially in the images for Emblems IX (p.100) and XIII (p.54) is reminiscent of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1510; Prado, Madrid); never less than ‘strange and slightly sick’ (de Maré, p.154), Bennett’s illustrations far more powerful and unsettling than the companion pieces by Rogers.

Another type of emblem book is offered in the form of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bennett’s approach to his commission was unusual. Working in a long tradition, he presents an interpretation which consists entirely of portraits in outline, each embodying a particular vice or virtue. His inspiration was the physiognomical readers of the time: his heads resemble the exemplars of types appearing in J. C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (numerous eds), but also recalls the drawings in contemporary and earlier books such as Thomas Cooke’s A Practical and Familiar View of the Science of Physiognomy (1819) and Charles Le Brun’s Heads Representing the Various Passions of the Soul as they are Expressed in the Human Countenance (1794). Obstinate (facing p.4), Hypocrisy (facing p.40), Mistrust (facing p. 44) and all of those whom Christian meets are carefully detailed, and the artist achieved a sort of seriousness, free from mordancy, that represents a departure from his usual approach. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, as in no other of his books, he moralises without deploying the agencies of irony and farce.

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Last modified 17 March 2014