Introduction: radicals and reactionaries

In the study of book illustration, as in the related fields of art and literature, the fin de siècle (or Decadence) is routinely described as a period of experimentation when the radical and avant-garde were the dominating forms. The book art of Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Ricketts and Laurence Housman is viewed as a significant break with earlier design, and it is commonly argued that their work represents a transition point between Victorianism and the Modern age. In the apposite words of John Russell Taylor, there was ‘a sudden tremendous flowering of … all of the arts of the book in the 1890s’ (p.37).

Yet ‘the shock of the new’ was not necessarily as revolutionary as it appeared, and Taylor goes on to trace the many links between the ‘tremendous flowering’ and the older traditions that informed it. Unwilling to view the new art in isolation, Taylor maps its connections with illustrators of the 1860s, notably Frederick Sandys, George Pinwell, and Arthur Boyd Houghton (pp. 44–49). It is also important to note that British illustration in the nineties was not confined to the new, abstract designs of the emerging talents of the period; running in parallel with the art of Beardsley and his associates there were other types of images as well, most of them appealing to a wide audience and all practising in styles that were far from abstraction and its challenges.

Foremost among these is what might be called the ‘Regency style’ of the late eighties and nineties. Literal in approach and sentimental in treatment, this idiom was conservative in the extreme; as Percy Muir remarks, the Regency school ‘followed a tradition that side-stepped’ the avant-garde (p.197), presenting images of classic literary texts that rendered their subjects in terms of eighteenth century costumes, idyllic rural settings, picturesque architecture and the trappings of a fantasy version of pre-industrial England. This was, in other words, a form of escapist nostalgia which asserted the values of an imagined past and was in effect another type of evasion, an approach running in parallel the neo-medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites and the neo-classicism of painters such as Frederick Leighton and Albert Moore.

The chief practitioners in this form were Chris Hammond, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, although the artist most associated with this movement is Hugh Thomson (1860–1920). Dubbed the leader of ‘The Cranford School’ by Muir (p.197), Thomson gained this reputation on the basis of his illustrations for a series of books published by Macmillan and Kegan Paul, the first of which was Elizabeth Gaskell’s provincial tale (1891). In each of these publications Thomson maintains a consistent treatment of rural England: a place of the imagination rather than a reality. This rich imagery is presented in detail in each lavishly illustrated book, and the idyllic treatment of the past is further projected in his book bindings, which he designed in strict accordance with his images in black and white.

Life, work, and the Regency Style

Thomson, a Protestant, was born into a lower middle-class background in Coleraine, near Londonderry, in Northern Ireland. His father was a tea-merchant and his mother a shopkeeper. Thomson had only a limited education, and like many Victorian graphic artists (such as George Cruikshank and Harrison Weir), his training was acquired through practical experience rather than work in an atelier or art-school. In 1877, aged just seventeen, he gained a position at Marcus Ward & Co, a Belfast printer and publisher that specialised in chromolithographic prints and Christmas cards. It was here that he learned the rudiments of design and the techniques of printing. However, Thomson was far more than a technician, and in 1883 moved to London, where he quickly gained employment as an illustrator for The English Illustrated Magazine.

Thomson’s work appeared in issues of this magazine from 1885 to 1886, where he collaborated with Randolf Caldecott. Caldecott had a fundamental influence on the development of Thomson’s style, although the Irish artist’s work is always more studied in its creation of refined and delicate effects than in the work of his contemporary. His treatment of eighteenth century costumes and interiors is notably based on his studies of English masters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough, whose portraits he examined in The National Gallery, and his work is in many ways a revisiting of the art of these masters.

Thomson applies the delicacy of Gainsborough and Reynolds to the décor and mise-en-scene of the Regency, visualizing a notion of the period as a sort of fashion book in which his authors’ worlds are transformed into a display of elegance. This holds true of his interpretations of Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), Charles Reade (Peg Woffington), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) and George Eliot (Scenes of Clerical Life). This uniformity has led some critics to accuse him of monotony, and it is certovainly the case that he does not differentiate between the polished elegance of Jane Austen and the realism of Eliot and Gaskell. Nor does he note the differences between versions of English rusticity, which, as noted above, he limits to a sentimental nostalgia.

Many critics accused him of triviality and compared with the outspokenness of many of his contemporaries his seems a small and unadventurous endeavour. Recent observers such as Thomas Reccio are dismissive of his timidity, describing his work as ‘thin, fleeting, and superficial’ (p.97). Nevertheless, Thomson has considerable virtues as an illustrator. While generally insensitive to the nuances of his authors’ styles, his images are effective representations of some aspects of the narrative and character. The cast of Pride and Prejudice and Scenes of Clerical Life are sharply characterised, and the ensemble pieces, though primarily decorative schemes in delicate line, can also be read as social commentaries which suggest the underlying tensions at work within small and introspective communities.

Again, he does not seem responsive to variations, but his particular talent is his ability to visualize his novelists as if they were writing a sort of generic comedy of manners, a version of England in which the upper-classes live constrained lives in rural settings. This notion is carried forward in his focus on small gestures and glances, and in his emphasis on the dynamic undercurrents of what are apparently static scenes. Many of his illustrations inject a sense of immediacy in the form of compositions that focus on the beginnings and endings of conversations, and there are many moments where he focuses on characters entering or leaving through doors, approaching another character, or retiring abruptly. This emphasis on the movements of social interaction carries the narratives forward, and implies the repressed energy of characters who are physically and psychologically limited. Thomson’s art is indeed a confection for Christmas, but it is not without its interest.

Works Cited

Muir, Percy. Victorian Illustrated Books. 1971; rpt. London: Batsford, 1985.

Reccio, Thomas. Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’: a Publishing History. Burlington, V.T: Ashgate, 2009.

Taylor, John Russell. The Art Nouveau Book in Britain. London: Methuen, 1966.

Last modified 23 March 2014