Maclise illustrated several books and worked over a long period, from the 1830s to the middle of the 1860s. Although he experimented with comedy, his favourite subjects were romantic and imaginative, with a special interest in the representation of fairies, history, and medievalism. He also produced images of domestic genre that are recognizably of their time. Like many Victorian illustrators he transferred the imagery of his paintings to the domain of the printed page, and there are marked similarities between his graphic designs, his murals and his works on canvas.

Title page of Dickens's The Chimes. [Click on thumbnail for a larger image.]

Maclise drew striking pictorial frontispieces and title-pages for Dickens's Christmas books. His work for The Chimes (1845) is a dense, interlocked swirl of fairies that emanates from the symbolic bell. Intensely dynamic, the figures are arranged into a symmetrical composition, so creating an underlying sense of order and painterly design that is markedly at odds with Doyle's treatment of the same theme.

This tension between movement and order is typical of Maclise's style, which can be characterized in terms of a series of apparent contradictions. It is noticeable, for example, that his illustrations unite impressive gestures with intense detail, an approach exemplified by his images for Tennyson's The Princess (1847) and Moore's Irish Melodies (1845). He also combines academic drawing with the most delicate line: his figures seem substantial, and yet the modelling of their faces and costumes is light to the point of ephemerality. This paradox lies at the heart of his Irish Melodies, a book of lyrical designs in which the figures are drawn as corporeal bodies that are somehow situated at the point of dissolution, fading into a romantic imagery of swirls, vines and decorative motifs.

Left: Fantasy, framing with leaves and flowers, and the inspired artist in Maclise's illustration of Tom Moore's "The Mountain Sprite." Middle: A book illustrator's approach to the subjects of history painting — Maclise's The Finding of Harold's Body . Right: The Lover, Maclise's illustration for Shakspeare's Seven Ages of Man. [Click on thumbnails for larger images and additional information.]

That approach reflects the influence of German design and like many of his generation — notably Tenniel and Selous — Maclise responded in detail to the style of the Munich School. The rusticity of Hasenclever and Rethel is re-visualized in Maclise's delicate bowers and floral displays, and there is a close relationship between the framing devices in the Irish Melodies and German design of the 1830s. The artist's style further responds to the aesthetic of particularization that was popular in the 1840s. In The Princess (1847) we have dense, packed compositions that prefigure the intense detail that appears in paintings by Holman Hunt and Millais.

A broader influence was the expansive style of historical painting. Maclise was one of the artists at work in the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament, and it is perhaps inevitable that the grand idiom should influence his illustrations. His epic scope is exemplified by a little known book of 1865, The Norman Conquest. Published in the unusual format of a narrow folio, this represents a series of elaborate tableaux in which the stages of the conquest and invasion are visualized as a series of static groups. Heroic in manner, and grand in its sombre emphasis on elevated emotion, The Norman Conquest is an interesting treatment of an event which at the time of publication was widely regarded in the most negative terms. Most representations of 1066 and the Norman occupation focused on heroic resistance by the Anglo-Saxons, an approach typified by Selous's picture book, Hereward the Wake (1870, published 1869). Maclise's book is nevertheless an imposing piece of concept art, a telling of events which reads as smoothly as a sequence taken from a Hollywood film of the 1930s.

Characterized, somewhat paradoxically, by his ability to shift from the intricate to the epic, Maclise is an illustrator whose images create a distinct ambience in which important events are presented with a plangent intensity. Technically highly accomplished, his illustrations have a poetic lightness of touch that links them to the refined aesthetics of Romanticism and the fey sweetness of the early Victorian.

Works Consulted

Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870. Exhibition Catalogue. London: The Arts Council, 1972.

Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Book Illustrators. Woodbridge: Atnique Collectors' Club, 1978; revised ed., 1996.

Weston, Nancy.Daniel Maclise: Irish Artist in Victorian London. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001.

Last modified 21 September 2010