J. M. Whistler only produced eight illustrations, six of them as ‘drawings on wood’ in the periodicals Once a Week and Good Words (1862), and two in the form of etchings, which were published in Passages from Modern English Poets [1861]. Though limited in range, these designs are an important contribution to the graphic art of the ‘Sixties’. Indeed, Whistler adopts a radical approach to the style of the period, particularly for taking wood-engraving into new and sometimes surprising territory.

All of his images on wood are approximations of the loose-knit linearity of his paintings: in place of the congested surfaces of engravings by typical artists of the Sixties school, such as Fred Sandys and Fred Walker, he presents sketchy designs that suggest the washy outlines of watercolours or the impressionistic effects of his canvases. Although drawn on the block and cut by the Dalziel brothers and Joseph Swain, his illustrations look like etchings rather than engravings. Forrest Reid was impressed by this approach, noting the artist’s ‘beauty of line’ (108).

Two illustrations by Whistler which form an interesting comparison with a work by Sandys. Left tot tight: (a) The Trial Sermon – One, (b) The Trial Sermon – Two, and c) a typical piece of Pre-Raphaelite congestion by Sandys, Rosamund. [Click on these and the following images to enlarge them, and for more information about them.]

Yet the effect is far from decorative or purely aesthetic. On the contrary, Whistler deploys his febrile line to suggest his subjects’ psychology. Five of his illustrations depict solitary women locked in reverie as they anticipate dramatic and unsettling events, and in each case Whistler conveys their anxious foreboding by using unsettled and unsettling lines combined with harsh striations of light and dark. These designs adopt the compositional arrangements he routinely deploys for his portraits and ‘arrangements’ in colour.

Two illustrations by Whistler which link to his paintings. Left to right: (a) The morning before the Massacre of St Bartholomew, (b) Count Burkhardt, and c) Symphony in White No. 2.

This process of externalization is given another, unexpected twist in Whistler’s engagement with issues of social justice. In one illustration he focuses on the plight of the Lancashire weavers, who were in parlous state following a slump in demand. InThe Relief Fund in Lancashire he expresses the idea of death by starvation, representing a wispy figure literally fading away. Shorn of its poem by a nervous Tennyson who withdrew his verse when he realized the subject might be controversial, it is still a powerful sign, an emblem of the sort of politically charged imagery most publishers would not tolerate. Significantly, it only appears in Once a Week as the result of Whistler’s belligerence, the sort of pressure not even Lucas, that self-opinionated editor, could resist. There is no other image quite like it in the canon of mid-Victorian illustration, and it is interesting to compare Whistler’s expressionistic treatment with Sandys’s realistic version of the same theme.

Whistler’s depiction of the Lancashire famine, a) The Relief Fund, and (b) Sandys, The Waiting Time.

Whistler’s other illustrations in the form of etchings [1861], are typically contemplative pieces and are once again close equivalents to his painterly imagery. These landscapes are delicate studies of mood – nuanced experiments in tone and feeling which prefigure the ruralism of French Impressionism and bear comparison with several of the artist’s paintings. In many ways no more than an illustrator manqué, Whistler’s tiny corpus of work still repays the closest attention, forming a small variant on the traditions of mid-Victorian illustration.

Whistler’s exquisite etchings of rural scenes: a) The Angler, and (b) A River Scene.


Good Words (1862).

Once a Week (1862).

Passages from Modern English Poets, Illustrated by the Junior Etching Club. London: William Tegg [1861].

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

Created 30 October 2020