Sandys And Boyd Houghton
( Originally Published 1921 )
FOLLOWING closely upon the Pre-Raphaelites with their devoted and high-minded fastidiousness came the school of domestic illustrators of the Sixties—aiming in general not so high, and taking their task with a lighter heart. Millais himself relaxed, and most of his work in later days was of less importance than that of Sandys, Houghton and Keene of the same time. The charm of this work lay largely in its robustious common sense, and common humanity. There was a full acceptance of things and people as they are without any affectation of high art, or that things are other to an artist than to other mortals except in the greater intensity of the artist's interest. The world they lived in was good enough for them—and no art too good or " high " to express their view of it. There was a healthy and simple relish about the way they took life —so that the affectations and languors of the Eighties and the decadence that marked the Nineties form a strange sequel to so full-blooded a parentage. The art of the Sixties had been the most British—even the most English—expression yet found since Hogarth, although of the Pre-Raphaelite leaders Millais, John Bullish as he was in appearance, being a Jerseyman, was presumably predominantly French in blood Rossetti was half Italian. The influences they had first chosen were mediaeval and foreign. But Pinwell, Houghton, Pettie, Keene, Lawless, Mahoney were all British, and, with the exception of Sandys, submitted to no influence in art that was not already rooted in England, and drew their inspiration direct and almost entirely from the life of the time, preferably even in the choice of their subject matter.
It is curious to turn up the subject matter of many of the finest drawings of the Sixties in order to study what inspiration they could find in the text supplied. For instance, in spite of the renown of Borrow at the present day, and his pride as a linguist, philologist or translator, it would be safe to wager that ten literary men who know and admire Sandys' drawing, " Harold Harfagr," to one who knows what it illustrates.
Orrow's translation is as flat and unfinished as Sandys' illustration is still breathing and living art—one of the perfect and impressive compositions that this world has produced. In spite of Sandys' obvious and general debt to Durer, he appears in this drawing freer from any outside influence than is usual with him ; and for once, for all his restraint, to have been almost evenly swayed by intellect and emotion. Not a line went astray, no detail obtruded itself, nor did the interest of the mass call for its suppression. In spite of the severity of the line which makes" itself felt throughout, and all the underlying austerity, there is a weight and solemnity of tone that conveys all the richness of sunset colour, and the sound the gravity and dignity of an organ.
The sympathies of Sandys are spread evenly over living and inanimate objects, and he presents them to us with an impartial precision. His style is undisguisedly modelled upon that of Durer—even the nature at times shows traces of the influence—but he remains curiously selff-possessed, as though even in his most consistent admiration his is a bloodless and regulated passion of the mind rather than of the heart.
The art of Boyd Houghton offers an interesting subject for comparison with that of Sandys. Nothing could be more hearty and vigorous in attack, nor more human in sympathy. His love of children, of the healthy beauty of woman, of youth and old age, his delight in fantastic character, his joy in the jolly rotundity of a man in a train, of the Emperor of China, or of Sancho Panza, no less than in the leanness of Don Quixote—his acceptance of the decorative value of the curly Victorian furniture and the crinoline, his delight in glorious masses of flowing hair, point to a full, even at times a riotous, enjoyment of the passing show, in which his sympathies gave him an actual part, rather than made him a detached spectator. His work gives evidence of an unfailing interest in oddities of character or pose : he seizes upon what an academic mind regards as negligible or casts aside as waste. His power of dramatic representation of emotion is unsurpassed. The languishment of Beder in love, the abandon of the Remorse of Camaralzaman, the pathos of the death of the old gardener, the passion in the meeting of the Prince and Badoura, the tenderness of " My Treasure," are fine examples. He fills the allotted space of his design in such a way as to appear not only to enrich it with life and colour, but definitely to expand it, as though the surrounding line were the sash of a window through which we look out upon the world he would take us into. There is no drawing more perfect in its kind in the world than the tiny masterpiece, " Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son." The piper is a figure to haunt a dream ; his skinny, avaricious knuckles, the row of malicious teeth, and the glitter of his eyes, are a miracle of appreciative draughtsmanship. Throughout not a touch goes astray either in character or rhythm, which are here blended in a manner inspired. The original drawing, which I have had in my hand many times, always impressed me as being remarkable for its largeness of handling on so tiny a scale, no more than 3 1/2 in. by 5 in. In a reproduction we have grown so used to a factitious delicacy achieved by reduction that it is remarkable how this drawing can hold its own in this very particular against drawings so reduced. So far from gaining, it would undoubtedly lose by reduction ; but it would make a nobly decorative design enlarged to life size, as it would be impossible to dispose light, mass, and tone to better advantage.
The grasp, vigour, and unflagging interest he displays are extraordinary. There is never a lifeless composition of models to be found—the note is always personal and has always a direct appeal to the eye. He never relies only upon his skill as a draughtsman to carry him through, but puts all his heart into the work in hand without shirking. Rapid or careless he may be, but never listless or inert. His hand is never busy while his mind is asleep, but he gives us the sense of harmonious and instant co-operation between the two and a zest and relish which we partake with him.
Technically remarkable is his fertility of resource and mastery of cross hatching, in which he indulges freely where it will serve his purpose. It is always bold and luminous, and he manages to avoid what may be called the " flicker," which distresses the eye, not only in a pen drawing, but more still in the case of reproduction on zinc or copper, where it is frequently emphasized by the acid. A fine example to study for the variety and range of luminous tone is the " Saint's Story." It is to be remembered that the draughtsman on wood and the wood engraver have not the resources of surface printing at command to suppress the jumpiness of the squares and diamonds of white in their cross hatching that the etcher has, so that more demand is made upon his judgment in the laying of a tone. It is worth noticing that where the light falls direct upon an object, cross hatching has not been employed, except in one place to give texture to a material. The sense of bright moonlight upon varying surfaces of stone, upon the silken costume of the kneeling figure, and upon the frieze habit of the gaunt monk, is expressed with remarkable subtlety, yet in the simplest manner by more or less parallel lines of varying thickness taking generally the direction of the form. The thicknesses of these lines and their proportion to the white space between them shows how valuable the slightest difference can be made if used with economy. The upper surface of the steps is quite light in the moon, and yet their near edge is determined with vivid emphasis by the very slight additional space of light upon it dividing the upper surface with its tone of parallel lines from the darker cross hatched surface below. The varying direction of this cross hatching upon the stone is used not only to express gloom, but these lines being kept fairly open and vigorous, display and do not conceal their relative direction, and so suggest the surface of the stone itself. The shadow of the porch falls upon the standing figure as a band of solid black ; but the gloom behind him is a relieved gloom, not a solid, but an intangible space into which could be reached an unobstructed hand. In the rich shadow behind the kneeling figure the lines are practically at right angles, very close together, and fairly thick, so that the squares of white are very small. The differentiation between the solid stonework in semi-darkness and the gloom of the shadows is so simply managed that its subtlety might be overlooked, and will, perhaps, only be fully appreciated by a line draughtsman. It is difficult in Boyd Houghton's work to trace any influence of any kind, except that of the impact of life, which, as an artist, he passed on through the medium of whatever job came his way as an illustrator. The world to him seems to have been a round world with fat and jolly men in it, and women who, for all their grace, were solid and real, not anaemic outlines of angels. When they walked they trod upon the ground, like Shakespeare's mistress. He was untroubled (or showed no trouble) by any hampering theory of style such as in one direction enlarged, and in another cramped, the work of Sandys ; and was ready at all times to vary his methods according to the matter in hand, and to restrain himself or let himself go according to his humour. Yet a Houghton is always immediately recognizable through all his variations by a large handsomeness of design ; a voluptuousness of sweeping curve a love of the unexpected and odd in line, character and place—running often enough to the fantastic and contorted even in real life, as in the American series, and such drawings as he made direct from his own unfiltered London experience. The emphasis he brings to bear is not primarily upon the changing aspect of things, as was Charles Keene's, but upon salient points of significance and solid form in a condition of significant action which made a natural rhythm. Things were things—they were outside him at this or that distance in relation to one another in light and shade—and his vision is convincingly true in spite of the individual manner in which he presents it.
He appears to have loved children, and he illustrated a whole book full of them on which, while not his greatest artistic performance, he lavished more care than upon any other. He does not sentimentalize or idealize them : he loved their fat little legs, and observed their ways as they were, with an almost maternal tenderness and amusement. They have not the appearance of having been made up from " chic." The drawings are less direct, more elaborate and " finished " in technique, and fuller in tone than is usual with him, so that the subject is sometimes overlaid by general statement, but it is there underneath.
He was a great artist out of simplicity of heart, being by all accounts a great boy, who had his own tumbles and scrapes arising from a boisterous, love of life and living. Perhaps his love of life predominating over his love of Art made his art finer than if the proportions had been reversed.