Monday, 7 February 2011

The art of Linley Sambourne

Edward Linley Sambourne's classic Darwin cartoon from Punch in 1882.
I wrote about Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies a while back (see The Water-Babies, JSBlog, 17th August 2008). Following up from that, I just ran into the paperback reprint of the 1880 Macmillan edition, and was struck by the illustrations: the vivid and often surreal work of Linley Sambourne, probably better known for his illustrations for Punch magazine.

An 1894 Macmillan edition is online at the Internet Archive (ID waterbabiesfairy00king2) and is worth reading. The weird and sometimes voluptuous illustrations - Tenniel and Doré spring to mind as comparisons - are well in keeping with a book that is a barbed social satire and, like many children's classics, exceedingly dark and complex once you put aside its stereotype as a children's story.

See, for instance, the charming "leap-frog" preface picture; the water-nymph illustrating the "Clear and cool" poem (page 43); the queen of the water fairies (page 57); "the great fairy Science" (page 86); Tom's encounter with the trout (page 93); Tom and the lobster (page 143); Professor Ptthmllnsprts (page 149); the decline of the Doasyoulikes as they devolve to apes -which has considerable thematic and compositional similarity to the Punch Darwin cartoon (page 230); Tom's water-dog (page 262); Mother Carey (page 269); the sentient blunderbuss (page 312); and Grimes in Hell (page 314).

A contemporary review said:

Kingsley's "Water-Babies," with its hundred illustrations, shows Mr. Linley Sambourne at his best. The artist has had a task after his own heart, and he has absolutely revelled in his work. It is full of graceful idea and elaborate drawing. The fish, the weeds, the lobster pots, the otters, have all been most carefully studied and accurately reproduced. The humor and the poetry pervading all the illustrations are marvellous. Perhaps the most humorous drawing is " The Professor and the Water-Baby," which gives excellent portraits of Professors Owen and Huxley; and possibly the most poetical is " The Queen of the WaterFairies." Mr. Sambourne has had an excellent opportunity for the display of his fertile fancy, his accurate knowledge, and his exquisite draughtsmanship, and he has fully availed himself of it.
- "S", page 6, The Book Buyer, Vol 3, No. 1, February 1886.

If some of the illustrations, the water-nymphs, seem outright erotic, it's unsurprising in the light of Sambourne's career. I'd seen some of his Punch illustrations before, but didn't know of his later covert interest in erotic photography and in photographing schoolgirls with a disguised camera, as mentioned in the Spectator review of Leonee Ormond's 2010 biography (see Fine artist, but a dirty old man, Bevis Hiller, The Spectator, 3rd April 2010).  As described in the Great Wen weblog entry Mucky pics in Victorian London and The Virtual Victorian's Mr Linley Sambourne's Photographic Passions, it developed from his practice of using photographs as the basis for his political sketches.

Nevertheless, whatever one might think of his interests, it's impossible to doubt the imagination and sheer technical and compositional quality of Sambourne's illustration work. The Alphabet of Illustrators 1 has a section devoted to Sambourne, including samplers from The Water-Babies (here) and his artwork from Punch (here and here).  In addition, Wikimedia Commons has a couple of dozen scans of his caricatures for Punch.

For a good contemporary account of his working practices, see the 1895 A History of "Punch":

One day when Mr. Linley Sambourne made a successful appearance as Admiral Van Tromp at a fancydress ball, Mr. W S. Gilbert drily observed, "One Dutch of Sambourne makes the whole world grin!" The jest was wider in its application than he who made it, probably, had intended. The humour of the artist, his quaintness of fancy, wit, and touch, are appreciated by whoever looks for something more, even in a professedly comic design, than that which is at first and immediately obvious. When, early in 1867, Mark Lemon fell into admiration of a little drawing that was luckily thrust into his hand, and declared that the young draughtsman who wrought it had a great future before him, he proved himself possessed of a faculty of critical insight, or of an easy-going artistic conscience, uncommon even among editors. Few who saw Mr. Linley Sambourne's early work, even throughout the first two or three years of his practice, would have imagined that behind those woodcuts, for all their cleverness, there lay power and even genius, or that the man himself would soon come to be regarded as one of the greatest masters of pure line of his time.

At that time Mr. Sambourne had been working in the engineering draughtsmen's office of Messrs. Penn and Sons, of Greenwich. But the work was not congenial; the " pupil" spent most of his time in sketching, and there is a story —doubtless as apocryphal as it is malicious—that in one of his designs for a steam-engine, he sacrificed so much to "effect" as to carry his steam-pipe through the spokes of the fly-wheel. It was his office companion in misfortune, Mr. Alfred Reed, who secured his friend's release from the thraldom of the iron-bound profession, by seizing the sketch already alluded to and showing it to his father, German Reed. By that gentleman it was submitted to his friend Mark Lemon, who had about that time been writing an "entertainment" for the company at the "Gallery of Illustrations." The result was an editorial summons to the sketcher, and an engagement which has lasted to the present da}-. Thus it was that, with a sketch of John Bright tilting at a quintain under the title of "Pros and Cons," Mr. Sambourne found himself, at the age of twenty-two, a regular contributor to Punch—though he had still to wait until 1871 before he was rewarded with a seat at the Table.

Of artistic education he had had practically none. In the engineering drawing-office he had learned how to handle the pen and to put it to uses which have become a feature of his draughtsmanship. But besides a life-school attendance extending over not more than a fortnight, he had no other teachers than his own eyes and his own intelligence. In his earliest work with the pencil there was a curious use of the point. Suddenly he was called upon, through the unexpected absence of Charles Keene from town, for more important work than that with which he had hitherto been entrusted. This was the half-page head-piece and the tailpiece to the preface to Vol. LIII. Then came promotion to the "small socials" and "half-page socials." Some of the work he did fairly well, founding himself now upon Leech, now upon Keene; but his character and originality were too powerful to follow any man. He began to form a style of his own, and that style did not lend itself to the representation of modern life. It was suited better for decoration than for movement; while the beauty of line and of silhouette which he sought and obtained, in spite of his intense, almost aggressive, individuality, placed him absolutely apart from all the black-and-white artists of the day.

It was, I have said, to the example of his predecessor, Charles H. Bennett, who died in April, 1867 (the very month in which Sambourne's first drawing appeared), that we owe those wonderful initial letters to the "Essence of Parliament" of Shirley Brooks—those intricate drawings which, covering nearly a whole page, were such miracles of invention, of fancy, and of allusion, swarming with figures, overflowing with suggestion, teeming with subtle symbolism. But these things did not come at once. It was not until the "comic cut" idea was put entirely on one side and his imagination allowed full play, that Mr. Sambourne fully developed his powers—his strength of conception, design, and execution. And then it was that he revealed the fact that though a humorist—and invariably, too, a good-humorist— by necessity, he is a classic by feeling.

The artist's personality, as it should, impresses us first, powerfully and irresistibly. While under Mark Lemon, Mr. Sambourne, as an artist, was still unformed. Under Shirley Brooks was awakened his wonderful inventive faculty. Under the regime of masterly inactivity—the happy policy of laissez faire—of Tom Taylor, the talent had burst forth into luxuriance, not to say exuberance. And under Mr. Burnand it was schooled and restrained within severer limits.

It was many years before regular political cartooning* fell to his lot. He illustrated several of Mr. Burnand's serials in Punch, and some of his work out of it. But afterwards he rose to the treatment of actuality. Upon the event of the hour his picture is formed, and each week his work must be forthcoming. There can be no question of failure, no dallying with the subject, however elaborate or unpromising it may appear. A decision must be come to, and that rapidly; and there the artist sits, his watch hung up before him, "one eye on the dial and the other on the drawing-paper," knowing that at the appointed hour the work must be ready for the messenger. Thus the majority of his four thousand designs have been greatly hurried—hurried in thought as well as in execution. Many have been wrought in a single day; the great majority within two days; very few, indeed, have taken more. But when he has the time he wants, what amazing results are achieved! Sir John Tenniel once exclaimed to me: "What extraordinary improvement there is in Sambourne's work! Although a little hard and mechanical, it is of absolutely inexhaustible ingenuity and firmness of touch. His diploma for the Fisheries Exhibition almost gave me a headache to look at it—so full, cram-full of suggestion, yet leaving nothing to the imagination, so perfectly and completely drawn, with a certainty of touch which baffles me to understand how he does it."

For the rest, Mr. Sambourne's method, like his work, is unique. Keen of observation though he is, his memory for detail is not to be compared to that of Sir John Tenniel; and, actuated by that desire for accuracy which he holds desirable in a journal specially devoted to topical allusion, he avails himself extensively of the use of photography. In the cabinets in his studio, filled full of drawers, each labelled according to their contents, over ten thousand photographs are classified: every celebrity of the day, and to a certain extent of the past, British and foreign, at various ages, in various costumes, and in various attitudes; representatives of the Church, the Bench, and the Bar; of Science, Art, Literature, and the Stage; the beasts and birds and insects in and out of the Zoological Gardens; figures by the score, nude and draped; costumes of all ages and every country; soldiers, sailors, and the uniforms of every army and navy; land and sea and sky; boating and botany, nuns and clowns, hospital-nurses, musical instruments, and rifles, locomotives, wheel-barrows, shop-windows, and everything else besides—everything, in short, as he himself declared, "from a weasel to a Welshman "—all are photographed mostly by himself, and all are arranged by himself, in readiness against the demand for accuracy and the exigencies of haste. But when time permits, Mr. Sambourne goes to greater trouble still. Does he require a special uniform? he begs the War Office—not unsuccessfully—to lend him one or two men, or even a detachment; does he want to represent Mr. Gladstone—say, as Wellington (as he did November 2nd, 1889)? he procures the loan of the duke's own raiment, and only stops short at borrowing Mr. Gladstone himself. For his types, too, he takes pains not less thorough. For Britannia's helmet, he made working drawings of the unique Greek piece in the British Museum, and from that had a replica constructed—one of the most notable items in a notable "property" room.

At the back of his house is a paved courtyard, wherein his servant poses as every character under the sun while he is photographed by his master, who then runs inside to develop the plate and make a dash at his drawing. Or he will photograph himself, or the model in the desired attitude; or he will get his friends to pose. Among his sitters there is none more useful than the burly man who serves equally well for "Policeman A 1 " or John Bull, for the Duke of Cambridge or Prince Bismarck. It was he who sat for one of the finest of Mr. Sambourne's "junior cartoons" on the occasion when the great ex-Chancellor had said: "I am like the traveller lost in the snow, who begins to get stiff while the snow-flakes cover him." This picture of the aged and forlorn statesman, accompanied only by his faithful hound, is perhaps the best of the artist's achievements of dignity and pathos—worthy of being named with "Dropping the Pilot" of Sir John Tenniel. His passion for realism is so great that, I remember, when he was engaged on his "Mahogany Tree" for the Jubilee number of Punch—one of the most popular drawings he ever made—he had just such a table duly laid for dinner in the courtyard, with one person sitting at it in order to show the proportion, and photographed it from a window of the house at the necessary elevation. But for his love of accuracy he would not have done these things; nor, but for his love of naturalism, could he have given us his numerous fine studies of Nature. And but for this, Mr. Punch would never have printed one or two of his Norwegian sketches, such as "The Church-going Bell," in which there was not the slightest attempt at humour or fun—nothing but a calm and reposeful love of Nature, the deep, sad impression on the mind and heart of the artist as he watches the northern sun dip in sleepy majesty behind the panting waves. Like Rabelais, he can use the pencil to greater ends under cover of the motley, and encase bitter truths with the gilt of a printed jest. Like Giotto and his legendary feat, he can draw you a perfect circle with his pen—and perhaps he is the only man in the country who can do it. His is the rare gift that in him sense of fun, of dignity, and of art is equal. He will brook nothing more serious in his sallies than chaff and banter; and yet his kindly art, based upon Nature and observation of the work of others, has, by its very truth, made him enemies even on foreign thrones. Nevertheless, it is less as a politician and a satirist that he claims recognition; it is primarily as an artist that he will assuredly be remembered when his place among his countrymen has to be determined.

- The History of "Punch", MH Spielman, 1895

His diploma for the Fisheries Exhibition in 1883 is repeatedly described as a remarkable piece of artwork. The Hull Museums description of their holding of a couple of copies is:

Two engraved certificates (mounted on linen backing) with award printed within an illustrated border of national and symbolic figures and motifs, with the bust of Queen Victoria at the top centre with trident, eagle, orb and sceptre in front of a curved rim against the sky with seabirds and fishing implements within the outer allegorical figures of 'Aqua Marina' and 'Aqua Viva' and two scenes below of a ship on the high seas and a boat on a lake either side of the Royal Coat of Arms. The central text after the title consists of 'The Commissioners Appointed by Her Majesty's Government have upon the Recommendation of the International Jury Awarded a Gold Medal with this Diploma To: Knowles and Knowles, For: Trawl Net, Beam and Heads on one copy (on stretcher frame) and For: Manilla Net Twines on the other (cloth backed and rolled). Marked with name of the designer/artist at the bottom left 'Linley Sambourne, 1883'.

I haven't been able to find an image online.

Addendum, 28th Aug 2011:  see Ptak Science Books (Man is But a Worm--Darwin and Redon, 1881-1883) for an interesting exploration of the historical context of the Punch cartoon, along with a look at the work of the French symbolist Odilon Redon, who was among the first artists to create works based on Darwin's Origin of Species.

1. Just one section of Chris Mullen's extensive and fascinating The Visual Telling of Stories website.

- Ray

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