Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Doré's London

I've just been reading The London of Gustave Doré, a very nice 1987 Wordsworth Editions reprint of the 1872 London: A Pilgrimage, an account - illustrated with 180 Doré engravings - of the artist's explorations of London with the writer William Blanchard Jerrold.

Doré spent three months a year in London for five years on the project, receiving the humungous sum of £10,000 a year 1 - an investment for the publishers that was more than recovered following the book's commercial success. However, it initially got critical stick for its bleak view of London.  I haven't been able to find the source text for the much-cited, but never identified, Art Journal piece that accused Doré of "inventing" rather than "copying", but I did manage to track down the also well-cited Westminster Review piece:

The pilgrimage made round London by Mr. Blanchard Jerrold and M. Gustave Doré has given us the most splendid gift-book of the season. A book in which the triumphantly popular characteristics of M. Doré's facile pencil are conspicuously exhibited with every perfection of skilled engraving and printing, and in the full advantage of luxurious broad-sheets of cream-tinted paper. Mr. Jerrold's accompanying text is sufficiently pleasant light reading, and is attractive from the total absence of the moral or literary affectations which usually beset writers on a theme like this. He describes the scenes shifting before him, and almost invariably leaves them to point their own moral. They stand clearly out before us in that objective reality which is full of the deepest suggestiveness to those who choose to look for it. The public are too familiar with the brilliant qualities of M. Doré's work for them to need any note of distinction here. They do not desert him in this new task. We find him always ready, always clear and intelligible, always seizing the most salient points his subject with unerring swiftness, always arranging it with an eye trained and accustomed to watch for picturesque effect. In the docks, in the Parks, at the opera, at a penny gaff, all the intermediate shades between abject poverty and the pride of wealth find in M. Doré the same quick-witted, sharp, unsympathetic observer. He is one of the most successful of modern artists, and of the most successful he is perhaps one of the emptiest. He gives us sketches in which the commonest, the vulgarest external features are set down with an unsparing and vigorous hand. In this, if we are content with this, he is supreme, but if we look beyond these sharply-defined outlines we find a blank. It is rarely indeed that he handles any subject in such a way that we are tempted to ask him to give us more in it, so that we may dwell upon it longer; we are generally satisfied with a glance, with a minute's amusement and wonder. But in the present work M. Doré now and again (as, for instance, in the sleeping group which heads chap, xxi.) touches matter so full of pathos, that we are drawn instinctively to ponder it, and dwell long and inquisitively upon the lines which present it to us with such a semblance of fitting solemnity and grandeur. It is with a deep sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment that we turn away; our long scrutiny has yielded us nothing beyond the sharp-cut, unvarying, inexorable first impression.
- pp 340-341, The Westminster Review, Volume 99, 1873

It's not hard to see what the critics disliked.  Doré's depiction of people is Hogarthian, the city permanently in hard chiaroscuro, and I strongly suspect he exaggerated crowd density to make the images more busy. Nevertheless, the engravings convey brilliantly the contrasts of a city that was, in modern terms, the equivalent of a Third World megalopolis, combining conspicuous wealth with astonishing poverty.  Peter Ackroyd's introduction and appreciation in the 2005 Anthem Press reprint is worth reading.

London: A Pilgrimage features some of Doré's most iconic works such as the Father Thames title image, Over London–by Rail, Newgate Exercise Yard, and, at the end, Macaulay's New Zealander contemplating the ruins of London.  There's a searchable electronic edition online at the Tufts Digital Library - here - and Cardiff University's London and Literature in the Nineteenth Century site has a selection of the engravings. See GUSTAVE DORÉ AND BLANCHARD JERROLD, London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

1. According to the historical currency conversion site Measuring Worth, £10,000 in 1870 is equivalent to around £700,000 based on retail price index, or nearly £6M measured against average earnings.
- Ray

Addendum upgraded from comments. Felix Grant writes:

As an afterthought ... could I mention two current editions of Doré's wonderful series?

My own copy is from Dover's "Pictorial Archive":
Dore, G. and B.L.a.p. Jerrold, Doré's London : all 180 illustrations from London, a pilgrimage. 2004, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover ; Newton Abbot : David & Charles. 0486432726 (pbk) : £10.95.

Or, for a newer and UK published hardback alternative:
Dore, G. and V. Purton, Doré's London : all 180 images from the original London series with selected writings. 2008, London: Foulsham. 9780572034320 or 0572034326 (cased) : £16.99.

Excellent - thanks!


  1. Is that ten thousand pounds in 1870, or as adjusted for inflation to current values?