Arthur Boyd Houghton

(13 March 1836 - 25 November 1875)

British Book illustrator and painter, was born in Kotagiri, Madras, India. He usually signed his name A. B. Houghton, fourth son of Captain John Michael Houghton (1797-1874), R.N., who served in the East India Company's Marine as a draughtsman. In the early part of his career he devoted himself mainly to illustrations of books, the Graphic, Fun, and other serials. After returning with his father from India he began to paint in oil, and exhibited some humorous sketches of London life at the Portland Gallery. In 1861 he commenced to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending 'A Fisher' and 'Here In the Sands,' and contributed other oil-paintings in 1864, 1867, 1868, 1869, and 1870. He joined the (now Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours, exhibiting in 1871, 'Hiawatha and Minnehaha' and 'In Captivity,' and a few other works of high merit in 1872 and 1874, but his fame depends mainly upon his designs for books. He supplied illustrations to editions of Don Quixote, and the Arabian Nights, published in 1866. The illustrations to the former book show much invention, but his talent found its most congenial field in the Arabian Nights. His best designs for these tales are to be found, not in the edition just mentioned, but in Dalziel's Arabian Nights (completed in 1865), to which he contributed over ninety illustrations. They are full of life and fancy, of gravity and passion, often wild and fantastic, but always in sympathy with the subject and never wanting in human character. A special word should be given to his children, which are spirited and natural, whether English or oriental. His designs were often striking in their effects of black and white, but they were wanting in tone and gradation, a defect partly due perhaps to the loss of one eye. Houghton was one of the brilliant band of book illustrators which included Frederick Walker and J. G. Pinwell. He died at 162 King Henry's Road, South Hampstead, London, and was buried in Paddington cemetery, Willesden Lane.

[Redgrave's Dict., 1878; Art Journal, 1876, p. 47; Bryan's Dict. (Graves); Roget's History of the Old Water-colour Society.]

He played a leading role in the renaissance of wood-engraved illustration during the golden decade of English book illustration (c. 1860-75), when a new school of artists overcame the limitations of the medium. Deeply influenced by the idealism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he imbued both his paintings and drawings with a haunting blend of poetic realism.

Houghton is best known for wood-engravings but also produced a number of oil paintings and watercolours (usually based upon earlier wood-engravings), many of his wife and children. He also wrote a little poetry which was published in his lifetime. When still a child, a shot fired from a toy cannon left him blind in one eye, and unable to sustain his concentration when painting large works for exhibition at the Royal Academy. Wikipedia

Houghton, Pinwell, and Walker, I have named as the representative exponents of pre-Raphaeliteism in its second period. Though in the first instance their work was derivative, it carried with it a new flavour, a sense, as I have already suggested, of the open air.

In the strict circle of the Brotherhood itself there had been something of a literary element, at times so evident that "bookish" might also be used as the word for conveying its flavour. These new men -- Houghton and the rest -- made a closer alliance with life, with the facts and passions of everyday existence, and threw themselves with personal enthusiasm into an idyllic rendering of the Victorian age of crinolines, breaking away from the somewhat cramped and cloistral point of view which had marked the earlier days of the movement. Under Houghton's leadership, directing their main energies to the illustration of books, they set to work, somewhat hazardously, to turn to their own use the naturalistic predilections of the age.

In order that any one may have the means of judging of Houghton's work from a single volume, I shall in all that follows take his illustrations to Dalziel's Arabian Nights as my main reference. With the exception of the Don Quixote, a single drawing here and there, such as the wonderful "Tom, Tom the Piper's Son," printed in this selection, and the American sketches which appeared in the Graphic , under the title of "Graphic America," and "Scenes from the Far West," they are the most remarkable of his performances.

This, then, at the outset has been suggested as the aim of his technique, to make realism and style compatible with one another. To his apprehension of beauty he brought qualities of vision which were singularly adapted to its accomplishment. For texture, or the mould of a limb, for all intricate blendings of form, for the quantities of atmosphere and sunlight, his eye had all the keenness of a realist's. For flow of line, disposition of mass or balance of tone, he was a stylist and designer, working in decorative values to a decorative effect. Assuring himself by the main scheme of his picture that its quality should be decorative, and by a sweeping assertion of white as a term for tones of many degrees, he was able in detail to "let himself go." Thus his work shows in many ways an extreme contrast to that of his pre-Raphaelite predecessors. In their designs for wood engraving it is, as a rule, difficult to find even a square inch of blank space left to represent ground or sky: they worked with jewel-like effect, regarding the wood they drew on as a sort of precious metal whose surface was of too much value to be thrown away.

In Houghton's work, on the other hand, we find the value of "whites" asserted almost by the yard. Broad white upon black, black upon broad white, these were the general lines upon which he worked for his effects. Often within such broad generalisation one will find searching draughtmanship; beautiful, quiet modelling within a small range of tones; always that strange touch of realism that would give to rags their squalor, and to limbs the hairiness that is found in life.

The technical value of these actual points of insistence for giving quality and form to figures broadly schemed on the silhouette principle will be seen readily. The blurred edge of outline thus given to arm and shank took away any "hard" effect which might otherwise have been caused by strong contrast of level lights and darks. But beyond that one must remember that the cast of his mind was towards realism, though, at the same time, it was bent on remaining highly personal in its tone; that is to say, on expressing itself with distinction and style. He is, I think, a unique instance of an artist, who, by the rapidity of his handling and by the quality of his lines, seemed to be pursuing dexterity for the sake of realism, and who yet clung to a fundamental assertion of arbitrary tones and decorative values.

Another modifying quality, I think, belonged to his tone-scheme, saving it from over-licence in a naturalistic direction. It was, that is to say, at once full of colour and colourless. As black and white it is admirable, bold, effective, and sweeping; yet all that it suggests is curiously bound down to monochrome. It does not, as does often the work of other masters, suggest the tint of a complexion, or the colour of a cloth; it seems only to say "white is white, and black is black, and midway lies grey." I do not press this criticism beyond the mere suggestion; it may be an idea that has come from the attempt to explain over well what always lay in Houghton's best work, saving it from the charge of over-naturalness, and keeping to it its decorative quality.

His draperies, especially where they ranged towards white, were handled with a marvellous command of texture, and an economy of work such as no other artist but Charles Keene has equalled. Instances of this may be seen in The Arabian Nights, in the illustration of "The Birth of Camaralzaman," or of "The Funeral Cavalcade of the Superintendent of the Gardens." And as instances of his common method of playing black against white, one can find no better examples than the drawing of "The Fisherman giving the Fish to Cogia Hassan," or than the frontispiece illustration to Don Quixote.

I have said that Houghton's method was rapid; much of his handling consequently has the qualities that belong to a brilliant sketch rather than to a closely finished drawing. For some this undoubtedly detracts from the technical charm of his work. To one who for beauty of bookmanship looks back to the great days of printing, and cherishes a fondness for the old dark types with decorations made liney and dark to accord, there is a tendency to ground belief in excellence of book-illustration on a method of handling slow, deliberate, at times a little sententious. Rapid workmanship is to him too much allied with the cheapness and haste of an age which has done so much to mar the beauty of the printed page.

It may be urged, however, that the qualities that belonged to old book-illustration belonged somewhat to the old books themselves. Yet we must admit, surely, that good books can now and then be, which are not slow, are not sententious, are not noticeably deliberate. The steps quicken as the facilities for printing expand; and illustration should respond even in the matter of its technique to the lighter strain of its printed accompaniment.

Passing from the consideration of his technique, one comes to the main intellectual interest of Houghton's work, its imaginative force and vitality as an illustration of its subject. It is such work as his that gives to illustration its right value and meaning, so that it becomes not what we so often find it, the dull repetition, through another medium, of things already sufficiently made clear by the text; but something new with further appeals and fresh charms for the imagination; something in the nature of a brilliant commentary throwing out new light upon the subject, an exquisite parenthesis of things better said in this medium than could be said in any other: in a word, the result of another creative faculty at work on the same theme.

It requires but a very ordinary mind to take up the text of a book and accurately to convert any plain statements it may contain into a picture. But that is not illustration: that is merely the cataloguing of things already known -- a very dull sort of proceeding. Yet it is done; done in every "high-class illustrated magazine" in the kingdom, and will be, I suppose, so long as people prefer to be told twice what they need only to be told once.

From such unprofitable adjuncts to the type it is a relief to turn to the new lights and shadows thrown by the magic of a mind like Houghton's over any incident it takes for illustration. Where the writer ceases to describe, the true illustrator steps in. Houghton's illustrations, consequently, engage the mind while they are delightful to the eye. He realises, as one imagines a fine actor to realise, the very turn of head or inflection of body most indicative of the mood or passion to be conveyed. With an imaginative insight into the poetry of motion of the human body, he catches the most fleeting expressions of character in gesture and grace of pose. His has that noble power of character-drawing, belonging to the Greek and to all highest forms of art, which reveals character, not merely through the face, where is expressed so often only the accidence of time, but through every limb, even to the feet, the expression of the body's temperament. The breeding that has been gained by the refinements of life, the pliant motions of a woman's form, the supple half gestures of youth, slight because beauty and youth are self-reliant and strong, and have no need to express themselves much: Houghton has seized on these things adroitly and significantly for the conveying of character.

This mastery of sympathetic attitude, whimsical and quaint at times, as where Aladdin's mother sits crumpling her toes with terror, or where Shacabac bends over the Barmecide with an apologetic knocking of the knees, is elsewhere used with a depth of tenderness and wise insight that convey a charm not to be found in the stories themselves. One such instance comes readily to mind in that scene where Camaralzaman listens to the old gardener's dying profession of faith. Houghton has drawn the young man lying down by the side of the old one. Camaralzaman's head is close to the dying man's, and while one hand presses that of his friend, the other draws away the thick locks from over his ear, so that he may catch each note of the faintly whispered words with least pain to the sufferer. The beautiful eloquence of the attitude receives its final touch in the prince's covering his mouth with the handful of curls he holds, as if so to stifle the expression of his grief.

Often Houghton's illustrations will supply humour or pathos or character-drawing, which the story itself has quite failed to convey. In his hands Aladdin's mother becomes a character of delicious comedy; over Aladdin himself there grows a subtle change: out of his first complaisant conceit in the fine clothes his uncle has given him he grows up to the dignity which awaits him; but the mother remains to the end fluttered, giddy, and oppressed by all the greatness which is thrust upon her.

Houghton shows himself thus a master of character; and apart in the furthest degree from caricature delicately triumphs in the graciousness of his queenly women with their half motions and subtle gestures, and in the virile and composed bearing of his youths.

With Houghton the worship of youth shows very strongly; he seems to delight in indicating in it delicacy and beauty of character : and I cannot help fancying that the great abundance of hair with which he crowns his young men's heads is meant to stand as a symbol of the vitality and glory of their youth.

Yet the impression conveyed by his work is one partly of sadness. It would seem that a great style is hardly ever consistent with an easy philosophy of life. The men who have been "mannered" after the noblest sort have always been so with the added result of seriousness to their art ; and over Houghton's pictures of life there are apt to be shadows, and about his rendering of beauty there is a hush.

In considering his reading of life one may turn to those keenly controverted assertions of his pencil, the studies from American life which appeared during the first days of the Graphic. The Americans at least showed themselves intelligent in the cry of indignation which they raised on their appearance. Houghton indeed had personal cause to discover the resentment he had raised, but it did not induce him to stay his hand. Undoubtedly to his own mind his scathing attack on the great nation of the West seemed just; gaucherie upon a pedestal of brass was what he believed he saw in the new civilization, and in his drawings it stands pilloried before us, mocked by the mirth of a cruel satire. After his death the Graphic expressed itself in tones of half apology for the libel which had been uttered by its artist, and which had perhaps dealt a shock to its circulation in America. Yet artistically the series had been a triumph, and it was an evidence of the prevailing power of style over matter that a plunge into what his mind saw chiefly as an emporium of vulgarity should have resulted in work at once so realistic of its point of view, yet so distinguished in tone.

One of the accompanying attractions in Houghton's work is the degree in which, under the fertile inventions of his mind, it becomes native to its subject: native not in literalness of studious research, but in its spontaneous touches of local-colour. Just as through all fine literary work run secondary threads of interest and character, so through Houghton's work are to be found by-play and asides going on apart from the main theme: subtle half-tones, mid-distances, and backgrounds, before which as on a living, not a dead, stage he draws his characters. Out of a walled Eastern town a rabble of hungry dogs tears across the sand, twenty in pursuit of one : how much of the East is summed up for us in the small incident! Touches of bird and animal life constantly come in so. There is one picture of the Emperor of China reeling in astonishment before an open window at the discovery of the disappearance of Aladdin's palace; so rapt that he pays no heed to the unfortunate cur whose tail he tramples; above his head the low sunlight has thrown the shadow of two swallows, beaks meeting in mid-air. How delicately phrased it comes on the blank wall behind!

Houghton was always lavish of such touches as these, expressing therein the fertility of his invention so lightly and so gracefully. And, after all is said, perhaps one's final impression is how fertile was his invention, how unlimited were his resources and power to interest. Yet his actual achievement, even when rightly understood, hardly indicates his place of supremacy above his fellows. Like Walker, and like Pinwell, he died before reaching the age of forty; yet for actual work his life was short out of all proportion with theirs. Physical disabilities under which he laboured made a gigantic hindrance to his progress; hindrance so great that in view of it the sum-product of his hfe appears not only an astonishing tour de force but a work of heroism.

From boyhood he had lost the entire sight of one eye, and as he advanced in life the other became increasingly affected. Great pain and inflammation would often, for many days together, put a stop to his drawing; in consequence of this his work seems for the most part to have been done at desperate speed to make up for lost time. It was his habit to draw his illustrations straight upon the wood without any preliminary sketches, and any study from the model was, I have been told, made actually on the block, a wonderful accomplishment in view of the elaborate character of many of his compositions.

Though it lies without the range of what is the immediate purpose in hand, mention may be made of Houghton's work as a painter. With a few lovely exceptions, I do not think he is to be seen there at his best. The direct and swift spontaneity, the free, almost fierce use he gave to line, were more suited to express his temperament than the softer manipulations of the brush: nor does he seem to me to have been an imaginative colourist. It has been said that he was colour-blind, but his paintings do not convey that impression: their colour is perhaps above the average of academic standards, but they do not, I think, give him any claim to permanent rank as a colourist. There are, however, one or two pictures lying in private hands which I have seen (of course, there may be others) which would make me wish to undo all I have said in diminished appreciation of this side of his work. But by the side of more ambitious attempts, attempts which he himself regarded as his best things, I am rather led to consider them as exceptions, and to hold fast by his work as an illustrator in prophesying fame for him in the future.

It seems true in this country that the only path to popular fame, for an artist whose work is chiefly in black and white, lies through the pages of Punch. That Houghton's work is not to be found there may be the reason why, when I first came to write of him, I had to call him "a forgotten book illustrator." This reprint of his best work is at least an attempt to make such a phrase in relation to him an error of the past. The term was only partly true. Among artists, and those who care at all deeply for the great things of art, he cannot be forgotten: for them his work is at once too much an influence and a problem. And though officially the Academy shuts its mouth at him, while it opens it wide to applaud the more popular art of Walker and Pinwell, certain of its leading lights have been known unofficially to declare that Houghton was the greatest of the three.

In conclusion, for the generous manner in which they have allowed me the use of original drawings for the purposes of this selection, I have to thank Mrs. E. C. Davis and Mr. Joseph Pennell; and for the use of wood-blocks, Messrs. Ward, Lock, and Bowden, Messrs. F. Warne and Co., Mr. John Hogg, Messrs. Novello, Ewer, and Co., and the proprietors of the Graphic. That my selection is made so representative of Houghton's range and power as an illustrator is largely due to kindness which was without exception.

Examples of Houghton's work are also to be found between the years 1860-75, in the following magazines and newspapers: The Sunday Magazine, London Society, Good Words for the Young, Good Words, Once a Week, Fun, The Graphic. Arthur Boyd Houghton: A selection from his work in black and white, printed for the most part from the original wood-blocks; with a introductory essay by Laurence Housman, London: Regan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., Limied, Paternoster House, Charing Cross Road, 1896.

View painter's art: Arthur Boyd Houghton, (1836-1875) [new window view]