Illustrated Books

ON beholding the beautiful volume which is Mr. Abbey’s contribution to the holidays,1 one cannot but commiserate Goldsmith’s lot in being dead ; for would he not indulge in an uncommon degree the same harmless vanity in the fine apparel of his comedy that he once felt in the gay raiment with which he was fond of decking its author’s person ? He might think it somewhat soberly elegant for his taste, before he turned the cover, but within he would seem to look upon his own times, as faithfully represented in the drawings as in the text. Mr. Abbey had in this play a subject singularly consonant with his tastes and made for the exercise of his talents. The characters, situations, and scenes, the provincial setting, the episodes, the town youths with their manners, the innloving bumpkin with his jokes, the young ladies with their intrigues, make up a stage of matchless liveliness, variety, and interest for the portrayal of English life in the last century, and the artist has put his opportunity to good use. The literary work is so natural, humorous, and life-like that it plays itself, as one reads it; but though it stands in the least need of interpretative illustration by actor or by designer, it does not suffer from it. One reason is that the artist had nothing so much in mind as to realize to the eye just what Goldsmith had suggested to the imagination; and his work constitutes a gain to the text by its accuracy in antiquarian study, by its successful impersonation of last-century types of face and physical habit, as well as by its truthfulness in costumes and the material accessories of life in the inn and the country-house, and also by the vigor of what one may call its theatrical action. Mr. Abbey has set forth the actual surroundings of the comedy and has infused vitality into its figures with a complete mastery of the external environment of the play and of its spirit; and perhaps one sees it better staged, in fact, than would be the case if the pleasant fable with which Mr. Dobson introduces the work were true, and the reader were really called to view the first performance in Garrick’s London. The qualities of Mr. Abbey’s productions are too familiar to call for either analysis or praise, and these sketches have already been before the public. It may not be wholly superfluous to observe, however, that the grasp of the artist’s mind upon the persons of the play as things of flesh and blood is unusually strong : the figures are highly individualized, not merely in feature and contour, but in the inner character which is expressed in bearing, peculiarities of motion and pose, and even of gesture ; so that one is as well acquainted with the pictorial actors, if one may so style them, as he would be with real men and women making their exits and entrances on the boards of the theatre ; and this is, perhaps, the principal charm of the book. The play is illustrated, it is also to be said, by several drawings which have only a remote or very slight relation to the action; and these are among the most pleasing. They very much resemble a marginal comment (and most of them are vignettes), winding along beside the story as in the borders of old books, and are mostly figure-pieces, types of human character, with some quality of quaintness about their personality, and even at times of grotesqueness, of the sort that belongs to village worthies or genteel madams ; they are scattered through the volume, and add greatly to that impression of breadth and variety in the general scene which is the most notable trait of the illustrative portion of the work. The whole makes a study of humor in the last century, from the artist’s point of view as vivid and entertaining and to the life as the comedy itself is from the literary standpoint: it is seldom that text and designs are in such accord and unite to make so complete a work.

The volume is externally in the most excellent taste, both in binding and in the cover-design ; and it is not needful to say that in the matter of paper and print the inside of the book is in the most luxurious style. The arrangement of the text, however, and of the drawings seems lacking in thoughtfulness and in consistent plan, and the results are defective in beauty. The random and disorderly way in which the vignettes wander about the first pages, which are not made use of for the text, so that awkward blank spaces are left, is unfortunate in the extreme, and gives an impression of waste and of ineptitude in dealing with the materials, as if the designer were not aware that a page is a panel to be filled, and not a white wall to affix prints to ; but except for this extraordinary error in the earlier portion, to which it is confined, the disposition of the sketches upon the pages is simple, natural, and effective, though seldom in a strict sense decorative, as indeed there was no intention that they should be. The more important drawings are in two kinds, on India paper: the very dark ones are sometimes too obscure for the eye to make out the objects, but in one instance there is a tinsel-like brilliancy that one would think could be flashed only by a nineteenth - century electric light; the open pen-and-ink drawings are much more numerous, and to our taste much more satisfactory. The distinctly decorative designs, by Mr. Parsons, are full of the grace which marks that artist’s quiet and charming manner, and the initials and lesser bits are all done with care and kept true to the general feeling which pervades the whole work. The volume cannot be said to be without some faults in its make-up for the press ; but these interfere in a very subordinate way with the pleasure to be derived from it, and the excellence of the artist’s genius and the good fortune which made him the illustrator of Goldsmith are so great that all such slight demerits are forgotten. Goldsmith was not more fortunate in his artist than Mr. Abbey in his author; and between them this comedy has become a monument, in the literary sense, of the eighteenth century’s world. At the end of it Mr. Dobson bids adieu in a brief envoi, as graceful and spirited as the longer poem with which he prefaced the book. One lays it aside, sure to return to it many times to refresh his dull hours with the heartiness and high spirits and good-natured fun of the old days, and to see them in their own garb and fashion in this faithful revival of them by the hand of one who knows them like a member of the old Club.

The practice of taking a fine or noble poem, and using it as a text for imaginative designs which have little or no relation to the poet’s meaning, has never been more strikingly exemplified than in another of the principal holiday publications, which one is at a loss whether to style Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel2 or a series of designs by Kenyon Cox. The poem is, as all know, one of the most etherealized and unearthly of the works of a poet characterized by spirituality, the mysticism of Italian passion, and a continuous and straining effort to incarnate moods of love and attractions of beauty in forms which are saved from gross materialism only by their tenuity. Imaginativeness was of the essence of Rossetti’s genius. He was both artist and poet, and he naturally worked in the sensuous medium, in the stuff of material forms ; and this predisposition toward expressing spiritual meanings by terms of the body also induced in him a habit of thinking in symbols. When a man of imagination is so markedly original, it is hardly possible for another artistic mind to amalgamate with his genius, as one must do who attempts to interpret or even to develop a poem by illustrating it. Whatever dissonance there is between the two is sure to be made apparent, and the critic’s displeasure will be greater in proportion as he values the higher and finer genius of the two, and already understands the original poetic work. If Rossetti had thought this poem fit for picture-making, being an artist who did frequently duplicate his poetic ideas in painting, he would probably have left some designs to express the history of love which is written in the stanzas ; as it is, one knows very well from the general character of his work as a painter what types he would employ, what feeling he would diffuse over them, and what sentiment he would convey. To one who is familiar with Rossetti’s paintings, the persons in the poems have a special physical character to the eye as being cousingerman to the well-known figures on the canvases; they are conceptions, of the same brain. Mr. Cox, therefore, has first to make us forget this highly individualized artistic style of Rossetti, in which his poems are naturally interpreted ; and secondly to make us willing to substitute for Rossetti’s spiritualizing and mystical mind his own, which is of a very different quality. No one who has the least discriminative power in poetry can for an instant suppose that Rossetti would not have immediately repudiated these designs of Mr. Cox as in any sense whatever representative of the poem which he labored upon as his masterpiece. The dissonance between the two, of which we spoke, is in fact unendurable; and the only way to enjoy this work at all is to forget all about the poem, and suppress it from consideration. Mr. Cox is here, then, the designer of an art-series, which has as its motive the severance of the lover and his beloved by death, the mutual longing of the two, and their reunion in imagination; in addition to the illustrations of this main story there are several others, partly merely decorative, partly necessary as a kind of background to the pair of lovers. The spirit of the series is materialistic and earthly, —perhaps Mr. Buchanan’s term, “ fleshly,” would be rightly applied to it; and this measures its distance from Rossetti. The mysticism in it is wholly conventional, and the scene is in some terrestrial paradise, perhaps, but not in any place known to celestial love. The figures are full, occasionally heavy, and always in prime development; they are conceived in a somewhat sculpturesque way, and give an impression of colorless form, which is, perhaps, the secret in part of their power as designs. Several of the groups are beautiful in composition, as a dance on some Renaissance urn or a scene on some ancient sarcophagus is beautiful; and some of the single figures are admirable. It is, however, only to the forms that this praise can be given. In the treatment of the myth as a story of the attitude of a mortal lover to a glorified mistress, there are such failures of taste in details and of spirituality in the general treatment as to make the series very disagreeable. If one is content to regard art for the sake of its forms, he will find here a nobleness and largeness of design of extraordinary power; the longer one looks at them as merely figure-pieces the more they appeal to him, and in this value they are truly preëminent in this year’s art-work. The most that one can say who feels strongly the incongruity between the style of the designs and the imaginative theme which they illustrate is to regret the union of the two. The difference between the two artists is that Rossetti spiritualizes the sense, but Mr. Cox sensualizes the spirit. The lover, when he gazes yearningly to heaven, is “ a fine specimen of physical manhood,” as the newspaper would say ; he looks like the stroke oar of the ’varsity, and he wears a rowing costume, but one suspects his position will soon grow irksome, and knows that lie can never keep up that muscular development on a diet of inconsolable sorrow. So at every turn there is this same disparity between the idea and the physique. It is significant that the best of the series are those in which the lovers do not appear at all. Mr. Cox needs “ the warm precincts of the cheerful day ” for his scene ; it is only in an earthly Eden that art of this style has its justification.

  1. She Stoops to Conquer. A Comedy, by DR. GOLDSMITH. With Drawings by EDWIN A. ABBEY, Decorations by ALFRED PARSONS. Introduction by AUSTIN DOBSON. New York: Harper & Bros. Franklin Square. 1887.
  2. The Blessed Damozel. By DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. With Drawings by KENYON Cox. New York ; Dodd, Mead & Co. 1886.