ROMANTICISM AND ILLUSTRATION by Ian Haywood, Susan Matthews, and Mary L. Shannon, eds., Reviewed by Grant Scott
 

ROMANTICISM AND ILLUSTRATION
Eds. Ian Haywood, Susan Matthews, and Mary L. Shannon
(Cambridge, 2019) xv + 325 pp.
Reviewed by Grant Scott on 2019-08-22.

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By rights, the present collection of essays should be dedicated to Thomas Stothard, the patron saint of book illustration, and feature his portrait as its frontispiece. After all, his name appears on practically every page. Though little known today, Stothard was the most prolific and versatile illustrator of his time, executing over 5,000 designs and playing a part in many of the most important book and gallery projects of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on one of which--the superbly illustrated editions of Samuel Rogers' Italy (1830-38)--he closely collaborated with J. M. W. Turner. He was also, as Sandro Jung capably demonstrates in this volume, a master of the vignette who made "meaningful artistic interventions in the realm of popular print culture" (150). Because he was an RA painter, a furniture designer, and an illustrator who also devised pocket-books, greeting cards and even banknotes, Stothard stands at the very center of this volume's investigations of egalitarianism and commercialism. He bridges the gap between the refinement and exclusivity of the Royal Academy -- home of masterpieces -- and the finely reproduced but affordable prints made to feed the growing demands of a burgeoning middle class consumer market.

The Romantic period sparked a boom in illustrated books, a concomitant explosion of engravings, and a rise in affordable serial editions of canonical British writers. In the last few years this "visual turn in literary culture" (2), as the editors call it, has begun to receive the attention it deserves, though previous studies, they note, have struggled to find "a methodology for analyzing and appreciating the plethora of small-scale images that accompany so many literary texts of the period," as well as a suitable and historically sensitive definition of "illustration" itself (2). As the editors point out, the word "illustration" in the period denoted much more than the modern sense of a picture representing a specific textual scene. Rather than simply depicting what the text describes, an illustration might embellish, enhance, elevate, or beautify a text. "Illustrated" might even apply to a text adorned by verbal matter, as in a typical edition of the Bible "illustrated with critical and explanatory annotations." Hence, as Luisa Calè argues, "the visual culture of prints produced new channels of circulation for literature" (223).

This reciprocity between print and visual culture overturns many foundational assumptions of word-image studies. Rejecting the inherent rivalry between media in the sister arts debate, the editors see the relationship between text and image in this period as one of equality and of "new imaginative activity" generated by extra-illustrated editions and "a culture of commonplacing" (5, 230) that was heavily invested in collecting, excerpting, and conjoining visual images with verbal passages. In the words of Mary L. Shannon, "the relationship between text and image was one of a fluid communication circuit rather than a neatly defined binary" (260-61). In this sense, Newman Street serves as an apt geographical metaphor for the cultural work of illustration examined (and promoted) in the book. As Shannon explains, Newman Street was an artist's colony of sorts that brought together painters, writers, engravers, booksellers, bookbinders, printers, publishers and entrepreneurs in a single vibrant busy community. At the very center of this literary operation was the illustration and the various reprographic media -- steel plate, wood-cut, lithograph --underlying the practical business of delivering the image to its mass audience. The illustration, the editors contend, "was a locus of bibliographical, commercial, ideological, and aesthetic concerns, and a portal between the text and its cultural context" (5). This is an ambitious claim, particularly given the size of the illustrations scrutinized here. In pocket atlases, diaries, and magazines, the image was routinely miniaturized, and vast historical canvases were shrunk into the micro-detail of a vignette or invention of what Martin Myrone calls "a sublime-in-little" (291).

If the diminution of the image is the aesthetic problem that the collection probes but never quite resolves, the other is the boundary of social class: "the line between gentleman and tradesman," as Shannon writes, that "the literary artists of Newman Street straddled all the time" (253). This class tension permeates the mass-produced illustration itself and crops up everywhere in the book. The word "cheap," for example, keeps rubbing up against the word "taste" like a cowboy at a country club. Everywhere, as Brian Maidment observes, we find the gentility, elegance, refinement, and finish of the Royal Academy at odds with and being absorbed by the "cheapness and handiness" of the pocket serials (267). The sheer number and variety of mass circulation magazines and miscellanies that Maidment inventories become a formidable cultural counterforce to the high art of the academy and the estate and represent a democratizing of cultural capital, as the contributors to this volume generally agree. But does this "cheap" illustrative art succeed in translating the refinement and polish, let alone the aura of the original? Do tradesman and gentleman ever appear together? In assessing the miscellany, Maidment for one thinks so. "Such a combination of metal engraving and wood engraving," he writes, "clearly mediated between the conflicting cultural alignments implicit in the miscellany -- genteel against vernacular, the need for cheapness against traditional aesthetic ambitions, and, perhaps, decorative effectiveness against both naturalism and the informational" (278).

The various literary galleries of the 1780s and 90s, to be sure, proved that one did not have to sacrifice "traditional aesthetic ambitions" or "decorative effectiveness" at the altar of market expediency, though such values came at a price. While the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, Fuseli's Milton Gallery, and Macklin's Poets Gallery were all commercial failures, they not only offered the public, at least for a brief time, a way to enjoy great works of British art and literature on a grand scale (solving the size riddle); they also enabled gallery-goers to purchase serialized installments of single prints. As the editors state, "it was this combination of display and dissemination which distinguished the literary galleries from their most obvious competitor, the Royal Academy" (9). But since the oversized steel engravings took a long time to produce, they were frequently delayed and ultimately very expensive. Aesthetics simply couldn't keep pace with economics.

Both Ian Haywood and Luisa Calè acknowledge these problems but turn their attention to the Macklin Gallery's "ideological work" and transnational politics. By situating the Gallery in the context of the revolution debate and the Jacobin terror in the 1790s, Haywood shows that the pairing of word and image can be understood in a subversive light, particularly in representations of female agency. In comparison, Calè highlights the first number of the Gallery and the tension that emerges between its patriotic role in forging a British national aesthetic and its assimilation of a continental and more cosmopolitan tradition. The first artists to illustrate the British Poets were all foreign born: Angelica Kauffman, Henry Fuseli, and Maria Cosway. In tracing the complex interaction between Cosway's The Hours and Thomas Gray's Ode to Spring, Calè also teases out Macklin's "retrofitting" of the painting and poem and the "dynamic of reciprocal 'illustration'" (230, 223).

Of the eleven essays that comprise the volume, two explore Blake's illustrations for Genesis and The Poems of Thomas Gray (Otto, Thomas), two study Fuseli's illustrations (Priestman, Matthews), two consider Macklin's Poets Gallery (Haywood, Calè) and two assess the place of the engraving in the serial pocket atlas and magazine (Jung, Maidment). The remaining three examine the professional networks forged on Newman Street (Shannon), Stothard's "proto-cinematic" illustrations for Rogers' Italy (McCue), and the cross-fertilization of representations of Queen Elfrida that appeared in dramatic, historical, and literary paintings and illustrations (Wood).

Peter Otto's fine essay on Blake's title-pages for Genesis and Susan Matthews' equally compelling piece on Fuseli's illustrations to Cowper's Poems (1806) are standouts here not only because they illuminate the core of the volume's argument but because they test its vulnerabilities. Otto's "The Ends of Illustration: Explanation, Critique, and the Political Imagination in Blake's Title-pages for Genesis" reminds me, at least in the beginning, of those meticulous annotations of Blake's images in David Erdman's Illuminated Blake (1974) or Princeton's six-volume collected set of Blake's works (1991) except that Otto's articulations are much better, much less entangled in tendrils and vines. His evocations build gradually, almost imperceptibly, from detailed description to the kind of analysis that keeps you returning to the image and makes you realize why you chose the profession. This brilliant visual explication sets your mind afire, unfolding layer after layer of the design, forcing your eye ever closer to the organic living forms of the image. Otto's argument is too sophisticated to be given sufficient airing here, but in brief he argues that the Genesis manuscript radically subverts the tradition of Biblical illustration. Extending the implications of The First Book of Urizen, Blake replaces revelation with critique, the sacred with the profane, and the teleological narrative of first and last things with a kind of temporal and spatial simultaneity. Better yet is Otto's claim that the second title-page was not meant to act as a final copy replacing the first, as scholars have long believed, but "that each is intended to illustrate the other, with the first mapping the acts hidden behind the second, and the second sketching the reality produced by the first -- and that this mirrors what Blake wants us to see as the relation between the Bible's"P" and "J" narratives" (38).

Equally deft is Matthews' contribution, "Henry Fuseli's Accommodations: 'Attempting the Domestic' in the making of illustrations to Cowper," which wrestles with the dilemma of miniaturization that shadows the volume. She traces Fuseli's equivocal descent from a painter of the sublime to an illustrator of the sublime-in-small in such works as Francis Isaac Du Roveray's editions of Pope's Homer, "an epic collection on a small scale" (124). To exemplify this imbalance of scale, Matthews ingeniously counterpoints the sublime art gallery with the domestic bed chamber as tourist stops in turn-of-the-century Paris. While visiting the Grand Gallery in the Louvre, Fuseli was struck by its similarity to a common auction room and troubled by the decontextualized and "promiscuous" gathering of plundered art (126). At Madame Recamier's house, however, he was impressed by its elegant taste and "fascinated by the secrets of the bed" (128). With the aid of such comments, Matthews ponders Fuseli's accommodation to illustration, his near-obsession with the woman's bedchamber (e.g., The Nightmare), his growing "ability to miniaturize the sublime" (136) and his invention of "a new location for art" (137) -- "the tasteful homes of a bourgeois elite" (138).

This otherwise splendid essay suffers from one flaw. The reproduction of Fuseli's A Dressing Room included in Cowper's Poems comes from the wrong source, which is so tightly cropped that it omits the title, the artists' names, the publication information and, most importantly, the beautifully inscribed lines from Cowper (135). The correct illustration from Cowper's Poems may be seen here. Since nearly every essay in the book argues so persuasively for the essential meaning of these para-texts, such an error is hard to fathom.

An oversight of a different order undercuts the analysis of the illustration itself. Matthews misses the most bizarre and compelling figure in the scene: a misshapen, dwarf-like maid whose face is obscured by part of another woman's dress. Looking as if she had wandered in from The Nightmare, she slides up the back of the central female character. It seems somehow fitting that she is ignored by the ladies if not the artist, for as a representative of the working class, she represents all that must be erased to ensure their luxury, elegance, and taste. Reading this picture in light of The Nightmare, however, enables us to see the maid as a repressed version of the central lady, her dreadful alter ego, the succubus of the lower orders threatening to engulf the upper class. Fuseli may abandon the sublime in his book ventures but he never forgets the Gothic horrors of his earlier painting. In offering us an allegory of looking and overlooking, this particular illustration may indicate a blind spot in the volume's own commitment to multiple perspectives, its hesitancy to fully engage social consciousness or the awareness of class.

The collection is much better for Martin Myrone's bracing coda, which must have induced a tremor of panic among the editors. "There are questions here as well," he begins innocently enough, but then asks: "in the absence of a synoptic survey of book illustration in this period, can our analysis be sufficiently systematic?" (292). To his great credit (and courage), Myrone considers "the costs as well as the benefits of the 'democratization of British art'" embodied in the illustration (297). He worries about "the commercialization of culture" and, in polite opposition to Shannon, the "by no means wholly compatible perspectives of artists, engravers, publishers, printers, booksellers, and consumers" (293). And he offers a much more sobering portrait of the profession of illustration than we get in the volume, citing a number of examples from figures like the great Stothard himself, who counsels a young painter to avoid the book business and "stick with portrait painting" (qtd. 295). Myrone's most incisive point, however, concerns the decontextualization and privatization of the illustration and, returning to the problem of scale, "the loss of even the possibility of heroic, virtuous action" (297). In the end, the question he implicitly asks is a moral one. Does the history of illustration in this period leave us only--as he says-- "with consumer choices, a market society absorbed by the pursuit of personal pleasures and interests without self-understanding" (298)? This vital question prompts contributors and academic readers alike to reflect on whether their investment in the "micro-historical detail" of book and vignette illustration, or even for that matter broader literary investigations, are enough in "our post-Trump, post-Brexit era" (298).

Grant F. Scott is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.


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