Sullivan's drawing used for decorated initial J

ohn Dawson Watson (1832–92) was one of the most popular illustrators of the 1860s. His work appeared in a wide range of periodicals, publishing some of his best work in Good Words (1861–63) and London Society (1862–67). He also provided illustrations for a number of gift books, notably The Pilgrim’s Progress(1861), Robinson Cruscoe(1864), and English Sacred Poetry (1863). These books were published in partnership with the Dalziel Brothers and George Routledge, Watson’s principal collaborators.

Watson was a versatile artist of ‘real and varied gifts’ (Goldman, p.132), able to turn his hand to most commissions. However, it is interesting to note that his talent was a source of discontent, rather than satisfaction. The Dalziels describe him as a ‘kind-hearted, liberal-minded man’ who regretted his ‘fatal facility’ to produce work with ‘no trouble’ (pp. 173–174) or challenge. He tellingly remarked to the Brothers that if he were ‘to spit on a piece of paper and smear it over with [his] hand’ (p.174) he would still be able to sell his design. This self-contempt provides an interesting reflection on the psychological effects of success that was won, as far as the artist was concerned, far too easily. We can speculate that contemporaries such as Thomas Morten and Edward Wehnert would willingly have exchanged their struggles for Watson’s relative ease.

Yet Watson’s self-assessment is wildly inaccurate. His comments seem to suggest that his work, because it came easily, was lacking in depth; in reality, though, it was never less than carefully composed and psychologically penetrating. The Dalziels note how his designs were ‘full of tender refinement’ and ‘sympathetic feeling’ (p.174) and Goldman comments on his ‘sincerity of purpose’ and ‘dedication to his task’ (p.135). The terms’ refinement’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘dedication’ do not accord with the artist’s own view of his ‘fatal’ abilities, and close reading of the illustrations reveals a scrupulous draughtsmanship combined with a strong capacity for poetic visualization.

Watson is at his best in his representation of the travails of Pilgrim and Robinson in his editions of 1861 and 1864 and again in his diverse subjects for Willmott’s English Sacred Poetry. These are narrative designs that represent their texts with economy and directness. However, Watson’s special gift is his ability to represent moments of reverie and retrospection in the manner of J.E. Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Left to right: (a) The Mean Estate the Happiest. (b) The Vanity of Learning. (c) Employment [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Though capable of dynamic scenes, his most accomplished illustrations are those showing a single figure or group of figures engaged in moments of deep reflection. Fine examples include The Mean Estate of the Happiest, The Vanity of Learning, and Employment, all taken from English Sacred Poetry. The Aspen and A Summer’s Eve’s in a Country Lane, from Good Words and London Society, are also delicate moments of insight, epiphanies suspended in time. These images are further distinguished by their skilful manipulation of light and dark, alternating between heavy blocking and a suggestive lightness.

Left to right: (a) A Summer’s Eve in a Country Lane. (b) The Aspen. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

These scenes are the embodiment of the ‘poetic realism’ Forrest Reid identifies as ‘the essential spirit of the sixties’ (p.2). Timeless in effect, Watson’s designs epitomize the combination of fine drawing and intense atmosphere that characterizes mid-Victorian illustration, and in his hand is given a particularly memorable form.


Brothers Dalziel, The. A Record of Work, 1840 –1890. 1901; new ed. London: Batsford, 1978.

Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996; Lund Humphries, 2004.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; New York: Dover, 1975.

Last modified 16 September 2013