Whistler's impact on painting was not matched by his activities in the field of illustration, but his few contributions — a list of only six designs published in Good Words and Once a Week, — represented a new departure from the heavily-blocked, realistic style of the Sixties. In these designs, Whistler created images which deny or challenge the conventions of drawing at wood, while also suggesting a highly imaginative approach to the question of literary interpretation.
All of these images are approximations of loose-knit style that he used in his paintings. In place of the congested surfaces of Sandys or Pinwell, we have atmospheric illustrations which suggest washy outlines in watercolour or the impressionist effects of his canvases. Although drawn on the block and cut by the Dalziels, they look like etchings rather than wood engravings. This febrile style elegantly conveys the images' emotional and psychological content. Forrest Reid comments on the 'beauty of his line' (108), but Whistler's purposes are expressive, as such, rather than aesthetic.
Three of the illustrations depict of solitary women locked in reverie, a visual type that recalls the artist's subjects in his oils. The single figures who appear in the various 'arrangements' recur in the austere medium of black and white. Their emphasis, as once again, is on the inward life, but, perhaps surprisingly, Whistler also engaged with questions of social justice.
In just one illustration he focuses on the plight of the Lancashire weavers, who were in a parlous state following a slump in demand. In The Relief Fund in Lancashire, which appeared in the 1862 Once a Week, he expresses the idea of death by starvation, representing in nervous lines a wispy figure who is literally fading away. Shorn of its poem by Tennyson — who withdrew his verse when he realized the subject might be controversial — it is still a powerful sign, an emblem of the sort of politically charged imagery most magazine publishers would not tolerate. Significantly, it only appears in Once a Week as the result of Whistler's belligerence, the sort of pressure not even Lucas, that self-opinionated editor, could resist.
Whistler's flirtation with wood-engraving was driven forward by financial expediency, the need, as was so often the case in the period, to supplement the more unstable earnings made by painting with the ready cash offered by the periodicals. Nevertheless, his work provides an important contribution to the development of Sixties art. — Simon Cooke
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.
Last modified 30 October 2009