Introduction: life and controversy

Charles Altamont Doyle (1832–93) was born into a distinguished family. His father, John Doyle, was a celebrated cartoonist; Charles was his youngest son. His brothers were Richard (the celebrated Punch designer); James, the writer and illustrator of English history; and Henry, who was the first director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Charles was an illustrator of books and periodicals, although his work has always been eclipsed by Richard’s greater achievement. He is now mainly remembered as the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and as a man who had a problematic and challenging life.

The facts of Charles’s life and circumstances were largely obscure until they were re-established by Michael Baker in 1978. Baker discovered and published a sketchbook produced by Doyle during his time in an asylum, Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries, where he spent the final ten years or so of his life. The sketchbook is essentially an autobiographical document, and drawing on this and other material Baker presents a detailed biography.

Doyle’s career was uneventful. He secured a post aged seventeen in the Scottish Office of Works, Edinburgh, where he was employed as an assistant surveyor. He continued there for most of his working career, holding a variety of related jobs, although he was never, as some commentators have claimed, an architect. During this period (from the mid-fifties to the mid -seventies) he supplemented his income by producing a variety of drawings on wood; these ranged from books for children to satirical prints in London Society (1863). Like his brother Richard he was essentially a comic artist, working in the same tradition as their father, and sharing with Richard a fascination with fairies and child-like imaginings. He had numerous commissions, did this work in addition to his more conventional employment, and must have had a complex routine.

Economic survival was nevertheless a considerable problem. He was the father of numerous children and the household was poverty-stricken. This situation was exacerbated by his alleged laziness, lack of application, and poor health. In an unaccountably hostile account of his life Christopher Redmond describes him as ‘weak and ineffectual’, ‘shiftless’, ‘an epilectic’, ‘possibly insane and definitely an alcoholic’ (p.151). Yet others take a more sympathetic view. Arthur Conan Doyle remarks that he was ‘unworldly and impractical’ (qtd, Gerwe, p.207) and refers to him in only lightly coded terms, and with some affection, throughout his tales of Sherlock Holmes.

It is likely that Charles suffered from anxiety and depression, although he may have been committed to Crichton as a means of treating his alcoholism rather than a mental illness. The Victorians sometimes hid embarrassing ailments or compulsions from people outside the family under the guise of hospitalization, and Charles may have been sectioned by his immediate family because his behaviour was socially unacceptable. His conduct at Crichton appears to have been outspoken and defiant rather than pathological, and in the absence of modern diagnosis it is impossible to make any judgements.

Nevertheless, the strange dislocations of scale and subject-matter that appear in his paintings and sketchbook have led some commentators to re-frame the unfortunate Doyle as another example of the classic ‘mad artist’ – a new Victorian anti-hero to compare (and compete) with Richard Dadd and ‘Mad’ John Martin. With little practical evidence beyond the fact of his incarceration, Chris Frith and Eve Johnstone present one of his paintings as a typical example of schizophrenic art (p.66), and this is a characteristic view. Labelled as idle, a drunk, and/or a madman, Doyle is too often treated as a freak: in Baker’s terms, a ‘strange and curious case’, rather than an artist in his own right. His work deserves closer investigation.

Charles Doyle as an Illustrator

Charles Doyle has been accused of laziness, yet the facts of his life refute this assertion. On the contrary, he was highly productive. In addition to his job as a civil servant he still had time to illustrate or co-illustrate at least twenty three books, while providing numerous designs for periodicals. His major works included a series of illustrations for Our Trip to Blunderland (1877) by Lewis Carroll, versions of Robinson Cruscoe (1861) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1860), The Queens of Society (1872), and Beauty and the Beast (undated, late 1860s).

His subjects were diverse, and ranged from histories (as in The Queens of Society) to literary illustration, notably in his respectable but unexceptional treatment of Robinson Cruscoe. But Doyle had two main areas of expertise: he was a social commentator with a sharp eye for idiosyncrasy, and he excelled in children’s books, visualizing an imaginative world of fairies, giants and imps with dry and sometimes surreal humour. Satire and fantasy were the twin domains of his art, and both elements are embodied in a style which combines cartoon-like sketchiness, caricature, the grotesque, and a nervous, dynamic line.

Sometimes these elements overlap, and there are many occasions where Doyle fuses the child-like and the knowing. Good examples can be found in Roses and Holly (1867), notably in an amusing image of Don Quixote caught up in the windmill vane and again in the comic personification of Mrs Partington. In these designs an adult commission is infused with a nursery-book lightness of touch. The same is also true of his illustrations for ‘Moody Robinson’s’ Coelebs the Younger in Search of a Wife [1859]. The book is a light entertainment addressing a serious theme, and Doyle combines social observation with broad burlesque and some lyrical touches, especially in his decorative title page.

Stylistically, his work is essentially in the manner of comic design that was popular in the 1840s and 50s and was practised by John Leech, George Cruikshank, Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) and others who worked for Punch and Fun. The effect is untutored, based, as in the work of these contemporaries, on cartoonish exaggeration rather than copying from nature. Doyle was educated at home by his father and like his brother Richard was never the recipient of advanced training. Hampered by this limitation, his drawing is still of a high quality. His work often recalls Leech’s, and occasionally displays the grotesque excess of Cruikshank; there is also a relationship between his art and the gauche designs of W. M. Thackeray, particularly those of Vanity Fair (1847–48). Charles’s closest influence, however, was the illustrative style of his brother Richard.

The work of the two Doyles often intermingles, and it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between them. There is a marked relationship, for example, between Charles’s illustrations for Coelebs (1859) and those by Richard for Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1854–55). Charles’s treatment of the drawing-room comedy has many echoes in Richard’s treatments, and the title-page for Coelebs owes much to the title of volume one of The Newcomes (1854).

Charles’s fairies are similarly linked to Richard’s, and there is an interesting connection between the artist’s sketchbook (late 1880s) and his brother’s masterpiece, the illustrations for William Allingham’s In Fairyland (1869–70). Supposedly the product of a deranged mind, Charles’s drawings recreate some of the visual field of Richard’s book; tiny figures cavort among the leaves and flowers as they do in Fairyland, and Charles also presents the strange mixture of animals and figures that is central to his brother’s visionary world. Distortions of scale and lurid excesses of colour provide another link, and it is reasonable to assume that many of Charles’s drawings were produced with Richard’s in mind.

There are differences too. In Fairyland contains many examples of latent violence and sexual suggestiveness (Cooke, pp.159–64), but the sketchbook is far more explicit, with juxtapositions of aggressive ugliness and images of child-like innocence. One of the best of these is the illustration of a harlequin about to club a ballerina with a baton. She looks on, with no awareness of her fate: another example of the naïve and knowing that is so characteristic of his unsettling manner.

We will probably never know the realities of Charles’s mental condition and what affect it had on his career as an artist. Much of his work is routine, driven forward by financial necessity, and there is no doubt that his images derive at least some of their energy from his brother’s example. Nevertheless, a good portion of his output is genuinely amusing, well-drawn and sophisticated. It does not seem like the work of a madman, although it does embody a sensibility that was able to draw on the strange contrasts of dreams. This is nonsense in an Irish tradition, a delight in puns and unsettling images, but not necessarily the outpourings of a maniac.

Works Cited and Sources of Information

Allingham, William. In Fairyland. Illustrated by Richard Doyle. London: Longmans, 1870 [1869].

Baker, Michael. The Doyle Diary. London: Paddington Press, 1978.

Cooke, Simon. ‘Richard Doyle’s In Fairyland.’The Private Library, 5th Series, 8:4 (Winter 2005): 153–171.

Engen, Rodney. Richard Doyle. Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Frith, Chris, and Johnstone, Eve. Schizophrenia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gerwe, Corinne F. The Orchestration of Joy and Understanding: Understanding Chronic Addication. New York: Algora, 2001.

‘Robinson, Moody’ Coelebs the Younger in Pursuit of a Wife. London: Hogg, n.d. [1859].

Roses and Holly. Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1867.

Thackeray, W. M. The Newcomes. Illustrated by Richard Doyle. 2 vols. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854–55.


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Last modified 8 June 2013