Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson (DNB01)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement
Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson

by Alfred Ainger

DU MAURIER, GEORGE LOUIS PALMELLA BUSSON (1834–1896), artist in black and white and novelist, was born in Paris on 6 March 1834. His grandfather, descended from an old French family of nobility, had an interest in some glass-works in Anjou. Glass-blowing was then a monopoly of the gentilshommes, and no commoner might engage in it. He fled to England during the French revolution, but returned to France in 1816, and died holding the post of schoolmaster at Tours. His son, Louis Mathurin, George's father, derived some income from the glass-works, but never greatly prospered, owing to a talent for making inventions which proved unsuccessful. He married an Englishwoman, Miss Ellen Clarke, and became a naturalised Englishman. They had three children, two sons and a daughter, of whom George was the eldest. The children grew up equally conversant with both languages, and George spoke English without the slightest foreign accent. When he was five years old his parents came to England, and lived for a time in the house in Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone Road, where Dickens afterwards resided. But, the father's pecuniary position not improving, the family returned to France, living for a while in Boulogne, and afterwards in Paris, where George went to school, between 1847 and 1851, in the Pension Froussard, in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. This school-life is described in the 'Martian,' as the earlier days of childhood are in 'Peter Ibbetson.' In 1851 George returned to London to study chemistry at University College, under the direction of Dr. Williamson, where he was a fellow-student of Sir Henry Roscoe. Later, in 1854, his father, who was bent on his son becoming a man of science, provided him with a laboratory of his own in Bard's Yard, Buckler sbury. He had been, according to his own account, a most unsatisfactory student while at the college, his real bias being all the time for the art he subsequently followed. He drew caricatures of his teachers which amused them much, though, as du Maurier used carefully to add, 'they did not see them all.' His work at assaying in his private laboratory was to prove not more successful.

In 1856 du Maurier lost his father, and his scientific career closed. For a while he seems to have thought of adopting the profession of a singer, for he had inherited from his father a tenor voice of great beauty, and much charm in the use of it; but wiser counsels prevailed, and he returned to Paris and entered the studio of the eminent teacher Gleyre. Many of his experiences while there were recorded long afterwards with great vivacity and charm in the pages of 'Trilby.' In Paris he made the acquaintance of many who were to become his life-long friends, including the late Mr. T. R. Lament, Mr. Thomas Armstrong, C.B., who was not, however, a pupil of Gleyre, Mr. Whistler, and Mr. (now Sir Edward) Poynter. After one year of this Quartier Latin existence he left Paris in 1857 with his mother for Antwerp, where he worked in the class-rooms of the Antwerp Academy under De Keyser and Van Lerius. In 1859, while drawing in the studio, he was suddenly deprived of the sight of one eye by 'detachment of the retina.' The oculists whom he consulted among them the famous experts at Malines and Diisseldorf gave him no great assurance of preserving the other eye, but it remained, with some occasional intervals of trouble, sufficient for his work during the remainder of his life.

In 1860 du Maurier came to England, and in the autumn began to do book illustrations, appearing for the first time in the pages of 'Once a Week,' a periodical remarkable, in its first series, for its wood-engravings from drawings by Millais, Fred. Walker, Keene, Pinwell, Sandys, and other artists of eminence. Du Maurier's first contribution was in September 1860, illustrating an oriental tale in verse by Sir John Bowring. In the October following appeared his first contribution to 'Punch,' for which he continued to draw as an occasional contributor, largely of initial letters and the like, until he joined the staff four years later. Du Maurier's first drawing (October 1860, xxxix. 140), of an incident recorded to have happened to himself and Mr. Whistler in a photographer's studio, it must be admitted gave but little promise of the knowledge of the figure and the sense of beauty which he was to develop later.

Meantime, his work on 'Once a Week,' 'Punch,' and other miscellaneous publications justifying the step, he married, in 1863, Emma, daughter of Mr. William Wightwick. The young couple took up their abode in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury (over 'Pears's Soap '), where they resided for the next four years.

In 1864 John Leech died, and du Maurier was at once chosen to succeed him at the 'Punch' table. From this time forward his progress in draughtsmanship was steady and rapid. The continual practice and intense devotion to his art soon had results which are traceable by all who consult the five or six volumes of 'Punch' following his election to the staff. Mark Lemon had encouraged him from the first to cultivate the graceful and poetical side of his talent. 'Let others be funny 'was the editor's advice ; 'make it your task to show us the Beautiful.' Probably at that moment Mark Lemon hardly guessed what would prove the range and variety of du Maurier's humour. For a while, at least, he did not seek his subjects mainly in the drawing-rooms of the fashionable world. A sense of the grotesque, and of a field for caricature in the animal world, afforded him opportunity for all sorts of humorous invention, and the abundance and excellence of his work in 'Punch's Almanack' for 1865 must have been a surprise even to those who knew him best. Meantime a new talent was declaring itself.

In January 1865 appeared in 'Punch' some delightful verses in Cockney French, 'L'Onglay à Parry.' The possession of a talent both for verse and prose (and he was all his life a constant and discursive reader) had indeed a distinct influence from the first on his development as a humorous artist. These gifts, however, remained as yet all but unknown to the general reader. But his colleagues on 'Punch' knew them well, and more than one editor under whom he served urged him to take a writer's salary and be on the literary as well as on the artistic staff. It was known also to his friends that he found comfort in the knowledge that, if his only working eye should ever fail him, he had a second talent to which he might have recourse for a livelihood. A paper contributed by him to 'Once a Week,' as early as 1860, on the subject of a so-called gold mine in Devonshire which he was sent down as analyst to report upon, and in which, to the dismay of the directors, he could detect no trace of gold, displays much of the humour and ease of style which he was to exhibit thirty years later in 'Peter Ibbetson.' For verse, both sentimental and humorous, his gift was no less marked ; and very early in his association with 'Punch' he contributed an admirable parody on the ballad style of William Morris [q. v. Suppl.] in his 'Legend of Camelot,' illustrated by himself in happy imitation of the pre-Raffaelites. And in the meanwhile the pains he took in composing the 'Legends' to his drawings had no small share (as he told the present writer) in training him for the writing of dialogue in the prose romances of his later years.

In 1867 du Maurier with his wife and young children removed to Earl's Terrace, Kensington; in 1870 to Church Row, Hampstead ; and in 1874 to New Grove House, also in Hampstead, somewhat nearer to the Heath, which remained their home for twenty years. During all this time his work for 'Punch' was that to which his most constant attention was given; and by degrees, as his friendships multiplied, and with them the range of his observation of London society widened, he became more and more the satirist of the fashionable and artistic world, in which character he is perhaps best remembered. This was a field hitherto all but unworked in the pages of 'Punch.' Leech had dealt in the main with the classes below this—the honest bourgeoisie—Mr. Briggs and his like, such as had mainly commended itself to Dickens and his school. Du Maurier's master in satire was rather Thackeray, from whom, no doubt, he derived his fondness for exposing the hypocrisies of society. The insincerities of fashion, whether in social or artistic circles, suggested hundreds of du Maurier's drawings, and he was never happier than when he was exposing the unworthy struggles of the nouveau riche for social recognition, or the extravagances of the aesthetic or literary pretender. But in taking this line he was never contented with the effect to be produced by the mere pungency of his satire or the humour of the situation. The public were little aware of the amount of thought, pains, and work bestowed by him even upon some essentially trivial subject. He drew always from the living model he studied with the utmost minuteness all changes of fashion in dress, and in the household appointments of modern luxury, making his long career in 'Punch' of the greatest value to future students of the manners and customs of English society during the last quarter of the nineteenth century ; and, combined with this fastidious attention to detail, he never forgot Mark Lemon's injunction to attract and charm by his sense and love of the beautiful. There never were so many lovely women, handsome men, engaging children in society at any one moment as du Maurier's drawings would lead us to suppose. But the consciousness of this fact did not trouble him. If objectors had hinted that they did not meet such in London drawing-rooms, he would have replied with Turner on a like occasion, 'Ah ! but don't you wish you could?' His love of children and his knowledge of all their winning ways and occasional foibles gave a special character to all his work. Nor were these studied merely for the purposes of his calling. Himself a devoted husband and father, and one who loved home life more than any other he knew outside it, he lived habitually among those sights and sounds and incidents of which he discerned the pathetic and humorous sides, and which he rejoiced to perpetuate by his art.

In addition to his weekly work in 'Punch' du Maurier from the first year of his marriage had done a considerable amount of magazine illustration. In April 1863 he made his first drawing in the 'Cornhill Magazine' for a story called the 'Cilician Pirates,' and he continued to illustrate stories for that periodical for more than twenty years. Among these were works by Miss Thackeray (Mrs. Richmond Ritchie), Mr. George Meredith, Mr. Thomas Hardy, William Black, Mrs. Oliphant, Mr. Henry James, and other writers of distinction in many cases important serials extending over many months. But there was none for whose writings he had a profounder admiration than Mrs. Gaskell. He illustrated 'Wives and Daughters' and 'Cousin Phillis' on their first appearance in the magazine (1864-6), and had already done the same service for 'Sylvia's Lovers' when published by Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co., in book form in 1863. A particular interest belongs to du Maurier's drawings for this work, the heroine of which he dearly loved, and after whom he named his second daughter. As all readers of Mrs. Gaskell are now aware, 'Monkshaven,' the scene of the story, is identical with the favourite watering-place, Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. Whitby was to become in later years a special haunt of du Maurier, and its ways and doings to appear in delightful fashion in 'Punch.' But in 1863 he had no personal knowledge of the place, or of its identity with Monkshaven. Happening one day to talk over the task before him with Mr. Henry Keene (brother of his friend and colleague on 'Punch,' Charles Keene), that gentleman offered to lend him some sketches he had made the year before at Whitby, which seemed fairly to resemble the descriptions of scenery in the novel. Hence it came about that the novel was illustrated, though the artist was unaware of it, from the picturesque seaport Mrs. Gaskell had in view. In 1868 du Maurier illustrated 'Esmond ' (library edition), and ten years later Thackeray's 'Ballads' (Edition deluxe), in both which will be found some of his most interesting work. But he was never quite so successful as when inventing as well as designing his subjects.

As years passed on du Maurier found less margin of time for work outside of Punch.' Moreover, a new source of income was opened to him by the application of photography to wood-engraving some thirty years since. In the days of John Leech, as afterwards with Sir John Tenniel's weekly cartoon, the artist made his finished drawing upon the block, and the original was destroyed in the cutting. By the new method the artist's drawing was photographed on to the block, and the original remained intact. Thus, after a certain date in his career on 'Punch,' du Maurier retained his original drawings, and as his reputation and popularity grew, he found a ready sale for these, exhibitions of which from time to time were held at the Fine Art Gallery in Bond Street, materially improving du Maurier's financial position. It is not superfluous to mention this circumstance, seeing that some biographical notices after his death spoke of his career almost as if it had been one of struggle and penury before the unexpected discovery at its close of another and more profitable talent. But uncertainty as to the duration of his visual powers had probably much to do with his resolve to attempt prose fiction before the darker day should arrive. He had already made an experiment in another direction by taking up water-colour painting. As early as 1880 he was practising occasionally this, to him, novel art, and produced a very successful portrait of his eldest daughter. At intervals during the years that followed he painted other portraits and five or six subject pictures, one or two of them being replicas of subjects already treated in 'Punch.' But he found that the practice necessary for this less familiar art involved too great a strain upon his solitary eye, and he pursued it no more after 1889. It was about two years later that, after discussing his chances with his loyal friend Mr. Henry James, he accepted a proposal to write a story for Messrs. Harper, the well-known firm of American publishers. The result of this offer was the romance, 'Peter Ibbetson,' partly based upon recollections of his own early life, blended with a plot turning on a fantastic theory of the sympathetic relationship of dreams. The story at once attracted attention, principally no doubt from the former of the two elements just mentioned. The record of du Maurier's own childhood in 'the forties' at Passy, the Paris suburb, to which, and to the kindly personages then surrounding him, the machinery of the tale enabled him continually to recur, constituted the real charm of the romance, the supernatural portion of which was not conducted with much art. The ample illustrations by the writer, in his most attractive style, also contributed greatly to its success, which was sufficient to induce the publishers to commission a second story, to be published in monthly instalments in the pages of 'Harper's Magazine.' The first chapters of 'Trilby' appeared in the January number for 1894. In the interval, however, between the appearance of the two stories, a new anxiety had arisen for their author. In the winter of 1891-2 the sight of the remaining eye temporarily failed, and for some six weeks du Maurier was absent from 'Punch,' save for one clever drawing satirising French sentiment which had been some time 'in stock.' During this interval his thoughts turned to lecturing as a possible resource in the event of his sight proving irrecoverable, and he composed a lecture on social satiric art, which he delivered with success many times in London and the provinces, and which was published after his death, with illustrations, in 1898. The lecture treated chiefly of John Leech and Charles Keene ; for both these humorists, and especially for Keene as a master of technique, he had the profoundest admiration. Du Maurier soon tired, however, of lecturing as an occupation, and on the happy recovery of sufficient eye-sight he seldom had recourse to it again.

The new serial, 'Trilby,' was from the beginning a success, and indeed the first half of the story, which is by far the better, marked a great advance upon its predecessor. The picture drawn, with loving hand, of the young Englishmen working in the French painter's studio in Paris, and reproducing, though with obvious embellishments, the author himself and various old friends and associates, including Frederick Walker (recognisable in many traits of temperament and physique in the character of Little Billee), was indeed, in its chief features, an actual transcript of du Maurier's Quartier Latin experiences during his year in Gleyre's studio. Hardly a humorous incident or detail related was new to the present writer, who had heard them from du Maurier's lips many years before 'Trilby' was written or imagined. They form a picture of la vie de Bohème from an Englishman's standpoint and slightly idealised ; and though lacking the inventive genius of Henri Miirger, yet drawn with less cynicism in the humour, and set in an atmosphere of genuine tenderness and pathos. For the real charm of the story lies in the character of Trilby herself an absolutely original creation, the gradual development of whose better nature under the influence of her three devoted English friends is an achievement not unworthy of the greatest modern masters of fiction. It is to be noted that the supernatural element in du Maurier's romances, to which he apparently looked in the first instance for their attractiveness, in no case justified his expectation. His truest success was attained when he trusted most simply and frankly to his human sympathies, and to the 'familiar matter of to-day.'

The melodrama of M. Svengali and the hypnotic impossibilities attributed to him did not, even when the story was dramatised, it may be safely said, form the real attraction of the performance. As to the chief personages in ' Trilby,' the Laird was drawn in all essential particulars from the late Mr. T. R. Lament, du Maurier's fellow-student in Paris, and afterwards associate of the Royal Water-Colour Society, who remained his intimate friend in after life, and survived him only a few months. The large drawing in 'Trilby' of the head of the Laird is an excellent likeness of Mr. Lamont. The character of Taffy was drawn from more than one original. The chief of these was a very splendidly built and handsome athlete, the friend of Mr. Thomas Armstrong and (Sir) Edward Poynter, who shared a studio with them in Paris after du Maurier's removal to Antwerp. Frederick Walker (the original of Little Billee) was some six years the junior of du Maurier, and was never one of the Paris company.

The success of the story, starting in America, and passing speedily to England, proved overwhelming. When reissued in book form, it passed rapidly from edition to edition; and .the author's share of the profits soon sufficed to free him from any anxieties as to the future fortunes of his family. And these gains were to receive considerable additions from the successful dramatisation of the story, in the first instance in America, under the skilful hands of Mr. Paul M. Potter. The play was first produced in London by Mr. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, of which he was then lessee, in the autumn of 1895, and was acted for six months to overflowing houses Mr. Tree playing Svengali, Miss Dorothea Baird Trilby, and Mr. Lionel Brough and Mr. Charles Allan, as well as the author's son, Mr. Gerald du Maurier, adding materially to the strength of the cast.

It was inevitable, after the immense popularity of 'Trilby,' that liberal offers should be again made to du Maurier for a successor to it. Tempted by these offers he at once addressed himself to the task, though with less appetite and more misgivings than before. The inordinate success of 'Trilby' was no great source of gratification to him. His artistic conscience was not quite at ease, and his own practised critical insight could not but remind him that such sudden triumphs had not fallen to the lot of those masters of fiction on whom he had chiefly based his style. 'Thackeray,' he would sometimes grimly observe, 'never had a boom!' He persisted, however, with his task, and completed the whole text of 'The Martian,' together with a portion of the illustrations, the first instalment of which, in 'Harper's Magazine,' appeared a few days after his death !

Meanwhile, his work for 'Punch' remaining constant, with the addition of his novels and their illustrations, he had tried his strength to the utmost. It was not, however, until the autumn of 1896, when he was staying with his family at his favourite resort, Whitby, that serious apprehensions were felt. In September he returned, by medical advice, to his home in London, then in Oxford Square, Hyde Park, whither he had removed from Hampstead in 1894, and he died there of inflammation of the heart on 6 Oct. 1896. His remains were cremated, and his ashes interred three days later beneath a small yew tree in the parish churchyard of Hampstead.

No artist of du Maurier's generation was more justly loved by his personal friends or had made a larger circle of unknown friends by the pleasure he had afforded every week for more than thirty years. And it is not unfair to du Maurier's undeniable literary gift to predict that on his long and remarkable connection with satiric art in the pages of 'Punch' his fame will ultimately rest. A recognised lover and follower of Thackeray, he resembled that eminent master more nearly when he used the pencil than when he used the pen. Thackeray's own definition of snobbishness, 'a mean admiration of mean things,' forms in its largest interpretation the vice or foible which du Maurier loved best to illustrate. And when, as often happened, it took the form of insolence or meanness, he could visit it with a severity that his master never exceeded. 'Cruelty,' he was fond of maintaining, 'is the one unpardonable sin.' And whenever and wherever the fashionable coteries he had in view used their position to obtain favours for nothing as, for instance, from the artistic or literary classes at the expense of their time and perhaps their feelings du Maurier would rise to the height of an indignation at times magnificent. When, in one of his drawings, the Duchess hopes that the Herr Professor's 'dear, kind wife' will spare him for one evening to dine and meet several charming ladies of rank, the Professor replies, 'Ach so! But these ladies they are then not respectable that you do not ask my wife?' as fine and just a stroke as Thackeray ever dealt. But beyond this field for his satire, no artist was ever more bountifully equipped for the work he had to do, or more versatile in his humorous outlook. His love of the beautiful was accompanied by a varied acquaintance with all the arts, notably with music, and with most of the current intellectual interests of his time ; and he possessed besides an admirable vein of grotesque imagination. The two pictorial series of 'Dreams' or 'Nightmares' in the 'Punch's Almanacks' for 1893 and 1894, as also his French nursery rhymes ('Vers Nonsensiques'), are delightful samples of droll invention. Du Maurier had indeed many sides to his talent, which a too exclusive devotion to the humours of society hindered him from cultivating. Especially may this be said of his real gift for poetry, which he wrote with equal skill in French and English. His ear for the harmonies of English verse had been trained on the best models, as the few specimens scattered through his writings abundantly prove. Although an imitator of no man, his 'Vers de Société—for he did not aim at more ambitious heights—show the mingled grace, humour, and tenderness of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Du Maurier left a wife and two sons and three daughters. His elder son is Major Guy du Maurier of the royal fusiliers.

[Information from du Maurier's family and friends, notably among the latter from Mr. Thomas Armstrong, C.B. ; Spielmann's History of Punch; McClure's Magazine, April 1895; personal knowledge.]

A. A.