Friday 27 February 2015

The Illustrated Tennyson: A Brief History

In 1857, Alfred Tennyson and his family visited the ‘Art Treasures of the United Kingdom’ exhibition in Manchester.  On display was Arthur Hughes’ April Love, inspired by the poet’s ‘The Miller’s Daughter’, together with John Everett Millais’ Autumn Leaves, a tonal piece thought to represent the spirit of Tennyson’s poetry in art.  By this point there was little doubting the poet’s popularity, not only with the poetry-loving public but also with artists inspired by his words.  The same year marked an important and inevitable event in Tennyson's publishing history...

Poems by Alfred Tennyson (1857), more commonly known as the ‘Moxon Tennyson’, used a mixture of traditional artists and the new artistic upstarts, the Pre-Raphaelites.  Despite its troubled production history (Rossetti’s difficult behaviour is reputed to have contributed to Moxon’s death), it provided some iconic images and demonstrated a new sensibility in book illustration.  Whereas ‘traditional’ artists, such as Thomas Creswick, illustrated a poem on a facing page in an open, borderless format, the Pre-Raphaelite contribution was set in the text of the poem, inside frames.  The images are tightly focused, richly detailed, figure-centric, and some were later turned into paintings by the artists.
The Lady of Shalott (1857) William Holman Hunt

And the 1905 oil of the same image
Tennyson had reservations over artists illustrating his works.  He did not feel the need for others to interpret his words, certainly not with any interpretation that did not match his, and actively disapproved of certain illustrations. He disagreed with the way that Hunt had illustrated The Lady of Shalott saying that an illustrator 'ought never add anything to what he finds in the text'. Next to Daniel Maclise’s illustration in his own copy of the 1860 edition of The Princess, the poet wrote ‘wrong!’ emphatically.  In ‘A Statement of Facts Respecting the Illustrated Edition of My Poems’, quoted in his letters, Tennyson opened the floodgate on his frustration and disapproval on the way his works were interpreted and his inability to stop others from using his poems in whatever way they choose (a cry, even now from writers, for example Anne Rice and Lestat).  Still, Tennyson could not stem the public hunger for visual interpretations of poems, illustrated books and, specifically, his work, which meant that it was merely the beginning of a tidal wave of such publications.

While too numerous to list here, there were many illustrated editions that followed the 1850s publications.  What also seems to have followed too is the often innovative and unusual nature of the works, as if the nature of Tennyson’s poems gave artists the freedom to experiment with style and subject.

The Lady of Shalott (1881) Howard Pyle
Morte D'Arthur (1912) Alberto Sangorski
The American illustrator Howard Pyle combined the words with the image, making them almost illegible, but of course the audience would know them off by heart.  The woman looking out of the window doesn’t look particularly concerned that the doom has come upon her, when compared with Holman Hunt’s swirl-haired damsel, but was equally as innovative in terms of artistic style.  Pyle’s work was one of the more ‘medieval’ style illuminated manuscripts, including L. Summerbell’s The May Queen (1872) and Alberto Sangorski’s Morte D’Arthur (1912), securing the poet's place in the Gothic, the alternative, the anti-industrialisation of Victorian England. This position was arguably somewhat at odds with his role as the official establishment poet, becoming Laureate in 1850 and finally accepting a peerage in 1883 (after refusing a baronetcy twice in the 1860s).

I have always admired the 'feminine' in Tennyson’s works and so it is hardly surprising that he appealed to so many women illustrators of the period.  Jessie M King, Eleanor Vere Boyle, the Taylor Sisters and Florence Harrison were just some of the female artists to produce work for illustrated editions.  If you can remember back to my posts on the ‘Endymion’ edition of Tennyson’s works, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale produced some innovative and striking illustrations for a collection of his poems and then also Idylls of the King, in lavish colour for an Edwardian audience.
The Lady of Shalott (1905) Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Idylls of the King (1913) Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
 Even Julia Margaret Cameron, friend of the poet, allowed her photograph of Maud to be engraved for volume ix of Henry S. King & Co cabinet edition of the poet’s works, although she was very disappointed at the scale and quality of the reproduction, which in turn encouraged her to produce her own large scale edition of the poems, almost a third larger in size of King’s cabinet edition.
Maud from volume ix The Works of Alfred Tennyson, Cabinet Edition

Maud in the privately printed collection by J M Cameron

Held dear by some into the twentieth century, there is no denying that Tennyson’s popularity, like that of the Pre-Raphaelite artists with whom he was so closely associated, waned.  All things Victorian fell from fashion, and for many people who grew up between the First World War until the end of rationing, Tennyson was something you might have learnt at school, but was not a joy. Occasionally, he appeared in cloying versions such as this one below, but he was no longer seen as relevant to the New Elizabethans.  

Dear God, the horror...
The 1960s changed that.  In the opening of his 1966 ‘Literature in Perspective’ book on Tennyson, J B Steane acknowledged that mention of the poet provoked ‘a wry smile, an ironical lift of the eyebrows, or their stern depression into the frown that signifies critical disapproval and dismissal’.  However he was hopeful of a re-examination of the poet’s work with fresh eyes and a view that Tennyson was relevant and ‘abiding’. Turns out, he was not alone in this conviction.

In his introduction to The Falling Splendour of 1970, the poet George Macbeth likens Tennyson's qualities of mystery and exoticism to the music of T-Rex.  The illustrations by Robin Lawrie are an art nouveau whirl of hair and drapery, perfect for the Biba-generation.  Likewise for John D Jump's 1974 edition of In Memoriam, Maud and Other Poems, the cover art, by David Sparling, looks like a Prog Rock album cover, unsurprising as the artist was better known for album covers and OZ magazine illustrations.

Cover art by David Sparling
 The rediscovery of Tennyson's poems in the 1960s was enhanced by Christopher Rick's annotated edition of Tennyson's poems in 1969 and subsequent critical study a few years later, together with grandson Sir Charles Tennyson's reminiscences broadcast in 1969. Since then, there has been no holding back the poems from the artistic imagination and strongly coupled to this seems to be illustration. In writing my thesis for my Masters around 10 years ago I amassed quite a collection of editions of Tennyson's poems, all illustrated.  From reeditions of Gustave Dore's Idylls of the Kings, now looking like a grim graphic novel, to Charles Keeping's 1986 edition of The Lady of Shalott, the books keep coming.  One of my favourites  remains Geneviève Côté's The Lady of Shalott (2005), who uses the boat as a cocoon in which the crysalis-figure of the Lady 'metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly' (from the book's appendix).

The Lady of Shalott (1986) Charles Keeping

The Lady of Shalott (2005) Geneviève Côté
 More editions of Tennyson's work will come, no doubt, as it seems no-one's poems conjure visual interpretation quite as much as Tennyson's.  I'm not sure that would have pleased him, yet I believe it is why his poetry remains so fresh and relevant to us today.

And Adown the Steep Like a Wave I Would Leap (1920) Florence Harrison
Join me tomorrow for an interview with Robin Lawrie, the illustrator behind the beautiful vision that is The Falling Splendour...


  1. Good post Kirsty. I must have been fortunate in my education, we were reading Tennyson at junior school. (Old teachers I suppose, who had previously taught my parents). We were encouraged to interprate and illustrate the poems alongside the text in our poetry exercise books. Tennyson was always a good source of inspiration. My favourite being The Splendour falls.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I did not do Tennyson until university, but then there was no turning back. I was lucky enough to have a course for my Masters that included book design, which I found fascinating and now very useful as I have to design my own books!

  3. What a wonderful post! Your blog is truly a treasure trove, Kirsty! It's interesting to learn that Tennyson didn't like the illustrations of his poems on the whole. I had always felt that despite the fact that they worshipped the ground he walked on, Tennyson tended to keep the pre raphs at arms length. I wonder if he ever saw any of Waterhouse's paintings? I'm sure he would have approved of W's depictions of the Lady of Shallott. I'm not at all surprised that he didn't like Hunt's dreadful effort. It's also interesting that Tennyson did actually encourage Julia Margaret Cameron to attempt to illustrate some of his poems through the medium of photography. Personally I don't think JMC's attempts work very well compared with paintings; there's a sort of dressing up box feel to most of her attempts at staging photographs to illustrate poetry or the classics (compared with just the straight portraits)

  4. Thank you for the comments, I really enjoyed revisiting this subject - it's what I wrote my master's thesis on all those years ago and is an excuse to get out all my illustrated Tennysons! I have to agree that I much prefer JMC's portraits to some of her 'dressing up box' images,but 'Maud' remains a favourite because it is just so beautiful.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx