ublished in November 1859 after a long gestation, Bennett’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress is an interesting book for many reasons. As noted in the previous section, it represents the artist’s single attempt at dramatic illustration rather than humour; it is also significant as a work dividing opinion, and for the problems attending its publication.
Some modern critics describe it as the finest of Bennett’s achievements, a view epitomised by Goldman’s high praise of what he considers ‘an unjustly neglected masterpiece’ (p.230). However, contemporaries were less certain. As in criticism of his work as a whole his old-fashioned style was harshly assessed, and many thought his physiognomies were forced and artificial. As one reviewer notes in The Literary Gazette, his portraits may ‘degenerate into gross character’, an accusation worsened by the charge of repetitiveness (p.446). This hostility is typical of responses to an illustrator whose books were popular with his audience, but often disliked by critics who thought humour and cleverness were insufficient virtues in themselves.
Such may have been the difficulties presented to the artist when he proposed the book to a series of publishers. Bennett conceived the edition as a vehicle for his illustrations, but was only able to develop his project when he gained the support of Charles Kingsley, who agreed to write a lengthy preface in support of the quality of his work. On this premise the work was adopted by Longmans, then one of the foremost companies issuing gift books. However, Bennett’s ownership of the concept was compromised by Kingsley’s involvement. In his Preface the author gives the impression that he is objectively describing Bennett’s response to Bunyan’s prose; in reality, however, the artist’s strategy is largely bound by the advice Kingsley gave to him. We cannot know for sure, but it is quite likely that the illustrator followed Kingsley’s specifications so as to ensure the tome would be published. These apparently ‘kindly … hints’ are given in a surviving letter (p.105).
The illustrator, Kingsley counsels, should attempt to subjugate his vision to the writer’s, and be a servant of the text: ‘Trying to illustrate a poem, you must put the visions on paper as they appeared to the seer himself’ (p.105) but should never ‘lose sight of beauty of form’ (p.103). He goes on to say that two elements should be paramount:
There is a strong German (Albert Durer) element which you must express, viz., 1st, a tendency to the grotesque in imagination; 2nd. a tendency to spiritual portraiture of the highest kind, not by abstracting all individual traits … but by throwing in strong individual traits drawn from common life (p.104).
All three elements (beauty, the grotesque and observation of nature) are embodied in Bennett’s response. The grotesque informs his visualization of the vices and is especially apparent in Mistrust (facing p.44), Discontent (p.82) and Mr Save-All and Money Love (p.126).
Examples of the grotesque and the ideal in Bennett's illustrations of The Pilgrim’s Progress: (a) Piety. (b) Mr Save-All and Mr Money-Love. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
‘Beauty of form’, conversely, is reserved for the virtues in a series of idealised female heads (pp.49–55). Though striking and formulaic in their observation of physiognomical rules, all of these portraits could be the faces of real people, and Bennett is careful to stress their individual nature as well as their universality. He also, and notably, draws in an outline or ‘German style’ in the manner Kingsley suggests. Nowhere else does he present images in the idiom of H. C. Selous and August Moritz Retzsch, and his adoption of this idiom must represent his sponsor’s intervention.
Bennett’s illustrations for The Pilgrim’s Progress must thus be read as atypical works reflecting the involvement of a collaborator whose support was absolutely a necessity. Used to creating everything for himself and in accordance with his own, highly idiosyncratic requirements, Bennett must have felt a sense of limitation. Nevertheless, his tendency to transgress the conventional is felt throughout, testing the restrictions of Kingsley’s advice. This is especially felt in the many faces where levity seems to break through the seriousness of the project; the grotesque is never far away and without a caption identifying the subject it is sometimes difficult to tell which is virtue, and which vice.
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Last modified 29 March 2014