Thomas Morten was one of the lesser illustrators of the eighteen sixties. He is best remembered today as a tragic suicide who took his own life at the age of thirty. His untimely death puzzled his contemporaries, although William Michael Rossetti is probably accurate when he identifies the cause of his suicide as a combination of personal issues and professional frustration. As Rossetti explains in a letter written to Frederick George Stephens on 2 October 1866:
Do you see that that unfortunate young man Morten, who used to be a thorn in the side of the Hogarth Club, has committed suicide by hanging? It is a pity, for he had plenty of talent, and it seems could not (or should not) have been absolutely hard up, as Dickinson was paying him a good annual allowance for work done. I suppose it was worry over petty plagues and exasperation at never having produced himself as he felt conscious of being qualified to do [Rossetti, Selected Letters, p. 157].
Surviving evidence is too fragmentary to reconstruct the ‘petty plagues’, although Morten’s work strongly suggests an artist possessed (and ruined) by a lack of direction and purpose. Of all of the illustrators of the mid-nineteenth century, Morten is the most uneven: some of his work was heavily influenced by others (notably Millais), and this eclecticism has given rise to charges of unoriginality and even plagiarism (de Maré, p.123). Goldman is more circumspect, noting how the artist, ‘uncertain of his own style, evidently used the work of other practitioners without their permission’ (p.228).
Yet Morten was capable of outstanding work: as de Maré notes, ‘when he is himself he can sometimes produce an original and imaginative design’, producing work which has a ‘vigorous line and a strong sense of composition’ (p.123). Reid goes even further, commenting how, despite the unevenness, Morten was occasionally ‘brilliant’ (p.211).
His talent, as critics such as Allan Life have observed, is registered in a variety of subjects; he has a special interest in the fantastic, and some of his images, especially those for the periodicals, are quirky and strange, with peculiar gestures and expressionist space. He is also adept at evoking atmosphere, notably in the form of domestic scenes crammed with crinolines and roaring fires. He contributed numerous illustrations of this sort, publishing work in Good Words, Once a Week, and London Society.
Morten’s best work, however, was unquestionably his monumental version of Gulliver Travels (1865). His illustrations for Swift are both well-drawn and sensitive to textual nuance. According to John F. Sena, these images are ‘extraordinary’ (p.118), especially in their representation of changes in Gulliver’s character as he is transformed from an imperial (and imperious) Englishman into a humble observer of life’s absurdities. Largely neglected, this book is an important work. Whatever his failings, Morten’s contribution to Victorian illustration is still significant, and his wide-ranging illustrations deserve to be much better known than they are.
Works Cited and Sources of Information
de Maré, Eric. The Victorian Woodblock Illustrators. London: Gordon Fraser, 1980.
Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996; Lund Humphries, 2004.
Life, Allan R. ‘That Unfortunate Young Man Morten’. The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Manchester 55:2 (Spring 1973): 369–402.
Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Sixties. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975.
Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti. Ed. Roger W. Peattie. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1990.
Sena, John F. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and the Genre of the Illustrated Book’. The Genres of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.Ed. Frederick N. Smith. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1990, pp.101–138.
Last modified 21 March 2013