To be “London Bound” was common among turn-of-the-century authors on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether they were American, Canadian, or even Cuban, many made the voyage to Britain, either for short visits or to settle there permanently as expatriates—in some cases, binding themselves to their new homes through marriage to English spouses. Many, too, sent their plays to West End theatre producers, their articles to British periodicals, and their manuscripts to London publishing firms, which issued them as bound books.
More important than those literal connections, however, were the transatlantic ties of spiritual affinity and allegiance. American authors with causes to champion—racial justice, gender equality, sexual freedom, the abolition of class distinctions, or new ideals of literary form and expression—sought and found support among sympathizers in Britain. Their links were particularly strong with the anti-imperialists, feminists, socialists, and Arts-and-Crafts practitioners who congregated around the designer and poet William Morris, as well as with the Aesthetes and Decadents associated with Oscar Wilde. Countless Americans were, in turn, inspired to write, and to write in particular ways, by direct or indirect contact with radical artistic developments in nineteenth-century Britain, especially Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. These two Victorian movements, both of which centered on notions of Beauty (with a capital “B”) in art and in life, continued to be powerful influences on American writing into the twentieth century and bound the new generation of modernists to London.
This exhibition has been curated by Dr. Margaret D. Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware, and by Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Delaware Library.
This exhibition illustrates the influence of the British Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements on turn-of-the-century American writers. But transatlantic exchanges occurred in both directions. In 1883, William Morris—poet, printer, political radical, and designer of decorative arts—created the chintz that he called Brother Rabbit and sometimes Brer Rabbit. Sold in his Oxford Street showroom alongside other textiles, wallpapers, and furniture meant to revolutionize the Victorian home with things both useful and beautiful, this one owed its existence to Morris’s reading of American literature. According to Elizabeth Luther Cary’s William Morris: Poet, Craftsman, Socialist (1902) and other sources, Morris was so taken with the “Uncle Remus” stories—Joel Chandler Harris’s controversial appropriations and rewritings of African American folktales, published in 1881—that he dedicated his design to the trickster rabbit. The red background used throughout the pages of this online exhibit reproduces a modern wallpaper adaptation of Brother Rabbit, supplied by the firm Historic Style in Victoria, B. C., Canada.
Bret Harte, 1836–1902
Photograph of Bret Harte. New York, . Cabinet card, inscribed by Harte to Mrs. C. L. Bartlett.
Known as the inventor of Western “types,” such as the rough-and-tough inhabitants of prospecting camps who turn out to be sentimentalists with hearts of gold, Bret Harte was a man whose own heart yearned toward English climes. And the attachment was mutual. As his early biographer, Henry Childs Merwin, noted in 1911, “New York and Boston looked askance upon Bret Harte, doubting if he were quite respectable; but London welcomed him.” Although he had enjoyed success in America as a short-story writer and poet (especially with his poem on the death of Charles Dickens, whom he called “the Master”), he entered the U. S. diplomatic service and was posted first to Germany, then to Glasgow in the 1880s. Afterwards, he settled in London, spending the last decade of his life in a flat in Lancaster Gate, Bayswater, cultivating friendships with British yachting enthusiasts and with American expatriates, including Moncure Daniel Conway, the radical writer and associate of William Morris.
The Queen of the Pirate Isle: Illustrated by Kate Greenaway, Engraved and Printed by Edmund Evans. London: Chatto and Windus, .
No one would have expected this transatlantic pairing of a text by Bret Harte—the celebrated author of short stories about miners, gamblers, and brothel keepers in the American West—with illustrations by Kate Greenaway (1846–1901)—progenitor of the image of Aesthetic childhood and creator of delicate, drooping girls in Neo-Regency dress, gathering flowers in English gardens. But Bret Harte was a more complex figure than the hard-bitten cowboy his British readers imagined, and Kate Greenaway was a hard-working professional, not an Aesthetic dilettante, who took on a variety of commissions in order to support herself. The Queen of the Pirate Isle was Harte’s narrative for and about privileged, sheltered children: a tale of nursery play involving adventures on a make-believe “junk” fashioned from a broom, a sheet, and other household objects, with the participation of a Chinese servant. Greenaway’s mentor, the critic John Ruskin, found the volume “all delightful” and wrote to her in November 1886 to tell her it was the “best thing you have ever done.”
Walt Whitman, 1819–1892
Two Rivulets: Including Democratic Vistas, Centennial Songs, and Passage to India. Camden, N.J. [New Republic Print], 1876. William Michael Rossetti’s copy, with the mounted portrait frontispiece photograph signed by Whitman.
Whitman never traveled to London, but his poetry did, enjoying enthusiastic appreciation there while its reception in the United States was still cool. As Harold Blodgett recorded in Walt Whitman in England (1934), “In transatlantic perspective the bard became colossal and fascinating, an Adamic figure with a thrilling message from a young country. To some eyes he competed equally with Niagara Falls as a symbol of New World glory.” The late-nineteenth-century British mania for Whitman was both a puzzle and a sore point for a number of American critics. What audiences in England first encountered, however, was an 1868 edition of Whitman’s poems that, as Blodgett puts it, had been “discreetly pruned” of anything potentially offensive, especially in matters of sexuality. The trimmer of the volume (published by John Camden Hotten of Piccadilly) was William Michael Rossetti—critic, member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the real-life brother of D. G. Rossetti. Whitman was then taken up by many British writers, from Annie Gilchrist to John Addington Symonds. The latter published a posthumous tribute, Walt Whitman: A Study (1893), praising the poet for depicting the “intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man.” Symonds was merely one of many British gay writers to worship Whitman. Both Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter made pilgrimages to Camden, New Jersey, to meet him on their respective visits to America.
James McNeill Whistler, 1834–1903
Old Putney Bridge. Etching, .
Whistler’s love of London was almost as profound as his love of himself (and both loves were certainly more authentic than the perfect little tuft of white hair above his forehead). Just as he reinvented himself as a Continental dandy, rather than as an American born in Massachusetts, so he made over London whenever he drew or painted it, turning even shabby corners and decaying structures into picturesque and Japanesque spectacles. His image of Old Putney Bridge, which spanned the river between Putney and Fulham, was just such a celebration of the romance of decrepitude. (A year after Whistler made the etching, which hung in both the staid Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery, home to the new art of the Aesthetic movement, the bridge was torn down.) From the time that he settled there in 1859, Whistler was drawn to riverside places—to piers, embankments, bridges, and to Chelsea, the site of his studio house, with its view of the Thames from the upper floors. Another attraction of this location was proximity to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s house at 16 Cheyne Walk, where the swaggering young bohemian found a warm welcome in a household filled with gorgeous female models and wildly unconventional men, such as the poet Algernon Swinburne.
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, as Pleasingly Exemplified in Many Instances, Wherein the Serious Ones of This Earth, Carefully Exasperated, Have Been Prettily Spurred on to Unseemliness and Indiscretion, While Overcome by an Undue Sense of Right. A New Edition. London: William Heinemann, 1892. Inscribed by Whistler to George Moore.
Not all transatlantic relationships were happy ones. The starting point for this extraordinary volume, which was also the American artist J. M. Whistler’s most famous book, was the 1877 attack on him in print by John Ruskin (1819–1900), mentor and supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin responded to the Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket — Whistler’s painting of a fireworks display in Cremorne Gardens, the Chelsea pleasure-gardens by the Thames—by accusing the artist of “ill-educated conceit” and “imposture”: “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never have expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” (What seems strangest now about Ruskin’s insult was the reference to “cockney impudence,” when it was Yankee impudence on which Whistler prided himself.) Ever contentious and litigious, Whistler brought an action of libel against Ruskin. The Gentle Art published a transcript of the court proceedings (including some exchanges that eerily foreshadowed those in the Wilde libel trial of 1895), complete with testimony by Edward Burne-Jones, the second-generation Pre-Raphaelite painter, favorable to Whistler’s lawsuit. It also recorded the outcome of the case: “Verdict for plaintiff. Damages one farthing.” But the rest of the volume vitiated whatever sympathy readers might have felt for Whistler, as it offered one example after another of his angry, though witty, rants on a variety of topics, reprinted letters to editors, and pointed exchanges with correspondents such as Oscar Wilde.
James McNeill Whistler. Woodcut, touched with watercolor, 1897.
A master of drawing, painting, and writing, J. M. Whistler was accomplished, too, at courting controversy and at attracting followers. Some of his disciples were fellow American expatriates, such as Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell. The circle of those he influenced directly extended to the German-born Impressionist and New English Art Club member, Walter Sickert, as well as to Aubrey Beardsley, toward whom Whistler was at first unaccountably hostile. (Of course, Beardsley retaliated by caricaturing him.) Among his young British admirers in the 1890s was William Nicholson who, according to the Pennells, was introduced to Whistler by William Heinemann in 1897 with the purpose of producing a portrait of his hero for the New Review, the magazine published by Heinemann and edited by W. E. Henley. To know Whistler in person, however, rather than through his art, was always to risk provoking a display of his volatile temper. George Du Maurier (1834–96), the British novelist and Punch cartoonist, discovered this when he included in Trilby (1894) a character modeled on his friend Whistler, who responded by threatening him with a lawsuit.
Mark Twain, 1835–1910
A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur: With 220 Illustrations by Dan Beard. London: Chatto & Windus, 1889.
Connecticut? Where or what was that? Chatto and Windus—the London-based successor to the publishing firm of John Camden Hotten, which had issued W. M. Rossetti’s edition of Whitman’s poems in 1868—clearly doubted that the name of this state would not mean much to British readers. Thus, it retitled for the British market Twain’s already quite challenging experiment in time-traveling fiction, social satire, and political allegory, while leaving intact its inside jokes and local references to places such as “Bridgeport” (where the modern American protagonist, Hank Morgan, assumes that he is being taken by the English knight in armor who has captured him, and who is instead taking him to Camelot).
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1889.
In his Idylls of the King, the nation’s Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, gravely bemoaned the loss of Britain’s glory, nobility, and empire through a long series of narrative poems about the fall of Camelot that appeared over a period of decades. It took Dan (Daniel Carter) Beard (1850–1941), illustrator of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, just one drawing to turn the majestic figure of Tennyson into a pseudo-medieval laughing stock, by depicting him as the evil sorcerer, Merlin, with a particularly ridiculous-looking feather rising from his pointed cap. Twain himself chose Beard for the job and gave him absolute freedom to draw as he liked. The results throughout the volume perfectly captured the spirit of the text’s mockery of British history and traditions, whether political or literary—a display of “Yankee” irreverence matched only by the savage fun that Twain made of American ideals and institutions, from entrepreneurial capitalism to slavery. Twain’s inspiration for his dark, comical fantasy, which the critic R. Kent Rasmussen calls both a work of science fiction and a cowboy story, was his reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. This was the same chivalric narrative that had earlier inspired D. G. Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones to paint idealized Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union (1857–59).
“Below the Mark (Mark Twain),” from Vanity Fair, 13 May 1908. Hentschel colourtype, 1908.
Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) was the voice, along with the big-mustachioed face, of American literature for most British readers and, as such, greatly beloved by them. Many were surprised, however, to discover how Anglophile he was in his sympathies. As Fred Kaplan notes in The Singular Mark Twain (2003), “He was impressed by London’s cosmopolitan charms, enchanted by England’s graceful countryside, and happily gratified” by his reception in Britain, where he was welcomed both as a lecturer and as a dinner-party guest. When Oxford University conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1907, he found the pageantry of the ceremony and the prestige of the award irresistible, especially as someone who had attended no institution of higher education. It may have been a below-the-belt reference to this discrepancy that lay behind “Below the Mark,” a 1908 comic drawing of him in his familiar white suit, rather than in the doctoral robes he had sported in a recently circulated photograph. Still, merely to be included among the British magazine Vanity Fair’s gallery of greats, caricatured by Sir Leslie Ward (“Spy”), was a sort of honor of its own.
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This exhibition is associated with the conference, "Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites," which will be held October 7–9, 2010, at the University of Delaware (Newark, DE) and at the Delaware Art Museum and the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate (Wilmington, DE).