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Thackeray's Drawings

The advertisements of publishers make a very pleasant sort of reading. They offer, as it were, a distant prospect of the great works of the future, looming in a golden haze of expectation. A gentleman or lady may acquire a reputation for wide research by merely making a careful study of the short paragraphs in the literary papers.

There are three classes of people who take an interest in letters. There are the persons who read books; the much larger class which reads reviews; and, again, they who merely skim over the advertisements of new works. The last set live in a constant enjoyment of the pleasure of expectation; they pretend to themselves that some day they will find time to peruse the volumes in the birth of which they are interested, but, in fact, they live in the future. They are a month ahead of their friends who read reviews, and six months of the students who actually devour books themselves. Not only these eager lovers of literary "shop," but all friends of English humour, must be glad to see that a collection of Mr. Thackeray's sketches and drawings has been prepared for publication.

When the news spread over England of Mr. Thackeray's sudden death, it was felt that a personal loss had been sustained by every one who cared for books and for style. Other men might write themselves out, their invention might become weary; and, indeed, Mr. Thackeray himself felt this fatigue. He wished he could get some one to do "the business" of his stories he told the world in a "Roundabout Paper." The love-making parts of "the business" annoyed him, and made him blush, in the privacy of his study, "as if he were going into an apoplexy." Some signs of this distaste for the work of the novelist were obvious, perhaps, in "Philip," though they did not mar the exquisite tenderness and charm of "Denis Duval." However that might be, his inimitable style was as fresh as ever, with its passages of melancholy, its ease, its flexible strength, and unlooked-for cadences. It was the talk about life, and the tone of that talk, which fell silent when Thackeray died, that we all felt as an irremediable loss. There is an old story that Pindar had never in his lifetime written an ode in praise of Persephone, the goddess of death and the dead, and that after he had departed from among living men, his shade communicated to the priests a new hymn on the Queen of Hades. The works of great writers published after their decease have somewhat of the charm of this fabled hymn; they are voices, familiar and unlocked for, out of the silence. They are even stranger, when they have such a slight and homelike interest as the trifles that fell unheeded from the pen or pencil of one who has done great things in poetry or art. Mr. Thackeray's sketches in the "Orphan of Pimlico" are of this quality--caricatures thrown off to amuse children who are now grown men and women. They have the mark of the old unmistakable style, humorous and sad, and, as last remains, they are to be welcomed and treasured.

Mr. Thackeray's skill with the pencil bore very curious relations to his mastery of the other art, in which lay his strength, but to which perhaps he never gave his love. Everyone has heard how, when a young man, he was anxious to illustrate "Pickwick," which found more fitting artists in Seymour and H. K. Browne. Mr. Thackeray seems to have been well aware of the limitations of his own power as a draughtsman. In one of his "Roundabout Papers" he described the method--the secret so to say--of Rubens; and then goes on to lament the impotence of his own hand, the "pitiful niggling," that cannot reproduce the bold sweep of Ruben's brush.

Thackeray was like Theophile Gautier, who began life as a painter, and who has left to posterity a wonderful etching of his own portrait, pale, romantic, with long sweeping moustache, and hair falling over his shoulders. Both writers found their knowledge of the technique of painting useful in making their appreciation of art and nature more keen and versatile. But Mr. Thackeray's powers had another field--he really did succeed in illustrating some of his own writings. Accomplished his style never was. There was a trace of the old school of caricature in the large noses and thin legs which he gave his figures. Nor was his drawing very correct; the thin legs of the heroes of "The Virginians" are often strangely contorted. He has even placed a thumb on the wrong side of a hand! For all that, he gave to many of his own characters a visible embodiment, which another artist would have missed. Mr. Frederick Walker, for instance, drew Philip Firmin admirably--a large, rough man, with a serious and rather worn face, and a huge blonde beard. Mr. Walker's Philip has probably become the Philip of many readers, but he was not Mr. Thackeray's. It is delightful to be sure, on the other hand, that we have the author's own Captain Costigan before us, in his habit as he lived--the unshaven chin, the battered hat, the high stock, the blue cloak, the whiskeyfied stare, and the swagger. Mr. Thackeray did not do his young men well. Arthur Pendennis is only himself as he sits with Warrington over a morning paper; in his white hat and black band at the Derby, he has not the air of a gentleman. Harry Foker is either a coarse exaggeration, or the modern types of Fokers have improved in demeanour on the great prototype. But Costigan is always perfect; and the nose and wig of Major Pendennis are ideally correct. In his drawings of women, Mr. Thackeray very much confined himself to two types. There was the dark-eyed, brown-haired, bright-complexioned girl who was his favourite--Laura, Betsinda, Amelia; and the blonde, ringletted, clever, and false girl--Becky, Blanche, Angelica, who was the favourite of the reader. He did not always succeed in making them pretty, though there is a beautiful head of Amelia, in a court dance at Pumpernickel; but he always made the dark young lady look honest, and the fair young minx look a thing all soul and enthusiasm.

It was a note of Mr. Thackeray's art, and probably one among other proofs that the higher fields of art were closed to him, that his success by no means corresponded to the amount of pains he took with his work. His drawings which appeared as steel engravings, were not unfrequently weak, while his sketches on the wood and his lithographs were much more free and masterly. There is, indeed, a sketch on the steel of poor Pen tossing feverishly in his mother's comforting arms, which is full of passion and life and sentiment. But it was rare that success attended his ambition, and, indeed, another drawing of Pen and his mother admiring a sunset might have come out of a book of fashions of that remote period. It was in his initial letters and slight designs that Thackeray showed his best powers. There is much wistful tenderness in the little Marquise's face as she trips down a rope-ladder in an initial letter of Vanity Fair. The bewigged shepherds and powdered shepherdesses of his favourite period are always reproduced with grace, and the children of his drawings are almost invariably charming. In the darker moods, when "man delighted him not, nor woman either," children did not fail to please him, and he sketched them in a hundred pathetic attitudes. There are the little brother and sister of the doomed House of Gaunt, sitting under the ancestral sword that seems ready to fall. There is little Rawdon Crawley, manly and stout, in his great coat, watching the thin little cousin Pitt, whom he was "too big a dog to play with." There is the printer's devil, asleep at Pen's door; and the small boy in "Dr. Birch," singing in his nightgown to the big boy in bed. There is Betsinda dancing with her plum-bun in "The Rose and the Ring." The burlesque drawings of that delightful child's book are not its least attraction. Not arriving at the prettiness of Mr. Tenniel, and the elegance of Mr. Du Maurier, and falling far short of their ingenious fantasy, they are yet manly delineations of great adventures. The count kicking the two black men into space is a powerful design, full of action; and it would be hard to beat the picture of the fate of Gruffanuf's husband. These and the rest are old friends, and there are hosts of quaint scribblings, signed with the mark of a pair of spectacles, scattered through the pages of Punch.


Andrew Lang