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Criticism of Selous has focused on formal analysis of his style, but during his own time he was also regarded as an outstanding illustrator who offered provocative readings of his literary material. Viewed from a modern perspective, we can see how his interests made him an ideal interpreter for particular sorts of texts, although he sometimes failed to make (or be given) the most appropriate choices.

His fascination with the historical and antiquarian made him a perfect illustrator of the old English verse that appears in Poems and Pictures (1846) and The Book of British Ballads (1842). Adept in the representation of medieval costumes, setting, weapons and décor, Selous provides a historian's treatment of the text which endows it with an intense physical immediacy. A prime example is the representation of The Battle of Flodden (Poems and Pictures), which shows the grim realities of medieval combat. Schooled in the high rhetoric of history painting, Selous is always effective as an illustrator of conflict, action and intense emotion. He is less effective, however, in showing moments of reverie. He struggled with more reflective material, and his illustrations for biblical texts such as The Prodigal Son (1865) are purely conventional. Lacking in humour, he was equally ill-matched as an illustrator of comedy, and his few attempts at levity seem forced and artificial.

Selous's particular blend of antiquarianism, action, emotionalism and heroic grandeur was both versatile and limiting. He found the most complete vehicle for the expression of his talents in Cowden Clarke's Illustrated Shakespeare (1864-68). Published as a three volume division into Historical Plays, Comedies and Tragedies, this version of Shakespeare made huge artistic demands. The Comedies, as one might predict, is the weakest of the three divisions; but Selous's visualizations of the Histories and Tragedies are among his best work.

The Histories are rigorously presented as historical dramas which have the immediacy of journalism. He is especially effective in stressing the militarism and urgency of Henry V, notably in an image of the Battle of Agincourt. Pushing out of the frame, this design shows the King as an imperious figure urging his troops once more into the breach, while all around him is a dense field of writhing gestures, drawn swords and broken lances. Such intensity is taken even further in the illustrations for the Tragedies.

In the Tragedies Selous emphasizes psychological drama. The Shakespearian heroes — Lear, Hamlet, Othello — are endowed with malleable forms, faces and costumes which express the passion within. For example, when Macbeth contemplates the ghost of Banquo, his terrified 'Which of you has done this?' is visualized by a dynamic theatrical recoil, his face a mask of fear with staring eyes and gaping mouth (Cassell's Illustrated Shakespeare, 3, 349). More complex and interesting, however, is Lady Macbeth's agony as she contemplates what will happen if her husband has failed to murder Duncan, or is caught in the act. Selous's drawing is a powerful piece of design in which each element contributes to the psychological effect. Her face is represented as a sort of demented mask of fear and uncertainty, with the eyes dilated and the mouth gaping open; one hand is raised uncertainly in an ambiguous gesture, and the other is placed on the breast in a configuration suggesting both openness and secrecy. Most telling of all is the expressionistic use of draperies. Showing her figure as if it were a baroque statue by Bernini, the artist expresses her psychological torment in a dramatic swirl of costume and hair, so that what is shown on the outside is again a visual representation of the tumult within.

Left: Title page for Macbeth by Selous. Middle: Title page for Hamlet by Selous. Right: Scene from "Hamlet" by Retzsch.

Emotional and psychological extremes are also stressed by the pictorial title-pages which accompany each play. Originally issued as the division between serial parts, these images prefigure the main events and identify what Selous regarded as the core of each text. In Macbeth, Selous brilliantly highlights the influence of the witches, showing them as a dynamic group of figures, wrapped in swirling draperies, flying over the battlements of Dunsinane. Of course, no such scene occurs in the play, but the placing of the witches at the very start stresses their absolute power, as a supernatural agency, over the mind of Macbeth. A further twist is offered by the title-page for Hamlet. Heavily influenced by Retzsch's illustration of the same scene, this image unambiguously represents Claudius's murder of King Hamlet, pouring the poison into his ear. In Selous's reading there is no ambivalence at all: 'The King's to blame'.

Such images act, in other words, not only to crystallize certain events in preparation for what is to come, but, more imaginatively, to guide the reader/viewer towards a particular interpretation. Selous's emphasis is idiosyncratic: not only an illustrator of Shakespeare, he is clearly an illustrator who directs the reader towards his own, personal readings. Placing the tragedies' suffering at the foreground of his interpretation, he shows the dramatis personae as hopelessly limited, closed in by their circumstances. Typically, the opening design for Romeo and Juliet shows the death-bed scene: what will happen is introduced at the very beginning, so emphasising the notion of fate and inevitability, of 'star-cross' d lovers' trapped by the tragic destiny of vendetta (Cassell's Illustrated Shakespeare, 3, 141). The same malign pessimism informs the fate of Julius Caesar, who is shown, with blunt directness, as a freshly-murdered corpse, with his murderers casually withdrawing into the background (Cassell's Illustrated Shakespeare, 3, 261).

The power of these designs made the Illustrated Shakespeare into a fireside favourite, and it was on the basis of this publication, above all others, that Selous became a household name.

Created 22 April 2009

Last modified 6 January 2020