Introduction: Illustration and the Art-Market

Though best known as a painter and sculptor, Frederic Leighton produced a number of illustrations ‘drawn on wood’. These were mainly created in the eighteen sixties, when he was establishing his career and needed to supplement his income with additional earnings. Some of this work is indeed of the journeyman variety: his two illustrations for poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (The Cornhill Magazine, 1860) would have generated £10–£15 for each design, and parallel amounts were earned for his images embellishing a work by Adelaide Sartoris in the Cornhill of 1867. With this economic necessity in mind he did other work for the Dalziels for their projected Bible (1862–64), although his greatest earner, paid by George Smith, was his series of full-page designs and their accompanying vignettes for George Eliot’s Romola (Cornhill, 1862–63). His fee was £480, a substantial sum, but very little compared to Eliot’s £7,000.

This economic framework is an important part of the production of mid-Victorian engravings, although pecuniary considerations are largely invisible to modern commentators who focus on questions of style and utility. The functions of the Romola illustrations have been explored at length by critics such as Witemeyer (1979), Turner (1999) and Cooke (2010), but less well-known is Leighton’s series of nine illustrations for the Dalziels’ Bible. Though planned in the early 1860s, this book was finally published, after many years of vexatious delay, in the October of 1880; stripped of its text, it became the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery, a large folio of wood-engravings which brought together some of the best talent of the sixties. Leighton’s contribution added to what was already a stellar cast, with Simeon Solomon, Ford Madox Brown, Frederick Pickersgill, G. F. Watts, Fred Sandys and William Holman Hunt presenting some arresting images. Though most illustrations of the period were taken from electrotypes, the Gallery designs were printed directly from the block onto India paper and bound in white vellum, creating a book which is impressive but one strangely out of step, as many contemporaries observed, with the cultural climate of the eighteen eighties. Leighton’s involvement in the project is emblematic of the many difficulties experienced by contributors to what was supposed to be the Dalziels’ crowning achievement; his distinctive compositions are also an interesting reflection on his strengths and weaknesses as an illustrator.

Professional and Technical Problems

The Dalziels’ commissioning of some of the best draughtsman was based on the assumption that the artists would be able to cope with the technical requirements of preparing the block. Fred Sandys, Thomas Dalziel, Holman Hunt, William Small and Simeon Solomon immediately displayed an expertise which was based on valuable experience as illustrators for Once a Week, The Quiver and The Leisure Hour. These versatile painters had already turned their hand to the production of microscopic scale of images in reverse, drawn with a hard pencil; others struggled. G. F. Watts, a painter with no experience of drawing on wood, was the first casualty. Having promised several designs for the projected Bible, he laboured pointlessly; writing to the Brothers in July 1863, he concedes that he had ‘not succeeded in rendering one [design] sufficiently satisfactory’ and is quite honest about the problem: ‘the fact is I have not the habit of making designs for wood cutting’. A celebrated hypochondriac, he feebly notes that his health is ‘not good’, although he will ‘again try’ if they will bear with him (Dalziels, Record, p.244); the end result was the production of just three illustrations.

The Dalziels expected more from Leighton, who was appointed not only on the basis of his growing reputation as a neo-classical and historical painter – who had already painted Old Testament subjects such as David (1865, Private Collection) – but also because he had gained significant technical experience, or so it seemed, in the preparation of the engravings for Romola(Cornhill, 1862–3). The Brothers approached Leighton during the publication of these illustrations in 1863 and expected him to respond quickly. The artist had already produced some designs for an illustrated Bible commissioned by Joseph Cundall, but the Brothers’ expectation was that with appropriate remuneration the artist would abandon this rival publication and become a contributor to their impressive project; they were not disappointed. Surviving letters indicate that Leighton enthusiastically embraced their offer and seemed well-prepared for the task (Record, pp. 238–41); however, the Brothers were unaware of the fact that Leighton had struggled with the technical side of producing his illustrations for Romola, and was almost entirely unprepared to deal with their technical demands.

Not surprisingly, Leighton had little idea of how to draw for the block: his preparatory studies for Romola were executed in chalk and wash (Houghton Library, Harvard University; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and he does not appear to have understood that wood-engravings only worked when the printing surface is made of sharply-defined lines. Unable to make a straight transfer from his painterly studies, a process which could have been achieved using a light-sensitized block, or ‘photographing onto the wood’, he made some surprisingly clumsy tracings (The Royal Academy, London) and completed the illustrations, with a pen or series of fine brushes, by working directly onto the surface. The blocks were then passed to the engraver, William Linton, who initially failed to produce anything publishable. Leighton’s response was a telling one: unwilling to accept his own ineptitude, he blamed Linton for failing to create an accurate facsimile of his original. The publisher George Smith became an intermediary, and had all of Leighton’s illustrations photographed as a reference to compare with the final print. It is not recorded if the petulant Leighton had any further complaint, but comparison of the photographic record with the printed illustrations shows the vast difference between his style of drawing and the end result. The First Kiss exemplifies this difference: the photograph shows an impressionistic image in chalk, the illustration a design with sharp outlines. In other words, Leighton’s drawings were reworked by the engraver, who made them into prints, and without whom the artist could never have created his illustrations. Left to his own devices, his style of drawing and incompetent drawing on the block would have made it impossible for him to proceed.

This was the back-story unavailable to the Dalziels when they commissioned Leighton as an illustrator to work on their pictorial Bible. Their original intention was to use the artist as a major contributor, but in the event the difficulties that complicated the Romola designs were quickly reasserted. Like Watts, Leighton made up an excuse and bowed out; unable to cope with the ‘minute work’ of converting everything aspect of the image into line, he surrendered his commission because it had ‘proved terribly trying’ for his eyes (Record, p. 244). Six designs were asked for, twelve promised and nine delivered (Record, p. 238); no preparatory designs were preserved and it is probably the case that they were too indistinct to make good engravings, with only the Dalziels’ bold technique enabling them to become useable blocks. Leighton’s illustrations are nevertheless among the most distinctive of the series appearing in the Bible Gallery, and were reprinted in the pages of Art Pictures from the Old Testament in 1894. Described by the Dalziels as some of the ‘finest … examples of Biblical art’ (Record, p.237), they repay close attention.

An Epic Vision: Leighton and the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery

The Dalziels were generous patrons who wished their artists to play to their strengths; they only provided general guidance as to which subjects would be most appropriate and were open in their negotiations. In a letter published in their Record, the artist reveals that they wanted him to illustrate at least three subjects: ‘Moses Viewing the Promised Land’, ‘David’s Charge to Solomon’ and ‘Balaam and the Ass’ (p.238). Leighton seemed at first unsure of what he should choose, but in the event he only illustrated the first of the Dalziels’ choices and chose another eight for himself. These were Cain and Abel, Abraham and the Angel, Eliezer and Rebekah, Death of the First Born, The Spies Escape, Samson and the Lion, Samson Carrying the Gates and Samson at the Mill. Though heterogenous, these subjects were selected, eventually, on the basis of careful thought.

Leighton was principally concerned with the scriptures’ suitability as subjects for illustration. He seems to have believed that graphic design was most effective when it focused on a narrow range of characters and situations; unwilling to engage with complex narratives and multiple figures (Record, p.242), he chose the Samson subjects because they have psychological consistency. The ‘magnificent subject’ of ‘the Promise to Abraham’ that ‘his seed shall be as the stars’ (Record, p. 238) was likewise selected because it affords an opportunity to concentrate on a single, dramatic event. These were produced in conjunction with several others. Working to this formula, all of Leighton’s illustrations are visualizations of dramatic moments, usually, but not always, involving dynamic action.

Of the nine illustrations, only three are concerned with the quietude and introspection and in each case Leighton finds a series of visual metaphors to convey the scripture’s meaning. In Moses Views the Promised Land he depicts the patriarch as a monumental archetype standing on the pinnacle of Pisgah. He stretches the character’s cloaked form so that earth and sky are literally united, linking heaven and earth, God and the faithful, but all brought together by the heroic figure of Moses. The illustration is in other words a visual materialization of an abstract idea, crystallizing the notion of connection with poetic directness. The intensity of the moment, as Moses reflects on his long life and the land he will never enter, is further conveyed by the weighty stillness of the pose and by the gaze, which is poised between introspection and peering into the distance.

Significant looking is also a key element in Eliezer and Rebekah, although the emphasis this time is on the contemplation of beauty. Eliezer’s surprise as Rebekah descends the steps is heightened by the asymmetrical composition, which focuses attention on the idealized beauty’s face and directs the spectator’s gaze from right to left in a calculated manipulation of the usual scanning from left to right. This emotionalized looking is given an added resonance in Abram and the Angel which, as suggested earlier, was regarded by the artist as a ‘magnificent subject’ (Record, p. 238). In this design Abram’s gaze is directed by the angel as the patriarch looks upward into the starry night in promise of his fathering of children and their descendants. The contrast between the face of the angel and Abram’s elderly profile symbolizes the movement of age to regeneration, and the notion of endless life is powerfully conveyed by the contrast between the stooping pose of Abram and the stance of the angel. Apparently stripped to its essentials, the image crystallizes the idea of moving forward in aspiration of a greater life.

Creating an imagery which links to the poetic contemplativeness of Leighton’s paintings, these designs focus on the reveries inscribed in the Old Testament. Visualizing moments of intense, searching inwardness, they compare with Simeon Solomon’s contributions to the Gallery. Leighton’s other designs are more outward and explore emotional extremes which lend themselves to a declamatory style; deploying the neo-classical language of Michaelangelo’s figure-drawing, they are powerful representations of their subjects.

The Death of the First Born shows a young man on the point of death: his figure is treated in the idealized manner of Renaissance painting and sculpture and the overall effect, with its protestations of grief, is rather overwrought. Action of a more practical sort is embodied in The Spies Escape and Samson at the Mill; the muscular torsos are sculptural in the manner of Michelangelo, and the narratives are told with sparse economy and directness. Samson Carrying the Gates takes the notion of physicality to a new extreme as the character toils with his burden. As in The Death of the First Born, Leighton manipulates the body as the site of feeling, with all of Samson’s psychological effort expressed in the cramped dimensions of the torso and extended arms and hands which grip the edges of the doors as if he were being crucified. Indeed, both images are prefigurative, typological illustrations which link forward to the New Testament: Death of the First Born anticipates the death of Christ andCarrying the Gates the crucifixion. With no accompanying script to assist the reader, Leighton inscribes the Biblical symbolism in a process of inter-pictorial reference.

Focused on the story of Samson, these illustrations are ‘broad, simple and very pictorial’ (Record, p. 242). The only misfire in the group is Samson and the Lion, which reduces the epic struggle to the level of cartoon and undermines the solemnity of Leighton’s other illustrations. However, Leighton’s most accomplished design is Cain and Abel. This stark image represents the moment directly after the murder. Cain is shown in the immediate foreground with his brother’s body foreshortened in a narrow space; he conceals his face in shame, but his inner torment is subtly expressed in the tension of his legs and feet as he struggles downward, blinded by horror and regret as he feels his way down the steep and rocky path – itself a metaphor of emotional aridity, despair and conflict.

Blocked and cut in sharp outline by the Dalziels, Cain and Abel crystallizes the pictorial themes running through Leighton’s Gallery set as a whole. Introspection and intense emotion are taken to an extreme and the expressive distortions of muscular bodies is given a grim directness; so too is the manipulation of the gaze, which this time takes the form of a character whose gaze is averted and self-contained, as if he cannot bear to look at the viewer and tries to be become invisible.

Cain and Abel was the Dalziels’ favourite, describing it as ‘one of the grandest examples of Biblical art of modern times’ (Record, p. 237). Taken as a whole, however, Leighton’s series is of uneven quality. All are efficient illustrations, giving a distinct idea of the scriptural text and with the exception of Samson and the Lion, are deeply felt; Goldman’s judgement, that they have ‘little in the way of warmth’ (p.210), surprises me. Yet Leighton’s alternation between the Samson illustrations and Moses, Cain and Eliezer, is ultimately inconsistent and unsettling. Unable to decide whether he is interested in action or psychological drama, his nine images might have been better judged in the form of a few portraits of the patriarchs. Unlike Simeon Solomon’s contributions, which are focused around the theme of family life, Leighton’s are disparate. Given the freedom to illustrate whatever he chose, his illustrations remain, like the Bible Gallery itself, a brilliant fragment.

Works Cited and Sources of Information

Art Pictures from the Old Testament and Our Lord’s Parables. With letterpress by Alex Foley. London: Dalton, n.d. [1921].

Brothers Dalziel, The. A Record of Work 1840–1890. 1901; rpt. London: Batsford, 1978.

Conroy, Carolyn. ‘Dalziels’ Bible Gallery: 1881’. Accessed 20 June 2015.

Cooke, Simon. ‘Notable Books: The Dalziels’ Bible Gallery’. The Private Library 5th Series, 10:2 (Summer 2007): 59–85.

Cornhill Magazine, The. London: Smith, Elder, 1862–67.

Dalziel’s Bible Gallery. London: Routledge, 1881 [1880].

Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996, 2004.

Good Words (1863).

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; reprint, New York: Dover, 1975.

Suriano, Gregory R. The Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators. Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000.

Turner, Mark. ‘George Eliot v Frederic Leighton: Whose Text is it Anyway?’ From Author to Text: Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Romola’. Eds. Caroline Levine & Mark W. Turner. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998, pp. 17–35.

Witemeyer, Hugh. George Eliot and the Visual Arts. New Haven, Yale University Press: 1979.

Created 5 August 2015