Decorated initial J

ohn Sliegh was a painter, illustrator and lithographer, and is primarily remembered as one of the most important book-designers of the mid-Victorian period. A speciaist in elaborate gilt covers for Christmas gift books, his principal bindings have been studied by scholars such as Sybille Pantazzi (1961), Douglas Ball (1985) and Edmund King (2003). Yet these commentators worked with limited material and could not establish even the basic details of Sleigh’s life and art. Pantazzi bluntly admits she could find ‘no [biographical] information’ (98), Ball explains that ‘little is known of this artist’ (92) and Nancy Finlay sums up his status as ‘elusive’ (142). It is possible, nevertheless, to establish some facts. Drawing on previously unknown and unpublished material, the following sections recover at least some of the most salient information.

Sliegh’s life and career are complicated by a number of factors. One is the unstable morphology of his name, which is sometimes given as ‘Sliegh’ and sometimes as ‘Sleigh’. The first is associated with his book-work and the second with his paintings. ‘Sliegh’, however, is the spelling given in the British Census returns, 1841–81 and in his surviving letters, so can assume this version is correct, and the other merely a misspelling. The name itself is Anglo-Scottish, but nothing is known of the artist’s family or ancestry. Similarly uncertain are his dates of birth and death. Previous commentators have been unable to establish this chronology, observing only that he was active from 1841–71 or 1841–79. Only the Census provides a true record: surviving documentation establishes that he was born in St Pancras, London, in 1819, and died in the same city in 1881. Simple maths suggests he died at the unusually early age of 62, but the picture is again obfuscated by his death certificate, which gives his age of passing as 65.

The circumstances of his early life are likewise obscure. Nothing is known of his training, although it is likely that he gained his skills as a draughtsman and technician in lithographer’s workshop rather than a studio or art-school. This type of background was not unusual; for example, Hablôt Knight Browne (Phiz) was apprenticed to the engraver Finden, and William Small was initially employed as a wood engraver and copyist in the premises of the Edinburgh publisher, Nelson and Co. Such practical training could be turned to advantage, and there is no doubt that Sliegh was an industrious and versatile toiler; shifting apparently seamlessly between drawing on wood, commercial design, lithography, painting and book-cover design, he was essentially a jobbing artist who was paid on a piece-meal basis and turned his hand to whatever work was available.

This economic necessity meant his career was highly fragmented. At any one time he might be working upon several disparate projects, each generating small fees as part of his professional portfolio. Two surviving letters, now in my possession, give a taste of the artist’s co-ordination of opportunities as he responds to inquiries by the engraver Joseph Williams, who executed work for The Illustrated London News. In the first, dated 29 November 1850, he is forced to decline work because he is ‘closely engaged with lithography until Christmas’, and in order to accommodate his correspondent will thereafter ‘hold [himself] free from the wood drawing engagements about which I expect to be sought for’. What those ‘engagements’ were is hard to determine, but it is possible they did not appear; at any rate, Sliegh wrote to Williams again on 6 January 1851, saying that he is now ‘able to take up a drawing or two for you’ and makes arrangements as to how they should be delivered.

Other pieces of surviving ephemera, now preserved in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, further suggest his versatility and economic precariousness. These include jobs to design images, including labels for liquor bottles, as well as calligraphic lettering for documents such as a certificate for the Society of Painters in Watercolours, a ticket for the Vernon Gallery and a card for A.J. Lewis (Finlay, 142). It is not extraordinary for artists to design ephemera – for example, J. D. Watson did programmes and invitations and Walter Crane did advertisements and bookmarks – but Sliegh seems to have been unusually willing, driven by need, to service such mundane fare.

Indeed, much of his earliest work was technical rather than artistic. Rather than producing his own designs he spent some of his time copying from others. He made lithographic transcripts of Owen Jones’s work in Matthew Digby Wyatt’s The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century (1853), and parallel commissions appeared in the form of The Book of Common Prayer (1845) and A Welcome to Her Royal Highness (1863). On the other hand, he did create his own designs, producing a small but interesting body of graphic imagery and book illustrations. Printed using chromolithography or engraved on wood, many of these are closely related to the exemplars provided by Jones and take the form of elaborate compositions in colour.

Sliegh’s graphic style is characterized by a strict geometry combined with floral motifs. In his chromolithographic paper binding for The Juvenile Pianoforte Album [1860], for instance, he unites a lozenge shaped panel, containing the title, with interstices populated with abstracted vines and leaves. A variant can be found on the wood-engraved pictorial frontispiece and title-page of Odes and Sonnets (1859, 1863), for which he also provided a series of initial letters and ornamental borders. Cut on wood by the Dalziels – who had uncharacteristically ventured into colour – these designs are elegant additions to the illustrations by Myles Birket Foster. In the words of a reviewer writing in The Builder in 1859, ‘Mr Sleigh’s clever and tasteful ornamental designs’ are well conceived without the ‘garish vulgarity and harshness’ (31) of some over-vivid chromolithographs.

Three works by Sliegh to embellish Odes and Sonnets . (a) The Frontispiece. (b) His Title-page. (c) His binding.

Sliegh was equally adept in working with the austere idiom of black and white, creating a small number of cuts for popular gift books of the period, specifically Charles Mackay’s Home Affections of the Poets (1858), Milton’s Comus (1858) and R. A. Willmott’s English Sacred Poetry (1862). These images can be divided between conventional rustic scenes and poetic landscapes. The second, and more accomplished group is made up of nocturnes, moments of poetic reverie in which a single figure is enveloped in darkness: densely blocked in dark tones, the effect is melancholy, recalling the Romantic imagery of Samuel Palmer and to some extent the introspective landscapes of J. W. North. Sliegh also painted landscapes, exhibiting a single work at the Royal Academy, three pictures in Suffolk Street and a further twelve at other London venues (Graves, 256). These may have been in the same reflective mode as his illustrations; none has been traced.

Three rural scenes by Sliegh: (a) Summer Blooms. (b) Ode Written in a Visit to the Country in Autumn. (c) Elegy Written in Spring.

Moving between landscapes for the London galleries and bottle-labels, Sliegh combined high and low art in a manner which was more common than some historians have suspected. Self-promotion was essential, and one way of doing this was to join artistic societies. Sliegh was a member of The Crayon Club and The Junior Etching Club, two of the many artistic coteries of the time, and work produced for these organizations has survived. A couple of drawings connected with The Crayon Club can be seen in The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and the artist published a highly accomplished etching of a rural scene in Passages from Modern English Poets (1862). This work appeared next to an illustration by Charles Keene, the Punch illustrator, who was a friend. Keene shows Sliegh as one of the bumbling tourists, slight and bearded, in his mock-travelogue in imitation of Richard Doyle’s Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones and Robinson (1855), ‘Englishmen in Brittany’ (1856). The association between Keene and Sliegh suggests Sliegh was regarded with some respect, but unlike Keene his career as an artist did not develop beyond small-scale activity.

It is only in the field of book-binding that Sliegh makes a lasting impression. His pieces include the exotic Odes and Sonnets (1859, 1863), for which he designed both the cover and decorations; a binding for Thomas Campbell’s Gertrude of Wyoming(1857); an extravagant gilt confection for The Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1857); and another, similarly ornate, for Longfellow’s Poetical Works (1857).

Despite this typically Victorian energy and application, none of his efforts seems to have led to prosperity and – like his multi-talented contemporaries E.H. Wehnert and John Franklin, whose modest lives echo his own – Sliegh was never especially successful; perpetually in need of work, he probably lived on a small income and may have experienced poverty.

His position at the margins of middle-class society is vividly conveyed by the records of his accommodation, as given in the Census returns. He never married, never owned a house, and spent all of his adult life as a tenant, renting rooms as self-contained accommodation, or as a lodger sharing meals with the family and other residents. In 1851 he was living in the premises of one Robert Heilett (25 Mary Street, Marylebone), along with the landlord’s wife and three children; in 1861 (aged 42) he was a guest in the home of Ambrose Spratt, where he was joined by his brother, Thomas Sliegh, a ‘dealer in musical instruments’; and in 1871 (aged 52) he was resident at yet another address. Sliegh used all of his premises for business purposes, and all work seems to have been conducted in his rented room or rooms, where he must have had some space set up as a studio and workshop.

The only surprise is his final destination. In 1881 (aged 62) he is recorded as both an ‘artist’ and an ‘insane patient’ in Bethlem Royal Hospital, the institution which housed Richard Dadd before he was moved to Broadmoor in the late forties. This melancholy fate echoes the circumstances of the fairy artist Charles Doyle, and Sliegh’s mental illness, like Doyle’s, is obscure. In the absence of any medical diagnosis we can speculate that the economic pressures of struggling to survive were a contributory factor in his decline. He died in hospital, and left no estate.


Manuscript Sources

Sliegh, John. Unpublished Letters to Joseph Williams dated 1850 and 1851. In the Simon Cooke Collection.

Books with illustrations and designs by Sliegh

English Sacred Poetry. Ed. R. A. Willmott. London: Routledge, 1862.

Home Affections of the Poets. Ed. Charles Mackay. London: Routledge, 1857.

Milton, J. Comus. London: Routledge. 1858.

Odes and Sonnets. London: Routledge, 1859, 1863.

Passages from Modern English Poets. London: Day, [1862].

Books with decorations copied by Sliegh

The Book of Common Prayer. London: Murray, 1845. Decorations copied by Sliegh after Owen Jones.

A Welcome to Her Royal Highness. London: Day, 1863. Decorations copied by Sliegh after Owen Jones.

Wyatt, Matthew Digby. The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century. London: Day, 1851–3.

Secondary Works

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: The Library Association, 1985.

British Census Returns, 1841–81. Accessed thought Ancestry. Com

[Finlay, Nancy]. Entry in The Philip Hofer Collection. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard College Library, 1988.

Graves, Algernon. A Dictionary of Artists, 1760 –1893. Bath: Kingsmead Reprints, n.d.

‘Illustrated Books.’ The Builder (January 8 1859): 30–31.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830 –1880. London: The British Library, 2003.

Panazzi, Sybille. ‘Four Designers of English Publishers’ Bindings, 1850–1880.’ Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 55 (1961): 88–99.

Punch. 1856.

Created 20 May 2020