Although Punch illustrator and artist George Du Maurier excelled in pictures of high society (elegant dresses, fashionable hairstyles, and opulent interiors) in The Hand of Ethelberta, his rendering of scenes in the woods and by the seashore are often quite effective, albeit suggestive of stage backdrops rather than the actual outdoors owing to a lack of depth. Several of his plates, notably "It Was A Tender Time" (Nov., 1875), are reminiscent of his frontispiece for Wilkie Collins's The New Magdalen (1873). Of the plates for The Hand of Ethelberta, his first commission involving Thomas Hardy, Norman page remarks:
These contain a notable preponderance of female figures, and the heroine herself appears in ten of the eleven full-page illustrations. We see Ethelberta in the drawing-room, in the country, on the seashore, Ethelberta in a carriage, on donkey-back, being kissed — the variety of situations being accompanied by a diversity of costumes, with an effect not unlike a series of fashion-plates. 
According to Arlene Jackson, The Cornhill, one of the new illustrated literary magazines of the early 1860s, enjoyed an average monthly circulation of 20,000 copies; its chief rivals were Once a Week(1859), Good Words (1860), and the large format London Graphic(1869). Of Hardy's nine illustrators of his serialised novels, at the time George Du Maurier was the best known, although Sir Hubert Von Herkomer (Tess of the D'Urbervilles), Robert Barnes (The Mayor of Casterbridge), and Helen Paterson Allingham (Far From the Madding Crowd) had established reputations in the field of magazine illustration. Running in The Cornhill at the same time as The Hand of Ethelberta was Elizabeth Lynn Linton's The Atonement of Leam Dundas, illustrated by Du Maurier in collaboration with Arthur Hopkins, who would later illustrate The Return of the Native for the 1878 numbers of another monthly magazine, Belgravia. Those Cornhill plates
convey many of the genre painting "messages": wallpaper, flowers, shrubbery controlling intricate designs; a woman lying in the grass, with a child observing her; a man, woman, and dog all having the same determined expressions on their faces. There is a sense here of containment, suffering, endurance. [Jackson 70]
These social and psychological "Pre-Raphaelite" signals often seem missing in Du Maurier's Ethelberta plates for Hardy's third illustrated novel, although its subjects, drawn from London rather than Wessex society seem ideally suited to Du Maurier's technique of caricature, best seen in his realisations of Lord Mountclere in the January, 1876, initial letter and the March, 1876, plate of the nattily dressed aristocrat of advanced middle age inspecting the sheet music on a grand piano. Perhaps because he was a stranger to that society, Hardy left the handling of the illustrations to his editor and the artist, as is attested to by this letter of 1878 from Du Maurier to Hardy:
I am very much obliged to you for your kind and flattering letter, and truly glad you are pleased with my illustrations to "The Hand of Ethelberta." If we were neighbours and I could have consulted you easily, I should have been better able to realize your conceptions, and in many cases I should have asked you by some trifling alteration in the text to help me to a better picture or to a different choice of subject. Such an ideal state of things however as illustrator and illustratee working together is not often to be met with — and I am only too happy to have pleased you. [cited in Jackson 38]
One must always be careful what one wishes for, as Du Maurier was to discover when illustrating A Laodicean (1880) for Hardy in Harper's, for Hardy's minutely detailed (and largely unsolicited) advice considerably cramped Du Maurier's process of independent interpretation and imaginative realisation.
Jackson, Arlene M. Illustration and the Novels of Thomas Hardy. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.
Page, Norman. "Thomas Hardy's Forgotten Illustrators." Bulletin of the New York Public Library 77, 4 (Summer, 1974): 454-463.
Last modified 4 April 2001