Hughes's activities as an illustrator clearly divide between work for children and illustrations for adults. His mature style is a complex blend: fusing a number of contemporary motifs and formal tendencies, his art still retains a high degree of originality and could never be mistaken for the work of anyone else.
One of Hughes's defining interests is the creation of beautiful types. Heavily influenced by the popular pseudo-science of physiognomy, his characters possess idealized features, with high foreheads, clear brows and well-formed chins. Designed for the bourgeois sitting-room and nursery, they embody the middle-class readership's idea of the perfect Anglo-Saxon face. The privileged Tom Brown is absolutely of this type and so is Enoch Arden, even though Tennyson writes him as a working sailor. But Hughes's treatment of facial types is given another twist in his tendency to merge the genders. His women are variations on a Rossettian theme, with swirling hair and clear complexions, and it is interesting to note that his men often have a feminized, androgynous quality.
What most characterizes his style, however, is his capacity to suggest the intricate introspection of a child's world. His illustrations for juveniles are small scale, congested, hermetic, self-referring: the action is limited to a tiny stage and the characters move in a space which gives no suggestion of the larger contexts of adult life. This effect is boldly realized in his collaborations with Christina Rossetti, which produced two lyrical nursery books, Sing Song (1872) and Speaking Likenesses (1873).
However, his greatest achievement in this field is his series of illustrations for George Macdonald's At the Back of the the North Wind, which first appeared in Good Words for the Young (1868-70). These heavily blocked designs powerfully convey a child's eye view of the Beautiful Lady, transforming a Pre-Raphaelite type, with extravagantly swirling hair and refined features, into a notion of the unfamiliar and strange. Lyrical, highly imaginative, and hauntingly intense, Hughes's visualization of Macdonald's tale is probably his best work, and (arguably) one of the master-works of Victorian illustration.
Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Book Illustrators. Woodbridge: Atnique Collectors' Club, 1978; revised ed., 1996.
Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996.
Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; reprint, New York: Dover, 1975.
Roberts, Leonard & Wildman, Stephen. Arthur Hughes: His Life and Work. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors' Club, 1997.
Suriano, Gregory. The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators. London: The British Library, 2000.
Last modified 30 October 2009