1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 8
Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson
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DU MAURIER, GEORGE LOUIS PALMELLA BUSSON (1834-1896), British artist and writer, was born in Paris. His father, a naturalized British subject, was the son of émigrés who had left France during the Reign of Terror and settled in London. In Peter Ibbetson, the first of the three books which won George Du Maurier late in life a reputation as novelist almost as great as he had enjoyed as artist and humorist for more than a generation, the author tells in the form of fiction the story of his singularly happy childhood. He was brought to London, indeed, when three or four years old, and spent in Devonshire Terrace and elsewhere two colourless years; but vague memories of this period were suddenly exchanged one beautiful day in June—“the first day of his conscious existence”—for the charming realities of a French garden and “an old yellow house with green shutters and mansard roofs of slate.” Here, at Passy, with his “gay and jovial father” and his young English mother, the boy spent “seven years of sweet priceless home-life—seven times four changing seasons of simple genial prae-Imperial Frenchness.” The second chapter of Du Maurier’s life had for scene a Paris school, very much in the style of that “Institution F. Brossard” which he describes, at once so vividly and so sympathetically, in The Martian; and like “Barty Josselin’s” schoolfellow and biographer, he left it (in 1851) to study chemistry at University College, London, actually setting up as an analytical chemist afterwards in Bucklersbury. But this was clearly not to be his métier, and the year 1856 found him once more in Paris, in the Quartier Latin this time, in the core of that art-world of which in Trilby, forty years later, he was to produce with pen and pencil so idealistic and fascinating a picture. Then, like “Barty Josselin” himself, he spent some years in Belgium and the Netherlands, experiencing at Antwerp in 1857, when he was working in the studio of van Lerius, the one great misfortune of his life—the gradual loss of sight in his left eye, accompanied by alarming symptoms in his right. It was a period of tragic anxiety, for it seemed possible that the right eye might also become affected; but this did not happen, and the dismal cloud was soon to show its silver lining, for, about Christmastime 1858, there came to the forlorn invalid a copy of Punch’s Almanac, and with it the dawn of a new era in his career.

There can be little doubt that the study of this Almanac, and especially of Leech’s drawings in it, fired him with the ambition of making his name as a graphic humorist; and it was not long after his return to London in 1860 that he sent in his first contribution (very much in Leech’s manner) to Punch. Mark Lemon, then editor, appreciated his talent, and on Leech’s death in 1865 appointed him his successor, counselling him with wise discrimination not to try to be “too funny,” but “to undertake the light and graceful business” and be the “romantic tenor” in Mr Punch’s little company, while Keene, as Du Maurier puts it, “with his magnificent highly-trained basso, sang the comic songs.” These respective rôles the two artists continued to play until the end, seldom trespassing on each other’s province; the “comic songs” finding their inspiration principally in the life of the homely middle and lower middle classes, while the “light and graceful business” enacted itself almost exclusively in “good Society.” To a great extent, also, Du Maurier had to leave outdoor life to Keene, his weak sight making it difficult for him to study and sketch in the open air and sunshine, thus cutting him off, as he records regretfully, from “so much that is so popular, delightful and exhilarating in English country life”—hunting and shooting and fishing and the like. He contrived, however, to give due attention to milder forms of outdoor recreation, and turned to good account his familiarity with Hampstead Heath and Rotten Row, and his holidays with his family at Whitby and Scarborough, Boulogne and Dieppe.

Of Du Maurier’s life during the thirty-six years of his connexion with Punch there is not, apart from his work as an artist, much to record. In the early ’sixties he lived at 85 Newman Street in lodgings, which he shared with his friend Lionel Henley, afterwards R.B.A., working hard at his Punch sketches and his more serious contributions to Once a Week and the Cornhill Magazine. After his marriage with Miss Emma Wightwick in 1862 he took a spacious and pleasant house near Hampstead Heath, in surroundings made familiar in his drawings. Shortly before he died he moved to a house in Oxford Square. About 1866 he struck out a new line in his admirable illustrations to Jerrold’s Story of a Feather. In 1869 he realized a long-cherished aspiration, the illustrating of Thackeray’s Esmond, and in 1879 he drew twelve additional vignettes for it, in the same year providing several illustrations for the Ballads. From time to time he sent pretty and graceful pictures to the exhibitions of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colour, to which he was elected in 1881. In 1885 the first exhibition of his works at the Fine Art Society took place. Thus occupied in the practice of his art, spending his leisure in social intercourse with his many friends and at home with his growing family, hearing all the new singers and musicians, seeing all the new plays, he lived the happiest of lives. He died somewhat suddenly on the 8th of October 1896, and was buried in the Hampstead parish churchyard. He left a family of two sons—the elder, Major Guy Du Maurier (b. 1865), a soldier who became more widely known in 1909 as author of the military play An Englishman’s Home, and the younger, Gerald, a well-known actor—and three daughters.

It is impossible, in considering Du Maurier’s work, to avoid comparing it with that of Leech and Keene, the more so that in his little book on Social Pictorial Satire he himself has set forth or suggested the points both of resemblance and of difference. Like Keene, though Keene’s marvellous technique was his despair, Du Maurier was a much more finished draughtsman than John Leech, but in other respects he had less in common with the younger than with the older humorist. He shows himself, in the best sense, a man of feeling in all his work. He is clearly himself in love with “his pretty woman,” as he calls her—every pen-stroke in his presentment of her is a caress. How affectionate, too, are his renderings of his fond young mothers and their big, handsome, simple-minded husbands; his comely children and neat nurserymaids; even his dogs—his elongated dachshunds and magnificent St Bernards! And how he scorns the snobs and philistines—Sir Gorgius Midas and Sir Pompey Bedell, Grigsby and Cadby, Soapley and Toadson! How merciless is his ridicule of the aesthetes of the ’eighties—Maudle and Postlethwaite and Mrs Cimabue Brown! Even to Mrs Ponsonby de Tomkyns, his most conspicuous creation, his satire is scarcely tempered, despite her prettiness. He shows up unsparingly all her unscrupulous little ways, all her cynical, cunning little wiles. Like Leech, he revelled in the lighter aspects of life—the humours of the nursery, the drawing-room, the club, the gaieties of the country house and the seaside—without being blind to the tragic and dramatic. Just as Leech could rise to the height of the famous cartoon “General Février turned Traitor,” so it was Du Maurier who inspired Tenniel in that impressive drawing on the eve of the Franco-German War, in which the shade of the great Napoleon is seen warning back the infatuated emperor from his ill-omened enterprise. In his tender drawings in Once a Week, also, and in his occasional excursions into the grotesque in Punch, such as his picture of “Old Nickotin stealing away the brains of his devotees,” he has given ample proof of his faculty for moving and impressive art. The technique of Du Maurier’s work in the ’eighties and the ’nineties, though to the average man it seems a marvel of finish and dexterity, is considered by artists a falling off from what was displayed in some of his earlier Punch drawings, and especially in his contributions to the Cornhill Magazine and Once a Week. His later work is undoubtedly more mannered, more “finicking,” less simple, less broadly effective. But it is to his fellow-craftsmen only and to experts that this is noticeable.

A quaint tribute has been paid to the literary talent shown in Du Maurier’s inscriptions to his drawings by Mr F. Anstey (Guthrie), author of Vice Versa, and Du Maurier’s colleague on the staff of Punch. “In these lines of letterpress,” says Mr Anstey, “he has brought the art of précis-writing to perfection.” They are indeed singularly concise and to the point. It is the more curious, therefore, to note that in his novels, and even in his critical essays, Du Maurier reveals very different qualities: the précis-writer has become an improvisatore, pouring out his stories and ideas in full flood, his style changing with every mood—by turn humorous, eloquent, tender, gay, sometimes merely “skittish,” sometimes quite solemn, but never for long; sometimes, again, breaking into graceful and haunting verse. He writes with apparent artlessness; but, in his novels at least, on closer examination, it is found that he has in fact exerted all his ingenuity to give them—what such flagrantly untrue tales most require—verisimilitude. It is hard to say which of the three stories is the more impossible: that of Trilby, the tone-deaf artist’s model who becomes a prima donna, that of Barty Josselin and his guardian angel from Mars, or that of the dream-existence of Peter Ibbetson and the duchess of Towers. They are all equally preposterous, and yet plausible. The drawings are cunningly made to serve the purpose of evidence, circumstantial and direct. These books cannot be criticized by the ordinary canons of the art of fiction. They are a genre by themselves, a blend of unfettered day-dream and rose-coloured reminiscence. For the dramatic version of Trilby by Mr Paul Potter Du Maurier would accept no credit. The play was produced in 1895 by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, at the Haymarket, with immense popular success.

Some striking examples of Du Maurier’s work for Once a Week and the Cornhill Magazine are included in Gleeson White’s English Illustrators of the Sixties. The following is a list of the chief works which he illustrated: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1865), Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866), Jerrold’s Story of a Feather (1867), Owen Meredith’s Lucile (1868), The Book of Drawing room Plays, by H. Dalton (1868), Sooner or Later, by C. A. G. Brooke (1868), Thackeray’s Esmond (1869 and 1879), and Ballads (1879), Misunderstood, by Florence Montgomery (1874), Round about the Islands, by C. W. Scott (1874), Hurlock Chase, by G. E. Sargent (1876), Songs of many Seasons, by J. Browne (in collaboration) (1876), Pegasus Re-saddled, by H. C. Pennell (1877), Ingoldsby Legends (in collaboration), by R. Barham (1877), Prudence, by L. C. Lillie (1882), As in a Looking-glass by F. C. Phillips (1889), Luke Ashleigh, by A. Elwes (1891), and his own three novels, which appeared serially in Harper’s Magazine: Peter Ibbetson (1892), Trilby (1894), The Martian (1897), and published after his death. In 1897 also there was published, under the title English Society, with an introduction by W. D. Howells, a collection of full page drawings which he had contributed regularly to Harper’s Magazine.

Some of his Punch drawings have been reproduced also in The Collections of Mr Punch (1880), Society Pictures from Punch (1890), A Legend of Camelot (1890). To his Social Pictorial Satire (1890) reference has been made. He contributed two essays upon book illustration to the Magazine of Art (1890). See also the Magazine of Art for 1892, for an article upon his work by W. Delaplaine Scull, with illustrations. Other volumes containing information about his life and work are: The History of Punch by M. H. Spielmann, In Bohemia with Du Maurier, by Felix Moscheles, Henry James’s “Du Maurier and London Society,” Century Magazine (1883), and “Du Maurier,” Harper’s Magazine (September 1897, June 1899). See also Ruskin’s Art of England Lecture 5, Pennell’s Pen-Drawing and Pen-Draughtsmen, and Muther’s Modern Painting vol. ii.

(F. W. W.)