Visitez Coconino Classics !

 

"A comic is not exactly a novel in pictures - it's something else. But the presence of pictures is not a new thing in printed narrative : William Caxton included woodcuts in the first books he printed in English, and some of the greatest novels in the language were conceived from the beginning as being accompanied by pictures. Vanity Fair is incomplete without Thackeray's own illustrations, which often extend and comment on the implications of the text(...). "
Philip Pullman (on the craftmanship, emotion and truth that make the masterpiece that is Art Spiegelman's Maus), The Guardian, 18-10-03.

It's  ironic that this reference made to Vanity Fair in an (excellent) recent article about Spiegelman's Maus  will probably sound far-fetched to many readers.
Remember that quote Art wrote about all roads leading to the great Toepffer ?  Well, the road between Toepffer's work and Thackeray 's taste for pictorial narratives is much more straightforward than Pullman or Spiegelman would probably dare to think (only "two degrees of separation" to put it in terms of the Kevin Bacon game).The Pumpernickel chapters of Vanity Fair  refer to a little capital with passé grandeur and tolerant attitudes to sexual morality  in which  Thackeray spent nine months in 1830-1831, as a young man. And this is precisely where he first encountered the comic pictorial stories of an obscure Genevan schoolmaster, Rodolphe Toepffer.

 

(An image from the Weimar Sketchbook, 1830, reproduced without its caption in PETTY C., Thackeray's Universe, Faber and Faber, 1987)

  

"(...)when Thackeray, then but nineteen years of age, had, without the permission or knowledge of his pastor  and masters, undertaken a trip to Paris during his vacation in the summer of 1830, and had overcome his first scruples about this escapade, he extended his journey to Weimar,  and remained there the entire winter, captivated by the pleasant and stimulating life.
Through his friend he was soon introduced into the best social circles, and above all, of course, into Goethe¹s house. Wherever he went, he met with a friendly and hearty welcome, as did every well-recommended Englishman. But Ottilie von Goethe particularly  rejoiced at this splendid addition to her English retinue. She had expressed her affection for the sons of England before this, calling herself in jest "the British consul at Weimar." As such she extended her protection to young Thackeray, who, though unknown at the time, soon became through his talents a general favorite. We gain further knowledge of Thackeray¹s visit to Weimar from his own hand. He  writes in a letter dated Wednesday, the 20th of October:
"
I saw for the first time old Goethe to-day. He was very kind, and received me in rather a more distinguished manner than he had used to other Englishmen here. The old man gives occasionally a tea-party, to which the English and some special favourites in the town are invited; he sent me a  summons this morning to come to him at twelve.  I sat with him for half an hour, and took my leave on the arrival of -. And Madame de Goethe  was very kind. When I went to call on her I found her with three Byrons, a Moore, and a Shelley on her table."
At about the same time Thackeray ordered  from a bookseller in Charterhouse Square a liberal supply of the Bath post paper, on which he wrote his verses and drew his countless sketches.
"
VULPIUS WALTER, "Thackeray in Weimar" ( Translated by Herbert Schurz) in The Century Magazine, April 1897.

A few weeks after this meeting,  Goethe was greatly affected by the news that his only son, who had a little while before gone to Italy in failing health, had died in Rome on the 28th of October. Shortly after this event, Frederic Soret, who had been employed by Goethe to translate his Metamorphosis of Plants into French met with Eckermann, Goethe's editor and secretary, in Geneva. Soret had been  a schoolmate of Töpffer's in Geneva and a fellow student in Paris  :
"Both Soret and Eckermann calculated that something light and humorous was just the thing to brighten Goethe's long winter evenings.(...)
Soret fell ill immediately after his return to Weimar, but he sent over the Töpffer albums. The response was immediate and favorable :
" Cryptogame arrived at the moment when Eckermann was with the old Patriarch, "Soret wrote to Töpffer at the end of January 1831. "M. de Goethe found your nature-lover very amusing, and what seemed to strike him most, apart from the originality of the drawings, was your talent for exhausting a subject, for getting the most out of it, for example, when all the inhabitants of the vessel down to the furniture follow the rotatory movement of Cryptogame, when everything freezes and unfreezes as if it were in the spirit of imitation etc."
Festus, which Soret presented personally on December 27, was also a great success."
KUNZLE D., The History of the Comic Strip, vol. 2 : The Nineteenth Century,  University of California Press, 1990,  p.29.

 It seems highly improbable that Thackeray, who by then was closely embedded in this circle and whose taste for drawing caricatures  was well known to everybody should have missed such a treat as Töpffer's sketchbooks during his winter in Weimar : "We passed hours after hours there, and night after night with the pleasantest talk and music." recounts Thackeray in a letter reminiscing this period, "We read over endless novels and poems in French, English and German. My delight in those days was to make caricatures for children. I was touched to find that they were remembered, and some even kept until the present time; and very proud to be told, as a lad, that the great Goethe had looked at some of them"

G. H. LEWES. The Life and works of Goethe : with sketches of his age and contemporaries, from published and unpublished sources.


...But the fact that Thackeray himself drew two picture stories in the same vein for the entertainement of a young English girl, during his winter in Weimar makes it truly inconceivable that he didn't meet with Töppfer's sketchbooks :
"The book [Thackeray's Weimar Sketch-book] contains two stories told in caricature sketches with captions, and a number of drawings depicting various kinds of torture. The first story concerns the marriage of Count Otto von Blumenbach to "Ottilia, Amelie, Melanie, Jenny von Rosenthal". The New Countess refuses to allow her  husband beefsteaks for breakfast, but while he gets thinner, she grows fatter. Finally the Count discovers that his wife is a necrophagous cannibal who steals out to the churchyard at night to devour corpses. The pen-and-ink illustrations are full of lively and horrific details. The second sory concerns a mother who kills and eats her own son, persuading her relutant husband to join her at the feast. Among the torture drawings is one of a small boy threatened by a grim woman with a birch."" (PETTY C., Thackeray's Universe, Faber and Faber, 1987).

 

(Images from the Weimar Sketchbook, 1830, reproduced without their captions in PETTY C., Thackeray's Universe, Faber and Faber, 1987)

 

Unfortunately I don't have a copy of these stories (I can only show these separate drawings reproduced without captions in Thackeray's Universe). They are in a Library in New York, and if anyone is interested in helping me get a copy of this work, please write to me in private.

What makes it even more interesting  is the fact that Thackeray probably drew many more such  stories in the course of his life. He often drew caricatures when visiting friends with kids , and probably as often drew them in narrative sequences. One such sequence, very Topfferian indeed, was published by The Picture Magazine (a London publication) in 1894, with this short introduction :

The following four pages present seven pages of an unpublished sketch-book of Thackeray's, giving a five-act burlesque melodrama and two pages of an imaginary Press notice thereon. These sketches, made in 1832, when Thackeray was twenty-one, and when he was intending to follow Art as a profession, are extremely interesting and characteristic.

 

 

The Picture Magazine also printed another series of drawings illustrating comic verses, under the title of Simple Melodies, also from 1832 (if this date is correct for the preceding story) :

 



I had my first inkling that Thackeray might have been influenced by Töpffer while browsing into a collection of drawings published under the title of The Orphan of Pimlico  in 1876. The story which gives the name to this haphazard collection of sketches  (in facsimile engravings) was drawn in 1851. It is  five pages long, not counting the moral prologue(page 1) and the title page(page2) which were drawn later. I also skipped the first page of the story (page 3).




Another  sequence of caricatures was published by  Harvard Univerity Press in  1945, as an offprint from Volume One of The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray.
"The Count's" Adventures, twelve pages from a sketch-book he drew c. 1835
( this, I deduct  from  the introduction ).

 

 

"The Count's" Adventures, an offprint from Volume One of The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Harvard Univerity Press, 1945,  from the Introduction.

 

According to Sir John Crowe who witnessed the making of this sketchbook when a kid, Thackeray gave one of his friends, an eccentric Scottish artist named John Grant Brine, the nickname of "The Count", "and made a legend out of his travels which he was brought, in the most amusing way, to illustrate in our house. Being a constant visitor of ours he had a seat always ready for him on Saturdays at our table, would come into the drawing-room an hour before dinner and hardly have time to sit down when we children surrounded him and begged for a drawing For my sisters he drew a coalheaver running open mouthed after a little girl ; for us all he did something and the he bethought him of the adventures of Brine...
When Brine returned to us and saw the legend of the Count in sketch and text, he was delighted with it, aknowledged Thackeray's skill in reproducing his face and figure in such varied attitudes and positions (...)
"


These last words are of course reminiscent of Goethe's praising Toepffer's work for the same skill.  Actually, I think Thackeray's way of drawing caricatures for the immediate amusement of kids during social visits  highlights the similarity of practice with Toepffer's. Both of them were literary minds who found comfort and rest in the pleasures of doodling freely, and both of them discovered how improvising picture stories on the spot could captivate a young audience. Combine this with the  definite literary tendency to "write up to" pictures in the first decades of the 19th Century and you have the perfect formula for an emerging new graphic medium in an age otherwise dominated by the aesthetics of wood engraving.

Neither Toepffer nor Thackeray seemed particularly attracted, to say the least, to the stylistic flourishes of printed material. They draw in the universal style (or absence of style) of the non-professional draughtman, who will  adorn his letters  with one or two sketches to describe a travel situation that has struck him. One of the caracteristics of the diagramatic doodling style is that it is not aesthetically incompatible with showing  multiple representations of the same character and surroundings on the same page.
The traditional aesthetics (and economics) of the print, especially if reproduced by  allographic means (like wood engraving) tended, on the contrary, to rationalize its labour-consuming processes by maximizing  density of information and minimizing redundancy (hence the Simultanbilder format, for example). In other words, it  was not at all conducive to the use of fluid sequentiality. Fluid sequentiality is of course one of the traits that Toepffer's and Thackeray's picture stories share with the comic strip as we know it, the modern form of which emerged  in the period immediately following the definitive demise of  wood  engraving.

We already knew that Toepffer had been recognized, in his lifetime by some of the major illustrators of the 19th century : JJ Grandville, Gustave Doré, George Cruikshank, Richard Doyle, Cham  - all paid tribute to his "histoires en estampes" in one way or another.  We can definitively add Thackeray to that list. And given the role the author of Vanity Fair played in the early Punch Magazine and in Cruikshank's Comic Almanacks in the 1840's, it is now clear that Toepffer was an even more pivotal figure in this international circle of artists than we ever thought before.

Thierry Smolderen

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------
Visit the www.coconino-classics.com website.

Write to the author thierry.smolderen@wanadoo.fr
----------------------------------------------------------------------