Women in Print: Two New Volumes Examining Women’s Impact on Print Culture


Rose Roberto

Rose Roberto is a part-time Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Teaching Resources Librarian at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. Her masters in library and information science is from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her PhD in history of the book is from the University of Reading. Her current research examines the intersection of visual culture and educational publishing, and the hidden histories related to race, gender and class embedded in the material culture of the transnational book trade during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She was series editor for the Art Researches’ Guides ’to different cities in the UK and Ireland (2011–2017), and a contributor to the award-winning Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Vol. 2 (Finkelstein, 2020), and Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century (Delamaire and Slauter, 2021). She is a Fellow of the HEA. 

Back in September 2018, when I should have been concentrating on finalizing my PhD thesis due two weeks later, I participated in a conference held at the University of Birmingham entitled, ‘Women in Print.’ The event saw scholars present research on historical women and their impact on the printing and publishing trades, as well as on print culture in general.  Unfortunately, the majority of women we discussed had names that are not well-known today because subsequent narratives of them in the historical record either neglected and undervalued their work, or deliberately obscured them. Most of us who attended this conference were impressed by the level of scholarship that had been conducted, and plans were made the following year to publish Women in Print, a collection of essays in two related volumes. In 2022, these volumes were issued as part of the ‘Printing History and Culture’ series published by Peter Lang.

Women in Print 2: Production, Distribution and Consumption and Women in Print 1: Design and Identities

The first volume co-edited by Artemis Alexiou (York St John University) and myself, will be of particular interest for members of the Romantic Illustration Network. Women in Print 1: Design and Identities contains eleven chapters incorporating case studies of design aspects of a printed work, or more broadly about design issues related to the business of publishing. It also contains chapters focused on specific individuals and their career as female artists, compositors, editors, engravers, photographers, printers, publishers, scribes, stationers, typesetters, widows-in-business, and writers. It offers an examination of women as active participants and contributors in the many and varied aspects of design and print culture, including the production of illustrations, typefaces, periodical layouts, photographic prints and bound works. Several of the women profiled in this volume lived and worked during the Romantic period, roughly between 1750 and  1850. This volume covers the visual material that they produced.

The second related volume, Women in Print 2: Production, Distribution and Consumption contains chapters covering professional relationships between two or more women or a business network in which aspects of their roles in production, distribution and consumption of the printing trade are explored and further analysed. It was co-edited by Caroline Archer-Parré of Birmingham City University and Christine Moog of the Parsons School of Design in New York. Series editor John Hinks is also credited because of his work organising the conference and guiding the manuscripts through delays, mainly caused by two years of a world-wide pandemic, to publication.

My own chapter, ‘Working Women: Female Contributors to Chambers’s Encyclopaedia’ appears as Chapter 6 in this related volume. My search for women authors through time and through archives (spanning Philadelphia to Edinburgh, and London to Manchester) led me to discover some twenty-five female encyclopaedia contributors. As well as considering these women, my chapter traces the evolving process throughout the 1800s whereby the status of women as professionals in various fields developed. Like museums, encyclopaedia are heavily curated through a selection of topics, encapsulating a specific time, place and world-view. They also reflect evidence of particular narratives of history, science and culture. Since the Scottish publishing firm, W. & R. Chambers was significant, their edited works and attitudes are good indicators of the status quo for publishers of the time. 

Various volumes from both the first and second editions of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia at Chetham’s Library, Manchester. Photo by Rose Roberto.

Although I could not cover all twenty-five contributors in my chapter, ‘Working Women’ does highlight the writings of six authors found in different editions of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, first published between 1859 to 1868, and 1888 through 1892.  Three encyclopaedia entry authors, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), and Carrie Burnham Kilgore (1838-1909), are well-known in their fields of nursing and mathematics, and as advocates for women’s rights and women’s higher education, respectively. Three other writers are from an earlier period and are less-known, but made a living from their writing. Isa Craig Knox (1831-1903) is considered a late, minor Romantic period poet;  Lucy Cumming Smith (1818-1881) and Elise Otté (1818-1903) both translated history and literature and were published authors. My chapter briefly summarises the lives of these six women and their relationship with publishers, notably the relationship with the Chambers publishing firm. I highlight how they were commissioned to write encyclopaedia entries and contrast the fact that Craig Knox, Cumming Smith, and Otté were hired more on account of their writing and translating skills, whereas Garrett Fawcett, Kilgore and Nightingale were commissioned for their subject expertise. Clearly both groups of women were all capable writers and subject experts, but their commissions expose how publishers had different priorities and criteria with regards to employing women at the beginning of the nineteenth century and towards its close.

The chapter also reflects my fascination with the social networks each woman developed throughout her life. In the case of Nightingale, her professional relationship with Sir Douglas Galton (1822-1899) was the reason that W. & R. Chambers had contact with her. There are numerous stories of women and their work in both volumes of Women in Print. The volumes provide a fresh perspective on well and lesser-known women, spotlighting their individual involvement with the printing and publishing trade. Volume one makes an effort to discuss gender, class, and sexuality as a means of expanding knowledge and understanding of intersectional design practices, whilst volume two’s essays focus on women involved in on the business side of publishing, namely as producers and distributors operating through extensive business networks.  It also examines women’s consumption of printed material.

Together, these collections of essays show that women were always present and have been actively involved in numerous fields across print culture. While most histories until the last forty to fifty years often treat women’s histories ‘as outstanding anomalies’ in cultural and professional fields dominated by men, the aim of the scholarship here is to approach the lives of women – and writing about their lives – as part of a process which reveals complex individual histories. (1) We hope you take the opportunity to read Women in Print and will encourage your library to purchase the volumes. 


The second blog post in this series is by Hannah Lyons, Assistant Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. Hannah shares excerpts from her chapter on the print and publishing life of Letitia Byrne, another wonderful contribution to Women In Print Volume 1. The piece can be read here: https://romanticillustrationnetwork.com/2023/01/25/women-printmakers-in-the-eighteenth-century-exploring-the-print-and-publishing-life-of-letitia-byrne-in-women-in-print/

(1) Alexiou and Roberto, “Introduction” in Women In Print 1 (2022, p.3)

Women Printmakers in the Eighteenth Century: exploring the print and publishing life of Letitia Byrne in Women in Print

Hannah Lyons

Hannah Lyons is Assistant Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. She undertook her MA at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York, and her PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her thesis was titled: ‘“exercising the ART as a TRADE”: Professional Women Printmakers in London, 1750-1850’. Previously she has worked at Tate Britain and Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.

This post contains excerpts from Hannah’s chapter ‘Letitia Byrne (1779-1849) and the “prejudice against employing women as engravers”’ in Women in Print 1: Design and Identities.

In the West End of London, running north between Oxford Street and Great Portland Street, lies the half-mile stretch known as Great Titchfield Street. Now thronged with expensive restaurants, media companies, and the occasional, historic garment store, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Great Titchfield Street was the home to several artists families. Among the residents were the Scheemakers’ (sculptors, at No.18); the Bartolozzis’ (printmakers and printsellers, at No.81), the Rigauds’ (painters, at No.101), and, of particular interest to me, the Byrne family of engravers (at No.85). (1)

I was 2.5 miles from Great Titchfield Street, in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the V&A in South Kensington, when I first encountered the Byrne family. I was a few months into my PhD research, sifting through solander box after solander box with only a 1970s typewritten list of object references as a guide, when I came across this print, clearly signed ‘Etched by Letitia Byrne’. The print was a fine topographical etching, made by a highly capable hand, after a drawing by the painter, George Samuel (fl.1785-1823).

Letitia Byrne, after George Samuel, A Cross at Clearwell, Gloucestershire, engraving with etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, E.609-1966.

As I outline in my chapter published in Women in Print 1: Design and Identities, co-edited by Rose Roberto and Artemis Alexiou, I was quick to realise that Letitia Byrne’s extensive career (which I discovered spanned over fifty years), has been poorly documented. The information that I began to garner about her role and status within the burgeoning British art world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was primarily obtained through historical accounts that focus on her male relatives: her father, William Byrne (1743-1805), and her younger brother, John Byrne (1786-1847).

Indeed, despite the vast literature that exists on print culture, there are very few publications dedicated to those women – like Letitia Byrne – who worked in this historically male preserve, usually via familial and workshop networks, particularly those practicing in Britain in the long eighteenth century. (2) In recent years, as members of the Romantic Illustration Network will be aware, specialists have acknowledged that men and women played significant roles in the print trade. Antony Griffiths explains when discussing his methodology for his seminal book, The Print Before Photography (2016): ‘I have also abbreviated by referring to engravers, artists, and collectors as “he” rather than “he or she”, which would be more accurate.’ (3)

Aligned with, but separate from this, is the treatment of women printmakers in feminist art historical scholarship. Although feminist scholars have made important and significant progress in reconstructing the careers and output of women artists, this attention has largely focused on women working in media typically held in higher regard than print, such as painting and sculpture. The output of women artists such as Letitia Byrne, who made their living creating ‘reproductive’ prints, has been overlooked in favour of recovering and reconstructing the lives of women who created ‘original’ works of art. Women printmakers who made reproductive prints, then, have been triply marginalised in art historical scholarship because of their gender, their choice of media, and their seemingly uncreative work.

As outlined in Rose Roberto’s recent RIN blog, writing a chapter for Women in Print allowed me to dive deeper into Letitia Byrne’s lifecycle and examine her role and status in the British art world, as well as her prolific output. What I discovered was that Byrne lived as a young girl on Great Titchfield Street, where she was trained by her father, the engraver, William Byrne. William was one of those British printmakers who had witnessed and participated in London’s transition from a market of continental imports and artistic obscurity in the early half of the eighteenth century, to its dominance of the international print market, becoming the most important centre for the production of new prints. It was in the traditional setting of his family home-cum-workshop that William taught all his five children (four girls and one boy) the techniques of etching and engraving.

By 1795, aged only fourteen or fifteen years old, Letitia Byrne was co-authoring prints with her father. She started exhibiting topographical and landscape watercolours at the Royal Academy of Arts, and she undertook engraving commissions from larger print publishers such as Cadell and Davies. My chapter covers her career, from the circulation of her prints to her personal and professional connections with artists and patrons. As Roberta and Alexiou point out in their Introduction, my chapter uses Letitia Byrne as a lens onto ‘the practical realities of living in a male-centered society … revealing the difficult decisions the female members had to make when assuming leadership and wage earning roles.’ (4)

Letitia Byrne, after John Byrne, Frogmore, Windsor, engraving with etching, published by WB Cooke, 9 Soho Square, and John Byrne, 54 Upper John Street, Soho. London October 1 1823. © Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 700903.

For those of you who are interested in reading more about Byrne’s overlooked but extensive output, do consult Women in Print, where several other fascinating case studies of women’s multilayered engagement with print culture can be found. And for those of you in London who would like to see some of Byrne’s exquisite prints in the flesh, ‘Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700-1930’ is a free display currently at the V&A drawn from my PhD research: Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700 – 1930 – Display at South Kensington · V&A (vam.ac.uk) (open until 1 May 2023). Spanning more than two centuries, this display highlights around 80 prints made by 18 different women printmakers, all from the museum’s collection. It reveals the diverse challenges and opportunities that these women faced. And crucially, it hopefully communicates to the general public how these artists shared in the long struggle for status in an art world that has too often seen print as a secondary, primarily reproductive medium.

Though the marketing title evokes the famous work of a rather well-known woman author, it is also a reference to Letitia Byrne’s complaint that she experienced: ‘a prejudice against employing female engravers.’ (5) It is hoped that this chapter, and the concurrent display, can bring Letitia Byrne’s life and work to both familiar and unfamiliar audiences.

Installation image of ‘Print and Prejudice: Women Printmakers, 1700-1930’ at the V&A, South Kensington (1 November 2022 – 1 May 2023). © Hannah Lyons.

(1) Chapter 23 – Great Titchfield Street’ in Philip Temple and Andrew Saint, eds., South-East Marylebone (New Haven: Published for the Bartlett School of Architecture by Yale University Press, 2017), p.36.  

(2) An important exception is David Alexander’s work on this subject.

(3) Antony Griffiths, The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550-1820 (London: The British Museum Press, 2016), p.12.

(4) Rose Roberto and Alexi Alexiou, eds., Women in Print: Design and Identities, Volume 1 (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2022), p.5.

(5) Joseph Farington, Diary, 19 January 1819.

‘One More Unfortunate’: How Illustrations of Thomas Hood’s ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ shaped attitudes towards Waterloo Bridge Suicides in the Victorian Era


by Cecilia Neil-Smith

Cecilia is entering her second year of PhD study in Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter. Her project focuses on mermaids and sirens as figures of indeterminate gender in the art and literature of the late Victorian Era. Having previously studied English (BA) and Victorian Literature, Art and Culture (MA) at Royal Holloway, University of London, Cecilia took a break from academia and taught English in a secondary school in London for a year, before returning to pursue a PhD.

During the Victorian era there was a host of images and literature addressing the issue of the famous ‘Waterloo suicides’. Sparked by Thomas Hood’s ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in 1844, the interest in depicting fallen women leaping from the bridge was taken up by writers such as Charles Dickens and James Greenwood, and many eminent artists including Frederick Watts, Augustus Egg, John Millais and Gustav Doré. What most representations had in common was a tendency to romanticise the demise of such women with thematic motifs, such as the idea that the suicide victims were motivated by lunacy or love. However, crucially, they all in some respect used the setting of Waterloo Bridge to highlight the moral judgement placed upon fallen women at the time. I intend to focus on two depictions of scenes from Hood’s famous poem, John Everett Millais’ The Bridge of Sighs (1858) [see Fig. 1] and Gustav Doré’s One More Unfortunate (1870) [See Fig. 2]. I hope to demonstrate, through the use of these images, that despite changes in the law and a better social understanding of the causes of prostitution, judgemental, romanticised notions of prostitute suicide prevailed over truthful renditions of the hardships of London’s sex workers. The river, the landmark of St Paul’s Cathedral (a symbol of Christian virtue), and the bridge itself, all acted as visual markers in reflecting and shaping condemnatory attitudes towards the city’s prostitutes and their supposedly inevitable deaths.  

Fig. 1. John Everett Millais, The Bridge of Sighs, 1858, etching on paper, 117 x 93mm, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Source: V&A Collection.
Fig. 2. Gustav Doré, One More Unfortunate,  1870, Wood engraving, 431 x 482 mm, The British Library, London. Source: The British Library Collection.

The publication of Hood’s 1844 poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ was a pivotal moment in establishing public interest in the ‘Waterloo suicides’, and set up key themes and motifs that were to be found in subsequent representations addressing the same topic throughout the century. The ballad focussed on a fallen woman who had drowned herself by leaping from Waterloo Bridge, combining speculation as to the tragically sinful life she might have led with the symbolic notion that the river had cleansed her of her impurities. It was said to be inspired by the heavily publicised case of Mary Furley, which occurred only a few weeks before the poem was composed; Mary was a poor seamstress who attempted to drown herself and her two young children in The Regent’s Canal. She succeeded in drowning one child before she was rescued from the water and arrested; she was sentenced to hang but public sympathy for her act of desperation resulted in a lesser sentence of seven years of transportation. The case was heavily documented in the press, with the Punch describing it in melodramatic terms as an event which ‘had sent a shuddering horror through the heart of the kingdom’. (1)  Hood saw his chance to take advantage of the sudden public interest in the suicides of fallen women. He released ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in his monthly journal Hood’s Magazine and Comic Miscellany, and though the magazine until this point had been far from popular, this particular edition flew off the shelves. The poem ‘caused a sensation’ and was received to great acclaim: it was ‘enormously popular and influential’, and Robert Browning even claimed that the work was ‘alone in its generation’ in terms of capturing the hearts of a nation. However, though in part inspired by the incident at the Regent’s Canal, much of the poem’s success is owed to Hood’s divergence from Mary Furley’s case. (2) He promoted false ideas about prostitution, suicide and Waterloo bridge itself in his work, suggesting that women leapt due to love or lunacy, and that they did so frequently from his chosen location.

One of the key differences between Mary Furley’s case and ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ is that Hood’s protagonist is a prostitute, rather than a seamstress, placing her firmly into the category of fallen women. She has no child with her to force death upon, but she is already tainted by sin:

Owning her weakness,

Her evil behaviour,

And leaving, with meekness,

Her sins to her Saviour! (3)

Her profession is not explicitly referred to, but allusions to her ‘weakness’ and ‘evil behaviour’ condemn her as a fallen woman, whilst her ‘meekness’ in sacrificing her life is regarded as praiseworthy: it is heavily implied that it is better to die than live a life of sin. The term ‘fallen woman’ could at the time incorporate unmarried women and adulterous wives, but was largely used to refer to the mass of street-walkers found in this part of London. It is therefore safe to assume that Hood’s troubled female is one of the 80,000 prostitutes that were said to inhabit the capital during the 1840s. (4) He does not name her, and does not go into the details of her life or backstory as an individual, allowing her to become a representative figure for a whole community of London sex-workers, about which so little was known:

Who was her father ?
Who was her mother ?
Had she a sister ?
Had she a brother ?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all others ? (5)

This string of questions leaves the lady in question’s past open-ended, addressing the many possibilities that could have led the nameless woman to such a death. Hood was thus able to romanticise his protagonist’s potential reasons for such a leap in his endless speculations, here mentioning the possibility of a lover or, as he puts it, a ‘dearer one … than all others’. The idea of a woman throwing herself into the river, having had her heart broken by a male lover, was one that captured the Victorian imagination: among other nicknames, including ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, after Hood’s poem, and ‘The Arch of Suicide’, Waterloo Bridge was also referred to as ‘Lover’s Leap’ on account of such a notion. (6) The romantic narrative promoted by Hood had bled into the general terminology of the time, conflating myths with reality. Allowing themselves to perceive the poem as a piece of fiction absolves readers of any guilt they may feel in allowing these women to come to such an end. They like to imagine women jumping to their deaths from a broken heart, but would not want to face the fact that these women were committing suicide due to the flaws of their own society: terrible conditions in workhouses and factories led the poor to seek alternative employment, and many contracted venereal disease or simply did not have enough to live on. Their suicides were acts of desperation to escape a life full of hardships that were not addressed by society or the law. 

Another fancy that Hood encouraged was the possibility that, rather than acts of desperation or of love, female suicides could be a result of insanity. In his epigraph he quotes Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, exclaiming that Hamlet’s former lover Ophelia is ‘Drowned, Drowned!’. Ophelia is most famous for her madness, and it is this that leads to her suicide; such a reference implies that Hood’s protagonist is also suffering from the ‘female malady’, and like Ophelia is driven to drown herself by her lunacy. (7) Later in the poem he returns to the idea, mentioning her ‘burning insanity’, implying that it was a strong ‘burning’ force in her decision to plunge into the Thames. She is described as ‘mad from life’s history’, and Edgar Allen Poe even goes so far as to suggest that the unusually fast-paced, almost cheery rhythm juxtaposed with the serious contemplation of death is, itself, a sign of madness:

The versification, although carrying the fanciful to the verge of the fantastic, is nevertheless admirably adapted to the wild insanity which is the thesis of the poem. (8)

To claim that insanity is the ‘thesis of the poem’ is a bold statement, considering the many other themes incorporated, but there is truth in the fact that suicide and insanity were perceived to be closely related. By the 1830s, coroner’s juries had begun to exploit a loophole in the law and found more and more suicides ‘temporarily insane’. (9) Without such a verdict, all the property of a suicide victim would revert to the Crown rather than to the victim’s family, because self-murder, as it was then termed, was seen as an immoral crime that ought to bring shame upon the family name. However, if the individual was pronounced to be ‘temporarily insane’ they were deemed to have committed the crime unknowingly, whilst not in their right mind, and therefore any possessions reverted to the family.  Gates tells us that middle-class families in particular ‘took pains to conceal self-destruction’, often involving doctors in cover-ups to push for an insanity plea, due in part to the financial benefit but also to protect their pride. (10) Though it was frowned upon to have a case of insanity in the family, it was far worse to have a proven intentional self-murder. Therefore suicide and insanity were often claimed to be inherently linked, and Hood feeds the assumption by presenting his suicide victim as a troubled Ophelia. However, though endorsed by suicide cover ups and romantic notions, the idea that women jumped to their deaths from a broken heart or from an addled mind was ludicrous. It may have eased the guilty consciences of a self-absorbed society and provided a more thrilling narrative, but the truth was, as Julie Matthias aptly summarises,

Suicide was the result of systematic and institutional failings in society brought about by rapid change rather than due to the pathology of a discreet individual. (11)

In fact, as true as it was that women were unlikely to commit suicide as a result of insanity, it was also true that women were unlikely to commit suicide at all. The implication that Hood’s fallen woman was simply ‘one more unfortunate’ in a long line of prostitute suicides was simply not the case. Though there were a few documented instances of such an occurrence, men were almost four times as likely to commit suicide in the capital than women, and of the few women who did take their own lives, few engaged in prostitution. (12) William Acton’s 1857 study entitled Prostitution: Considered in Its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects discovered that prostitution was generally a temporary solution to a sudden decline in social and financial circumstances, after which women would return to more respectable occupations:

Acton had found plenty of evidence to show that prostitution was a transitory state. Otherwise, he argued, where on earth did all those women go?[…] They were not all struck down in mid-career by suicide, alcoholism or venereal disease[…]After a maximum of four years, any sensible woman by then would have made a ‘dash at respectability by marriage’ or sunk her savings into a milliner’s shop or a lodging house. Emigration to the colonies, with the promise of a fresh start, was also a popular choice. (13)

However, through his depiction of prostitute suicide, Hood cements the falsehood into the Victorian psyche that prostitution always ends in death. As Catherine Arnold points out, ‘the popular notion was that a fallen woman was always fallen’, and there was no coming back from such a lifestyle. Hood was by no means the first writer to propose such a view (14). In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837), for instance, prostitute Nancy expresses her belief that she is certain to die, drowning herself in the Thames, as a result of her immoral ways:

“I am chained to my old life. I loathe and hate it now, but I cannot leave it. I […] have gone too far to turn back. Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them […]  It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.” (15)

As advocated by Dickens and Hood, it was assumed that to live such a life of sin must have fatal consequences, as a punishment for such deviance from morality. Judith Walkowitz claimed that ‘the overarching Victorian belief about fallen women, and specifically prostitutes, was that ‘the wages of sin was death’. (16) Despite the inauthenticity of such a claim, Hood did nothing but encourage this idea from the very first verse of his poem: 

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death ! (17)

However, arguably the poem’s most influential promoted falsehood was the location itself. Whilst Mary Furley’s attempt to drown herself took place in the Regent’s Canal, Hood notably moves his suicide to Waterloo Bridge – a place in the centre of the city, in the shadow of the iconic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Aesthetically and architecturally it had been described as ‘the finest bridge in the city,’ and it therefore provided a far more symbolic and conspicuous site for such an act, drawing the woman’s plight to the heart of the capital where it could neither be ignored nor forgotten. (18) The bridge had in fact already gained a reputation for female suicide: the fact that it was a toll bridge meant that it was not as busy as other bridges in the city, and the privacy this afforded allowed women to complete the deed undisturbed, and with greater chance of success. There was indeed a spike in deaths at the bridge at one time. In 1840 around 30 women had leapt from the parapet, accounting for approximately 15% of all registered London suicides in that year. (19) However, this statistic is an anomaly in relation to the general frequency of suicides there. Though the location did boast a few suicides, its reputation became vastly exaggerated in light of Hood’s poem. Westminster and Blackfriars were equally common sites, but none were as popular as the lake in Hyde Park. According to L.J. Nicoletti, ‘far more suicides took place in the Serpentine than from Waterloo Bridge’, and thus Waterloo’s reputation was wholly ‘undeserved’. (20) In fact, it was such a problem in London’s most frequented park that preventative measures were put in place by the 1860s:

Wooden platforms were added to the Society’s boats on the Serpentine in 1861, allowing resuscitation to begin immediately after a body was recovered. (21)

This may have had much to do with the fact that the lake, unlike the bridges of the Thames, was unmanned. At Waterloo, as described by Charles Dickens and James Greenwood in their accounts of London night walks, toll masters were employed through the night to stop such acts taking place and policemen were frequent visitors. However, Hood’s desire to address ‘Waterloo and its suicides’ (22) heightened the bridge’s dark reputation and sparked an obsession with the site within the arts:

Because of the success of the poem, Waterloo and its suicides acquired mythic status. The poet’s combined imagery of a fair, forsaken woman, the ‘dark arch’ of Waterloo bridge, and ‘the black flowing river’ was incorporated into representations of prostitution throughout the century by visual artists influenced by the familiar work. (23)

The ‘mythic status’ Hood had given Waterloo’s suicides was just that – mythic, without substance or substantiation. 

Therefore, Hood’s decision to use such a venue, rather than originating in truth, was more due to the fact that the bridge, in relation to his subject matter, held both geographical, symbolic and religious significance. It would seem a convenient spot for a prostitute suicide, as it was in the heart of the streetwalking district, known affectionately to some gentlemen as ‘Whoreterloo’. (24) Many prostitutes had lodgings south of the river along the streets of Lambeth, which were renowned for housing hundreds, if not thousands, of young girls in crowded conditions. When they were ‘on the game’, these women would travel across Waterloo Bridge in the evening to the busy theatres and music halls of the Haymarket, where they could attract gentleman clients; on their journey home, they would have to travel back across the bridge to their lodgings. (25) This meant that the bridge itself was therefore the focal point of their route, lying between the wealthy high-life they had caught a glimpse of in Westminster and their own unpleasant lodging houses to the south – a bridge, both literally and metaphorically, from one way of life to another. It was a passage from what might have been to their current reality, or as Linda Nochlin puts it, from ‘virginal past to fallen present’. (26) Such a place would therefore seem a fitting precipice for prostitute suicide in the Victorian imagination:  

The Bridge of Sighs’ crystallized the middle-class notion of Waterloo Bridge, linking sordid Lambeth with opulent Westminster, as being the most likely edifice in London from which repentant prostitutes seeking a watery grave would leap. (27)

It was believable, aesthetic, melodramatic and, of course, romantic – the perfect combination of attributes to appeal to a Victorian middle-class readership.


The legacy of ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ gained momentum as the century wore on, but changed little, despite shifts in societal and legal attitudes towards prostitution. Josephine Butler, an eminent feminist activist, launched a campaign to improve conditions for prostitutes and to get them into respectable work. She launched the Social Purity Alliance, which encouraged men to abstain from prostitution, and exposed men’s part in the spread of venereal disease. By highlighting the difficulties of sex-workers, she evoked some sympathy for their plight, which bled into the art of the period. However, not everyone wanted their poorer counterparts on their conscience. The moralistic tone of the paintings of the late 1840s onwards– all notably painted by men with little knowledge or feeling of the group of individuals they depicted – acted to absolve their audience of any guilt. Spectators did not want to see gruesome workhouses or depictions of poverty; they wished to cling to some, albeit not all, of the myths established by Thomas Hood, and therefore continue through life with a clear conscience by blaming the women for their immoral ways. 

Interest in prostitute suicide became more and more pronounced, and artists, writers and directors took advantage of the trend. Charles Selby’s London by Night, first performed in 1844, and W. T. Moncrieff’s The Scamps of Londonwere both west end hits which ran throughout the 40s, and which had an actress playing a fallen woman who commits suicide by leaping from a bridge. Both were extremely popular; audiences loved to watch dramatic and romanticised renderings of real-life tragedies in the city in which they supposedly take place on a nightly basis. George Cruikshanks’ The Drunkard’s Children appeared in 1848 – a series of etchings telling the tale of a girl and boy left destitute by their father’s alcoholism, which ends in the young girl leaping from Waterloo Bridge in despair. However, it was not until the 1850s and 60s that the topic achieved its climax in popularity within the art and literary worlds. With Millais’ Ophelia (1852), Dickens’ ‘Down with the Tide’ (1853), Egg’s Past and Present (1858) and Watts’ Found Drowned (painted in 1848 but exhibited in 1862), the subject of female suicide by drowning was constantly present in the minds of consumers. 

Augustus Egg’s triptych Past and Present [see Fig. 3] tells the story of an adulterous wife who is cast out by her husband to work as a prostitute. The first image shows her husband’s disdain and her eviction from the middle-class family home, and the second, set several years later, her two daughters looking out of the window and pondering upon the whereabouts of their mother; the third depicts the lady in question cowering under the arches of Waterloo Bridge, destitute with a tiny illegitimate child.  The dark and lonely atmosphere of the third in particular does elicit pity for the now homeless woman and her innocent offspring, but the symbols of adultery and female sin in the first image – namely the Edenic apple sliced in two and the novel by Balzac (a writer specialising in adultery) supporting a falling house of cards – suggest that it was wholly self-inflicted. The woman is blamed and punished for her crime, and Egg exploits the already established relationship between immorality, prostitution and Waterloo Bridge.  In this respect Waterloo becomes an object of fear, as a warning to young women that the river will take them if they stray from their husbands or from virgin purity.  

Fig. 3. Augustus Leopald Egg, Past and Present, No. 1,2 and 3, 1858, oil on canvas, 635 x 762mm each, Tate Britain, London. Source: Tate Collection. Available from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/egg-past-and-present-no-1-n03278 Last accessed: 10/10/22.

Found Drowned [see Fig. 4] had a slightly more sympathetic tone. Though painted by Frederick Watts in 1848, it was not exhibited until the 1860s and was more in tune with the marginally more progressive sentiments of the late 1850s and 60s. The work was enormous, at over two metres long, and would have had a huge impact on any gallery visitors. It was part of a series of four social realist paintings that Watts completed from 1848 to 1850, including another entitled Under the Arches which depicted an older, poverty-stricken woman huddled beneath Waterloo Bridge, but they were not ready to be received until the public were more willing to heed the messages conveyed. Watts was inspired, as were most other works on the topic, by Hood’s ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, with the painting depicting a beautiful young woman washed up on the banks of the Thames, in the shadow of the bridge from which she had fallen to her death. In some ways Watts did adhere to the fictional and romantic notions presented in Hood’s poem: the lady is beautiful and her dress seems miraculously clean and undamaged by her spell in the filthy river, suggesting that she has been cleansed of her sins by the water and ‘death has left on her/only the beautiful’. Also, in her left hand she is clutching a locket, suggestive of a lover who had broken her heart and led her to suicide, taking up Hood’s false ideas that women jumped due to heartbreak rather than poverty. However, in some respects Watts is more understanding than Hood, and is certainly less judgemental; unlike other representations of Waterloo Bridge, there is no sign of the morally symbolic dome of St Paul’s, and despite the arch above her potentially acting as a barrier to heaven, the light shining upon the woman’s features create a halo effect and seem to suggest that she is not destined for the darkness.

Fig. 4. Frederick Watts, Found Drowned, 1867, oil on canvas, 1194mm x 2134mm, Watts Gallery, Surrey. Source: Watts Gallery, https://web.archive.org/web/20130115204704/http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/learning/teachers-resources/found-drowned Last accessed: 10/10/22

Later into the nineteenth century, artists were still producing works that sat uncomfortably between sympathy and moral judgement. A close comparison between two illustrations of ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ demonstrates its continual grasp on the Victorian imagination, and the continued promotion of the Waterloo myth. In 1858 the Junior Etching Club published an illustrated volume entitled Passages of the Poems of Thomas Hood. The Etching Club consisted of a series of eminent artists including Henry Moore, Gerald Fitzgerald and, most notably, John Millais. Each artist could choose a poem to illustrate, and after much deliberation and missed deadlines, Millais settled on ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. Though he had tackled the drowned woman before in the fictional Ophelia, he had now chosen to focus exclusively on the topic of the Waterloo Suicides and fallen women, which as Alison Smith explains, was something of a surprise:

Millais rarely attempted subjects of deep social significance and, unlike Dante Gabriel Rossetti who devoted a number of poems and pictorial works to the subject of the fallen woman, ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ was unique in his ouvre. (28)

Unlike his fellow Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Holman Hunt, who both produced well-known paintings on the subject of the fallen woman – Found (1854) and Awakening Conscience (1853) respectively – Millais had focused on images based on fiction or the Bible. The fact that in 1858 he chose to tackle a growing social issue in the capital is curious; perhaps he felt remorse for encouraging an obsession with female madness with Ophelia and wished to depict a more realistic view of women who drowned themselves. However, though in his illustration he strays from the assumption that women who contemplate suicide are driven by madness, he clings to the tropes of moral and religious judgement. 

The etching, entitled The Bridge of Sighs [see Fig. 3], depicts a lady on the banks of the Thames, with a shawl wrapped around what one assumes to be a small child. She is in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge and seems to be considering her fate; though faint, the dome of St Paul’s is visible to her left, acting as a symbol of religious judgement upon her lifestyle. Her face is turned away from the cathedral, indicating the fact that she has strayed from morality. She is shrouded in darkness, but is romanticised by her beautiful features and the aesthetically pleasing lights of the bridge reflected in the river. It is a dark yet mythical scene, making viewers feel for the young beauty yet simultaneously reminding us of her sin with the looming dome of St Paul’s and the suggestive bulge of her cloak. The black of her clothing almost looks as though she is in mourning for her own impending demise. The image is thus full of symbols and relates to Hood’s poem as a work which similarly romanticises and judges the fates of London’s fallen women. However, what is of greatest significance is the way in which Millais actually strays quite drastically from the text he is supposedly illustrating:

Contrary to Hood’s poem, which does not mention a child being with the woman … [but] Millais suggests that a bastard child is the cause of her rejection from society. (29)

The protruding cloak and the lady’s body language do suggest that she is indeed holding a baby in her arms. The fact that Millais brings a child into the mix in 1858 is an interesting turn of events – possibly an attempt to elicit a greater sense of pity and urgency with regards to tackling the social issue of female poverty and the plight of fallen women. Though still inclined to judge a sexually deviant woman, spectators are less likely to find fault with an innocent child. As a symbol of new life and a new generation, a baby is a warning that action must be taken for the youth of the day not to end up in the same dire circumstances as their mothers. Another key difference between the poem and Millais’s illustration is the location of the woman: she is not on the parapet of the bridge, about to jump. In fact, she is inactive and composed, as she stands on the bank merely contemplating her fate. This is a more realistic take on the women of Waterloo: few actually made the fatal leap, as James Greenwood later reveals in his journalistic exposé on the subject in 1875, but many stopped mid-journey to perhaps reflect upon the infamous legends. Millais’ image is less dramatized than Hood’s poem, representing the shift between romantic notions of the lives of working-class women and the ever more apparent realities. 

However, others were less sympathetic and wished to cling to romanticised notions of the sinful, lovelorn fallen woman. Another edition of Hood’s poems were published twelve years later in 1870, illustrated by Gustav Doré.  Gustav Dore’s illustration to ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ (1870) which, despite the momentous shifts in attitude taking place between the original publication of Hood’s poem in 1844 and the completion of his drawing in 1870, seems to cling to outdated perspectives. He was not the only one to do so: ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ still remained a popular poem, suggesting that readers wished to escape from the new-found realities of prostitution and continue to view their lives in the context of a fictionalised romance. The illustrated publication was released in the same year as Doré’s famous work London: A Pilgrimage, which included rich illustrations of different aspects of London life, with a particular focus on the poor. However, his wood-engraving for ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, entitled One More Unfortunate after the first line of the poem, strays from this slightly in that it is not his usual documentary-style piece: it is not an attempt to picture reality, but employs the same stylised motifs of love and religious damnation littered through the works of his predecessors. Doré was one of the most successful illustrators of the nineteenth century and, employing over 400 woodcutters and running his own gallery in central London, had total artistic autonomy over his work: 

He was responsible for all aspects relating to iconography and divided the subjects up between his engravers […] Doré corrected the proofs submitted to him, but the wooden matrices and the metal stereotypes produced from them to facilitate reprinting remained the property of the publisher. (30)

He collaborated with many publishers to produce illustrated editions, but all projects were of his own imagining, and despite legal stipulations regarding ownership, he was fully in control of his output. It therefore seems strange that he would stray so far from the documentary style work of London: A Pilgrimage, to produce something so fanciful and so faithful to Thomas Hood’s outdated notions expressed in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. The fact that he chose to produce illustrations of Hood’s work at all, thirty years after its conception, shows that he believed there to still be an audience keen to consume romantic falsehoods relating to the Waterloo Suicides.

In Doré’s main illustration for his volume, entitled One More Unfortunate, the lady is young and beautiful, with long curled locks, a perfect figure and a simple but unstained dress, reminiscent of the women depicted in Watts’ Found Drowned and Millais’ Ophelia. Of course, it is unlikely that a woman of her profession and position in society would look like this. Doré has presented her as the heroine of a tragic tale – too well dressed and untouched to be a prostitute, and therefore seeming more likely to be a slighted lover or a mad Ophelia. However, the most notable harkening to the past is the large and looming presence of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, which as in Millais’ etching acts as a symbol of religious judgement; it has been moved from its original location, which is slightly further along the river, in order to be placed directly behind her on the bridge. Such a calculated move is not a coincidence: it is an inescapable dark figure relating to the ‘evil behaviour’ described in the poem, and relates to her position with the message that the only way to escape such a sinful existence is to jump from the perch on which she stands. The gap in the clouds, from which the woman is subtly lit, could even be a metaphor for God, who is watching down upon her in disapproval; both promiscuity and suicide are sins according to Christian teachings, and yet for her there is no other option. Her soul is damned either way. Though wood engravings are dark by nature, this image is particularly haunting: the majority is black or in shadow, reflecting the darkness of the deed she is contemplating, as well as the darkness of the life she currently lives.

Thus, as an image it is not progressive: it still presents a romantic heroine, perhaps motivated by love or lunacy, judged by God for the presumably frequent crime of leaping from Waterloo Bridge. Though Millais was more sympathetic and realistic in his depiction of the fallen women, whilst Doré is undeniably fanciful and melodramatic, it is the similarities between the two images which are of the greatest importance here. Both employ the religious symbolism of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the cleansing waters of the Thames, to place judgement upon London’s prostitutes. The motifs established by Hood are thus still highly recognisable in the art world by the 1870s; such ideas are so embedded in the cultural narrative of prostitution that they remained present right up until the end of the nineteenth century. Though progress had been made with established rehabilitation homes for fallen women, laws increasing the age of consent for girls, and the success of the Social Purity Alliance, the desire to judge the romantic Nancy-esque figure never entirely disappeared. She represented everything a prudish Victorian society could crave but never engage in – sexual deviance and promiscuity, a rejection of Christian teachings and a large dose of Victorian melodrama. 

  1. ‘The Case of Mary Furley’ in Punch, or the London Charivari, 1st June 1844, p233. Accessed from: https://link-gale-com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/apps/doc/DX1901543772/GDCS?u=rho_ttda&sid=GDCS&xid=b5fadc29 Last accessed: 28/08/20.
  2. Barbara T. Gates, ‘Not Choosing To Be: Victorian Literary Responses to Suicide’ in Literature and Medicine, vol. 6 (1987), p135.
  3. Thomas Hood, ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in Poems by Thomas Hood: Illustrated Edition (New York: G. P. Putnam and Son, 1872), p30, lines 102-106. 
  4. Catharine Arnold, City of Sin: London and its Vices (London: Simon and Schuster, 2010), p167.
  5. Hood,p28, l36-43.
  6. Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), p419.
  7. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), p68.
  8. Edgar Allen Poe cited by Robinson, p257.
  9. Gates, p77.
  10. Gates, Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p39.
  11. Julie Matthias, ‘Victorian Attitudes Towards Self-Murder’ (2019). Accessed from: https://oldoperatingtheatre.com/victorian-attitudes-towards-self-murder/ Last accessed: 09/07/20.
  12. Flanders, p418.
  13. Arnold, p194.
  14. Ibid., p164.
  15. Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist (Suffolk: Penguin Classics, 1986), p415.
  16. Judith Walkowitz cited in Julia Skelly, Addiction and British Visual Culture 1751-1919: Wasted Looks (London: Routledge, 2017), p119.
  17. Hood, p24, l1-4,
  18. Allan Scott-Davies, Death on the Waterways (Gloucester: The History Press, 2011), p147.
  19. Scott-Davies, p149.
  20. L. J. Nicoletti, ‘Waterloo Suicides’ (2013). Accessed from: http://www.skydive.ru/en/londons-bridges/353-waterloo-suicides.html Last accessed: 8/8/20. 
  21. Nicoletti, ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide and London’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’’ in Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004). Accessed from: http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2004/nicoletti.html Last accessed: 8/8/20
  22. Gates, p135.
  23. Michelle Elizabeth Allen, Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008), p64.
  24. Angus McLaren, A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr Thomas Neill Cream (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), p12.
  25. McLaren, p12.
  26. Linda Nochlin, ‘Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman’ in The Art Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 1 (1978), p150.
  27. McLaren, p12.
  28. Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008), p120.
  29. Rosenfeld and Smith, p120.
  30. ‘Gustav Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination’ (2014). Accessed from: https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/archives/exhibitions-archives/page/0/article/gustave-dore-37172.html?S=&cHash=19a00c278c&print=1&no_cache=1& Last accessed: 24/08/20.


Allen, Michelle Elizabeth, Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008).

Arnold, Catharine, City of Sin: London and its Vices (London Simon and Schuster, 2010).

Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist (Suffolk: Penguin Classics, 1986).

Flanders, Judith, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (London: Atlantic Books, 2012).

Gates, Barbara T., ‘Not Choosing To Be: Victorian Literary Responses to Suicide’ in Literature and Medicine, vol. 6 (1987).

‘Gustav Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination’ (2014). Accessed from: https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/archives/exhibitions-archives/page/0/article/gustave-dore-37172.html?S=&cHash=19a00c278c&print=1&no_cache=1& Last accessed: 24/08/20.

Hood, Thomas, ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in Poems by Thomas Hood: Illustrated Edition (New York: G. P. Putnam and Son, 1872).

McLaren, Angus, A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr Thomas Neill Cream (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995).

Nicoletti, L.J., ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide and London’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’’ in Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004). Accessed from: http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2004/nicoletti.html Last accessed: 8/8/20

Nicoletti, L. J., ‘Waterloo Suicides’ (2013). Accessed from: http://www.skydive.ru/en/londons-bridges/353-waterloo-suicides.html Last accessed: 8/8/20.

Nochlin, Linda, ‘Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman’ in The Art Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 1 (1978).

Rivers, Bryan, ‘’Tenderly’ and ‘With Care’: Thomas Hood’s ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ and the Suicide of Harriet Shelley’ in Notes and Queries, Vol. 53 (2006).

Rosenfeld, Jason, and Smith, Alison, Millais (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008).

Scott-Davies, Allan, Death on the Waterways (Gloucester: The History Press, 2011).

‘The Case of Mary Furley’ in Punch, or the London Charivari, 1st June 1844. Accessed from: https://link-gale- com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/apps/doc/DX1901543772/GDCS?u=rho_ttda&sid=GDCS&xid=b5fadc29 Last accessed: 28/08/20.

An Illustrated Antislavery Song: Music with a Mission?


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.


(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.