- "George du Maurier's Dream Pictures" is part 3 of the author's "George du Maurier: The Satiric Artist," the introduction to his The Art of George du Maurier (Hants, England: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, c1996).
- All notes in the original have been converted to in-text citations that refer to the list of references at the end of this document.
- All links to materials in the Victorian Web have been added by GPL.
u Maurier depicted two sorts of dream visions in his drawings for Punch: the idealized family and the private terrors of the nightmare. The former drawings were mostly based upon his own family life while he resided in Hampstead. The grotesque pieces, on the other hand, seem to represent du Maurier's childlike anxieties and fears. Both sets of drawings provide a direct link to the major themes of his novels: the search for a lost, dreamlike innocence of youth, and the powerful influence of the unconscious upon one's thoughts and behavior.
The powerful nostalgia that dominates his novels first surfaced in the Hampstead drawings du Maurier did for Punch beginning in the 1870s. 'Hampstead was my Passy', he wrote, 'the Leg-of-Mutton Pond my Mare d'Auteuil' (Peter Ibbetson, p. 117). Du Maurier hoped that Hampstead would recreate for his children the same rustic charm he enjoyed as a child in Passy. The quiet woods, the magical lake where he day-dreamed for hours, the bumblebees and bright flowers, the overriding sense of peace and harmony, and the sure knowledge that his mother was there in the background to take care of him -- this idyllic atmosphere now belonged to his own family and he memorialized it in numerous drawings. The past, it seemed, could be recaptured after all and the dream made a reality.
The Hampstead drawings faithfully reproduce the elegant lawns and landscape of the region. It is a very civilized nature that we see there, with occasional long, dramatic shadows cast by the trees or by the children in the evenings that suggest a vague and mysterious brooding. Most of the scenes present du Maurier's wife and children and the captions record some of their actual dialogue. It is noteworthy that du Maurier himself is absent from most of these drawings. In Passy the scenes were the same: the du Maurier children playing under the watchful eyes of their mother, the father usually away. The dominant role of his mother thus reasserts itself in the pictures of his wife, Emma, the beautiful, reassuring centre of domestic gravity in Hampstead. These drawings are not satirical or critical like those that focus on the public world. Rather, they are studies of childhood simplicity and innocence. Some of the captions are humorous and reflect the child's unaffected and sometimes embarrassingly direct manner of speaking his or her mind. High-spirited and occasionally tough-minded, the du Maurier children do not resemble the sentimentalized children that dominated so many Victorian bad paintings. Du Maurier's domestic scenes present a family that is not only very attractive, but one that is intelligent, sensitive, and articulate.
In a cartoon entitled 'Egoism', a small girl asserts her independence in no uncertain terms. Her brother calls, 'Come here, Dora! I wants you!' And Dora replies, 'Thank you, Eric; but I wants myself!' (82 [May 20, 1882]:238). Attractively drawn, little Dora comes across as a real child, well-mannered but an individual with her own way of thinking. 'A Whispered Appeal', one of the most poignant drawings of the 1870s, depicts a young girl pleading with her mother not to punish her little brother who has been made to stand in the corner: 'Mamma! Mamma! Don't scold him any more! It makes the room so dark!' (68 [March 6, 1875]:99). The caption brilliantly reflects the child's anxiety. The perspective of the drawing -- with its low eye level from which the reader looks up at the dominant figure of the mother bending to hear her daughter's quiet appeal -reinforces the child's point of view.
When du Maurier shifts the scenes out of doors the drawings become more vibrant. In 'Delicate Consideration' he depicts his five children in a line playing train (64 [June 14, 1873]:244). Beatrix, the oldest child, is the engine and she explains to her mother what they are doing: 'O Mamma, we're playing at railway trains. I'm the engine and Guy's a first-class carriage, and Sylvia's a second-class carriage, and May's a third-class carriage, and Gerald, he's a third-class carriage, too -- that is, he's really only a truck, you know, only you mustn't tell him so, as it would offend him'. Perhaps dressed up somewhat, Beatrix's explanation nevertheless reveals the same keen awareness of social levels that her father possesses. But the picture itself carries more of a tale than does the caption, for it presents a sunny, pastoral atmosphere conducive to high-spirited play. The dominant figure of the idealized Emma stands at the right edge of the drawing, thus carrying the line of figures across the page from the smallest to the tallest. As in Passy, it never rains in the idealized Hampstead countryside. One drawing shows a little boy standing in a field adjoining the house. His tall, beautiful mother tells him that it threatens to rain and that they had better go indoors. But the boy asserts that it won't rain because 'Papa always threatens to vip me! But he never does' ('Hasty Generalization', 75 [September 7, 1878]:107)
In reading the opening chapters of Peter Ibbetson where du Maurier recounts his childhood in Passy, one recalls these Hampstead children and their beautiful mother, set against the quiet, dreamlike landscape: figures that exist in the artist's memories of his own childhood as much as they do on the smooth slopes of Hampstead itself. They are, in a sense, his dream figures, not unlike the ones that Peter Ibbetson visits in Passy. But dreams are supple, elusive creations and it only requires a slight shift of light and line to render them nightmares. Even some of the idyllic Hampstead scenes contain the dark edges and ominous hints of the grotesque, shadowy world of nightmare. 'A Cousinly Hint', for example, shows a young boy and girl out walking at evening through a grove of tall trees (64 [May 3, 1873]:182). Their backlighted figures cast shadows along with those of the trees. There is a house visible behind the trees but it is totally black. There is a touch of gothic eeriness about the scene in its dramatic contrasts of light and shadow and in its solitude. Even though the caption is intended as humorous -- the girl says that their shadows are 'tall enough for us to be married, I think' -- it suggests the end of childhood. The two figures face a dark and ominous future as they follow their shadows into the grove -- and into adulthood.
The true nightmare drawings are few in number. The most horrifying one is ironically entitled 'A Little Christmas Dream' (55 [December 26, 1868]:272). It shows a six-year-old boy's terrifying vision of a two-headed prehistoric monster slowly pursuing him in the snow. Huge clumps of snow build up around the boy's feet so that he cannot outrun the enormous predator. A man in a top hat twirling his cane casually strolls past the monster. The drawing captures the classic anxiety dream of inescapable horror. The end of the trunk of the pre-Adamic hairy elephant is a vicious dragonlike head with its mouth open as if about to swallow the boy. An elephant's trunk is a curious and grotesque item in itself -- the natural function of which might be baffling to a young child, but in the dream its deadly purpose is terrifyingly clear as it is about to eat the child. All of the houses in the background are darkened. People are asleep -- except for the nonchalant nightwalker -- and the moon lights up the snow and reflects on the brow and tusks of the beast. There are a few barren trees visible against the dark sky. The bright, peaceful vision of Passy has been displaced, and there is no comforting mother to make things right in this menacing picture. Du Maurier also drew a series of four scenes in Punch dealing with the adventures of a Mr Jenkins, who is flung from his cab when his horse collapses and who subsequently has several nightmares; the Jenkins cartoons appeared untitled in Punch 54 [February 1,15, 22, 29,1868]:50, 70, 87, 89, respectively. One drawing conveys the maddening sense of ambiguity so often experienced in dreams. Jenkins has a vision of a colossal and horrifying cab-horse moving down a narrow London alley, and he cannot be sure if he is riding in the cab or standing, powerless to move, directly in front of the raging creature. The next dream shows the horse spinning violently around in a circle, totally out of control, but in the subsequent dream Jenkins is about to kill the animal, which has exhausted itself and has become an easy prey. The Jenkins drawings, like 'A Little Christmas Dream', are violent and exhibit one's anxiety about the natural order of things. Unthinking, powerful creatures are unleashed upon a boy and a man. The horse -- man's servant -- turns upon its master with deadly rage. One might speculate that the Jenkins drawings reveal du Maurier's fear of the lower classes. Once out of control, they pose a danger to the stability of the upper classes and therefore must be kept in harness. On a psychological level, these pictures may reveal a sexual anxiety as the powerful emotions run rampant and threaten to overwhelm him. Finally the emotions are exhausted and the beast destroyed. What these drawings reveal about du Maurier, however, cannot be known with any certainty; but their visual impact is considerable and they demonstrate the artist's interest in the unconscious mind.
Du Maurier drew two other nightmare scenes about this time, 'Old Nick-Otin Stealing "Away the Brains" of His Devotees' (1869) and 'Sancta Nicotina' (1869) (56 [January 16, 1869]:21; 56 [Jan. 30, 1869]:35). The former depicts a darkened room in which several men are engaged in a smoking orgy. Their pipes have turned into long snakes that go from their mouths to wind about their bodies. The top of each man's head is on fire and one person's head has been completely burned out. He sits slumped in a chair, his empty, bowl-like head sending up a final plume of smoke. In the background stands a blackened figure playing a fiery violin. His bow is a thin, clay pipe. Self-indulgence leads to self-consumption in a horribly graphic manner here. Once again, the terror of the scene derives from the collapse of reason and control, as civilized behavior gives way to self-inflicted violence. Both drawings reflect du Maurier's anxiety over his powerful addiction to cigarettes.
Du Maurier's fascination with dreams and nightmares extended into his novels. The central theme in Peter Ibbetson is the power of the dreaming mind to capture the past and make it a present reality. Peter spends his life mastering the art of 'dreaming true'. There is also a powerful nightmare scene in the novel where two hideous dwarfs attempt to kill Peter. Du Maurier effects the same sense of inescapable horror in that passage as he does in his Punch cartoons. Nightmares are also of central importance in Trilby where the heroine is tormented by evil dreams of Svengali, who appears to her as an incubus and as a black spider with a human head. And in du Maurier's last novel, The Martian, Barty Josselin communicates with a being from another planet through his dreams. The unconscious, as it reveals itself through dreams, nightmares, or -- thanks to Svengali -- under hypnosis, was one of du Maurier's abiding interests, and his explorations of the subject provide significant insights into the newly developing psychological literature. There is one recurrent figure in du Maurier's drawings that appears in both his social satires and domestic scenes -- and later, in all of his novels -- and that is the figure of the beautiful woman. Du Maurier's own mother was very attractive and he idealized her in his drawings by making her taller and more graceful looking than she already was. Later he did the same thing for his wife Emma. Beautiful in real life, Emma became a perfect figure in Punch: tall, aristocratic, serene, fastidiously dressed, gentle, and loving. Du Maurier acknowledged that 'of all my little piebald puppets the one I value most is my pretty woman' ('Social Pictorial Satire. Part II', p. 516).
Besides the obvious models of his mother and wife, du Maurier had a third model which, when combined with the others, caught the essence of his perfect lady. He kept on the mantelpiece of his studio at home a three-foot tall replica of the Venus of Milo: 'She is but lightly clad, and what simple garment she wears is not in the fashion of our day. How well I know her! Almost thoroughly by this time -- for she has been the silent companion of my work for thirty years' (p. 516). It is the paradigm of her classical beauty and 'incarnate virtue' that guides his pen in drawing the thousands of individual beautiful women in Punch and other magazines. His Beatrix, for Henry Esmond, his transformed Trilby, his duchess of Towers and Martia, his mother and Emma all share the aristocratic and formal beauty of this ancient sculptured goddess. Du Maurier's ideal woman, however, is rendered in meticulous details that reflect the Victorian age: hair styles, bustles, floral dresses, elegant lace evening gowns, and long gloves. But beneath these temporal accidents, so to speak, lies the archetypal beauty of the secular saint that transcends the period.
A true romantic, du Maurier explains his frustration in attempting to render the ideal woman within the limits of his craft:
Like all the best of its kind, and its kind the best, she never sates nor palls, and the more I look at her the more I see to love and worship -- and, also, the more dissatisfied I feel -- not indeed with the living beauty, ripe and real, that I see about and around -- mere life is such a beauty in itself that no stone ideal can ever hope to match it! But dissatisfied with the means at my command to do the living beauty justice -- a little bit of paper, a steel pen, and a bottle of ink -- and, alas, fingers and an eye less skilled than they would have been if I had gone straight to a school of art instead of a laboratory for chemistry! [p. 516]
Henry James was fascinated by du Maurier's graceful women. He notes that 'they all look alike, that they are always sisters -- all products of a single birth'. Perhaps unaware of du Maurier's debt to Venus of Milo, James nevertheless intuited the classical ancestor of the beautiful women when he remarked that they 'have an inestimable look of repose, a kind of Greek serenity'. He observes of a youthful aunt in a Punch drawing. 'Her charming pose, the way her head slowly turns, the beautiful folds of her robe, make her look more like a statuette in a museum than like a figure in Punch' (Partial Portraits, p. 356).
Inveterate and imperturbably graceful, du Maurier's women remain the emotional and aesthetic centres of both his drawings and his novels. His beautiful woman is an idealized composite of mother, lover, and saint. She is devoid of sexuality and does not appear to be made of flesh and blood. Only in his pictures of the servants and lower classes does he depict individuals: potbellies, fat faces, gaunt faces, wrinkled clothes abound, and the reader is reminded of the actual world. Du Maurier's great reverence for women and the upper classes, however, leads him to move away from the actual to the ideal. Like many of his Victorian counterparts -- Coventry Patmore, Rossetti, and Morris -- du Maurier had elevated the woman to the level of secular saint, whose beauty was to be adored and whose mind was to be ignored.
Other Sections of "George du Maurier: The Satiric Artist"
Du Maurier, George. 'The Illustration of Books from the Serious Artist's Point of View. Ð II.' Magazine of Art. September, 1890.
_____. Peter Ibbetson. New York, 1891.
_____. Trilby. New York, 1894.
James, Henry. 'George Du Maurier', in Partial Portraits. London, 1899.
Lucy, Sir Henry. Sixty Years in the Wilderness New York, 1909.
McMullen, Roy. Victorian Outsider: A Biography of]. A. M. Whistler. New York, 1973.
Meredith, George. The Egoist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1910.
Spielmann, M. H. and L. S. Layard. Kate Greenaway. New York, 1968.
Whistler, J. A. M. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. ed. Sheridan Ford New York, 1890.
Wilde, Oscar. 'The Decay of Lying', in Intentions. London: Methuen, 1899.
Last modified 24 July 2003