decorated initial 'W'illiam Mulready (1786–1863) was an Irish painter and illustrator who specialised in everyday, ‘genre’ scenes from English rural life. Born in Ennis, Country Clare, in 1802 he moved to London and married Elizabeth Varley, one of whose brothers was the artist John Varley.

Off to Market, an example of Mulready’s painting of rustic scenes, which owes as much to the Irish as to the English scene.

Mulready was a successful painter, with thirty-three paintings in the Victoria and Albert Museum and five in Tate Britain, London. In the early part of his career he illustrated a number of children’s books, notably and prior to the Victorian period, the first edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, in 1810. He became a Royal Academician in 1816. In 1840 he designed the illustrations for postal stationery at the same time as the issue of the Penny Black, but within two months these had to be withdrawn on account of their unpopularity.

Mulready’s pre-paid stationery of 1840.

During the mid-Victorian period he illustrated a notable edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, published in London by Jan Van Voorst in 1843. In this impressive volume he provided 32 illustrations, immaculately wood-engraved by John Thompson. Beneath each of them is the relevant text being illustrated and the page reference to which it refers; one preparatory drawing executed in pencil and white chalk is held in The National Gallery of Canada. It relates to the text on page 77: ‘But previously I should have mentioned the very impolite behaviour of Mr Burchell who, during this discourse sat with his faced turned to the fire, and at the conclusion of every sentence would cry out “Fudge!’’ ’

Today Mulready has been somewhat side-lined critically and largely thought of as old-fashioned and conventional in style; at the time of writing (2021), he has only been the subject of a single modern monograph, by Kathryn Moore Heleniak (1980), which barely mentions his illustrations. Nevertheless, and despite looking back to an earlier tradition of wood-engraved illustration, The Vicar is a notable achievement and warrants scholarly examination and appreciation. One commentator, John Buchanan-Brown in his Early Victorian Illustrated Books 1820–1860 (2005), has high praise for this book. He remarks on the ‘thickening of certain outlines or portion of outlines’ (94), which he feels goes to ‘extremes’; but he still regards the publication as ‘a classic among British illustrated books’ and goes on the term it ‘a masterpiece’ (139).

The designs are all drawn with an elegance and careful relation to the text. Mulready’s drawings of the human figure should be especially noted since they are done with a similar delicacy and sharpness of detail. Landscape backgrounds add context and atmosphere, and these never seem gratuitous. The movement especially of women and children is executed in an entirely believable manner. He might be faulted where on occasion his designs seem a little crowded, as if he is attempting to put too much into a single image.

Two examples of Mulready’s designs for Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield: a) ‘Yes, she has gone off with two gentlemen’; and b) ‘The consequence might have been fatal.’

Two more examples of Mulready’s designs for Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield: a) ‘The prisoners’; and b) ‘Former benevolence now repaid.’

Mulready also supplied a steel-engraved title-page vignette engraved by H. Robinson to Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longman in 1856. There are three figures in a trefoil backed by foliage one of which is of a nude boy. It is a beautiful image of great delicacy and charm. There are twelve other illustrations in the book including a frontispiece by Daniel Maclise and a superb contribution by J. E. Millais, “When first I met thee’. These designs somewhat overshadow Mulready’s image, but his are not to be ignored.

Mulready further contributed four designs for the celebrated ‘Moxon Tennyson’ of 1857. These are The Sea Fairies (31), which is a delicate and charming design of several partially clothed female figures with a sea view background on which a boat can be seen, The Deserted House (43), a striking image of a draped figure, recumbent in death, The Goose (184), essentially a comic drawing with an element of caricature, and Will Waterproof’s Lyrical Monologue made at the Cock (330), a half-comedic image of several figures at an inn with a waiter carrying a dish and a putto astride a bird. The range of these images – from the mythological to the melancholy, and from the comical to the absurd – exemplifies the artist’s versatility and shows how well he could respond to Tennyson’s diverse subjects.

Two of Mulready’s designs for the celebrated Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems. Left: The Deserted House. Right: Will Waterproof’s Lyrical Monologue made at the Cock.

Drawing on the imagery of his painting, all of these designs are effective illustrations, though it has to be said that Mulready’s designs in this book are entirely out of tune with the ground-breaking images of the Pre-Raphaelites appearing in the same pages. Mulready is then an illustrator of some distinction, and is especially notable for the one book which he illustrated single-handedly, Moore’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1843).


Books Illustrated or co-Illustrated by Mulready

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. London: Van Voorst, 1843.

Lamb, Charles & Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. London: Godwin, 1810.

Moore, Thomas. Irish Melodies. London: Longmans, Brown, Green, 1856.

Tennyson, Alfred. Poems. London: Moxon, 1857.

Secondary Sources

Buchanan-Brown, John. Early Victorian Illustrated Books. London: British Library, 2005.

Heleniak, Kathryn Moore. William Mulready. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

Created 7 February 2021