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ohn Pettie (1839–93), a Scot, was a well-known historical painter who exhibited pictures in Edinburgh and London. Settling in England in 1862, he maintained a successful career and flourished in the London art-world. He submitted a hundred and forty one paintings at the Royal Academy, the British Institute, Suffolk Street and the Grosvenor Gallery; eventually a full member of the R.A., his pictures were a prized commodity, and still command high prices today. His nephew, the critic and water-colourist Martin Hardie, published a monograph examining his paintings (1910).

Less well-known is the fact that Pettie produced a number of illustrations and made a small but interesting contribution to the development of the graphic style of the mid-nineteenth century. His best images correspond with his early years in London when, in the traditional manner of Victorian painters in need of some added financial assistance, he supplemented and supported his work on canvas and paper by drawing illustrations on wood. Like Alfred Walter Bayes and John Franklin, he was adopted and encouraged by the Dalziel Brothers as a developing talent, and his work was cut by the Brothers in several publications under their supervision. His illustrations appear in Alexander Strahan’s Evangelical magazine, Good Words (1861–64) and the same publisher’s Sunday Magazine (1867–68); he also presented interesting designs in Wordsworth’s Poems for the Young (1863), a commission he shared with his countryman and friend, the painter John Macwhirter (1839–1911).

Commentaries on this work are limited, although Pettie is mentioned in the two standard accounts of the period by Forrest Reid (1928) and by Paul Goldman (1996, 2004). Both speak highly of him: Reid describes his work as ‘exquisite’ and ‘charming’ (p.204) and Goldman considers him an artist of the ‘highest distinction’ (p.137). This ‘distinction’ can be traced in several dimensions.

Firstly, Pettie is an outstanding draughtsman. He applies to his illustrations the same standards of design, figure drawing and composition that he would otherwise use in his paintings, so converting his images for the printed page into small-scale versions of fine art. This process can also be observed in the work of many of his contemporaries; like Ford Madox Brown, Frederick, Lord Leighton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, Pettie is quite clearly a ‘painterly’ illustrator who imagines his designs in black and white in terms of aesthetics and visual effect rather than their effectiveness as interpretations of written material. They are nevertheless efficient illustrations, and are sensitive representations of their words.

Left: What sent me to sea. Right: The Passion Flowers of Life. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

His illustrations also reflect fashions in style and subject-matter For example, his illustration accompanying ‘What sent me to sea’ (Good Words, 1862, p. 264) is conceived as a genre piece, complete with sharp characterization, a strong visual contrast between the two faces – essentially youth and age, innocence and experience – as well as a fascination with small accessories such as the old sailor’s pipe and the two model ships, one complete, and one in the process of production. Pettie revisits the contrast of youth and age on several occasions, adopting a well-known convention.

He is distinguished, however, by the way in which he invests his images with tenderness and delicate observation. ‘The Passion Flowers of Life’ (Good Words, 1863, facing p.141) is another version of the contrast between extreme old age and infancy. Acting as an illustration to Astley H. Baldwin’s sentimental lines, it visualizes the poem’s conventional meditation on time, decay, and regeneration. What it adds is a sense of real experience in which the hands of the figures act as its emotional focus: ‘a tiny velvet hand’ (p.141) lovingly held in a gnarled one, a small innocent face contrasted with the lined portrait of the grandfather.

The effect is exquisitely handled; infused with genuine feeling, it veers close to sentimentality but retains a sense of authenticity. Indeed, Pettie’s capacity to find meaning in the lives of ordinary (usually rustic) folk is his central focus. Goldman classifies him as a member of the Idyllic School, and although he has Pre-Raphaelite tendencies he fits neatly within this idiom. Like George Pinwell and Frederick Walker, he concentrates on ‘poor people apparently leading noble existences far from urban squalor’ (Goldman, p.115), and provides another version of the interest in the rural poor that recurs throughout the illustrated books and periodicals of the 1860s. Eclipsed by the book-art of his contemporaries, Pettie presents a corpus of lyrical work that contains enduring signs of sadness, affection, and bitter-sweet regret. Underrated, his is a small but poetic achievement.

Works Cited

Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996; Lund Humphries, 2004.

Good Words London: Strahan, 1862–63.

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

Wordsworth’s Poems for the Young. With fifty illustrations by John Pettie and J. Macwhirter, with a vignette by J. E. Millais. London: Strahan, 1863.

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Last modified 14 March 2013