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Peer Reviewed

A Draft List of Published book and periodical contributions by Robert Seymour

Brian Maidment, University of Salford


The artist and engraver Robert Seymour is chiefly famous for two related things – his role as the first illustrator and (perhaps) part-instigator of Dickens’s first novel Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) and his untimely suicide at the early age of 38 which ultimately resulted in the long and successful alliance between Dickens and ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Browne) as author and illustrator. But, for all his early death, Seymour’s output was both large and varied, encompassing a mass of engraved single plate etched; engraved and lithographed caricatures; several short sequences of thematically linked caricature plates usually in oblong folio format; a huge variety of wood engraved illustrations for comic magazines and books; an extended sequence of small format punning lithographs (New Readings of Old Authors) which offer an unrivalled glimpse of urban street and domestic life among the more modest classes in the early 1830s; and, accompanied by various commissioned texts, a sequence of comic images of picaresque rural adventures largely undertaken by vulgar urban innocents best known as Seymour’s Sketches. It was the Sketches that ultimately defined Seymour as a ‘sporting’ artist for his Victorian readers, although earlier work such as the 1833 Maxims and Hints for Anglers had used a similar idiom. The prodigious energy and variety of this disparate body of work offers many insights into the jobbing role and volatile market-place that confronted, and often intimidated, comic artists at this time.
As already suggested, Seymour was generally categorised by Victorians as a ‘sporting’ artist, and this tag has followed him on into the present day. Certainly much of his work derived its humour from the confusion experienced by urban sporting adventurers when they found themselves in the countryside. Such a comedy of dislocation was underpinned by a strong sense of class. The would-be anglers, shooters and huntsmen shown in Seymour’s work were drawn from what might be loosely called the urban middling classes – tradesmen, clerks, shopkeepers, higher servants and the like. In their forays into rural pastimes, such people were expressing not just a new sense of the potentiality of a leisure only recently available to them but also a sense of social aspiration. Like so much graphic humour from this period, Seymour’s work is reflecting on the possibility of social aspiration becoming a socially disruptive force, and many of his images, especially in the Sketches, shrug such potentially intimidating social change back into perspective through laughter. Seymour’s reassuring delineation of class mobility as a social phenomenon in his sporting images was perhaps one of the characteristics that ensured his continuing popularity with Victorian readers.
[22b ii] Sketches by Seymour
[22b ii] Sketches by Seymour
But there are other aspects of his work that substantiate his claim to be an important figure in any attempt to understand Regency urban culture. While retaining on into the 1830s an interest in the grotesque human body inherited from earlier caricature, Seymour’s work largely depicts, with a strong element of close empirical observation, the emerging middling classes and their urban proximity to the labouring classes. Many of his images depend on street encounters between often contrasting individuals, some of them amicable, others dependent on the frictions of pavement contiguity. While his interest in such encounters depends on an accurate delineation of ‘difference’, his primary mode is more comic than sociological, and the pretensions of lower middle class aspirations are as amusing to him as the barbarous vulgarity of working men and women. Increasingly, too, his urban tableaux are enacted indoors - in the domestic interiors of the lower middle and labouring classes, which are depicted through a repertoire of emblematic detail, or in the eating and leisure haunts of the urban workforce, especially coffee houses. The dialogue between an embryonic naturalism and an inherited affection for the grotesque and the exaggerated in such images is of particular interest to anyone trying to trace the origins of Victorian social self-awareness.
[21 ix]
[21 ix] "Here they're but felt, and seen with mistful eyes"
New Readings for Old Authors
A further reason for close study of Seymour’s work is the extended dialogue he elaborates between the visual and the verbal. Much of his work uses a visual image to subvert a seemingly stable word, phrase or quotation. Indeed, one of his major works, the 260 images that form New Readings of Old Authors, entirely consists of visual commentary on Shakespearean quotations (and a few from Byron) in which the image rewrites the quotation as a sly comment on contemporary social mores. In this fascination with the visual/verbal pun, Seymour is, along with Thomas Hood, a leading figure in developing Regency concepts of humour. It is certainly possible to read such punning re-workings of stable linguistic formulations as an interesting mode of response to complex social change, in which the worrying instability of signs is laughed into perspective through the cathartic use of humour. There is a more detailed reading of Seymour’s preoccupation with punning in the discussion of New Readings below.
Robert Seymour belonged to that generation of comic artists which, in order to survive commercially, shifted the focus of their work from single plate, often large-scale etchings, engraving and (by the 1820s) lithographs which had characterised the eighteenth century to smaller scale wood engraving and lithography which was most often contained within the pages of a printed text. This transition was accompanied by, or perhaps helped to construct, a changed focus of interest, with socio-cultural subjects, especially urban street life, the social ambitions and confusions of the emergent middle classes and the domestic lives of artisans replacing the political and the personal satire traditional to the earlier caricature tradition. Seymour was unusual among comic artists working between 1820 and 1840 in that he was trained as an artist working for wood engravers very early in his career. His best known immediate contemporaries – George Cruikshank, Robert Cruikshank, Henry Heath, William Heath, and Henry Alken among them – were trained in the etched and engraved caricature tradition, and had to undertake considerable adjustment to the new demands of a market-place built round comic annuals, humorous pamphlets, miscellaneous gatherings of small graphic jokes and puns, illustrated song-books and play-texts, and even, at the far point of miscellaneity and commercial demand, small scale ‘scraps’ aimed at filling the laboriously compiled albums that preoccupied the considerable leisure time of genteel young women.
What follows is the beginnings of a bibliographical investigation into Seymour’s published work. Each entry has been given a number, which is given in bold and enclosed in square brackets – for example [18]. A few of the more complex entries containing a sequence of editions are further ascribed a sub-number – thus [17g]. In order to try to suggest the nature of Seymour’s work more fully, the entry numbers are used to structure groups of images, which form the second major element of this exhibit, and which can be accessed from the list. Not all the entries have accompanying images, but where there are images they are denotated by green numbers (links) within the entry. Each numbered reference to a related image tries to cite the reference at the appropriate moment of the entry in the list.
A detailed listing of Seymour’s work is required for a number of reasons. First, such lists as exist are either inaccurate or incomplete, or both. While the listing offered below is in many respects nothing more than an introductory one, it is more comprehensive and detailed than anything yet available, and its publication here opens it up to further correction and development. Where possible, entries are based on a close study of the texts concerned and have not been derived from secondary sources except where noted. Second, such a listing, even without the single plate caricatures, gives an extraordinary insight into the feverish range of activities required for a jobbing engraver to make a living, and suggests the close knit nature of commercial publishing in the 1820s and 1830s. Third, the complex sequence of editions of Seymour’s major work, especially the Sketches, has never been described in any detail. Interesting as this listing is in itself, it is equally important for the account it gives of how Regency graphic humour was sustained and re-made throughout the early and mid-Victorian period. Regency caricature – as clearly shown by Thackeray’s autobiographical reminiscences – formed a major reference point for Victorian accounts of the urban experience, and the graphic works of George Cruikshank and Henry Alken in particular were endlessly reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. Such a retrospective Victorian yearning for a Regency vision of the city experience forms an important contrast to the intense social investigations, rooted in empirical observation and documentary literary modes, of the likes of Mayhew and Booth. Seymour’s work was re-formulated, and, indeed, substantially re-made for Victorian taste in complex ways which only become clear through a detailed bibliographical study of the sequence of shifting versions of his Sketches.
Separately issued single plate caricatures and sets of caricatures by Seymour are, reluctantly, excluded here, so the listing comprises illustrations for books and periodicals and sets of prints issued or re-issued in book format with or without an accompanying text. Volume XI of the British Museum Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires offers a good starting place for investigating Seymour’s more traditional caricature production up to 1832 at least. Such listings of Seymour’s work that are available – notably the Wikipedia entry and ODNB entries – tend to mix in single plate caricatures, short series of plates without text, periodical contributions, book illustrations and extended series of plates like the Sketches or New Readings. The listing that follows is an attempt to give some shape to Seymour’s output by recognising the many genres, print locales and opportunist moments in and through which his work was produced. Clearly his more ‘political’ output was the consequence of long standing associations with authors and editors like Gilbert à Beckett, a Punch stalwart who also edited the satirical magazine Figaro in London. His work for À Beckett would have brought him into contact with small specialist ‘niche’ publishers like Richard Carlile, William Strange and Effingham Wilson, all of whom had interests in the dissemination of radical and progressive literature. Seymour’s various works for small format wood engraved comic publications brought him into contact with publishers like William Kidd, who was developing a range of new genres and formats for illustrated comic literature. His relationship with Kidd was an extended one that resulted in a wide range of comic and topographical publications which the following list has only just begun to unravel. Seymour’s two key publications under his own name – the Sketches and New Readings of Old Authors – involved entrepreneurs and publishers in the new speculative and volatile market-place for lithographed comic images, including shadowy but influential publishers like G. S. Tregear and William Spooner as well as Effingham Wilson. Early magazine work depended on Seymour’s work as a ‘house’ artist for a publisher venturing into the new market-place for mass circulation ‘information’ based literature. A full study of Seymour would clearly involve further investigation of the relationship between prolific journalists, obscure but feverishly inventive publishers and jobbing comic artists in the 1830s as well as a detailed understanding of the emergence of comic visual traditions in small-scale wood engraving and lithography.
This list is the product of my wider interest in the comic image and its market-place between 1820 and 1850, and is linked to a substantial collection of Seymour’s work that I have accumulated over many years. While I have consulted with a number of experts on the period, most notably Stephen Jarvis, the shortcomings of what follows are entirely my own. I expect to draw more fully at a later stage on Stephen Jarvis’s astonishingly detailed research on Seymour and make further additions to the list. I fully accept that the listings offered below are both incomplete and almost certainly inaccurate in detail. I have not seen everything I have listed, and some of the entries are taken from the secondary sources listed below without, as yet, further investigation. Further, there are aspects of their publication arising from the more complex texts, especially the Sketches, Pickwick and the New Readings, that I don’t fully understand despite having seen a wide range of relevant editions and secondary discussion. I have decided to make no attempt to offer a detailed account of Seymour’s Pickwick drawings and plates here – the secondary literature about these is enormous and, despite a mass of available evidence, still full of unresolved assertion. I leave anyone interested in Seymour and Dickens to make their own way through the many available discussions. The aim here is to develop a resource both to better the scholarly understanding of a major early nineteenth century comic artist and to let people see a broader range of his witty, inventive and trenchant commentary on both rural and (especially) urban society.