Introduction: Hughes as an illustrator

Edward Hughes (1832–1908) was a highly successful painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy, The British Institute, and The Grosvenor Gallery, displaying over the period from 1847 to 1892 a total of 69 works. He is best known for his genre pieces in the manner of Thomas Faed and in his later career for his portraits of the aristocracy, which strongly recall the ‘fancy’ pictures of J. E. Millais. Feted by the Victorian elite, Hughes’s art commanded high prices; his early work displayed a Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail, and his pictures produced in the final parts of the century are lavish and showy in the manner of Victorian impressionism, with a flamboyant emphasis on bright tones and light effects.

Both idioms embody a sharp understanding of the subject. Hughes was admired by his fellow-artists and drew approving comments. Millais – whose work he imitated – was thoroughly impressed, noting how many artists could draw a man, but Hughes was distinguished by his capacity to ‘paint a portrait of a lady’ (qtd. Milner). He is less well-known, however, as an illustrator in black and white. Though mentioned in passing by Gleeson White (1897) and Forrest Reid (1928), his illustrative work has never been examined in detail.

Hughes was nevertheless an accomplished designer. His illustrations appeared in a variety of publications; like many of his contemporaries, he enhanced his earnings in the sale-rooms by drawing on wood for the periodicals, placing sensitive and interesting work in Good Words in 1865 and following this up, in 1866, with sundry commissions for The Shilling Magazine, The Sunday Magazine, and Once a Week.

His most sustained and various designs appeared in Once a Week. For a few years after 1866 he seems to have retired from drawing for periodicals, a development that no doubt reflected his growing success as a painter. However, he returned to the printed page in 1871–72. In 1871 he placed an image in The Quiver (facing p. 616), and in 1872 undertook a major collaboration with George du Maurier, with whom he co-illustrated Wilkie Collins’s sensational tale of blindness and intrigue, Poor Miss Finch. Such work forms a coherent whole, and can be characterized in terms of a number of interests and concerns; clearly influenced by others, Hughes’s art is often eclectic.

Hughes, the poor, and the middle-classes

Hughes was from a middle-class background, but was centrally interested in the life of the working-classes. Usually presented in the form of genre-compositions that frame the characters in a domestic interior, his work focuses on small dramas, always conveyed with sympathy and psychological insight. Alice Hughes, her father’s biographer, notes his ‘intense inner refinement’ and tendency to be ‘sensitive to atmosphere’ (qtd. Milner), and these qualities are exhibited in his treatment of humble subjects. His best designs in this manner appeared in The Sunday Magazine, and contributed to the journal’s emphasis on compassion and charitable deeds by showing the poor in sympathetic terms, a project also carried forward by the hard-hitting designs of George Pinwell. Quieter in approach than Pinwell, whose work has a raw directness, Hughes is especially effective in his showing of working-class matrons as they tend to their children, a recurring motif exemplified by ‘The Bitter and the Sweet’ (The Sunday Magazine, 1866, facing p. 249), ‘The First Tooth’ (1866, facing p. 337) and ‘The Breton Mother’(Once a Week, February 10, 1866, p.155). These images are realistic treatments of domestic life, both in the representation of the figures and in the sharp detailing of the cottage interiors, which provide a journalistic portrait of the realities of straitened circumstances. Idiosyncratic in his treatment of these elements, Hughes’s work also recalls the illustrations of Robert Barnes.

Two illustrations by Hughes. Left: The First Tooth Right: Under a cottage roof. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

However, Hughes differs from Barnes in his capacity to shift idioms, representing the middle-classes with as much facility as he shows the poor. He drew a sustained series of designs for Jean Boncoeur’s Adriana, a tale of marriage and privilege which appeared in Once a Week in 1866. These images are interiors, with the same emphasis on small gestures and psychological interplay as the artist deploys in his treatment of genre-scenes. However, for these illustrations he uses a spare, uncluttered style; the drama is pared down to its essentials and the settings are shown in crisp outlines, with little interest in hatching or the depiction of detail. The effect is one of intensified emotion, notably in the death-bed scene (Once a Week, May 26, p.579) and again in the imperious confrontation between Adriana and Mr. Etheredge (May 12, p.522). These clean, economical drawings fit impressively within the magazine’s dense columns, arresting the dense flow of print with still, uncluttered compositions. Perhaps self-consciously, they recall the clarity and directness of Charles Keene’s illustrations for earlier Once a Week serials, notably Charles Reade’s A Good Fight (July–December 1859), and George Meredith’s Evan Harrington (February–October, 1860).

Hughes’s capacity to show weighted moments is also displayed in his scenes of the middle-classes at play: good examples are ‘An Idyll of the Hayfield’, an image almost painfully beautiful in its drawing of the lovers’ faces (Once a Week, 23 June 1866, p.687), and the illustration for Major Hervey’s Wedding (May 19, p.547), which shows a parallel sensitivity to portraiture and gesture.

Hughes’s illustrative style might thus be summarized as a combination of social reportage, sensitive characterization, a clear understanding of drama, and a capacity to suggest psychological nuance. These qualities are realized with a responsive and sometimes febrile line. Composed as if they were paintings, several of the illustrations were re-visited in the form of works in oil, or were based on existing canvases; it is noticeable, for example, that ‘The first tooth’ is derived from a painting of 1863 (now in the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, U.K.). This sharing of motifs can be traced in other works for the printed page, and one of Hughes’s distinguishing features is his disregard, as such, for the effects of black and white. For him, illustrations were strictly conceived as smaller versions of painterly images, even when they were originals and not derived from works done in colour.

Though only a small outcrop of a larger career, Hughes’s illustrations can be read the within the contexts of ‘Sixties’ design. Although unmistakeable, his art sometimes recalls the early illustrations of Millais and also shares some similarities with the work of du Maurier, with whom he co-illustrated the American version of Collins’s Poor Miss Finch. Published in a single volume by Harpers in 1872, this novel provided Hughes with several opportunities to deploy his sharp eye for social interactions, although his best work is probably to be found in the periodicals rather than in the pages of Collins’s text.

Often designated as one of the lesser illustrators of the period, Hughes does not deserve his lowly status. A thoughtful artist of high technical ability and a compassionate chronicler of the ‘lower ranks’, his contribution to the art of ‘The Sixties’ is a significant one, and should take its place next to the illustrations of Millais, Pinwell, Barnes, du Maurier and Keene.

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. Poor Miss Finch. ‘With numerous illustrations’. NY: Harper, 1872.

Good Words. London: Strahan, 1865.

Milner, J.D. ‘Hughes, Edward (1832 –1908)’. rev. Mark Pottle. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34041, accessed 2 April 2013].

Once a Week. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1859–66.

Quiver, The. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1871.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Sixties. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975.

Shilling Magazine, The. London: Thomas Bosworth, 1866.

Sunday Magazine, The. London: Strahan, 1866.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration: ‘The Sixties’, 1855-70. London: Constable, 1897.


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Last modified 22 April 2013