An Illustrated Antislavery Song: Music with a Mission?

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by Rachel Cross

Rachel Cross is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University whose area of research is Victorian illustrated songs. Her work investigates how the intersections between the three media of illustration, text and music reveal new insight into key issues of the Victorian period. She started her journey to this fascinating topic through music; initially studying piano, strings, and the theory of music, she gained diplomas in piano teaching and in the theory and criticism of music. Going on to study English at undergraduate and master’s levels, she focused particularly on the interrelations between text and illustration. She teaches about the relationships between text and illustration to undergraduates and has spoken about Victorian illustrated songs at several symposiums and conferences.

Illustrated songs were pervasive in the print culture of the nineteenth century: it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 pictorial music titles were published in England between 1820 and 1885 alone. (1) They were popular in both America and Britain and were to become even more widespread with the rise of vaudeville (in the States) and music hall (in Britain) towards the end of the century. American and British songs traversed the Atlantic, bought largely by bourgeois families for domestic musical entertainment. The distinctive blend of the three art forms of text, music and illustration in one publication offers opportunity for an exciting tripartite view of nineteenth-century Western life. Examining intersections between presentations in these three media, this blog focuses on how an American antislavery song reveals nineteenth-century perceptions of race and nation. Its illustrated cover (see figure 2) depicts the fugitive whilst on the run, dramatically picturing the plight of the runaway. However, whilst the illustration shows the famous runaway, Frederick Douglass, it, and the song’s lyrics and music, also include other allusions which complicate the reading of ‘The Fugitive’s Song’ as connected with the antislavery mission.

Figure 1: Slavery Abolition Act, 1833. Photo credit: Wreford Miller, ‘Abolition’ by Wreford is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

After slavery in British lands was abolished in 1833 (see figure 1), American abolitionists campaigned with likeminded Britons to end slavery in America. The fight against slavery adopted a multimedia approach. Printed matter provided the main impetus for the abolition movement to spread its antislavery message and slave narratives and poetry were also augmented by songs and performances in both America and Britain. ‘The Fugitive’s Song,’ (see cover, figure 2) was published in Boston in 1845. Massachusetts was a centre for the abolition movement in the nineteenth century and Boston was a hub for early American music publishing. In May 1845, Frederick Douglass also published his critically acclaimed autobiography in Boston, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Publication of this song, in tandem with Douglass’s book, is testament to the abolitionists’ multimedia crusade. However, I argue that this song also revealingly functions as a serenade to the ‘enlightened’ Northern states of America.

Figure 2: ‘The Fugitive’s Song’ cover, 1845. Lithograph. Music by J. M. White, words by Jesse Hutchinson Junior, lithography by E. W. Bouvé (Boston: Henry Prentiss, 1845). Accession Number: 80.7568.365, Lincoln Memorial University, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, Harrogate, Tennessee.

Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, subsequently becoming a famous antislavery campaigner in both the States and Britain. The popularity of slave narratives meant that many people were familiar with Douglass’s story. Frederick Law Olmsted, in his A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), even asserted that Northern views on slavery were constructed from the reading of slave narratives. (2) Whilst it is dedicated to Douglass, ‘The Fugitive’s Song’ was, however, like most antislavery matter, produced by a team of white people. The words are by Jesse Hutchinson Junior, with the music by J. M. White, and the cover illustration by the engraver and lithographer E. W. Bouvé. Initially testifying to the power of abolition songs, Douglass himself stated:

I especially have a reason to feel a grateful interest in the whole Hutchinson family  ̶  for you have sung the yokes from the necks and the fetters from the limbs of my race. (3)

Indeed, as vehement abolitionists and members of the Anti-Slavery Society, the Hutchinson family used the power of music in the Northern fight against slavery in the 1840s and 1850s. (4) Scott Gac contends that, ‘Starting in 1841, the Hutchinsons transformed themselves from backwoods, church-trained musicians to the most popular musical family in America’. (5) By the end of the Civil War, Douglass had, however, changed his opinion about white involvement, declaring, ‘Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us’. (6) Indeed, African American disillusionment followed emancipation, these sentiments contrasting sharply with the hopefulness of earlier abolitionism.

The text, music, and image of ‘The Fugitive’s Song’, although created by different people, work together to supposedly produce an authentic version of slavery. Douglass’s story is used to personalise the plight of the enslaved and enable performers to feel an emotional connection and moral obligation. Yet, all three media also represent Douglass’s freedom as largely due to the magnanimity of the Northern states. The lyrics use religious lexis: indeed, many antislavery songs like this were sung in churches. The song is focalised through Douglass, and he affirms his faith in God in the first verse:

From my youth I have vow’d in my God to rely

And despite the oppressor gain Freedom or die.

Yet, the lyrics also use nationalistic vocabulary. Despite the fugitive’s apparent reliance on heavenly help, it is New England’s ‘stern voice’ that has the power to protect and shelter the runaway, expressed in the third verse:

New England! New England! thrice blessed and free,

The poor hunted slave finds a shelter in thee,

Where no bloodthirsty hounds ever dare on his track;

At thy stern voice, New England! the mountains fall back!

Indeed, the voice seems to have divine authority, as the fourth verse continues:

That voice shall roll on, ’mong the hills of the North,

In murmurs more loud ’till its thunders break forth;

On the wings of the wind shall its deep echoes fly,

Swift as Lightning above, from sky e’en to sky;

Nor Charters nor Unions its mandates shall choke,

’Twill cry in God’s Name, ‘Go Break every Yoke’

Like the tempests of Heaven, shaking mountain and sea,

Shall the North tell the South, ‘Let the Bondmen go free!’


Lauding the Northern states in this way is reminiscent of the lyrics of national anthems of the day. Emphasising the North’s progressive climate where ‘no bloodthirsty hounds’ pursue the runaway suggests its ideals are far from the barbarism of the South. This sense of nationalistic pride is carried further in the final verse: 

Oh! then shall Columbia’s proud flag be unfurl’d

The glory of Freemen, and pride of the World,

While Earth’s struggling millions point hither in glee,

‘To the Land of the Brave, and the Home of the Free!

’The words ‘Columbia’s proud flag’ seem to reference the American patriotic song ‘Hail, Columbia’. (7) Likewise, the final line of ‘The Fugitive’s Song’: ‘To the Land of the Brave, and the Home of the Free!’, has parallels in Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem (which became the lyrics of the American national anthem):

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet waveO’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? (8)

Despite attempting to create a slave narrative-like feel, therefore, the lyrics are firmly positioned within the tradition of Western religious and nationalistic poetry.

In a similar way, the music is unashamedly Euro-American, having a diatonic melody (based on the Western scale) and a steady march-like pulse. The melody’s triadic motifs (centred around an arpeggio) sound fanfare-like (see figure 3). 

Figure 3: ‘The Fugitive’s Song’: first verse, second line.

These patterns also have connotations of national anthems: the style of the music here corresponds with the patriotic lyrics. National anthems were becoming more significant in the increasingly nationalistic nineteenth century and they often used fanfare-like motifs. (9) As F. Gunther Eyck writes in his study of national anthems, they were based on concepts from the romantic movement, including ‘the search for symbols, religious revivalism, and an emotional rather than a rational approach to contemporary issues’. (10) ‘The Fugitive’s Song’, like national anthems of the day, encouraged an emotional, and indeed religious, engagement, ostensibly in the fight against slavery, but also in nationalistic feeling. Just as the words’ intertextual references to other patriotic verse incited the listener or singer to a sense of patriotic zeal, so musical symbols, or leitmotifs, such as fanfare-like calls, allowed association with a nation’s triumphant battle fanfares. (11) This interaction with other snippets of music works in a similar way to the interpictoriality of imagery and the intertextuality of texts. As in art and literature where viewers and readers see references to other works, so also in music, aural memory inescapably draws allusions to other music, the listener (or performer) making connections outside of the song itself. This is therefore a musical version of the interplay that illustration has with other images. Julia Thomas, writing on illustration and its relationships with text and other imagery, terms this ‘affillustration’, where illustration:

makes meanings not just in its (conscious and unconscious) references to other illustrations, but also in the groupings and clusters it generates, the ‘networks’ that exist within and across the boundaries of the illustrated text. (12)

Music, therefore, like illustration, is a ‘social genre’: both the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ have similar triadic melodic motifs allowing listeners and performers to make connections between them and ‘The Fugitive’s Song’. The music’s martial 4/4 time also aligns it with other nationalistic songs, many of which were used during battles to rouse soldiers in patriotic fervour. Recognisable patterns in rhythms and melodies meant that they could be picked up easily and sung together. Indeed, as sociomusicologist Simon Frith points out, music is uniquely able to create a feeling of ‘spontaneous collective identity’ and ‘personally felt patriotism’. (13) Using such familiar methods in the music  ̶  and lyrics  ̶  of ‘The Fugitive’s Song’ encouraged engagement and a feeling of camaraderie which was a feature of patriotic music. As antislavery ideals became an identifying feature of the Northern states prior to (and during) the Civil War, these musical and language techniques furthered the sense of the North as synonymous with freedom for all.

The cover illustration uses Douglass’s figure to further associate the song with him and his antislavery mission. As the most photographed man of the nineteenth century, Douglass would have been recognisable by many (see figure 4). (14, 15)

Figure 4: Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass. Samuel J. Miller, American, 1822-1888, The Art Institute of Chicago (16)

Indeed, his depiction as face on to the viewer, allows immediate identification from his features and distinctive hair. The cover also references Douglass’s story: the Ohio River behind Douglass provides a physical symbol of the separation of North and South. The frozen Ohio River was famously crossed by Margaret Garner and her fellow fugitives in 1856 (see figure 5).


Figure 5: Memorial Marker, Covington, Kentucky. Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn, ‘Slave Escape Historical Marker’ by J. Stephen Conn is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The sign indicating New England is also mirrored by Douglass’s pointing finger, referencing his escape from Maryland to Massachusetts. (17)

Crossing the Ohio River symbolised an escape to freedom for many enslaved people. The illustration also therefore seeks to emulate a slave narrative whilst simultaneously glorifying the Northern states. Pictorial references to New England here serve to substantiate the song as an accurate account of Douglass’s experiences, whilst also underpinning the patriotism of the lyrics.

Figure 6: Runaway advert broadside. Woodcut and letterpress, broadside offering reward for escaped slave named Henry May, posted by William Burke, Bardstown, Kentucky, 3 September 1838. Courtesy, Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images and Slides Collection.

Yet, Douglass’s pose has a more complex frame of reference with a dual heritage of North and South. It is similar to the figures of fugitives on the many Southern posters and press adverts for runaways, such as this one from the same year as Douglass’s escape, 1838 (figure 6). However, this allusion does not undercut the patriotism of the lyrics and music. Northern American arrogation and adaptation of this image shows the North’s moral distance from the South, ironically using a Southern image to expose the inhumanity of the South. Indeed, Marcus Wood, who has written extensively on representations of black people in visual culture,  claims that not only was it used in Southern runaway advertisements, but the image was also appropriated for use in slave narratives and early British abolitionist literature. (18) Similarly, American and African American literature specialist, Martha Cutter notes how antislavery illustrations were reworked and reused in other abolitionist literature, repurposing them as emotive antislavery imagery. (19) Here, the martyrologising of a Southern motif reveals the polysemous nature of imagery and how readings of illustrations could be adapted so that they functioned in diverse ways in different circumstances. (20) Indeed, such affillustrative references to both Southern imagery and Douglass’s story would have allowed purchasers of the song to divine its significance as part of Douglass’s heritage. Yet, such understanding is complicated by the cover’s specific geographic symbols, implying rather that it was not who escaped but where he escaped to that is important. 

‘The Fugitive’s Song’ was therefore written to appeal to a predominantly white audience, presenting a whitened version of Douglass’s story. Whilst the three media apparently portray an authentic account, requisitioning Douglass as figurehead is evidence of the somewhat peremptory nature of nineteenth-century Western advocacy for the voiceless African American. Perhaps this is an early example of the ‘mischief’ of Douglass’s later complaint. Indeed, reusing nationalistic motifs in all three media that underline the North’s importance in Douglass’s escape seem somewhat self-congratulatory. The three media of this song together reveal some of the complexities of nineteenth-century attitudes about slavery as connected with race and the significance of patriotism in American abolitionism. Therefore, studying the illustrations of illustrated songs in connection with their music and lyrics opens up new channels of dialogue around how issues, particularly difficult ones such as slavery, were, and are, negotiated.

(1) A. Hyatt King, ‘English pictorial music title-pages 1820-1885: Their style, evolution, and importance’, The Library, 4 (1950): pp. 262-272, p. 270.

(2) Charles H. Nichols, ‘Who Read the Slave Narratives?’ The Phylon Quarterly, 20: 2 (1959): pp.149–162, p. 153.

(3) Jesse’s brother John also sang ‘The Fugitive’s Song’ at Douglass’s funeral in 1895. See ‘Washington Talk Briefing: The Hutchinson Family’, The New York Times, 21 September 1987, p. 8. <https://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/21/us/washington-talk-briefing-hutchinson-family.html&gt; [accessed 23 January 2019].

(4) ‘Songs Against Slavery Used as Tool for Abolition’, Voice of America, 13 January 2014 <https://www.voanews.com/a/songs-against-slavery-tool-for-abolition/1829393.html&gt; [accessed 24 January 2019]. They also toured with the black Luca family although this was sometimes frowned upon, see Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (1971; New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997), p. 107.

(5) Scott Gac, Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p.4.

(6) Frederick Douglass, ‘What the Black Man Wants’, Speech at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in Boston, April 1865 http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/afspfdat.html [accessed 30 May 2019].

(7) These lyrics were written in 1798 by Joseph Hopkinson. The repeated references to freedom (which applied to freedom from the British) are particularly multivalent.

(8) The poem, which was later set to John Stafford Smith’s melody, was adopted as the national anthem for the United States on 15 April 1929. ‘The Designation of the “Star-Spangled Banner”’, 3 March 1931, History, Art and Archives: United States House of Representatives https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/The-designation-of-the-%E2%80%9CStar-Spangled-Banner%E2%80%9D/#:~:text=The%20Congressman%20passed%20away%20before,introduced%20to%20the%20House%2C%20H.R. [accessed 07 February 2022].

(9) See Paul Nettl, trans. by Alexander Gode, National Anthems (1952; New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1967).

(10) F. Gunther Eyck, The Voice of Nations: European National Anthems and Their Authors (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), pp.xiii-xiv.

(11) A leitmotif is a recurrent musical theme associated with a particular idea, place or character. Eyck makes the point that in ‘almost every case, musical composition postdated the creation of the stanzas’, suggesting that composers used word painting and implying that this developed into the use of symbols to paint lyrics that were similar in many types of nationalistic verse writing. Eyck, The Voice of Nations, p.xv.

(12 ) Julia Thomas, Nineteenth-Century Illustration and the Digital: Studies in Word and Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p.97.

(13) Simon Frith, ‘Towards an aesthetic of popular music’ in Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (1987; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p.141.

(14) Autumn Haag, University of Rochester’s Special Collections librarian, describes Douglass as also ‘really aware of his self-image’ in Daniel J. Kushner, ‘Rare sheet music inspired by Frederick Douglass obtained by UR’ https://rocdouglass.com/2018/08/11/rare-sheet-music-inspired-by-frederick-douglass-obtained-by-ur/ [accessed 25 January 2019].

(15) For more on this, see John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, Celeste-Marie Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

(16) Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Douglass#/media/File:Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52.jpg [accessed 30 March 2022].

(17) The Ohio River was considered the extension of the division between North and South, the Mason-Dixon line, here separating Maryland in the South and Pennsylvania in the North.

(18) Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of slavery in England and America 1780 – 1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp.78-142. 

(19) Cutter charts the reworking of an image of a white man whipping a slave woman and child originally from the American Antislavery Almanac for Henry Bibb’s slave narrative, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb in 1849, for example in Martha J. Cutter, The Illustrated Slave: Empathy, Graphic Narrative, and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800-1952 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), p.167.

(20) Copyright laws were principally to protect literary works rather than this type of imagery, Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/copyright-ip/2486-copyright-timeline#.W5uTHuhKjIU [accessed 14 September 2018].

“With feelings which I cannot describe”: How Illustrators of Fin-de-Siècle Romance Fiction Depicted Wonders Surpassing Human Description

by Kate Holterhoff

Kate Holterhoff received her doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University and is currently an Affiliated Researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her new monograph, Illustration in Fin-de-Siècle Transatlantic Romance Fiction (Routledge, 2022) is available now.

This post contains excerpts from the Introduction of Kate’s monograph.

Figure 1. (Left) E. K. Johnson, “I took this cold fragment of mortality in my hand, and looked at it in the light of the lamp with feelings which I cannot describe” from She, A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard in The Graphic, 34, no. 883 (30 October 1886): 469. 
(Right) Charles Kerr, “Holly and Billali” from She, A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912): 110.

Although horrors and wonders exceeding the bounds of human perception and understanding were conventional in late-Victorian and Edwardian romance fictions, the illustrations which appeared beside these marvels suggested that, when it comes to visual paratexts, quite the opposite was thought to be the case. When fin-de-siècleillustrators undertook the task of illuminating moments that novelists left opaque, artworks challenged these wonders’ supposed inexpressibility. Illustrations from many of the most popular and wild-minded fictions published between 1885 and 1920 round out the reader’s aesthetic, narrative, cultural, and emotional experience, and therefore can never be mimetic reflections of authorial intent. 

Both realist and romance fictions were illustrated during the late nineteenth century for their initial serializations, but there is good reason to focus on romance illustrations particularly. The Romance Revival was tremendously visual, not only because of illustration’s ubiquity, but also owing to the type of wonders described. Readers were struck by romance fiction’s spectacles, which profoundly surpassed reader’s lived experiences. Robert Louis Stevenson points to the form’s optic qualities in “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), explaining that a good story must “repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.” (1) Tableaus of wonder made deep and lasting impressions upon audiences. Indeed, Graham Greene notes that H. Rider Haggard’s fictions “fixed pictures in our minds that thirty years have been unable to wear away.” (2)] The illustrations which accompanied these fictions did more than mimetically reproduce romance’s visually impressive supernatural wonders, advanced technologies, violent battles, great feats of heroism, and titillating romantic trysts. By engaging the notion of inexpressibility, these graphic paratexts deepen romance fiction’s plots. 

In H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), for instance, narrator Horace Holly and his adult ward Leo Vincey journey to darkest Africa in search of the immortal and supernaturally powerful Queen Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed. Although wonders and adventures occur throughout, one of the most frequently illustrated portions of She shows Holly pondering a white, mummified foot (see fig. 1). This dismembered and perfectly preserved appendage is all that remains of a beautiful mummy that Billali, the adventurers’ Amahagger guide to Ayesha’s kingdom of Kôr, had become enamored with in his youth. In fact, it was Billali’s mother who burned all but this mummy’s extremity to end her son’s unnatural infatuation. After learning the foot’s remarkable history Holly explains that he, “took this cold fragment of mortality in my hand and looked at it in the light of the lamp with feelings which I cannot describe, so mixed up were they between astonishment, fear, and fascination.” (3) This supernaturally unspoiled foot—its appearance, materiality, and history—resonates so deeply with Haggard’s narrator that verbalizing, or even processing, his complex emotions becomes impossible. It touches on something much deeper than horror or antiquarian interest. Although Haggard leaves the substance of the foot’s mystery open to the interpretation of readers, artists beginning with E. K. Johnson (illustrator for The Graphic and Harper’s Weekly’s serializations), and followed by Charles Kerr (co-illustrator with Maurice Greiffenhagen for the 1888 Longmans, London, book edition), have sought to convey its power and seductiveness. 

What made Haggard’s illustrators not only willing, but also eager, to show a marvel that Haggard will not, and Holly “cannot describe”? Rendering indescribable scenes like this eerie drama in She, but also includingfictional technologies, lands, creatures, peoples, and circumstances graphically allowed these artists to add both concrete detail and greater mystery to these incredible stories. I focus on romance fiction because these texts were visualized despite, or perhaps because, authors explicitly wrestled with ideas of ineffability. Far from being put off by wild visions of terror and wonder, portraying incidents characterized as surpassing the author’s or narrator’s expressive abilities invigorated artists. Whether on purpose or accident, by including indescribable marvels authors granted their illustrators near total liberty to fill in gaps in the reader’s understanding. These unimaginable moments permit word and image to labor hand-in-hand, deepening the audience’s engagement with a text’s more profound themes. 


My monograph Illustration in Fin-de-Siècle Transatlantic Romance Fiction (2022) sets out to investigate the literary, historical, cultural, and aesthetic clues illuminating how images in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-centuryBritish and American romance fiction enabled artists to visualize wonders thought to surpass human description. In the process, I point to the innovative collaborations that authors, illustrators, and publishers forged to describe the ostensibly ineffable. The book is divided into five chapters focusing on a single author, genre, and theme. Each begins with a broad history of illustration within the genre, but then focuses on one canonical late-nineteenth-century author as a case study. Chapter one examines how unimaginable because bygone eras appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson’s historical romances Treasure Island and The Black Arrow. Chapter two examines the pictorially-resistant convention in children’s fiction of expressive animals in Rudyard Kipling’s “Her Majesty’s Servants,” “Toomai of the Elephants,” and “How the Camel Got His Hump” (two stories from The Jungle Books and one from the Just So Stories, respectively). The third chapter explores several indescribably powerful and sexually alluring African women from H. Rider Haggard’s adventure fictions, focusing particularly upon the characters of Nanea from Black Heart and White Heart, Maiwa from Maiwa’s Revenge, and Ayesha as she appears in the She franchise. Chapter four surveys and assesses pictures of incredible technologies from several of H. G. Wells’s fictions, including “In The Abyss,” The War of the WorldsWhen the Sleeper Wakes, and A Story of the Days to Come. Fanciful machines often defy description, either owing to the narrator’s inability to characterize them faithfully, or else because they were too advanced to describe using nineteenth-century analogies. The final chapter examines illustrations that engage the unspeakable horror of cannibalism conducted by and upon supposedly civilized white persons, looking especially at Harper’s Weekly’s serialization of James De Mille’s imperial Gothic romance A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder

Illustration in Fin-de-Siècle Transatlantic Romance Fiction studies illustrations created to enhance romance fiction plots incorporating magic, technology, desire, violence, and other marvels that thwart written representation because these multimodal texts provide illustrators with the dual burden and opportunity of visualizing unspeakable ideas. I endeavor to better understand the complex bonds joining word to image in order to plumb what romance illustrations of indescribable marvels can, and do, accomplish.

(1) H. Rider Haggard, She, ed. Andrew M. Stauffer (Peterborough: Broadview, 2006), 117

(2) Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance,” Longman’s Magazine 1 (November 1882): 69.

(3) Graham Greene, Collected Essays (New York: The Viking Press, 1969), 209.

Printed Afterlives: Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Johnson Arguing’ portrait, 1769

by Miriam Al Jamil

Miriam Al Jamil is an independent researcher, with interests in eighteenth-century sculpture, material culture, and women’s history. She has published reviews and essays on online platforms and in academic journals including the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Studies in Religion and Enlightenment, and Early Modern Women. Her chapter on a Zoffany painting appeared in Antiquity and Enlightenment Culture: New Approaches and Perspectives (Brill, 2020). She is the Fine Arts review editor for BSECS Criticks, chair of the Burney Society UK, and is active in the Johnson Society and Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837. 


One of the best-known portraits of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds entered the collection of the 3rd Duke of Dorset at Knole in Kent after its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1770. Often styled ‘Johnson Arguing’, the portrait rapidly deteriorated, ‘the face cracked, the shadows damaged by bitumen’, due to Reynolds’ experiments with untested media. (1) As a result, the details of the painting are better appreciated from the 1769 mezzotint (figure 1) by James Watson (1740-1790). (2) Mark Hallett notes that ‘Johnson’s portrait offers an especially startling depiction of heightened, active introspection, conveyed most powerfully by his half-closed eyes and by the hands that claw the air as if grappling with, or playing on, an especially complex set of concepts.’ (3) The hands add tension to the portrait, capturing a moment when the whole body engages with a critical point in his thought process. However, the combination of an idealised, classicised Johnsonian face with strangely distorted and twisted hands has troubled commentators ever since it was first shown, the ‘hands raised and bent in a peculiar manner’. (4) Watson’s print is unusual among the variety of subsequent engraved copies featuring the face alone which form the subject of this essay.


Figure 1. James Watson, Samuel Johnson, 1769, mezzotint. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D36536.

The vocabulary of gesture and representation of the passions through facial expression was the subject of illustrated treatises which proliferated from the seventeenth century to inform and guide both artists and actors, lawyers and preachers, all of whom depended on public performance to some extent in their professions. (5) At a popular level, George Alexander Stevens published his ‘A Lecture on Heads’ in 1765, based on his demonstrations which used a range of busts as props to illustrate and satirise popular character stereotypes (see figure 2). 

Figure 2. Thomas Rowlandson after George Murgatroyd Woodward,
Frontispiece, from “A Lecture on Heads” by George Alexander Stevens, 1808, print. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 

Stevens describes ‘The Learned Critic, or Word-grabber’: ‘This is a true classical conjugating countenance, and denotes dictionary dignity […] the ears of this critic are immensely large; they are called trap doors to catch syllables![…] his eyes are half closed; that’s called the Wiseman’s Wink; and shews (sic) he can see the world with half an eye.’ (6) Most interpretations of the half-closed eyes in Johnson’s portraits tend to point either to his disability directly or to his introspection rather than to shrewd engagement with the world. Stevens’ idea poses the possibility of an alternative and artful evaluation of Johnson’s half-closed eyes in the Knole portrait. Johnson might have enjoyed the epithet ‘Wiseman’s wink’.

The most influential contemporary analysis of gesture and appearance was one cited by James Boswell who listed all the known portraits of Johnson in a footnote to his Life of Johnson (1791). (7) These include one published in John Caspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789-98), ‘in which Johnson’s countenance is analysed upon the principles of that fanciful writer’. (8) The Knole portrait provided the most fruitful source for Lavater’s examination of Johnson’s character based on facial expression and physical peculiarities. The engraver Thomas Holloway (1748-1827) furnished many of the 800 illustrations to Henry Hunter’s translation of Lavater of 1789. His three Johnson portraits are pared down and simplified in line, combined on the page to enable subtle interaction in an exploration of the portrait subject (figure 3).

 Figure 3. Lavater, Samuel Johnson: Three Portraits, c.1789. Wellcome Library no. 28706i.

Thomas Holcroft’s translated edition of Lavater’s essays uses another engraving of the Knole portrait which has been divested of its introspective ‘wrestling’ altogether (figure 4). The description adds a further interpretation of Johnson’s expression, ‘the most unpractised eye will easily discover, […] the acute, the comprehensive, the capacious mind, not easily deceived, and rather inclined to suspicion than credulity’. (9) An appended essay in this edition by essayist Helfrich Peter Sturz (1736-1779) asserts that ‘Dr. Johnson had the appearance of a Porter; not the glance of the eye, not any trait of the mouth, speak the man of penetration, or of Science.’ (10) He continues, ‘Can a countenance more tranquilly fine be imagined, one that more possesses the sensibility of understanding, planning, scrutinizing? In the eyebrows, only, and their horizontal position, how great is the expression of profound, exquisite, penetrating understanding!’. (11) For Sturz, the character is belied by his attire. His assessment incorporates his familiarity with anecdotes about Johnson’s habitually dishevelled dress although the print itself does not include any evidence to support his analogy. An imagined substitution for the classical robe of Reynolds’ original painting enables the print to become a convenient signifier of Johnson, the man remembered by his friends.

 
Figure 4. From Lavater, Essays in Physiognomy, translated from the German by Thomas Holcroft. London: Ward, Lock & Co., undated), 17th edition. Plate 1, Nos. 3 and 4, p.33.

The portrait at Knole drew both visitors and copyists. One of these was Ozias Humphry (1742-1810), a skilled miniaturist who received the patronage of the 3rd Duke. He wrote about meeting Johnson sometime between 1764 and 1772: ‘I was very much struck with Mr. Johnson’s appearance, and could hardly help thinking him a madman for some time, as he sat waving over his breakfast like a lunatic. He is a very large man, and was dressed in a dirty brown coat and waistcoat with breeches that were brown also (though they had been crimson), and an old black wig.’ (12) Like  Sturz, Humphry went on to describe how the peculiarities of the man had ill-prepared him for the brilliant intelligence that he then witnessed in action. He painted at least one portrait of Johnson. Boswell listed ‘a beautiful miniature in enamel’ but some of his later work has been lost. (13)

A 1918 biography of Humphry includes a copy of an etching of Johnson’s head taken from the Knole portrait, reputedly based on a drawing by Humphry. The etching is described, ‘From the rare etching after Humphry by Mrs. D. Turner, Original Unknown’. (14) Before 22nd July 2021, the National Portrait Gallery website attributed the print to Mrs. D. Turner, based on this information. This attribution has now been removed, following my query, in favour of Samuel James Bouverie Haydon (1815-1891). (15) However, the NPG continues to list an etching by Mrs. D. Turner c.1825, based on a crayon copy by Humphry but it is not illustrated or part of the gallery’s collection. (16) She did indeed make an etching of Johnson, but it was not the one cited in Humphry’s biography or originally by the NPG.

Mary Dawson Turner was born Mary Palgrave in Norfolk, in 1774. She married the banker, botanist, antiquarian and collector Dawson Turner in 1796, with whom she lived in Great Yarmouth and had eleven children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. (17) Dawson Turner’s extensive collections have received scholarly attention over the years. In the Preface to his Manuscript Library sale of 1859, he is described as ‘an accomplished scholar, a man of very varied attainments, and of accurate observation […], deriving his solace and delight alike from pursuits connected with the fine arts and archaeology’. (18) He arranged tuition in drawing and engraving for Mary and their six daughters whose subsequent industry and dedication to the production of illustrations for his books and projects both amazed and unsettled visitors to their home. Their contributions to his work and reputation have only recently been acknowledged and examined in a collection of essays published in 2007. (19)

The collector’s family life appears close; he loved, respected and was proud of his wife and children. However, I suggest that the intensive application to their studies required of the children and the daily labour of etching from 6.30 in the morning undertaken by Mary and her daughters betokens something more obsessive in an ostensibly benign patriarchal home. Alluding to a visit to London by her daughter Ellen, Mary expressed concern over her rigorous studies, ‘I certainly think that her less comparatively sedentary habits and strenuous application of mind will probably be [more] friendly to her general health than those she addicted herself to at home’. In the same letter, Mary describes one of her own etching subjects as ‘drudgery’ from which she needed ‘some precious rest to the eyes and pleasure to the mind’. (20) This feverish labour is the context in which Mary etched her print of Dr. Johnson.

Dawson Turner’s ‘grangerised’ volumes of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) are all now lost. These consisted of two sets of four volumes which were each made into six large imperial folio volumes, with around 1,700 portrait prints, views of locations mentioned in the text, news cuttings and autographs. It is likely that Mary’s etching of Johnson was destined for one of these volumes. Mary mentions her efforts to complete it in a letter of 1825. The cares of her household and large family and her own fragile health clearly interfered with the relentless etching programme which demanded her attention. She writes, ‘I have been so variously engaged today with perpetual calls for directions to whitewashers, whitesmith masons & etc. that I have not done Dr, Johnson’s head’. (21) An unpublished volume, of which only forty-nine copies were made, One Hundred Etchings by Mrs. Dawson Turner, includes Mary’s etching, ‘Johnson, Samuel LL.D, from a drawing by Ozias Humphry R.A. 1773’. (22) It is a disciplined and technically exact copy which was reproduced in other Dawson Turner print albums.

Figure 5. Mary Dawson Turner, Samuel Johnson, after Ozias Humphry, 1773
The Mother’s Exemplar, being a collection of Etchings, many of them from Original Drawings by Mrs. Dawson Turner and her family
V&A Prints and Drawings, 93 H/19.

In her study of eighteenth and nineteenth century-extra-illustrated books, Lucy Peltz identifies many cases where fathers and daughters undertook such an activity together. In the Turner family, she suggests, it was ‘a domestication of the intellectual sociability of the masculine club’ which gave the daughters ‘access to a traditionally male arena’ and ‘strengthened sentimental bonds between relatives’. (23) Such a bond is evident particularly in correspondence from Harriet Turner to her father which centres on the art she has seen and the subjects she has produced as drawings and etchings. Her enthusiasm is undeniable, but she is passionate and needy, longing for his approval and affection, even after she has married and moved away. (24) The illustrations chosen for inclusion in Turner’s volumes depended largely on the creative production of the Turner women over many years, a more demanding commitment than the leisurely and companionable selection of relevant prints from other sources which is suggested by Peltz’s statement.

The inaccessibility of both Mary Turner’s print and of the lost Humphry drawing upon which it was based led to confusion over the attribution for another print, ostensibly after the same Humphry drawing. Samuel James Bouverie Haydon (1815-1891), print-maker and sculptor, made his etching of Johnson in 1860. Unlike Mary Turner, he did not alter the reverse image. The process of making his print is evident in plates held by the British Museum. He etched an early version on a large 32cm high plate, alongside trial etchings of a bust of John Dickens, a portrait of his daughter and a small landscape (figure 6). (25 ) He then trimmed the portrait down and added an oval frame which was probably close to the format of the original Humphry miniature portrait (figure 7). (26) He later burnished out and replaced the lettering on the earlier plate (figure 8). (27)



Figure 6. Samuel James Bouverie Haydon, etching on copper, c.1860, 320 x 265mm. British Museum, No. 1924,0512.18

Figure 7. Haydon, Portrait Head of Dr. Johnson, c.1860., 174 x 115mm. British Museum, No. 1832,0507.30.

Figure 8. Haydon, Portrait of Samuel Johnson, c.1860, 176 x 116mm, British Museum. No. 1913,0611.122. 

Another print of this final version is the one in the NPG collection (figure 9). (28) A comparison with Mary Turner’s print highlights Haydon’s dense and less formal cross-hatching of the background to deepen the contrast to the face, and his spare treatment of the hair with less expressive line and a consequent lack of movement and flow.


Figure 9. Haydon, Samuel Johnson, National Portrait Gallery, 283 x 203mm, NPG D3158.

The reason that Haydon undertook the etching is not known. He worked at his home in Exeter and in London. (29) He regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1840 until 1876 and combined his traditional artistic practice with the pioneering medium of photography from 1845, when he worked as an assistant to William Fox Talbot. His academy exhibits reflect commissions for civic, ecclesiastical, military and aristocratic portrait busts, classical and sentimental subjects, and paintings of town and country locations. (30) The variety of his subjects point to an artist who adapted to the economic imperatives of the market, and though not universally celebrated, at least he made a living through his craft. The four trial etchings together on his plate summarise the diversity of the media he employed. In this context, Johnson’s head becomes inextricably linked with the cultural and commercial conditions of nineteenth-century London.

Unlike Haydon, Mary Turner and her daughters worked solely on Dawson Turner’s projects, never exhibited their art at public exhibitions and do not appear to have aspired to general artistic recognition. However, Jane Knowles in her essay on the Turner family identifies a hint of regret in one of Elizabeth Turner’s letters, ‘We can copy & that is all. And Mr. Varley’s kind efforts & example have only show’d to prove to us the strong line of demarcation which separates the artist from the draftsman’. (31) Knowles suggests that Dawson Turner regarded them as copyists, as merely ‘artistic’ rather than ‘artists’, who were never expected to develop an individual style. Maurice H. Grant, in his  A Dictionary of British Etchers (1952) is dismissive about Mary, ‘all competent little Plates without much finesse but firmly etched somewhat in the Netherlands tradition’. (32) Likewise, his entries for the Turner daughters are perfunctory, ‘They chiefly employed themselves in copying the sketches of J.S. Cotman, their instructor, but their several works are not now distinguishable’. (33) A recent dictionary of print-makers does not include etchers so fails to mention the Turners at all. (34) It is not surprising that Mary Turner’s etching of Johnson has been forced back into obscurity and inaccessibility and her name incorrectly attached to another artist’s work. Technical skill and a trained eye are no substitute for creative response.

Footnotes

(1) David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings (New Haven: The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2000), no. 1012, p.280.

(2) See Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven: The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press, 2014), p.242; James Watson, Samuel Johnson, 10 July 1769, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D36536; see entry for James Watson in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-28840?rskey=u5GJ4E&result=4 [accessed 18 November, 2021].

(3) Hallett, p.244.

(4) Edward Hamilton, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Engraved Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A, from 1755 to 1820 (London: Colnaghi & Co., 1874), p.32.

(5) For a full discussion of available treatises, see Adam Kendon, Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Chapter 3.

(6) George Alexander Stevens, The Celebrated Lecture on Heads, which has been exhibited upwards of One Hundred Successive Nights, To Crouded Audiences, and Met with the most Universal Applause (London: Richard Bond, 1765), Part III, p.15.

(7) James Boswell, Life of Johnson unabridged (Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Monday 20 December, 1784, p.1395, footnote 1.

(8) Johann Caspar Lavater, Essays on physiognomy; designed to promote the knowledge and the   love of mankind, Illustrated by more than eight hundred engravings accurately copied; and some duplicates added from originals. Executed by, or under the inspection of Thomas Holloway. Translated from the French by Henry Hunter (London: John Murray [etc.], 1789-98), 5 Vols.; https://wellcomecollection.org/works/yffvbzu5 [accessed 18 November, 2021].

(9) Essays on Physiognomy: translated from the German of John Caspar Lavater, by Thomas Holcroft. Also One Hundred Physiognomical Rules, taken from a posthumous work by J.C. Lavater; and a Memoir of the Author, seventeenth edition; Illustrated with upwards of four hundred profiles (London: Ward, Lock & Co., undated), p.33.

(10) Ibid., p.257.

(11) Ibid., p.258.

(12) Quoted from letter, private collection, in George C. Williamson, Life and Works of Ozias Humphry, RA (London: John Lane, 1918), p.87.

(13) Boswell, p.1395, footnote 1.

(14) Williamson, List of Illustrations, p.xiv, and facing p.88.

(15) National Portrait Gallery, NPG D3158.

(16) See National Portrait Gallery, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitExtended/mw03492/Samuel-Johnson#ref4  [accessed 12 October, 2021].

(17) Mary Dawson Turner (1774-1850), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Dawson_Turner  [accessed 12 October, 2021]; see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Turner, Dawson (1775-1858), https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-27846 [accessed 12 October, 2021].

(18) Catalogue of the Important Manuscript Library of the late Dawson Turner, esq., formerly of Yarmouth […] to be sold by auction on Monday, June 6th, and following days’, Messrs. Puttick & Simpson, Auctioneers of Literary Property, 47 Leicester Sq., 1859, p.xvi.

(19) Nigel Goodman, ed., Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007).

(20) Trinity College Library, Cambridge, Dawson Turner Correspondence, Turner III, A33/42, Mary Turner to Dawson Turner, 5 April 1832.

(21) Dawson Turner Correspondence, Turner III, letter from Mary Turner, 19 April 1825.

(22) Turner, One Hundred Etchings by Mrs. Dawson Turner, Not published, [1830], British Library; other copies discussed by Warren R. Dawson, ‘A Bibliography of the Printed Works of Dawson Turner’, in Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, (3:3, 1961), pp.232-256, 242.

(23) Lucy Peltz, Facing the Text: Extra-illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769-1840 (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 2017), p.313.

(24) See especially Dawson Turner Correspondence, Turner III, A8/1-35 Harriet Turner (Gunn) to Dawson Turner.

(25) Samuel James Bouverie Haydon, etching on copper, c.1860, 320 x 265mm, British Museum, No. 1924,0512.18 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1924-0512-18 [accessed 29 October, 2021].

(26) Haydon, Portrait Head of Dr. Johnson, c.1860, 174 x 115mm, British Museum, No. 1832,0507.30 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1932-0507-30 [accessed 29 October, 2021].

(27) Haydon, Portrait of Samuel Johnson, c.1860, 176 x 116mm, British Museum, No. 1913,0611.122 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1913-0611-122 [accessed  29 October, 2021].

(28) Haydon, Samuel Johnson, National Portrait Gallery, 283 x 203mm, PG D3158. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw37354/Samuel-Johnson?LinkID=mp02446&wPage=1&role=sit&rNo=39 [accessed 29 October, 2021]. My thanks to British Museum curator Hugo Chapman and National Portrait Gallery curator Paul Cox.

(29) For biographical details, see Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, 1851-1951:https://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=msib7_1218129055 [accessed 7 November, 2021].

(30) See entries in The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018https://chronicle250.com/1840#catalogue [accessed 7 November, 2021].

(31) Elizabeth Turner, quoted in Jane Knowles, ‘A Tasteful Occupation? The Work of Maria, Elizabeth, Mary Anne, Harriet, Hannah, Sarah and Ellen Turner’, in Nigel Goodman, Dawson Turner, pp.123-140, p.136; reference is to John Varley, artist (1778-1842), acquaintance of the family.

(32) Col. Maurice Harold Grant, A Dictionary of British Etchers (London: Rockliff, 1952), p.207.

(33) Ibid., p. 208.

(34) See David Alexander, A Biographical Dictionary of British and Irish Engravers, 1714-1820 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021). Crome, Cotman and Varley, all associated with Dawson Turner, are included.

Introduction, Twitter launch and Call for Contributions

Hello and a very happy New Year to all members of the Romantic Illustration Network! My name is Katie Snow and I’m pleased to be the new web lead for the RIN. Lots has been happening behind the scenes at RIN, and in this post I’ll introduce myself, share our new Twitter account, and encourage submissions to the blog.

My work is best described as a mix of medical and art history; I use visual sources to explore attitudes towards bodies, gender and sexuality. At present, my research is focused on how the body – and especially its intimate parts – are politicised in British caricature. I’m writing my first monograph, Satirising the Breast, having been awarded a PhD on representations of breasts in Georgian satirical prints in the summer of 2021. I’m looking forward to seeing how my involvement with the RIN shapes my project, and would love to hear from members with similar interests.

For those of you who are active on social media, we’ve recently launched a RIN Twitter account which will act as a hub for exchanging ideas, sharing news and celebrating work. To help spread the news of our joining, please follow the account here, retweet posts and tag the RIN in items you think might be of interest to members. 

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll also be updating this website with information about upcoming events, partnerships and relevant publications, as well as sharing useful links to research, cultural and pedagogical platforms. Please get in touch if you would like to be added as a Member, have any suggestions for material to be included or if you would like to recommend a book or article to be added to the Bibliography page (don’t be shy about sharing your own!). 

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to invite ongoing contributions to the RIN blog. We welcome anything which might interest our diverse network of members: posts might, for example, take the form of a review of an event, text or media item; an exploration of a primary source; or serve as an introduction to a new research project. All topics related to visual culture in the Romantic period will be considered. The RIN endorses a broad definition of illustration, welcoming interdisciplinary approaches and international perspectives which bring together scholars working on poetry, prose, the printed book, paintings and other visual materials from roughly 1750-1850. Published posts will be shared on Twitter, as well as directly with our network members and partners. As an illustration network we are particularly keen to reinstate our popular Image of the Month series, which spotlights paintings, prints and other illustrations. Posts typically range from 500-3000 words. Previous Image of the Month publications can be viewed here: https://romanticillustrationnetwork.com/category/image-of-the-month/.

As the year unfolds, I hope you will consider submitting your suggestions and ideas to the RIN, and contribute to the exciting ongoing conversations in the field of Romantic visual culture. I’ll leave you with this satirical print of a young French man, whose festive extravagances catch up with him as creditors, rather than friends, come a-calling on the morning of New Year’s Day 1815…

Please get in touch with me at ks596@exeter.ac.uk

Les Visites du Jour de l’An (The New Year’s Day Visits). 1814. British Museum, Museum no. 2001,0520.72.