In his brief entry on Stiff in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), Louis James describes him as an “engraver and newspaper proprietor” about whom little is known since he was “an obsessively secretive figure, constantly covering his tracks to avoid his creditors.” According to James, he first “appears in London between 1844 and 1845, directing the engraving department of the Illustrated London News” — an extremely important position in the history of illustrated periodicals — and he later founded several important magazines that reached enormous circulation, in part because he published sensational fiction of Harrison Ainsworth, Charles Reade, G. W. M. Reynolds, John Frederick Smith, Percy B. St John, and Mrs E. D. E. N. Southworth. James does not mention the illustrations of The Mysteries of London, which the title page identifies as Stiff’s. One would assume that some early point in his career, Stiff received artistic training and worked as an illustrator.

Stiff as Illustrator of Reynolds

Left: “Angel that thou art!”. Middle: The two men drew the corpse gently out of its coffin. Right: The Resurrection Man and the Cracksman boost Henry Holford. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Stiff’s illustrations for G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London all appear without captions, so those for the plates above and on the individual ones linked to this page are mine. Somewhat oddly almost all the plates appear one or even two chapters before the passage they illustrate, something particularly strange since the novelist often moves between two entirely different plot threads at the end of chapters. It seems odd and not very effective to place images of young lovers in a chapters about a bodysnatcher and a criminal stock-broker. A few chapters do begin with an appropriate image, such as the one of the young girl and her mother in a coal mine that precedes 116, “The Rattlesnake’s History,” but these are unusual. At any rate, I assume the printer or publisher decided where to place the illustrations and not the artist, but if so, they did him no favor.

Although Reynolds devotes a lot of attention to exterior scenes, particularly the slums and rougher parts of London, Stiff rarely depicts them. One exterior scene appears the plate illustrating a passage in Chapter 113, “The Lovers,” which epitomizes many of the artist’s strengths and weaknesses (top left above). He has a gift for composition, and here the placement of Richard Markham and Isabel Alteroni under a bare tree with her exiled father’s mansion behind in the distance shows him placing the young lovers in an effectively created three dimensional space: the tree at left and fence at right begins the spatial recession that a diagonal line continues until the eye reaches the palatial mansion in the distance. This illustration also perfectly captures the present state of the lovers. Like the tree barren in winter, their hope of marriage is only possible in the future, and the girl’s palatial home in the distance also symbolizes the ambiguous nature of their futures. Is the noble, unjustly convicted ex-convict Markham always going to be kept far distant from the Alteroni family, or (as it turns out) will he miraculously go to Italy, become a conquering hero, earn a princedom, and marry his beloved?

Three of Stiff’s drawings of criminals and convicts. Left: River Pirates. Middle: Crankey Jem and Henry Holford. Right: An enormous snake was coiled around the wretch's corpse . [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Other strengths and weaknesses typical of Stiff appear here as well: the tree and the mansion are well drawn, as are the garments worn by the couple, but, as usual, Stiff has problems with the faces and anatomy: Richard’s leg looks very odd, and the faces are too briefly sketched, one result of which is that almost all his women look very much alike. Furthermore, although the novelist describes all the young women in The Mysteries of London as extraordinarily beautiful, his illustrator never manages to make them look so. Like George Cruikshank and Phiz (Hablot K. Brown), Stiff does his best with grotesque characters and scenes, such as the three directly above. — George P. Landow

Selections from Volume I

Volume II


James, Louis. "Stiff, George (1807-1874), engraver and newspaper proprietor." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 18 October 2016.

Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 2. London: George Vickers, 1846. Project Gutenberg EBook #51294. Produced by Richard Tonsing, Chuck Greif, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 3 October 2016.

Last modified 18 October 2016