elia Levetus was one of the most successful illustrators to gain her initial training at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art, and by the end of the 1890s was regarded as a significant new talent. Walter Crane describes her as one of the ‘leading artists’ (145) of the Birmingham movement (1896), and for W. H. K. Wright, the editor of the Journal of the Ex-Libris Society (1897–98), she was an ‘accomplished’ practitioner (108) of book-plates; she also designed the covers for each of her publications. This reputation for artistic excellence was soon lost, however: Levetus abandoned visual design and later became an art critic, novelist and poet, producing fourteen novels which she published under her married name, C. A. Nicholson. Her earlier work as a graphic artist was largely forgotten, and it was not until 2018 that Rebecca N. Mitchell facilitated her rediscovery by publishing a detailed account of her original career.
Mitchell focuses on the range of Levetus’s actitivies, noting how she managed to produce ‘six hundred illustrations between 1895 and 1902,’ an achievement which made into ‘one of the most prolific ... women illustrators of the fin de siècle’ (31). Mitchell tellingly explains the many difficulties that faced a woman artist in a milieu dominated by men while constrained by the social codes of Victorian propriety. Her career, Mitchell notes, was ‘abruptly cut short by marriage’ (32) and, despite her training at an egalitarian school, was still limited by the conventions of a patriarchal society. The critic observes that: "Despite the Birmingham School of Art’s dedication to the education of women, once qualified, women confronted a still-entrenched gendered division of labour in many studios and guilds that meant their contributions faced a more difficult route to the public than those of men" (32).
Mitchell’s commentary positions Levetus as yet another Victorian woman whose professional chances were constrained by what we would regard as sexist attitudes. Gender-based difference had a further impact, moreover, on the artist’s subject matter and mode of representation. In an age when ‘serious’ themes were the property of males, women were generally expected to produce a female imagery composed of children, domesticity and scenes in the garden, floral displays and romance. Levetus, like her female contemporaries from the Birmingham School and from the art-world in general, was subject to these constraints.
There were of course exceptions to this rule, and Levetus is interesting as a designer who conforms to these narrow expectations in some of her work, while often producing an imagery which challenges the limitations of ‘female art’. Not quite an iconoclast, Levetus adheres to and tests the boundaries imposed by patriarchal conventions.
Levetus and Victorian Influences
Levetus was heavily influenced by the work of Kate Greenaway. Greenaway’s dream-like imagery of idealized children dressed in Regency costumes was essentially a template, and Levetus, like others of the Birmingham School such as Georgie Gaskin and Florence Rudland, become a practitioner in this idiom. Levetus’s borrowing from Greenaway is evident in her decorative end and title pieces in her books and again in early work appearing in the student periodical, The Quest. There is a marked similarity, for example, between Levetus’s treatment of children in a headpiece for ‘The Art of the Prose Story’ (1895) and Greenaway’s figures in her calendar of 1884. To modern eyes these squat toddlers dressed in adult costumes seem odd, the epitome of a sentimentality that ‘borders on the saccharine’ (Mitchell 34).
However, Levetus experimented with other types of ‘harder’ imagery, and was inspired by a number of exemplars which are taken from the past and from developments in contemporary art. Like all of those training in graphic art at the Birmingham School she was influenced by the example of late-medieval illustration, which was championed by William Morris in his Woodcuts of Gothic Books (1892). In many of her illustrations she recreates the flat linearity and simplified forms of early woodcuts, notably in Little Boy Found for her version of Blake’s Songs of Experience (1899).
Two illustrations by Levetus: (a) Title page for Songs of Innocence, and (b) Little Boy Found.
Her interest in archaism is further developed in her manipulation of Pre-Raphaelite imagery, which was an integral part of her training in the conventions of Arts and Crafts. Appropriating the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Beauty’, she presents a late Victorian synthesis of the idiom of Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, recreating their fascination with idealized love, romantic encounters, a stylized treatment of natural forms and claustrophobic space.
Levetus: (a) The Angel, (b) Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, and (c) Rossetti, St Cecily
It is interesting, for instance, to compare her treatment of The Angeland his meeting with a princess (Songs of Experience, 1899) with other Pre-Raphaelite meetings, such as those in Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) and Rossetti’s St Cecily (1857). Put in this juxtaposition we can see how Levetus partakes of the Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on an intimate interaction between the main figures, framed in a tight enclosure, and surrounded by closely-observed detail which is infused with symbolic meaning. At once a realist – who admired Holman Hunt – much of her work has the dreaminess of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, offering a world of material forms which are emblematic details.
Leveutus and Symbolic Realism
Her manipulation of Pre-Raphaelite ‘symbolic realism’ is the mainstay of her treatment of Blake’s two series, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Indeed, it is as an artist of symbols and signs that she establishes her individual voice.
In Songs of Innocence (1899) Levetus adopts the angel imagery that features in Blake’s originals. However, she mainly expresses the focus on gainfulness in the form of pastoral imagery, especially significant plants and flowers. In Little Boy Found, for instance, the radiating shoots and bulrushes convey the notion of joyfulness; the plants growing beneath the children’s feet in The Echoing Green are likewise deployed to suggest the notion of positivity and gainfulness; and the same message is symbolized by the arabesque of stems and rosettes on the book’s title page. These floral devices are always linked to children, offering a pantheistic scheme in which youth and growth, organic growth and emotional well-being are fused into one.
In her reading of Songs of Experience (1902), by contrast, Levetus negates the uplifting imagery of Innocence. Instead of a pastoralism, with blossoms and spreading leaves, the world of Experience is dominated by bare and crooked branches, the dead and dying in place of the living. This imagery, announced in the pictorial title-page and developed in Nurse’s Song, is also matched by floral designs in which the stems are not lifeless, but menace the characters in a relationship which is the opposite of the harmonies established in Songs of Innocence. For the illustration of My Pretty Rose Tree, for example, the jealous rose projects its thorns aggressively, as if it were animated, as the emblem of conflict rather than serenity and accord. The idea of nature as a sign of human nature is given its most interesting form, however, in The Angel, and it is instructive to compare Blake’s original treatment (1794) with Levetus’s. Blake shows the narrator rejecting the angel, whom she pushes away, while Levetus focuses the idea of ignorance and complacency in the form of a border of poppies. Sinuous and menacing, these plants press in on the somnambulant narrator, overpowering her with the sleepy indifference which deprives her of goodness and the capacity to appreciate the positive and spiritual.
This symbolic approach is an interesting counterpoint to Blake’s visionary designs. That Levetus had the confidence to undertake the illustrating of such canonical texts is a measure of her willingness to challenge what many viewed as the only possible treatment. Levetus’s interpretation of organic forms also links interestingly with Blake’s curvaceous lines. Like other members of the Birmingham School, Levetus’s style mutates from Arts and Crafts into Art Nouveau, and her treatment of Blake’s books in what was essentially the idiom of Nouveau acts to forge a connection between the poet’s ‘flaming line’ and the ‘whiplash line’ of the 90s. At once traditional and experimental, Levetus deserves to be better known than she is.
Books illustrated by Levetus
Blake, William. Songs of Experience. London: Nutt, 1902.
Blake, William. Songs of Innocence. London: Wells, Gardner, Darton and Co, 1899.
Levetus, Edward. Poems. London: Chapman & Hall, 1897.
Turkish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales. Translated from the Hungarian by R. Nisbet Bain. London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1901.
Crane, Walter. Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New. London: Bell, 1896.
Mitchell, Rebecca N. ‘Rediscovering Celia Levetus.’ The Burlington Magazine 130 (January 2018): 31–37.
Morris, William. The Woodcuts of Gothic Books, 1892; reproduced online https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1892/woodcuts.htm
Wright, W. H. K. ‘Modern Book-Plate Designers: Celia Levetus.’ Journal of the Ex-Libris Society 7–8 (1897–98): 108 112.
Created 3 October 2020