he basic facts of Franklin’s life have been difficult to establish, and none of the existing reference books provides accurate information. Neither Houfe (p. 142) nor Wood (p.164) can offer dates of birth or death; the first notes that he ‘flourished’ 1800–61, and the second that he was painting from 1830 to 1868. Neither takes us far and no other generalist studies can add to these approximations. It is only by tracking Franklin’s life in the Census returns, 1851-81, that we can establish some of the facts, as far as they were known and available to official reports.
The censuses reveal that he was born in 1806 or 1807, with both dates being recorded. He was still alive in 1881, although he is not recorded in the following one in 1891. He must have died, therefore, sometime after 1881, and before 1891, or at least before the Census was taken in that year. Franklin’s dates of birth and death can thus be figured as 1806/7 – circa 1881–91. This is still fairly vague, but it is more accurate than the usual ‘1800 to 1861’. The censuses also help us to gain a better fix on his origin. He is known to have been Irish, and the government tallies explicitly identify his place of birth as Dublin.
His background and parentage are unknown, and there are no records of his lineage. The census for 1861 identifies a sibling, Maryan Whiston, who was born in Dublin in 1804, and with whom he shared a London address; he never married, and he left no known children. Nothing else can be established of his family’s status or his father’s occupation. However, it is quite likely that Franklin came from a Protestant, middle-class background, and grew up in a Protestant area of Dublin. In the terms of Samuel Carter Hall (who was himself of Irish origin), he is likely to have been ‘English–Irish’ rather than ‘Irish–Irish’ (p.109), Anglo–Irish and therefore culturally English. This claim can be made purely on the basis that Irish Catholics were unlikely to move up the career ladder as Franklin did and were under-represented in the learned professions. Most opportunities were reserved for members of the Protestant Ascendancy, and opportunities he certainly enjoyed.
His earliest training was in the Royal Dublin Society’s Schools of Drawing (RDS), which he entered in 1819 at the age of twelve. Set up in 1746–9 to promote art training in Ireland, and later supported by grants given by the British Government, the Schools consisted originally of three distinct venues: one teaching figure drawing; one landscape and ornament design; and one providing a training in architectural draughtsmanship. Sessions, which were free of charge, lasted for three hours and ran on alternate days; Franklin attended all of them and his mature art combines architectural detail, an interest in the ornamental, and a developed talent in figure-drawing.
Of his progress nothing specific is known. He made his way through the three year course, and his very invisibility suggests workmanlike diligence rather than brilliance. He gained no distinctions and does not appear to be one of the boys, as reported by the governors, who were ‘irregular in attendance and remiss in application’ (qtd Berry, p.122); however, the Schools only admitted those who could present an impressive portfolio, and Franklin’s training was essentially as one of an elite of only forty students. The Schools were theoretically open to ‘a number of young artisans and manufacturers’ (qtd. Berry, p.122), but in practice they were monopolised by the children of the Protestant bourgeoisie.
The training, like the social milieu it serviced, was conservative. Though founded before the London schools, notably represented by Sass’s and Heatherley’s, it operated a curriculum identical to those offered in England. The Schools primarily taught draughtsmanship; training, as at Sass’s and its rivals, was based on copying from antique plaster-casts and prints, studying the occasional life-model, and (on at least a couple of occasions) travelling to London to study The Elgin Marbles. Of course, the major omission was painting; as at Sass’s, the trainee artists were given no tuition whatever in the technicalities of using oil and watercolour, and the assumption, once again, was that draughtsmanship rather than colour was the fundamental skill at the heart of painting.
This emphasis is clearly reflected in Franklin’s robust linear designs, and even in old age described himself as a ‘figure’ artist. His capacity to draw was deployed during his early years as a professional artist, which seems to have commenced as soon as he finished at the RDS. However, his first successes were landscapes rather than portraits or figure-pieces. He exhibited Views of Welsh Scenery at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1826, and Views of Wicklow in 1827. During this period he continued to practise as a free-lance but in 1828, faced with the prospect of limited commissions, he re-located in London, where he quickly established a reputation for himself. Like his contemporary Daniel Maclise, who was also a Protestant (though originating in Cork rather than Dublin), he made a smooth transition from Ireland to London; both painters moved in a variety of artistic circles, and Franklin began to exhibit at the British Institution and The Royal Academy. His paintings were of diverse subjects. In 1834 he exhibited a Scene i’ th’olden timeand in 1843 A Scene from Bombastes Furioso. Both were displayed at the Royal Academy and slightly earlier, in 1842, he reasserted his Irish connection by exhibiting A Brisk Gale and A Proposal at the Hibernian in Dublin. Other works were of historical and literary themes, and in 1861 he exhibited Designs for Playing Cards at the R. A. (Graves, p.161).
Such versatility may have gained him commissions, but his paintings have entirely disappeared, and there are no known locations of any of his works in watercolour or oil, or at least no locations to be found using the research-tools available to us. His output was small, and like many of his contemporaries he was unable to make a living as a painter. He found employment, in line with so many of his contemporaries, as a graphic designer. Unusually, he became adept in all of the graphic techniques. He could draw on wood, and he was also an accomplished etcher. In 1836 he became a member of The Painters’ Etching Club (which was set up as rivals to The Etching Club and The Junior Etching Club), and, like Cruikshank and Phiz’ ‘bit’ his own plates, notably those for W. H. Ainsworth’s Old St Paul’s(1841), which bear the legend ‘etched by J. Franklin’. He was also an accomplished lithographer who drew his images on the stone and made the finished design, a skill applied later in his career to the production of free-standing topographical prints.
The spare outlines of lithography, the darkness and scratchiness of etching, and the detail of engraving on wood: Franklin could practise all of them and could garner commissions in each medium. Such technical expertise was unusual if not unique, and it suggests both facility and a canny awareness of the need to gain whatever work could be procured. As a professional strategy this flexibility bore fruit. His skills were turned to advantage, and he produced eclectic and sometimes surprising images for the print and for the printed page.
He was offered a number of commissions which were intended to monopolise on his knowledge of Ireland. Working for S. C. Hall, he co-illustrated Ireland: its Scenery and Character (1841) and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1852). For both of these books Franklin contributed small-scale, domestic scenes: some of the illustrations are wood-engraved genre scenes showing cottage-interiors, and some are interpolated vignettes of old-fashioned furniture and rudimentary gadgets. Such work suggested a knowledge of humble life in Ireland, although all of it has a sense of detachment about it; Franklin may have been Irish, but his approach is unsentimental (Kinmonth, p.171), especially when he was observing the interiors of the ‘Irish-Irish’ rather than those of his own bourgeois milieu.
Franklin’s abilities were recognised by Hall, the editor of the two Irish books, who also engaged him to work on The Book of British Ballads (1842–4). Hall’s Retrospect of a Long Life (1883) provides a rare glimpse of the artist in his professional milieu, as one of a group of contributors who received instruction directly from the editor. As Hall explains:
It was my custom to read the ballad I had determined on selecting, and allot it to one of the artists, supplying each with the wood blocks on which he was to draw the head and tail-pieces and the side-slips [or borders] …And in every case [the images] were not only designed but drawn on wood by the artists …[p.188].
He goes on to stress how he ‘strove to make the evening gatherings agreeable to the artists’ (p.191), though he also notes how the murderous Richard Dadd, who was one of the group, became an increasingly disruptive presence. A drawing, showing his fellow contributors with red ink slashed across the ‘throat of each’ (p.189) was later found in his rooms. Dadd may have intended to murder his colleagues, and Franklin’s sole claim to a sensational history lies in the fact that he could have been one of ‘Mad Dadd’s’ victims. Franklin, on the other hand, was anything but unstable, and Hall claims him as the central presence within the book’s visual structure. His ‘sheet anchor’, the editor remarks, was ‘John Franklin, an artist of prodigious capability’ whose illustrations for The Book of British Ballads ‘may be classed among the best productions of their order’ (p.190).
Hall’s judgment is telling: The Book of British Ballads was essentially the starting point of Franklin’s rise, and although by 1842 he had already published a number of books – notably the outlines for The Ballad Chevy Chase (1836) and Tableaux for Crichton (1837) – his work for Hall’s publication was the first show-case of his rustic, Germanic style at its most inventive and decorative. The Book of British Ballads allowed him to develop the key ingredients of his art and their application. In Hall’s publication he was free to illustrate traditional ballads in the form of medievalist figures framed by elaborate decorative foliates; in effect, he designs his borders and illustrations as if the characters are moving within a series of pergolas and bowers. A sharp development of the rusticity of Rethel in Das Nibelungenlied (1840), the German prototype rivalled by The Book of British Ballads, this approach becomes the central part of Franklin’s visual language, and was later applied, in endless variation, to subsequent commissions, most effectively in his visualization of old English ballads, histories, legends and mythologies.
However, Franklin’s Germanic rusticity was only part of the equation. His work in the ‘outline style’ has been noted, and he also provided, among others, dark and brooding illustrations for W. H. Ainsworth, Old St.Paul’s (1841), and fey designs for children in Gammer Gurton’s Pleasant Stories  and The Pretty Pleasing Picture Book . These combinations of style sustained him until the later 1860s, although he published nothing (except for reprints and re-used designs) in the period after 1870.
Franklin drops from view at this point, when he was just fifty-four or fifty-five years of age. Having enjoyed some thirty-five years of productivity, he no longer received new commissions; reflecting in 1883, his benefactor S. C. Hall commented that he ultimately failed because he had wasted his efforts on ‘small things’ rather than the ‘great work’ of which he was capable, and ‘never gave himself a chance’ (p.190). This judgment might equally apply to all of the illustrators of Franklin’s generation, and fails to understand the precarious life-style of practically every Victorian artist; but unlike most of his contemporaries, Franklin’s career came to an abrupt end.
His final years appear to have been in penury. In 1861 he was living at an address with his sister, and in 1871 and 1881 he is listed as a lodger in a boarding house, sharing the accommodation with a clerk and an older woman of independent means. This represented a sharp decline from the well-appointed addresses detailed in the records during his productive years of fame and success. Interestingly, the seventy-five year old Franklin gives his occupation in 1881 as ‘figure artist’, even though he had not worked as a producer of images for years. How he lived is unknown; perhaps on savings, perhaps on earnings as a tutor; perhaps with support from his sister. There is no way of knowing if he continued into a healthy old age, or became infirm. We do know that he died intestate, left no wealth, and had no descendants. It was a poor end for such an accomplished artist; of obscure origins, Franklin was practically erased from the great traditions of Victorian illustration. It is telling that he does not appear in Henry Ottley’s Dictionary of Recent and Living Painters and Engravers. Published firstly in 1866, and otherwise including some little-known artists of the time, Ottley’s ignorance of Franklin is significant indeed.
Last modified 25 February 2013