Introduction: fame and obscurity

Thackeray's decorated initial M

any Victorian illustrators enjoyed a considerable reputation in their own time, but are virtually unknown to modern audiences. One of the most brilliant and of these was John Franklin. Franklin is routinely placed at the margins of Victorian art; he is barely mentioned in modern criticism, and only John Buchanan-Brown has written of his achievements (pp. 213–19). Yet this neglect is entirely undeserved.

Though eclipsed by others, Franklin was a diverse, challenging and experimental artist; he enjoyed a long and successful career, he appealed to adult and juvenile audiences, he influenced several of his contemporaries, and he produced a large number of striking images. Indeed, his work appeared in a wide variety of publications: active in the period from 1835 to 1870, he made notable contributions to The Book of British Ballads (1842–44) and Poems and Pictures (1846), provided a powerful series of illustrations for W. H. Ainsworth’s Old St. Paul’s (1841), and followed this up with some intricate decorations for The Psalms of David(1852). Working in a highly competitive field, he was viewed by his contemporaries as a bold and versatile artist who worked in a variety of styles and was especially successful as a practitioner of the ‘German style’.

Franklin’s was a familiar name among the book-buying public of the mid-nineteenth century. The Psalms (1852) is labelled in gilt with a foliate ‘Franklin’ on the front board, a sure sign that he needed no introduction. The publishers clearly regarded his name as a selling point that built on appreciative comments in the reviews. Praise for Franklin seems positive to the point of extravagance, even if we remember an early Victorian tendency to hyperbole. As early as 1836 it was noted how his plates for The Ancient Ballad of Chevy Chase were the product of ‘a very accomplished artist’ who was ‘destined to hold a very prominent situation’ in the field (‘The Ancient Ballad’, pp. 516–17), and others claimed he always displayed ‘refinement of manner … brilliant imagination and deep reasoning’ (‘The Palfrey’, p.193). Commissioned by S. C. Hall to co-illustrate The Book of British Ballads, and regarded as a champion of the new and dynamic ‘Germanism’ of the forties, his art had a considerable vogue; astonishingly, he was briefly regarded as one of Britain’s finest, an artist ‘of acknowledged skill and eminence’ (‘Advertisement’, pp. 116 & 267), and his credentials were elsewhere asserted throughout the reviews.

With claims such as these it is reasonable to expect that Franklin would continue to enjoy the status of his outstanding contemporaries. Yet his reputation disappeared almost as soon as he ceased to work. In the years after 1870 he slipped from view, fell out of fashion, and by the end of the century had fallen into obscurity. Once feted as a major contributor to the art of the printed page, he was quickly overlooked by the late Victorians and their modernist heirs. Writing in 1907, Walter Crane remembers meeting the artist in W. J. Linton’s workshop, an illustrator, he reminds us, who is ‘almost forgotten now’ (p.56). The Dalziel Brothers (1901) only mention him in passing, and modern scholarship has largely consigned him to the short entry of the reference-book. The only exception to this rule is John Buchanan-Brown’s exploration of his use of German models (2005), but Franklin is otherwise reduced to the level of the ‘minor artist’.

This obscurity has been compounded by the fact that knowledge of the essentials of his biography is fragmentary. His date and place of birth have been elusive and unsure, and nothing is known of his personal life. There are no surviving letters, no likenesses, no anecdotes of his views, no records of his friendships beyond mentions, no scandals, and no idea of his personality. Though associated with the engraver Linton, who reported his artistic associations in detail, Franklin does not appear in his pages of his autobiography; and though employed by the Dalziels – who spitefully recorded their collaborators’ foibles with was much enthusiasm as their admiration for their qualities – they found nothing to say about him, negative or otherwise.

Working in a period when famous artists’ lives were the subject of record and celebration, Franklin’s presence, beyond his vivid and impressive illustrations, is a ghostly one. To an even greater extent than other forgotten artists such as H. C. Selous and E. H. Wehnert, his case is a problematic one. It is possible, however, to retrieve the essential facts; building on the scholarship of Buchan-Brown and drawing on an eclectic variety of sources, the following sections set out to re-establish Franklin’s reputation while also providing new information about his life and career. I also include the most complete bibliography of his printed works. — Simon Cooke


Miscellaneous Works

Franklin's illustrations for W. H. Ainsworth's Old St. Paul's (1841 edition)

Related Material: Phiz's Frontispiece and Title-page Vignette for Old St. Paul's (1847)


Last modified 10 October 2018