Edward Henry Wehnert (1813–68) is one of a generation of artists whose work was almost entirely eclipsed by the new styles favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, and none of his paintings is well-known. But he also produced a distinctive body of illustrated books and was an interesting contributor to the art of the printed page, even if his successes were hard-won. Wehnert’s career is in many ways emblematic of the fate of the jobbing artist of the mid-nineteenth century, and the facts of his life and art are worth considering in detail.
Wehnert was born in February 1813 in Soho, London, the son of German (possibly Jewish) immigrants. Edward was one of six children, and the second of three sons. His father was a tailor. This humble origin is fairly unusual among Victorian artists, although it is interesting to note that two of his contemporaries – Robert Barnes and Alfred Walter Bayes, the sons of shoe-makers – were also from a working-class background. The details of Wehnert’s upbringing are unknown, but like Barnes and Bayes he suffered no disadvantage arising from the accident of class. On the contrary, his early life involved a series of impressive opportunities which must have been arranged by his parents.
His eldest brother became a solicitor, and Edward was similarly moved up the social ladder. He was sent to study at the University of Göttingen aged only fourteen, and he later trained, probably in the years 1829–32, at the atelier of Delaroche in Paris. He was also a student at one of the London art-schools, perhaps Sass’s, and was known to have copied from the Elgin Marbles. He began his professional life as an artist living on Jersey (1832–37), and it was here that he acted as a tutor for John Everett Millais (‘Obituary’, 1868).
Wehnert’s subsequent career typifies the working practices of the mid-Victorian artist. Active within a highly competitive market-place, he disseminated his work as widely as he could. He was a member of the Society of British Artists and The New Society of Painters in Watercolours; he regularly exhibited at these venues and he showed three oils at the Royal Academy. Some of his effort was directed at the production of historical and epic paintings; in 1845 he exhibited The Triumph of Justice (Victoria & Albert Museum, London) at the Westminster Hall Competition, and produced several other compositions of a similar kind. However, most of his work was of the journeyman variety, ranging from landscapes to portraits. His paintings were engraved and appeared in books such as The Gallery of Modern British Artists (1834), although his principal income was generated by watercolours for the middle-class collectors who wanted genre-works for a domestic setting.
With all of this effort, none of his work was especially successful, and Wehnert’s promising start in the world of fine art was never fully realised. In the Census return of 1861 he is listed as a ‘watercolour painter’, and in this period he was mainly catering for the lower-end of the market. His lack of progress is tellingly reflected in the fact that he lived most of his adult life occupying the same house as his other siblings in Fortress Terrace, a slightly déclassé part of Kentish Town. He did achieve some success: for example, he won the Heywood Medal, an award for outstanding achievement in the field of watercolour, from the Royal Manchester Institute (1853). But his career as a painter was ruined by the critics. The reviews of the time are remarkably blunt, and it is commonplace to find his paintings described as ‘unlucky’, ‘unpleasant’ (‘Watercolour Exhibition’, p.598), and ‘not calculated to please the common eye’ (The Ladies Companion p.332). Damned by reviewers who exerted an immense influence on public taste, he was never popular and never managed to establish a consistent portfolio of buyers. As his obituary in The Art Journal remarks, in the field of painting, at least, he was never a crowd-pleaser (p.248), and never sold enough to make a good living.
His solution to this economic problem was to find work as a wood-block illustrator to supply the ever-expanding demand for fire-side images. He managed to secure extensive work as a graphic designer, and in this domain at least he achieved some success, working across a range of commissions for both juvenile and adult audiences. These included children’s books such as Household Stories collected by the Brothers Grimm (1853), Andersen’s Tales for Children (1869), and More Fun for Our Little Friends (1864). For adults, on the other hand, he produced a variety of illustrations forRobinson Cruscoe (1862) and Illustrations of Childe Harold (1855). For these and for all of his commissions he undertook vast quantities of designs, drawing 105 illustrations on wood for the Andersen volume, 100 for Defoe and 240 for the Brothers Grimm. In an age of tireless productivity, Wehnert was one of the most prolific, inventive and versatile. But his best work was in the form of his visual responses to Romantic poetry. He contributed to an early edition (1855) of Poe’s poetry, and he made outstanding designs, a combination of the strange and the introspection, in his work for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Seven Parts by Samuel Coleridge (1858) and The Eve of St. Agnes by John Keats (1859). The second of these is unquestionably his finest work, and one of the little-known masterpieces of Victorian illustration.
Wehnert’s book-illustrations won good reviews and the admiration of others within the artist fraternity. He moved briefly in the circle of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites – the very designers whose art had made his own type of painting redundant – and he was on intimate terms with the sculptor Alfred Stevens, another self-improver who had risen from humble stock. Perhaps his closest associate was the wood-engraver William Linton, Surviving letters (now in the National Library of Australia) present a portrait of the artist as a jovial and easy-going character, an interpretation also embodied in Linton’s autobiography.
According to William Stillman, on the other hand, Wehnert was a depressive who regarded himself as an underachiever and a lost cause. Stillman remarks how Wehnert was never reconciled to his failure as a painter, and viewed his illustrations for the printed page as the ‘veriest hack-work’ (1, p.59). Dying of an unspecified illness on 15 September 1868 at the unusually early age of 55, Wehnert ended his life as a rather ‘pathetic’ (Stillman, 1, p.59) figure, with no final sense of self-hood or value. Childless and unmarried, he had not prospered as he had wished to, and his estate was negligible. He had moved out of the family home (though only from 165 Fortress Terrace to number 9, further down the row), but his total wealth and property, in a period when the average middle-class income was around £900 per annum, was recorded as under £200. This interestingly compares with Selous’s estate of £5,000 in 1890, and Millais’s £38,000 in 1896. Following a lifetime’s toil, Wehnert finished at the very bottom of the artistic ladder.
Wehnert’s life and career are in this sense a clear example of the economic difficulties experienced by artists in the mid-nineteenth century. The vagaries of the market-place produced the millionaires of the time such as Leighton and Millais, but most pursued the same trajectory as Wehnert. Nor should we forget that even the most successful artists could end their lives in penury. It is worth remembering, for example, that Rossetti, the most influential painter and illustrator of his time, died virtually penniless.
What remains, of course, is the work: and Wehnert’s oeuvre is interesting, partly for the illustrations themselves, and partly for their influence on his erstwhile pupil, John Everett Millais.
Last modified 19 October 2012