German culture had a significant impact on the early Victorian period. Its champion was Prince Albert, whose portrait is included in Selous's Opening of the Great Exhibition, and Selous was himself an advocate of Germanic styles. His approach strongly reflects the influence of his editors and publishers. During his formative period in the thirties and forties he was employed by James Burns and S. C. Hall, both of whom were keen exponents of Germanic modes, and his work also reflects the Art Union's emphasis on picture books in a Teutonic idiom. Described by John Buchanan-Brown as a 'Germanist' (209), Selous assimilates a foreign influence and ultimately makes it his own.

In practice, he appropriated two distinctive styles of Germanic illustration: one was the 'outline' exemplified by the austere lithographic plate-books of Retzsch (1779-1857), and the other, in complete contrast, was the 'rustic' or 'wood-cut' style of Alfred Rethel (1816-59), Eugen Neurether (1806-82), Johan Hasenclever (1810-53) and others of the Munich School.

Selous's approach to Retzsch was initially a matter of imitation, almost plagiarism. The Tempest (1836) recreates Retzsch's spare line and blank spaces and this type of homage also characterizes The Pilgrim's Progress (1844). In the words of one contemporary,

Mr Selous has drunk deeply of the inspirations of Retzsch�And in this artificial region he has seen Christian wander, meeting with Retzsch fiends, shocked at Retzsch vices, and fighting Retzsch battles. ['Pilgrim's Progress', Examiner, 356]

Left: Scene from "Hamlet" by Retzsch. Right: Christian Combating with Appolyon by Selous.

Placed next to Retzsch's outlines to Hamlet (Gallerie Zu Shakspeare's Dramatischen Werken, 1828, illustration), we can see how Selous's work is more than quotation. The Pilgrim's Progress is nevertheless an interpretation of Retzsch's style; using the Germanic outline as a formal vocabulary, Selous infuses his set of images with a much greater dynamism and movement than is found in the sometimes static work of his mentor. Such vitality informs the most striking plates, notably those showing Christian's combat with Appolyon and the Giant Despair, and it also features in his later plates books, The Life of Moses (1850), Seven Events in the Life of Robert the Bruce (1850), and the unpublished designs for Ovid's Metamorphoses (British Museum, London).

This emphasis on action and conflict impressed many contemporary critics. The xenophobic constructed his art as the work of a bluff Englishman, an apt interpreter who adopted a foreign style and translated it into British equivalents. As The Times critic explains, Selous was (supposedly) at his best when he forgets the origin of the outline style and 'trusts' to 'his own' (very British) 'resources' ('The Tempest' , Times, 5).

A parallel mixture of appropriation and interpretation is found in his treatment of the rustic style. In his early works for Burns, Poems and Pictures (1846), Wild Love (1844), Ballads and Metrical Tales (1845) and The Four Seasons (1845), he scrupulously recreates the rustic bowers and intricate framing devices that appear in Rethel's Das Nibelungenlied (1840) and Hasenclever's Leider und Bilder (1843). In Sintram and His Companions (1844), on the other hand, he offers a distinct re-interpretation of the Munich style. This adopts the Germanic idiom as its starting point, but takes it to a new level of mannered excess. The borders of the German artists are intricate designs, but Selous offers a series of congested fretworks, decorative devices and strap-work which are both decorative and symbolic, crammed with emblematic figures, and suggestive of a sort of inner dream-world (illustration). The fretwork motif persisted throughout his art, and recurs, with an even greater sense of extravagance, in the title page for his second version of The Pilgrim's Progress (1865).

Having reworked the Germanic outline, Selous offers his own gloss on German rusticity; with no sense of paradox or strain, he shifts seamlessly from the austere emptiness of the outlines to the twisted pattern-making of woody enclosures. Practically modernist in his capacity to eliminate all but the essential, Selous just as easily generates images of obsessive detail. This versatility is another example of his capacity to change modes, a capacity which allowed him to embrace dazzling variations in scale, treatment and mode.

Left: A Railway Station Showynge Ye Travellers Refreshyng Themselves by Doyle. Middle: Frontispiece of Ruskin's The King of the Golden River by Doyle. Right: The Death of Biorn by Selous.

Working within a generation of 'Germanic' artists that included Franklin, Tenniel and Pickersgill, Selous was perhaps the most interesting, versatile and unpredictable of interpreters. However, contemporary observers were not always impressed, and some of the most telling criticism came in the form of parodies, notably by the Punch cartoonist, Doyle. Selous's outline style is roundly mocked in Doyle's Manners and Customs of Ye Englishe [1849]. This set of cartoons acts as a version of mock-heroic, reducing the grand struggles of Selous's outline heroes to the level of travesty, so that, for example, Christian's struggle with Apollyon is ridiculed by Doyle's imitation of Germanism in A Railway Station Showynge Ye Travellers Refreshyng Themselves. The calculated anachronism of Selous's outlines becomes the mock-anachronism of the modern, shown as if it were a medieval cartoon. Doyle was equally adept at satirizing Selous's rusticity. In the humourist's hand the figures of Sintram and Poems and Pictures are converted into comic fairies and elves who climb through ridiculously exaggerated versions of the Germanic border. Dramatic invention becomes farce, and the Selous's elaborate strap-work is mocked by its appearance in the form of the title-pages for Punch (1849) and The King of the Golden River (1851).

Created 22 April 2009

Last modified 6 January 2020