Richard Heighway (1833–1901) was one of the lesser known illustrators of the later part of the nineteenth century. He embellished only three books, all for children: Blue Beard and Puss in Boots (1895), The Story of the Three Bears [1880], and The Fables of Aesop, a small masterpiece issued in an elaborate binding, also designed by the artist, in 1894. He may have worked anonymously in other publications, and his life and art are obscure. He does not feature in any of the standard literature and even basic facts are difficult to establish. In his encyclopaedic dictionary, Simon Houfe notes only that the artist flourished from 1894–98 (p.173), and he is missing from other reference books. None of this suggests that Heighway was significant. Yet his art is worth remembering: in many ways original while reflecting the influence of Charles Bennett, the cartoonists of Punch and the decorative style of the nineties, his illustrations are both inventive and amusing, perfect fare for the nursery while deploying an arch satire that appeals to adults.

Life and art

Heighway is a Shropshire name, but the artist was born in St Pancras, London. His birth date is uncertain and is recorded in the Census as ‘about 1833’. Details of his parentage and background are unknown and little else can be ascertained about his life or career; the uncertain morphology of the name, varying between ‘Heighway’, ‘Highway’ and ‘Hughway’, adds to the complications. A ghostly figure, he only appears at a few key points. In 1861 he is glimpsed as a married man with two children, and his death, also in St Pancras with his age given as 70 (which should be 68), is registered in 1901.

What then of his artistic achievements? There is no evidence of professional training and he seems primarily to have been a craftsman, rather than an artist. In the Census for 1871 his occupation is given as ‘gilder and carver’, and it is noticeable that his publications follow no logical pattern in the manner of a careerist. His first, The Story of the Three Bears, appears in 1880, and the other two in 1894–5. The first was published when he was 47 and the others when he was in his mid-sixties, a span which suggests the hobbyist rather than the professional. How he came to the attention of the publishers Macmillan and McLoughlin is impossible to know, though he may have gained his commissions on the basis of other work which has slipped into obscurity.

What remains is the art enshrined in his three publications. Each of these contains humorous designs in a style which varies between highly finished drawings and outlines, light comedy and some abstract pattern-making in the manner of British Art Nouveau. His most effective book is The Fables of Aesop (1894).

Heighway’s interpretation serves the text in several ways, representing the narrative and its tone in a clear and economical way. The human figures are closely detailed portraits which recall the emblematic types appearing in Bennett’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1860), but the animals, though also influenced by Bennett’s treatments in his version of the Fables. (1857), are drawn in a flat, linear, cartoon style. Unlike Ernest Griset, whose visualization of the same text is bizarre and unsettling, Heighway’s treatment is predominantly light-hearted; there is a sharp contrast, for example, between his picturing of The Frog Desiring a King and the gruesome imagery of his French contemporary. At the same time there are several illustrations by Heighway in which the tone is complicated by competing claims, one grimly moral, one comedic. For example, he shows the tortoise as a bumbling buffoon – the very pet a child might have enjoyed – but completes the set with dead-pan cartoons of the creature falling to its death and then being eaten by the birds he trusted to convey him to his new home. We can imagine how Papa might have pointed to the perils of trusting strangers while quietly laughing at the drollery of the tortoise’s fate.

The lightness of touch moderates the horror, and Heighway’s bestiary maintains a sense of dream-like, playful unreality, whatever the seriousness of the moral commentary. It makes its point, but it is rooted in juvenile experience and its faux-naif texture is calculatedly childlike. It is, in other words, a faithful treatment of the original text, preserving and extending the sense of fun as the moral lessons are contemplated.

The pleasure of scanning the book is completed by the arrangement of the pictures, which appear as head and tail-pieces and full page illustrations. The titles and images are enclosed in ornamental devices – which suggests he may have carved and gilded picture frames – and these are supported by a range of decorative motifs. Though intended for a general rather than an elite audience, the publication is a prime example of the ‘book as precious object’, and closely reflects the aesthetic debates surrounding cover and illustration design of nineties. Practically unknown, Heighway’s Fables is conceptually of a high order, and one of the outstanding imprints of its type. For this alone his art should be remembered.

Works Cited

Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Ernest Griset. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, n.d. [1869]. Web. 25 March 2016.

Bennett, Charles.The Fables of Aesop.London: Bradbury & Evans [1857].

Blue Beard and Puss in Boots. Illustrated by Richard Heighway. London: Dent, 1895.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Illustrated by Charles Bennett. London: Longman, 1860.

The Fables of Aesop. Edited by Joseph Jacobs and illustrated by Richard Heighway. London: Macmillan, 1894.

Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of Nineteenth Century British Book Illustrators. Woodbridge: The Antique Collectors’ Club, 1978; revd ed., 1996.

The Story of the Three Bears. Illustrated by Richard Heighway. New York: McLoughlin [1880].

Last modified 25 March 2016