Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Daydreams and Night Things: Punch’s George du Maurier

By John Adcock

George du Maurier’s dream strip “Tom Noddy’s Christmas Nightmare” was drawn in late 1891 and echoed in its title an earlier strip by John Leech from Punch Vol. 28, March 10, 1855, “Mr. Tom Noddy’s First Day With the Hounds After the Long Frost.” Leech’s “Mr. Tom Noddy” appeared in four full-panel strip pages and two single-panel cartoons over the following weeks. Leech was not the originator of sequential comic art in Punch, and “Mr. Tom Noddy” was not the first recurring character. Volume 14 of Punch for 1853 carried eight pages of “Mr. Peter Piper” by an unknown artist, and in Punch, Vol. 28, 1855, there were two series, one featuring the character “Mr. Spoonbill,” and a two-part “Mr. Popplewit.”

Both Leech and du Maurier’s works were reproduced by wood engraving but the technology had changed by the nineties. John Leech was of the old school, he had been drawing comicalities on the wood soon after C.J. Grant illustrated the “Pickwick Songster.” John Leech (signing J.L.), in company with the brothers Cruikshank, Robert Seymour, and Kenny Meadows, contributed comic cuts to Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle.

In February 1836, young Charles Dickens, a reporter on the Morning Chronicle, agreed to write a serial text to accompany comic prints by the caricaturist Robert Seymour. The first installment on March 31, 1836, was entitled “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club containing a faithful record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding members.” These numbers were edited by “Boz” (as Dickens signed) for Chapman & Hall, and contained four comic illustrations by Robert Seymour.

“Pickwick” was modeled on the illustrated penny part serials produced by the “unstamped” and was to prove an inestimable influence on the future of comic art and the rise of the illustrated book, newspaper, and magazine. G.W.M. Reynolds’s shilling piracy “Pickwick Abroad; or, the Tour in France” was illustrated with steel engravings by caricaturist Alfred Crowquill.

Punch; or; the London Charivari was modeled on the French comic periodical Charivari, and first published on July 17, 1841. The originator of Punch was a wood-engraver named Ebenezer Landells, who passed his proprietorship on to Bradbury & Evans. The wood-engraving factory was taken over by Joseph Swain, Sr. The editor from 1841 to 1870 was Mark Lemon [with Henry Mayhew].  Shirley Brooks edited from 1870 to 1874, Tom Taylor from 1874 to 1880, and F.C. Burnand from 1880 to 1906. Each bound volume of Punch from 1842 to 1899 included a Punch’s Almanack.

When John Leech produced “Tom Noddy” he would have drawn each panel separately, in ink, onto a single block of wood. For the final printing the boxwood images would be fitted together with brass bolts to make one full page caption strip. By the time du Maurier drew “Tom Noddy’s Christmas Nightmare” in 1891 the ink drawings were photographed directly onto the boxwood. There was a good reason for the lack of speech “bubbles” in Victorian comics, and it had to do with the time-wasting cost of having woodpeckers chisel out every letter onto the wood block. Type-setting was cheaper and faster.

George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier was born in Paris on March 6, 1834 to a French father and an English mother, and educated at London, Antwerp and Dusseldorf. He studied life-drawing at Gleyre’s atelier in Paris where he befriended the Impressionist painter Whistler.

At Antwerp in 1857 du Maurier suddenly lost sight in one eye. For the rest of his life he lived in fear of total blindness. “It has poisoned all my existence,” he told an interviewer. Inspired by Leech’s cartoons in the Punch’s Almanack he moved to London in hopes of gaining a berth on Punch. His friendship with Charles Keene [elected to the Punch staff in 1860], who drew full comic pages before du Maurier took his knife to the Punch Table, was probably a factor in his own adoption of the comic strip format.

The young du Maurier was a snob, who looked forward to the day “when illustrating for the millions (swinish multitude) à la Phiz and à la Gilbert will give place to real art, more expensive to print and engrave and therefore only within the means of more educated classes, who will appreciate more.” [The Young George Du Maurier, p.36, April 1861]

Du Maurier was referring to illustration, and it seems was unaware that in 1851 and 1852 two installments of “The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman,” a strip by Cuthbert Bede, were published in The Illustrated London News. This high quality experiment led to full-page color and b&w comic strip pages in The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Most of the artistic contributors had trained in Fine Art and worked as illustrators on magazines, books, and illustrated comic papers.

His background was in the Fine Arts and he was primarily an illustrator. The older generation of book and magazine illustrators, Cruikshank, “Phiz,” and Leech, were caricaturists first and foremost. Du Maurier had a tough time getting started in illustration. In the beginning he was entirely dependent on sales to Once a Week, Good Words, the occasional Punch cartoon or initial letter.

His first contribution to Punch was a single-panel design published October 6, 1860. Du Maurier used himself, the painter Whistler, T.R. Lamont, and the photographer Herbert Watkins as models for the characters. He was to continue this practice, using his own wife, children, friends and dogs as models for his cartoons. Portrayals of “Mr. and Mrs. Tom Tit” and “Tom Noddy” were based on du Maurier and his family. Du Maurier was still a freelance, hoping for a staff job at Punch, and used Whistler’s image again in a tiny caricature initial letter “Q.” 

It was not until John Leech lay dying in 1864 that du Maurier became a full-fledged member of the Punch staff. He was proposed by Tenniel and Keene and accepted on November 1, 1864, immediately taking over John Leech’s job designing the cartoons for the latest Punch’s Almanack. “Don’t do funny things,” advised Mark Lemon, “do the graceful side of life; be the tenor in Punch’s opera-bouffe.”

The majority of du Maurier’s cartoons were single-panel jokes which took place in the drawing rooms of the upper-middle classes and outdoor scenes on country estates. There was another side to his art, strip-like panels based on dreams and nightmares. Henry James Jr. wrote in 1888, in The Century, that 

“we fancy him much more easily representing quiet, harmonious things than depicting deeds of violence. It is a noticeable fact that in “Punch,” where he has his liberty, he very seldom represents such deeds. His occasional departure from this habit are of a sportive and fantastic sort, in which he ceases to pretend to be real; like the dream of the timorous Jenkins (February 15, 1868), who sees himself hurled to destruction by a colossal, foreshortened cab-horse. Du Maurier’s fantastic – we speak of the extreme manifestations of it – is always admirable, ingenious, unexpected, pictorial; so much so, that we have often wondered that he should not have cultivated this vein more largely.”

George du Maurier achieved fame as a writer with two novels that had dreamlike qualities; Peter Ibbetson (1891) and Trilby (1894). A third novel, The Martian, was being serialized in Harper’s when du Maurier died in London, on October 8, 1896, of heart and lung weaknesses, probably brought on by his excessive lifelong nicotine habit.

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