[Thackeray created the illuminated “A” for Vanity Fair.]

Illuminated initial A

nalysis of Thackeray’s illustrations has always been impeded by aesthetic judgements that stress their lack of finesse. Writing in 1897, Gleeson White dismisses them as old-fashioned and untutored, the remnants of Georgian satire, and a type of imagery at odds with the poetic realism of the Sixties’ school. Comparing Thackeray and contemporaries such as John Leech with the artists of the middle period, White can only find a stark inferiority, noting how their: “‘drawing’ is often slipshod and never infused by the perception of physical beauty that the embodied as their ideal … nor [is it] inspired by the symbolists’ regard for nature … Indeed [there is nothing to admire] and time has wreaked revenge at last” (p.18). Of course, White was a champion of The Sixties and his judgement of Thackeray is a highly prejudiced view of the comedic graphic art which prevailed from the 1820s to the early fifties. He disliked the comic grotesque of George Cruikshank, Richard Doyle, John Leech and H.K. Browne, and Thackeray’s deployment of this idiom, as one who is usually placed within this group, condemns him to White’s terse critique.

White is too harsh, but we have to recognize that Thackeray was a relatively weak draughtsman. His figures have little sense of modelling and seem like puppets (an analogy he himself was to make in Vanity Fair); the gestures frequently appear stilted and clumsy; and the space lacks definition. Invariably gauche, his images are sometimes ‘inexpressive and banal’ (Harvey, p. 79), and can seem like folk-art wood-engravings taken from a working-class chap-book of the period. None of this should be surprising bearing in mind that while Thackeray always wanted to be an artist rather than a writer, he received no formal training in the practice of design and turned to illustration as a rank outsider who, according to D. J. Taylor, never ‘progressed beyond the stage of the competent amateur’ (p.261).

His career as an illustrator was accordingly curtailed. He illustrated Flore et Zéphyr, a satire on ballet-dancing, in 1836, and Douglas Jerrold’s Men of Character in 1838, but the market made its judgement. With the exception of some very minor pieces he secured no further commissions and was famously turned down by Dickens when, following the untimely death of Robert Seymour, he proposed he should become the illustrator of Pickwick (1836). Nor was he helped by his absence of technical expertise. He could draw with the etching needle and was able to produce the querulous lines that characterize his designs, but he always struggled with drawing on wood. This skills-deficit was a serious disadvantage in period after 1840 when the box-wood revolution was underway, and Thackeray’s employment of Richard Doyle and Frederick Walker – as the visual interpreters of The Newcomes and Philip – was partly motivated by the fact that he was unable to master the technical process. As he notes in one letter speaking of Doyle, the handing over to someone else was a ‘great weight off [his] mind’ (1 September 1853, Letters, III, p.302).

These difficulties stifled Thackeray’s career as a jobbing illustrator. What is remarkable, however, is that he found a solution: if his drawing and technique were too poor to equip him as an illustrator of other writers’ work, he could still illustrate for himself. Fortunately his success as a writer persuaded publishers (somewhat indulgently) to entrust him with the task of both writing and drawing his texts, so producing a curious effect, as noted by generations of critics, in which the written text is highly sophisticated while the images seem relatively crude. Unlike D. G. Rossetti, whose talents as a writer and artist were equally distributed and allowed him to produce work of equivalent quality, Thackeray’s composites are aesthetically disparate, and often seem incongruous pairings.

However, aesthetic differences are only a small part of the equation. Aware of the limitations of his drawing technique, Thackeray shifts the emphasis from the quality of the designs, as such, to their value as illustration – as visual images which exist purely to help the reader to interpret the written text. Gleeson White is probably correct when he grumbles about the ‘feeble’ drawing that mars at least some of Thackeray’s illustrations, but he is entirely mistaken when he argues that the formal weakness of the images dispels the ‘power’ of the writing (p.18). On the contrary, Thackeray’s dual texts are conceived as highly sophisticated interplays in which the illustrations elucidate, expand and enhance the range of meanings implied in the letterpress. This conceptual focus supersedes any aesthetic considerations, and in many cases the author/artist takes the process even further: sometimes the illustrations act to add something extra, and sometimes the meaning of what is read and seen is fixed in neither of the texts, but in the oscillating space between them. Presenting the reader/viewer with a synergy of competing signs, which sometimes ‘compete and conflict with his prose’ (Elliott, p. 46), Thackeray demands that we read his composites as dual works that generate, we might say, a third. As Judith Fisher remarks in a comment which is applied to Vanity Fair but is true of most of his fictions, the reader is empowered to shift ‘between text and contrasting image’, allowing us to generate and multiply ‘simultaneous but diverse meanings’, voices and ‘counter-voices’, ‘alternative narrations’ and ‘other interpretive possibilities’ (p.61).

It is Thackeray’s great achievement to articulate what a contrapuntal arrangement of illustration and word, and we can only understand the full range of his texts’ meanings by engaging with both, and the intersections between them. It is for this reason that Thackeray, perhaps even more than Dickens, is an author whose works have to be inspected with their illustrations intact and in place; to read them without is to impoverish their significance and distort the interpretive experience that Thackeray designed for his original audience. Of course we cannot know for sure how the Victorian readers approached his work, but it is possible to recover a sense of how his texts might be read. This process can be traced across a range of fictions which stretches from his Christmas books to Vanity Fair, Pendennis, and The Virginians.

Works Cited

Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Fisher, Judith. ‘Image versus Text in the Illustrated Novels of William Makepeace Thackeray.’ Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Eds. Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. pp. 60–87.

Harvey, John. Victorian Novelists and Their Illustrators. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1970.

Jerrold, Douglas. Men of Character.Illustrated by Thackeray. London: Colburn, 1838.

The Letters and Private Papers of W. M. Thackeray. 4 vols. Ed. Gordon N. Ray. London: Oxford University Press. 1945–6.

Taylor, D.J. Thackeray. London: Pimlico, 2000.

Thackeray, W. M. Flore et Zéphyr. London: Mitchell, 1836.

Thackeray, W. M. The Newcomes. 2 Vols. Illustrated by Richard Doyle. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854–55.

Thackeray, W. M. Pendennis. 2 Vols. Illustrated by the author. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849–50.

Thackeray, W. M. Philip. Illustrated by Frederick Walker. The Cornhill Magazine (1861–2).

Thackeray, W. M. Vanity Fair. Illustrated by the author. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1848.

Thackeray, W. M. The Virginians. 2 Vols. Illustrated by the author. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1858–59.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration: The Sixties, 1855–70. 1897; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.

Last modified 16 October 2014