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ranklin’s literary illustrations were primarily designed in service of traditional verse and simplified texts for children. However, he was briefly associated with the romance and historical writer W. H. Ainsworth, and produced a series of images for Crichton (1837) and Old St Paul’s (1841). It is not known how Franklin came into Ainsworth’s company, but it is further evidence of the artist’s movement in the circles and cliques of his time. This pairing was fraught was problems. Practically unknown, it takes its place next to the great partnerships of the period as an example of difficulties attached to collaboration.

Ainsworth’s primary partnership was with George Cruikshank, who had illustrated all of his novels of the thirties, and Franklin’s opportunity presented itself when Cruikshank declined a commission to embellish Crichton. This seemed a straightforward arrangement but, as John Sutherland has shown, it quickly became problematic. Ainsworth failed to deliver the manuscript on time, and his publisher, John Macrone, came up with a half-formed idea to publish the novel as a three-decker without illustrations, and then reissue it in a cheaper form, in one volume, with images by Franklin (Sutherland, p.9). Macrone, Dickens’s first publisher, seemed incapable of co-ordinating the various elements involved in matching author, illustrator and deadline, and the ‘tangled’ (Sutherland, p.14) consequence was that Ainsworth transferred his novel to Richard Bentley. Bentley published Crichton without Franklin’s designs; but his illustrations had been done and Macrone, anxious not to lose every interest in the novel, issued Franklin’s work as a separate work. This was published, in the form of a Germanic album, as Tableaux from Crichton (1837). The Literary Gazette remarked on its ‘energy, grace, and taste’ (‘Tableaux’, p.338), but the effect is dissonant; issued without the letterpress, it is rather like seeing Phiz’s designs as a self-contained book, but without Dickens’s text.

Franklin was also engaged, with more success, as the illustrator of Ainsworth’s story of the Great Plague, Old St Paul’s: a Tale of the Plague and the Fire. The novel was serialized in The Sunday Times without illustrations in 1840–41, and published at the end of 1841 by Hugh Cunningham in three volumes, this time with sixteen etchings by Franklin; it was also issued, from May 1842, in parts. A one volume edition appeared in 1874 with a frontispiece by Phiz. This was published by a minor company by the name of Parry and Blenkarn.

The book and its illustrations were a great success, but as in the ill-fated dealings with Macrone, Franklin gained the commission only after it was declined by Cruikshank. This led to a certain acrimony. Writing later in the century – at the time when he was also claiming to have been the true author of Oliver Twist – Cruikshank claimed that he had invented the story of Old St Paul’sand that Ainsworth and Franklin had plagiarised his ideas. According to Cruikshank, the concept of Old St Paul’s was entirely his. Ainsworth, he said, had written a letterpress to match some drawings he had discussed with the author, and Franklin had stolen the subjects of his illustrations. How Cruikshank could have arrived at this impractical conclusion is impossible to know, but the older artist went out of his way to invalidate Franklin’s work and undermine his reputation. Claiming he had not been asked to do the engravings, Cruikshank witheringly remarks how Ainsworth ‘employed an artist of the name of Franklin, to make the illustrations. So there was another artist working out my pet subjects, which I had nursed in my brains for many years’ (Ellis, 2, p.96).

None of this is true, and S. M. Ellis, Ainsworth’s literary biographer, is quick to point out, with documentary evidence, how Cruikshank had declined the work and had (in any case) no rights over the authorship whatever (2, p.97). We can surmise, however, that Cruikshank was irritated by Franklin’s success in interpreting Ainsworth’s morbid and lugubrious novel: figured as ‘dark plates’ in which the characters emerge from an oppressive chiaroscuro, the illustrations are a good match to the letterpress, giving visual form to the author’s Gothic excess. More to the point, they recall the sorts of visual techniques Cruikshank himself might have used, at least insofar as they deploy closely-packed compositions in which tableaux of figures are enfolded in darkness. Cruikshank’s accusation of plagiarism was partly motivated, in other words, by the realisation that Franklin had worked in an idiom he believed was his property.

Moreover, Cruikshank’s rivalry may have been stimulated by the fact that he had already published a book containing illustrations of London and the pestilence. This was his 1836 edition of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Necessarily, Franklin had to occupy some of the same territory, and it is interesting to compare Cruikshank’s versions of the doom-laden city with Franklin’s. It is most instructive to compare the two treatments of the plague-pit. In Cruikshank’s design the burial-ground is a large, black all-consuming hole: a horror of the earth itself, with panicked figures positioned around its edges. Franklin’s, however, takes the unpleasantness to a higher level of disgust and abhorrence (1847 edition, facing p.207). Responding to Ainsworth’s description of the ‘grisly load’, he provides a close-up of the bodies in their shrouds as they are tipped out of the cart, the legs of one of them gawkily rising out of the hole, their faces illuminated by the ‘light of a lantern’ as they are deposited in the ‘abyss’ (p. 207), with the face of the character standing over them picked out as if it were a Goya grotesque. The effect is far more visceral than Cruikshank’s illustration in which the mass-grave, rather than the bodies, is viewed from a high and distancing perspective.

an illustration for Ainsworth's Old St Paul’s.[Click on image to enlarge it.]

Franklin’s image is the more striking of the two, and with that in mind it might be possible to explain Cruikshank’s slanderous comments not only as irritation at what he saw as plagiarism, but more specifically as an unspoken recognition of the superiority of the younger artist’s design. As Ellis remarks, Franklin’s illustration ‘could not have been excelled by Cruikshank himself’, ‘and only bears comparison, for ‘horrific conception’ to the Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz (1806–65), who specialized in scenes of nightmare, death and putrefaction (1, p. 429).

Franklin set a new standard of nastiness, and his (all too realistic and historically accurate) image of the dead being unceremoniously shuffled into the grave was itself the subject of inter-pictorial borrowing and adaption, notably in Frederick’s Shields’s History of the Plague [1863]. The design by Shields replicates the harsh diagonals of the upturned cart that feature in Franklin’s image and deploys the same sort of expressionistic light. It might also be the case that the illustrations had a broader impact. With their absolute darkness and dense atmosphere, they clearly prefigure the ‘dark plates’ of Phiz, and, without having an absolute similarity, bear some relationship with Browne’s images for A Tale of Two Cities(1859) and especially Bleak House (1853). Of this connection Buchanan-Brown is in no doubt (p.189; pp.215–216), commenting how ‘Browne was inspired [by Franklin’s] efforts to reproduce in steel the effects of the mezzotint’ (p.216).

Franklin, though, is far more expressionistic (and daring) in his use of light and dark, than Phiz. ‘The Plague Pit’ distorts the characters’ faces, and this technique is deployed in several of the designs, vividly conveying the sense of horror by endowing the personae with mask-like faces which are sometimes accompanied by distortions of their bodies. A striking example of this technique is ‘Solomon Eagle Denouncing the City’ (facing p.182). Illuminated by a brazier and the brooding light of an impending thunderstorm, the prophet is shown with arms outspread, announcing the wrath of the Lord: but what makes the image so powerful is its representation of the face and torso as a simplified, expressive diagram in which the muscles of the arms and chest are translated from naturalism into a a series of exaggerated diagonals and knots, the visual showing of inner anguish. Modern in feel, it seems quite unlike the style of its time.

The light and dark modes of Franklin's illustrations: Left: Solomon Eagle Denouncing the City Right: Leonard Holt conveying the Packet to the Grocer. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

The illustrations for Old St.Paul’s are otherwise outstanding examples of romantic design. Franklin is adept at recreating historical period; his experience as a literary painter is applied to the representation of costumes, and he also excels in his showing of architecture. The approach is an antiquarian one, and in each case he imparts the fiction’s sense of the reality of the past. Some of the best illustrations depict the London streets: notably the illustrations of the grocer’s (facing p. 281) and the ‘The Burning of Saint Paul’s’ (facing p. 417).

Such illustrations interact convulsively with the dense Gothic gloom and weirdly lit scenes of bodies being moved around the streets. The final effect is a curious mixture of ‘sinister’ (Buchanan-Brown, p.215) nocturnes, gloomy conversations and quaint topographical and architectural detail. These elements lie at the heart of Ainsworth’s text, and Franklin’s designs underscore and buttress the writer’s unstable and sometimes incoherent style. Indeed, Old St. Paul’s only enduring value lies in the artist’s ‘monumental’ (Buchanan-Brown, p. 214) engravings. Nightmarish and strange, their combination of imaginative intensity and technical finesse is one of the finest achievements of early Victorian illustration, and it is a great shame that Franklin was never again given the opportunity to respond to a literary text in such detail. He did illustrate two of Sir Walter Scott’s novels in the Abbotsford edition, Ivanhoe (1844) and The Talisman (1846). Both series are elegant combinations of antiquarian detail and brisk tableaux; but neither matches the sometimes outlandish excess of his challenging designs for Old St. Paul’s.

Related Material


Hall, S.C. The Book of British Ballads . London: Bohn, n.d. [1860; first published 1842].

Last modified 25 February 2013