Arthur Hughes
Click Image to Enlarge Click Image to Enlarge
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
By the Cradle, 1873
Pen and Indian ink over pencil
11.0 x 13.2 cm
Charles Emanuel Gift, 1950
WA 1950.178.62.1
Sweep the Floor, 1873
Pen and Indian ink over pencil
11.0 x 12.0 cm
Charles Emanuel Gift, 1950
WA 1950.178.62.2

The drawings of Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) are the only works in the exhibition which were produced as illustrations. They accompanied “Cottage Songs for Cottage Children,” a poem by George MacDonald in the November issue of Good Things for the Young of All Ages in 1873.

At the age of 15, Arthur Hughes entered Royal Academy in London after winning an Art Studentship, and distinguished himself as a fine draughtsman. In 1849, he even won a Silver Medal for Antique Drawing category and exhibited his first work Musidora, a work of academicism, at the Royal Academy. The year 1850 changed the path of his career. Hughes read The Germ, the short-lived journal of Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and started to respond to the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and William Holman Hunt. Hughes transformed his hitherto conventional genre painting style into Pre-Raphaelitism of the most exacting kind. During 1850s and 1860s, while sharing a studio with another Pre-Raphaelite Alexander Munro, he produced many works of compelling quality, which conveyed tender emotions through the use of glowing color harmonies. He was best known for contemporary life of unhappy courtship, but he also dealt with childhood genre paintings and romantic medievalism. From his earliest career, Hughes was fortunate enough to find several loyal patrons who commissioned individual and family portraits, and who also directly purchased many of his works, which is accused as one of the reasons for his present obscurity. Although Hughes was coveted by some patrons as the best painter of children, he was often criticized as his works being “too sweet” and “too tender.” The criticism got worse and he was considered to be wasting his talent, as he started to work as an illustrator in the 1860s.

The magazine Good Things for the Young of All Ages, in which Hughes’s drawing and MacDonald’s poems were reproduced, was renamed version of Good Words for the Young, published by Evangelist Alexander Strahan since November of 1868. George MacDonald, who is mostly known for his fantastic fairy tales, has worked as an editor for the periodical. As for Hughes, the illustration works served as the greatest creative outlet for his fantastic and delicate drawings.

In the culture of Victorian era, children played an important role. It was partly due to the demographic characteristics of the period. The years between 1800 and 1914, one third of the British population consisted of children under the age of 14. The toy-manufacturing industry burgeoned as well as children’s literature, such as fairy tales and didactic poetry and novels. Children’s magazine such as Good Words for the Young, which combined literature and illustration also flourished. Famous Victorian illustrators like Beatrix Potter started their career during those days.

It was considered that children’s role within the family could eventually be a moral force for the society. The subject of children appears frequently in Victorian art as well. Filled with incident and detail, a mixture of stylistic exactitude and calculated emotion was used to achieve success with viewers, children and adults alike. As to reflect the growing patronage of middle-class, patriarch Bourgeois values, such as discipline, industriousness, love of family and God, charity and appropriate gender roles, are often resonating in Victorian art. Young females were urged to copy the ideals of their adult counterpart, such as submissiveness, meekness, and respectability. Sister was constantly encouraged to be a useful and selfless model and to always place male needs above hers. Images of maternal girl taking care of her siblings, pets, dolls or house chores could have been overlapped with images of gentle female adults in the minds of the viewer.

Hughes’s By the Cradle and Sweeping the Floor must have been named after the titles of the first two poems in McDonald’s Cottage Songs for Cottage Children, which was mainly about the daily activities of rural family. By the Cradle is a lullaby-like poem, with emphasis on the love of parents and God. Hughes gives a visual representation of the poem’s line; “Mother’s knitting at the door / Waiting till the kettle sings; When the kettle’s song is o’er / She will set the bright tea-thing.” “Father’s busy making hay; In the meadow by the brook / Not so very far away – Close its peeps, it needn’t look.”

Hughes showed his mastery in the use of ink and pencil, by using both of them according to its appropriate tones. Except for almost smudged interior of the wall and surroundings of the mother figure, the tonal expressions are minimal. The fence on the right is rendered as two-dimensional set of lines. It seems that Hughes had always kept in mind that the drawing will eventually be reproduced as an illustration, engraved by the famous engravers, the Brothers Dalziel.

Hughes’s perfect control of pressure in lines, as in the contour lines of the leaves on the roof, on the Putti’s arm and buttocks, prevents the drawing from falling into the category of cartoon. Hughes invented several devices which will be usefully translated in the reproduction. The feeble pencil lines in the background were eventually to lose its quality in the engraved version. However, one of the most interesting expressions is the way he drew the rainbow on the background. To picture the distant image of the rainbow, Hughes used tiny dots, which carry its quality even in the magazine illustration page.

The front porch, where a humble mother is knitting, does not possess a proper spatial recession. Even the baby cradle is placed insecurely. Hughes must have cared less for these awkward expressions than for the warm rendering of a simple rural home. The scene is filled with easily recognizable images. The baby wearing a bonnet is about to fall asleep in a heart-shaped cradle. Diligence is shown through the hard-working father in the distance and by the bee-hive near the porch. The rainbow is an emblem of hope, and God’s presence is represented by the Putti who watch over the family.

The companion piece Sweeping the Floor has domestic objects such as framed needle-work and candle holders. In fact, the whole space behind the girl and the angel is symbolic than rather realistic. What appears to be the interior of the mantled fire-place with tools for fire logs is portrayed as a small room with a chair, a stool and even a window. The whole illogically rendered space becomes a metaphor for home itself. Inside the strange space, the darkness is made by constant cross-hatching, and it is so dark that there is almost no sign of receding spatial sensation.

According to the poem, the girl is sweeping the floor “clean for Father to come in.” She was told that “God goes sweeping / For a shilling in a room.” But she is wondering whether “Did he drop it out of glory / Walking far above the birds? / Or did mother make the story / To set me thinking afterwards?”

The sulky face of the girl is typical of Hughes’s with a bit pouting lips. She is not conscious of the angel, again the presence of God, this time represented as a beautiful female adult with cascading hair in layered dress and gracefully elongated wings. Another interesting expression is surrounding the angelic figure. The aura is portrayed in soft erasing-out technique, but unfortunately in the reproduced version, the softness of the erasure did not come through well.

Her rather big and muscular arms and hands, compared to her overall vulnerability, are firmly holding onto the broom. It is the symbol of her duty and her diligence, and it is more clearly emphasized through the graphic quality of it.

The helplessness and prettiness of these two domestic figures were not only appealing to the moral standards of adult viewers; they also played an implicit didactic role by imposing its value on the youngest members of the society. Children and woman were to display obedience, diligence, and acceptance of their lot in preparation of duty as a member of the society. Although Arthur Hughes’s drawing was produced for what is considered to be a secondary art form, they carry the whole weight of nineteenth-century English cultural values. However, he paid a considerable amount of care to transfer his enthusiasm and love for are and children to a mass audience and even today’s viewers can experience the works of undeniably compelling quality.

Jeehyun Lee