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The Victorian Author: Artist or Businessman?

Curated by Helen McKenzie

School of English, Communication and Philosophy

 

‘ “The Illustrated London News” Steam printing Machine’, The Illustrated London News (Dec 2, 1843)

The might of the machinery depicted here reveals the extent to which the book trade and the press had become industrialised during the early nineteenth century. Writing and literature had become a mass-produced commodity and print was an increasingly important part of the Victorian public consciousness as exemplified here by the Illustrated London News, the first illustrated newspaper.  

 

‘ “The Illustrated London News” Steam printing Machine’, The Illustrated London News (Dec 2, 1843)

 

‘Mr. Punch’s Fancy Ball’, Punch Vol XII (Jan 1847)

This illustration of a fictional dinner hosted by Mr. Punch depicts personifications of popular magazines and newspapers in the midst of fashionable society; including the author of Vanity Fair, W. M. Thackeray, who is shown playing the flute in the orchestra. Many authors were accepted by the social elite with a few, notably Thackeray and Dickens, gaining something like celebrity status.   

 

‘Mr. Punch’s Fancy Ball’, Punch Vol XII (Jan 1847)

 

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1949-50). [First number pub. May 1847]

Dickens was the first author to gain such popularity that he was able to publish his novels in individual monthly instalments rather than serialising them in a periodical or newspaper as was the contemporary practice. Each part was sold in the wrapper shown here with the same illustration to identify it: the pale-blue colour of David Copperfield was distinctive to Dickens’ novels.

 

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1949-50). [First number pub. May 1847]

 

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1949-50). [Last number pub. Nov 1850]

Each instalment included one or two chapters of the novel, the illustrations for that section and several pages of advertisements that were read alongside the narrative. Dickens was very conscious of the commercial aspect of being an author and even used these parts to advertise others of his own novels.  

 

‘Mr. Charles Dickens’ farewell reading’, The Illustrated London News (Mar 19, 1870)

Dickens was renowned for his public readings of extracts from his novels and this image of his last reveals the extent of Dickens’ popularity and his familiarity in the public consciousness by the time of his death. It also reveals that he was aware not just of the economic aspect of writing but also of the performative nature of authorship.

 

‘Mr. Charles Dickens’ farewell reading’, The Illustrated London News (Mar 19, 1870)

 

William Morris, A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press (Kelmscott: Kelmscott Press, 1898)

The Kelmscott Press was the culmination of William Morris’ work, founded on his belief in the need to protect the fragile interactions between the artist, their work and their society, a relationship which was threatened by the rise of industrialisation and mass production in the nineteenth-century. The Burne-Jones image on the left-hand page here is symptomatic of the intimate connection between Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

 

William Morris, A note by William Morris on his aims in founding the Kelmscott Press (Kelmscott: Kelmscott Press, 1898)

 

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Maud (Kelmscott: Kelmscott Press, 1893)

This is a stunning example of the works that the Kelmscott Press produced. The elaborate script and highly decorative pages reveal the influence that medieval manuscripts had upon Morris’ designs. It is also indicative of his belief that a book should be a work of art not just a mass-produced commodity sold for profit.