Introduction: Reid as a Novelist

The name of Forrest Reid is barely known today but in his own time he was a highly respected novelist and critic. His fiction essentially deals with nostalgia, memory, dream and the internal world of the young male adolescent, and for this last feature he has become somewhat pigeon-holed as a gay writer. Yet to view him simply in this way is to do him a grave disservice, for his novels are far more than this label suggests. They are sensitive, profound, poetic and superbly written, and he was admired by writers of the calibre of E.M. Forster and Walter del la Mare during his lifetime and, in more recent years by, John McGahern and Robert Greacen among many others.

However, he chose to live in relative obscurity in his native Belfast and he might have become far better-known had he moved to London or Paris to write. As a stylist he is, I would argue, a role model for contemporary novelists, and in 1940, when the second volume of his autobiography was published by Faber and Faber and aptly titled Private Road, the dust-wrapper bore a comment from The Spectator. It dubbed him ‘One of the three or four most distinguished living writers of English…’ The first autobiography, covering his life up to his mid twenties, Apostate (1926) remains, in my view, a neglected masterpiece. Not for nothing was Reid known as ‘The Proust of Belfast’.

Reid as a Collector and Critic of ‘The Sixties’

That reputation as a novelist some has not endured into our own time. In Victorian Studies, however, Reid’s standing remains high. In 1928 he published Illustrators of the Sixties (London: Faber and Gwyer; Reprint, New York: Dover, 1975), source from which all later comment and criticism must spring.

Reid himself built on a notable predecessor – Gleeson White’s English Illustration:The Sixties, 1855–70 (London: Constable, 1897; Reprint, Bath: Kingsmead, 1970). White’s book is a remarkable achievement and a pioneering study in its attempt to catalogue and evaluate an enormous amount of material. The book remains useful today, not least on account of the number and the quality of the reproductions of the wood-engravings. However, White was essentially a thoughtful and intelligent list maker, while Reid takes the entire subject of Sixties illustration to a higher level, both intellectually and philosophically. Being a novelist himself means that unlike most critics he had actually read much of the literature which these extraordinary designs accompanied. A good deal of it is frankly of middle rank while some is downright poor, but with a writer at the helm of this venture, his opinions on the texts are of real and lasting value. Reid also produced an invaluable and outstandingly accurate list of the first editions of the illustrated books.

However, in one important aspect Reid may be gently chastised by later generations. Like White, he also advocated the cutting-up of periodicals in order for the collector to mount and arrange the images in a manner so as not to take up too much space in the home. He presented his own collection, meticulously annotated and boxed, to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1946. This policy was followed by numerous other collectors which means that there are several similar such groups of material in the UK and the USA; good examples include a large collection at Aberystywth University (which has recently been the subject of a detailed essay by Robert Meyrick) and another at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham (both UK).

The result of this process of ‘cut and mount’ has been catastrophic, for once divorced from their settings and their texts these designs become difficult to understand, interrogate, analyse and, sometimes even to date accurately. Yet Reid paradoxically was the first person to see the crucial importance of studying image and text together and this theme is central to the entire study. Hence it is fair to say that he laid the foundations on which all later scholarship of Sixties illustration is inevitably based. Reid also wrote one related article, ‘Charles Keene, Illustrator’ in Print Collector’s Quarterly (January 1930, pp. 23-47), and was a great advocate of this artist.


Retrospective Adventures – Forrest Reid : Author and Collector. Eds. Paul Goldman and Brian Taylor. Aldershot: Scolar Press and Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 1998.

Jamison, Kenneth and Longley, Michael (eds). Illustrations of The Eighteen Sixties. Belfast:Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Arts Council Gallery, May 1976.

Meyrick, Robert. ‘“Spoils of the Lumber Room”: Early Collectors of Wood-Engraved Illustrations from 1860s Periodicals’. Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855–1875. Eds. Paul Goldman and Simon Cooke. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012, pp. 201 –218.

Visual arts

Last modified 21 January 2013