[The decorated capital letters that begin each section were created by Thackeray for Vanity Fair. Click on images to enlarge them. — George P. Landow]

Introduction: The Cornhill Context

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he complexities of working with Richard Doyle on the production of The Newcomes (1854-55) persuaded W. M. Thackeray to regain control and illustrate his next works, The Rose and the Ring (1855) and The Virginians (1857–59), for himself. These books recreated the author’s usual combination of full-page designs, interpolated drawings and initial letters. As usual with this artist-writer, the images are aesthetically unstable but effective as illustrations. However, Thackeray’s appointment as the first editor of The Cornhill Magazine in 1860 meant that he had less time and energy to expend on the visualization of his writing, and he seems to have grown increasingly impatient with the technicalities of drawing on wood and preparing etchings on steel. His reluctance to illustrate his own work presented itself as a problem when he contributed The Adventures of Philip on his Way Through the World, which appeared in The Cornhill from January 1861 to August 1862.

Philip was the journal’s prime serial during this period, and Thackeray almost immediately realized the inadequacy of his pencil; as in the production of The Newcomes, he struggled to draw on wood, and must have been aware of the stark contrast between his designs and those of the Sixties artists, then appearing in The Cornhill, whose technical skills and poetic representation of everyday life were far in advance of his old-fashioned caricature (Harvey 97). As Goldman remarks, he realized his illustrations ‘were not up to the job’ (124).

He illustrated the opening number (January, 1861) by himself, but quickly decided to employ another artist to do the work. Several designers were suitable – notably J. E. Millais – but Thackeray and Smith were initially unsure as to whom they should choose. Their task was made more difficult by the terms they imposed; though Thackeray did not want to do the drawing, he did not want to give the task of illustrating his book entirely into another hand. What he wanted was an artist who would ‘improve’ on his rough sketches – producing high-quality designs while ceding control of their interpretive role to the author. Essentially, Thackeray wanted an illustrator as an amanuensis with developed formal skills but no individuality and no desire to be anything other than a technician. This proviso made selection problematic, as none of the existing stable of Cornhill artists was interested in such a limited role.

Thackeray and Smith finally hit on Frederick Walker, a struggling artist who had presented himself at 65, Cornhill in pursuit of employment. Walker’s economic vulnerability meant he was easily manipulated, and Smith and Thackeray were quick to take advantage of him. Their encounter with the inexperienced artist is recounted by Smith in his memoir and retold in A.H. Huxley’s history of the house of Smith, Elder. As Smith explains:

It occurred to me that my youthful visitor was precisely the man to re-draw on Thackeray’s sketches, and I proposed the task to him, and understood that the idea was acceptable. But Walker’s nervous agitation while I was speaking to him was almost painful [and] he left my room without my being sure that he understood the arrangement I wanted to make with him. The plan was to be subject to Thackeray’s approval [and it was arranged for him to visit the author in his house where] Thackeray set himself in a most genial fashion but with very partial success, to put Walker at his ease. At last he said, ‘Can you draw? Mr Smith says you can.’ ‘Y – y – yes, I think so,’ said … the artist. ‘I am going to shave,’ said Thackeray, ‘would you like drawing my back?’ Thackeray went to his toilet glass and commenced shaving, while poor Walker took a sheet of paper and began sketching his subject’s broad back. [Huxley 142–3]

This arrangement was tried for the numbers covering February–April 1861, with Thackeray and Walker essentially producing a series of hybrid designs. The effect in these three instalments is predictably unappealing. Though Walker was ‘improving’ on the designs, both full-page illustrations and initials, there is always a sense of aesthetic strain, with Walker’s poetic naturalism struggling to accommodate the demands of Thackeray’s caricature. The designs’ inner tension is exemplified by the March issue of The Old Fogies (Cornhill III, facing 270). Still recognizably in the idiom of Punch, with the figures in the foreground being reminiscent of the manner of John Leech or Richard Doyle the drawing of Philip leaning on the mantelpiece introduces the sort of domestic realism, both idealized and pragmatic, that characterizes the style of the sixties; the juxtaposition is an uneasy one and confuses the reader’s understanding of the novel’s tone.

Walker, at any rate, was dissatisfied with the result and informed Smith that he no longer wanted to be bound by the arrangement. Thackeray wanted The Old Fogies to be ‘presentable' and told him exactly how to ‘improve’ on his drawing (Letters IV, 219) but for Walker it was a task too far. The work, he told Smith, ‘offended his artistic self-respect since the job was one ‘any fool could do’; what he wanted was autonomy to illustrate for himself, with only ‘verbal suggestions’ from the author as to how to proceed (Huxley 142–43).

Left: The Old Fogies. Right: Nurse and Doctor.

Presented with this situation, Thackeray compromised. He continued to draw the initial letters but from May 1861, starting with Nurse and Doctor (Cornhill 3, facing 556), the full-page illustrations were entirely by Walker, supported only by the author’s occasional comments and rough sketches. Seizing at least some of the control from the author and his publisher, Walker asserted the right to re-inscribe the text in his own terms, an act of independence that reflected the new arrangement of the 1860s in which the visual interpreter was as important as the writer. This demand had been made by the Pre-Raphaelites in the formulation of the ‘Moxon Tennyson’ (1857), and Walker emulated Dante Rossetti’s assertion on the need for every illustrator to illustrate in whatever terms he saw first, using the text only as an opportunity for the expression of his own ideas.

Walker’s Illustrations for Philip: a Modernizing Touch

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llustrating Philip was undoubtedly a challenge for the inexperienced Walker. Thackeray’s tale of a man’s attempts to escape his circumstances is complex, convoluted material, with diverse characters – some of them making only cameo appearances – and a diffuse narrative. Carried forward by Pendennis’s social commentary, it is perhaps the least pictorial of Thackeray’s novels. Discursive rather than descriptive, lacking in focus and often digressive, it assembles its effects through the slow accretion of detail, and the leisurely if ever-moving narrative is almost entirely lacking in the sort of descriptive tableaux on which the artist could base his imagery. It was, in short, anything but the sort of congenial material the illustrator might have valued as his first attempt at visualizing an extended narrative.

His solutions were creative and wide-reaching. Walker’s primary strategy, as noted, earlier, was greatly to extend the writing of the novel’s contemporary settings by visualizing its action in vividly realistic terms. With only minimal clues to work with, he fills the perceptual gaps in the fiction’s naturalistic surfaces, amplifying details which are implied rather than spelled out, adding information of his own and materializing the author’s generalizations. Later known as a social realist whose visual journalism influenced George Pinwell, Hubert Herkomer and William Small, Walker’s first substantial commission gave him the opportunity to fuse Thackeray’s commentaries with his own observations of everyday life, focusing on the domestic lives of the bourgeoisie. In Walker’s series, Thackeray’s middle classes are shown in all of their intricate details: what they wear, the spaces they occupy, the trappings of their properties and even the fashions of their hair-styles and even their smoking habits are enshrined in his images of the everyday.

Philip in Church.

This verisimilitude, drawing on the author’s studies of the real, is carried through some of the more powerful scenes, and it is instructive to compare the textual directions, as such, with the artist’s visualizations. Thackeray characteristically provides the barest of details: writing, for instance, of the novel’s final scene (August, 1862), he tells us only that Philip gives Thanksgiving ‘with a trim little sister, and two children’ in an ‘old church’ that was ‘fashionable in the reign of Queen Anne’ (Cornhill 6:221). Walker’s response, however, was to produce a journalistic illustration of the characters engaged in prayer (6 facing 217) with a carefully observed background (based on a real church in Bloomsbury) and a strong emphasis on contemporary costume. Thackeray provided some other, slight information in the form of a letter specifying ‘an old-fashioned pew … not Gothic’ (Letters, 4: 268) but the mise-en-scène is essentially Walker’s, materializing the generic in a very specific and plausible form.

Walker’s capacity to enshrine and anchor Thackeray’s novel in concrete detail adds materially to its sense of contemporaneity, and critics of the time regarded Philip in Church as a significant enhancement of its effects. According to Edward Burne-Jones – who also commented on Richard Doyle’s illustrations for The Newcomes – the image was ‘perfection’ because it captured the ‘modern … look of the people’ and the everyday ambience of a ‘prosy ugly old church’ (Burne-Jones 79). Later re-worked as a painting (Tate Britain, London), the illustration projected the novel’s world long after the text itself was largely forgotten.

Walker’s design is especially effective as a representation of a middle-class everyman. Philip is not as memorable as Thackeray’s more famous creations, but the portrait validates the character by showing him as a tangible individual who is changed at the end of the novel into a man prematurely aged by poverty, his ‘fair hair streaked with white’ (Cornhill 6: 217). This matching of physical and psychological realism further enhances the text’s journalistic surfaces and links to Walker’s earlier treatment of Philip as he makes his arduous way through the travails of his difficult life. Conceived as a record over time, the illustrations map several of the stages in his Hogarthian progress, providing the reader/viewer with a consistent thread of visual information which functioned as a means to maintain interest over the twenty months of the novel’s serialization.

Philip’s journey from inexperience to experience is conveyed by changes in his appearance and demeanour. His naïveté is conveyed by his youthful appearance and clumsy stance. In Good Samaritans (Cornhill 4: facing 1) he sits uncomfortably at Pendennis’s table, staring blankly ahead and fiddling with his hat, signs of his anxious contemplation of the sufferings imposed by his father’s misdemeanours; and in A Quarrel (4: facing 385) he backs away from the furious Ringwood, whom he views with perplexed uncertainty as he plays, once again, with his topper.

Left: The Poor Helping the Poor. Right: Paterfamilias.

These psychological signs become more resonant as the strain of living in poverty begin to tell. The Poor Helping the Poor (5: facing 1) depicts his growing tension; no longer quite so young and tangibly ill-kept, with a straggly beard and untidy hair, the mental impact of accepting charity is embodied in his alert, angular stance. This illustration appears in January 1862 and by March further changes have taken place. Though now entering into a more successful period as he contemplates an offer of financial support, Philip is depicted as middle-aged; his earlier costume is changed for a baggy suit and his downwards gaze suggests uncertainty rather than celebration. Thackeray encourages the artist to present the scene as joyous as Philip and Charlotte read the letter, noting that ‘There was a pretty group for the children to see, and for Mr Walker to draw’ (Letters 4: 271); but Walker shows Philip as a man too beleaguered with bad fortune to celebrate in the conventional sense of the term and focuses instead on the inner containment of one unused to positive emotions. His anguish is taken to its final stages in Paterfamilias (V, facing 513) as he sits beside his child’s bed, with one hand holding his head and the other stiffly pushed to one side in an agitated gesture of inner conflict and fear. This moment is the lowest point in his emotional progress, and throughout the series Walker inscribes his mental condition in his manner and gaze. It is not until the final scene, Philip in Church (Cornhill 6 facing 217) that we see him as man of limited means but in a better state of mind. This illustration provides a resolution to the sufferings of his earlier misadventures, replacing the taut imagery of his worst moments with a scene if not of absolution then at least of ordinary well-being.

Walker’s illustrations are motivated, in short, by two concerns. They root the novel in the everyday of the 1860s and they provide a detailed psychological portrait of the protagonist. Both elements buttress and expand the novelist’s messages, arresting its digressive prose and focusing the reader/viewer’s attention on the crucial moments. In so doing they modernize Thackeray’s writing by severing the connection with the caricature traditions of the middle of the century, re-framing it with the emphasis on material and psychological realism that is characteristic, for example, of the fictions of George Eliot. In this novel, the poetic realism of the Sixties is put to new purposes, updating Thackeray’s social satire by shifting its emphasis towards the psychological and the emotional.

Walker’s interpretation of Thackeray’s text was the foundation stone of his career, and he went on to provide distinguished work for a number of novels and gift-books.

Related material

Works Cited

Burne-Jones Talking: His Conversations 1895 –1898. Edited by Mary Lago. London: John Murray, 1981.

Burton, Anthony. ‘Thackeray’s Collaboration with Cruikshank, Doyle and Walker.’ Costerus n.s 2 (1974): 141–84.

Goldman Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996, rev. ed. 2004.

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

Huxley, Leonard. The House of Smith Elder. London: Published for Private Circulation, 1923.

[Thackeray, W. M.]. The Letters and Private Papers of W. M. Thackeray. Ed. Gordon Ray. 4 Vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1945–46.

Thackeray, W. M. Philip. Illustrations on wood by Thackeray and Walker. First published in The Cornhill Magazine, January 1861–August 1862. London: Smith Elder, 1861–62. [The first book edition was published by Smith Elder in 3 volumes in 1862, but without the illustrations. Subsequent editions restored Walker’s contributions.]

Titmarsh, M.A. [W.M. Thackeray]. The Rose and the Ring. Written and illustrated by Thackeray. London: Smith, Elder, 1855.

Thackeray, W. M. The Virgininians. Illustrations on steel and wood by Thackeray. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1858–9. The novel was first published in parts, 1858–9.

Last modified 28 April 2017