The Rev. Charles Kingsley is well-known as a Victorian polymath whose interests extended from theology to the implications of evolution. An associate of the progressive thinkers F. D. Maurice and Charles Darwin, Kingsley was a proponent of ‘muscular Christianity’ and an advocate of social reform, arguing for change in his ‘Condition of England’ novels Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1849), and in his curious fantasy of suffering and renewal, The Water Babies (1863).

Kingsley’s significant contribution to Victorian culture as a social commentator and writer has been examined in great detail. Barely noted, however, is his interest in painting; an amateur artist, who practised in landscape and genre, he was knowledgeable of the History of Art and had well-defined ideas on the aesthetics and role of book illustration. He was also the illustrator of a single book, The Heroes, a simplified gloss on the Greek myths. Kingsley wrote the volume for his children, but published it in 1856 with eight of his designs.

Kingsley, Illustration, and His Illustrators

Kingsley outlined his views on illustration in his dealings with the comic artist, Charles Bennett. Bennett approached Kingsley in search of support for a proposed edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress; the author advised the artist on how best to illustrate the text, embodying his guidance in correspondence and in the preface he wrote to accompany the book, which, enhanced by Kingsley’s name, was published in 1860.

Kingsley’s advice to Bennett is a combination of the naïve and the knowing. His general view is that in order ‘to illustrate’ Bunyan’s text, the artist ‘must put the visions on paper as they appeared in the mind’ of the author ‘himself’ (Letters, 2: 77). This is a typically mid-Victorian attitude – shared by Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade – which understood visual interpretation as a literal, value-free transfer from the writer’s mind to the artist’s, and from one medium to another.

Such a belief is of course unsophisticated, making the assumption that Bennett (or any artist) would or should be able to understand the intentions of a long-dead author. But Kingsley is on firmer ground when he writes of the need to respond to Bunyan’s text, urging the illustrator to try to find a way of uniting a classical ‘accuracy of form’ with German ‘freedom of imagination’ (2: 76); applied to Bennett’s proposed gallery of heads, the emphasis should be placed on a delicate balance of ‘individual traits’ and ‘spiritual portraiture’, so embodying Bunyan’s representation of allegorical types that are also tangible flesh and blood. He completes his advice by insisting that Bennett’s characters can only be shown, in evidence of their spiritual significance, in ‘lifting and delicate outlines’ (2:76) in the neo-classical manner of F A M Retzsch or John Flaxman.

How, then, did Bennett respond to Kingsley’s advice? The answer, slightly surprisingly, is that for the most part he followed the writer’s guidance, so creating an illustrative response to The Pilgrim’s Progress in accordance with his mentor’s wishes. There is no record of what Bennett thought of this situation. He may have felt compromised by having to comply, but needed to have his advocate’s support in order to have the book published: always pressed economically, Bennett was just another wage-slave at work within the highly competitive art-market of the mid-nineteenth century, struggling to survive despite his considerable reputation. Kingsley was acquainted with the publisher Longman, and Bennett knew that the acceptance of his project was largely dependent on Kingsley’s ‘putting in a good word’ to a potential employer.

Whatever he may have thought, Bennett materializes Kingsley’s advice. He draws in the ‘Germanic’ outline style that was popular in the 1830s and 40s but was old-fashioned by 1860; and he represents the figures as allegorical types who are also recognizably of their time, dressing them in contemporary costumes and projecting a sense of their being ‘shrewd and plain-spoken’ (‘Preface’ xvii). He manages to combine the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’ (ix) by deploying the visual language of physiognomy so that the characters’ facial features denote their particular vices and virtues. This pseudo-scientific code, first formulated by Lavater, was familiar to the mid-Victorian audience, and Bennett is careful to recreate the signs that were classified in popular books explaining the language and how to judge personality from a person’s appearance.

Two examples of Bennett’s outline portraits in The Pilgrim’s Progress: (Left) Piety. (Right) Mr Save-All and Mr Money-Love.

Kingsley approved this approach as Bennett’s solution to Bunyan’s duality of ‘homeliness’ (xii) and spirituality. It is interesting, however, that while Kingsley writes glowingly of his protégé’s achievement in the Preface, he did not entirely approve of his character-portraits when they were initially presented to him in the form of the original drawings, which survived and were recently sold in auction. More than willing to dominate the artist, the writer gives detailed feedback on Bennett’s efforts. He offers some praise for his image of ‘Mr Worldly Wiseman’, which is ‘excellent’, but goes on to note:

‘Mr Gripeman’ is too handsome. I think you want a more sharp, comprest, [sic] and cruel lip … I think you must have more smirk about Smoothman’s face; and I should certainly shave him, all but a very neat little imperial. The ‘Lust of the Flesh’ is hardly animal enough. I have generally seen with strong animal passion, a tendency to a high cheek-bone; but only in dark women … I should take the ‘Pride of Life’ for a much older woman, and a much stouter one. Give her very full features and a bust … [Letters, 2: 77–8]

Inspection of the finished illustrations, engraved on wood, shows that Bennett meekly changed his work, with the single exception of ‘The Lust of the Flesh’ (which he does not endow with a ‘high cheek-bone’).

Two more examples of Bennett’s outline portraits in The Pilgrim’s Progress: (a) Mr Gripeman. (b) Mr Smoothman.

Some further examples of Bennett’s outline portraits in The Pilgrim’s Progress: (a) Lust of the Flesh. (b) Pride of Life.

Such compliance suggests the strength of Kingsley’s character, and he was later to advise Frederick Shields when he too was contemplating how he should illustrate The Pilgrim’s Progress. This time he offers detailed advice on the historical period of Bunyan’s text, and urges Shields to include details of armour, though not to be too much concerned with absolute accuracy and anachronism (2: 91–2). Though no record survives, Kingsley might also have corresponded with Joseph Noel Paton, whose two illustrations for The Water Babies (1863) are delicate outlines, both idealized and incorporating Pre-Raphaelite detail.

Two of Paton’s designs for Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

In short, Kingsley was regarded by at least two illustrators as an authority on how to approach a specific text, and the writer used this opportunity to extol a more general philosophy on the character and role of illustration. That philosophy can be summed up as a fusion of apparent contradictions in which the artist is expected to know the writer’s intentions, but exercise his own imagination; depict appearances accurately, but register the spiritual, inner life as well; be historically exact, but aim for a general effect. On the other hand, Kingsley is completely unambiguous about his emphasis on ‘beauty of form’ as ‘found in Greek statues’ (2: 77) and its expression in the outline style; he is similarly concerned that the visual encoding should be entirely legible to its audience.

Kingsley as an Illustrator

With those ideas in mind, it is instructive to consider how Kingsley the theoretician applied his ideas to his own, albeit limited, practice in The Heroes. Emanating from the same mind as the writer, we might expect him to ‘put the visions on paper as they appeared in the mind’ of the author ‘himself’ (Letters, 2: 77), and there is certainly a close equivalence between his simple, pared prose, designed for children, and his simplistic illustrations.

Some of these are diagrammatic in effect, as in the image of the meeting between Theseus and Aethra; Kingsley reduces the drawing to a Flaxman-like outline and conveys the significance of the encounter in straightforward gestures and facial expression. The artist is equally direct in his design of the moment after Theseus has killed the Minotaur: drawn in economical outline, Kingsley embodies a degree of realism, or ‘accuracy of form’, the workings of the imagination, which are especially realized in the characterization of the monster, and the idealism of the hero’s muscular form, in echo of Greek statuary (2: 77). At once ‘ideal’, Theseus’s forlorn expression, suggesting regret rather satisfaction, is an effective representation of the ‘actual’ (‘Preface’ ix).

Two examples of Kingsley’s illustrations in The Heroes: (Left) Theseus and the Minotaur. (Right) Theseus and Aethra.

Kingsley’s own designs are figured, in other words, as a close reflection of his theoretical ideas, synthesising those views to create a helpful montage that clarifies the written text. There are shortcomings as well: Kingsley’s lack of formal training endows the designs with a certain naiveté and some of his drawing is clearly the work of an amateur. Formally considered, his most accomplished is a scene of Perseus rescuing Andromeda (used as the pictorial frontispiece), and his least impressive one of Danae and her baby adrift on the sea. Such amateurism undermines the illustrations’ effectiveness.

Two more examples of Kingsley’s illustrations in The Heroes: (a) Perseus rescuing Andromeda. (b) Danae and her baby adrift.

Nevertheless, his art-work for The Heroes is an interesting example of another English writer/illustrator at work and links his endeavours to Lewis Carroll (who did amateurish drawings to guide his illustrator John Tenniel), Christina Rossetti (who did the same for Arthur Hughes to guide his response to Sing Song), and W. M. Thackeray, who wrote and illustrated several of his texts.

Links to related material

Works Cited

Kingsley, Charles. The Heroes. Illustrated by the author. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1865.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water Babies. Illustrated by Paton. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1862.

Kingsley, Charles. His Letters and Memories of His Life. 2 Vols. Edited by his wife. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1878.

Kingsley, Charles. ‘Preface’. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Illustrated by Charles Bennett. London: Longman, Green, Longman, 1860.

Created 5 April 2022