Friday, September 28th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: A British Artist Worthy of the Name

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Photo of Fred Barnard, 1892.Today marks the 116th anniversary of the death of Frederick Barnard. “Frederick who?” you might well ask. Though he’s not well known today, in late nineteenth-century London Fred Barnard was a highly regarded illustrator, caricaturist, and painter. He was considered one of the best “black and white artists” of his day. His pen and ink drawings were published in numerous popular journals, such as Punch, Judy, Illustrated London News, and Fun, but his best known work was for Chapman and Hall’s Household Edition of Dickens. Between 1871 and 1879 Barnard supplied over 450 illustrations for twenty-two volume series. He was selected for the job by the Brothers Dalziel, the pre-eminent engravers whose firm was granted total control over the production of images for the edition by the publishers. For Barnard the brothers had nothing but the highest praise:

Barnard ranks as one of England’s truly comic artists, but he was not only comic, he was on of the most versatile artists of our time. He unquestionably stands among the foremost illustrators of Dickens…Our long connection with Barnard was of close intimacy and friendship. He was a delightful companion, amusing, and full of bright repartee and would often set the table in a roar. As a mimic and a comic singer he was inimitable.
The Brothers Dalziel: A Record of 50 Years’ Work (1901)

The Harvard Theatre Collection has one remarkable little letter by Frederick Barnard, dated January 13, 1874, and addressed to the renowned comic actor John Lawrence Toole. It is carefully mounted in a mammoth autograph album compiled by Toole and containing hundreds of portraits and letters, mostly of English actors and playwrights.

Letter to Toole from Barnard, January 13 1874. MS Thr 182 (31)

The text itself is rather humdrum—“Would you kindly send the photo to the above address as I shall not be at the club this week”—but as was his wont, Barnard graced the page with a drawing—a witty caricature of the artist himself at work drawing three characters—and the caption, “The man who would attempt to caracature [sic] a dramatic star, without letting him have it hot, isn’t worthy of the name of a British artist.” Toole must have found the drawing quite delightful, for he saved the letter for his autograph album. And well he should have—the middle character depicts Toole himself.

As it turns out, this dashed-off vignette is a precursor to a finished drawing that appeared in Illustrated London News on June 13, 1874, along with a brief article occasioned by Toole’s upcoming departure for America. The published illustration portrays superstar actors Samuel Phelps as Job Thornbury, Charles Mathews as Tom Shuffleton, and Toole as Dennis Brulgruddery in a revival of Colman’s play John Bull at the Gaiety Theatre on three evenings before Christmas in 1873.

Barnard illustration for Illustrated London News, June 13, 1874. TS 931.2 (Phelps)

But now back to that tantalizing mystery photo Barnard refers to in his letter. The stellar trio of John Bull sat in their roles for the photographers Fradelle and Marsh in December of 1873. It just so happens that the Harvard Theatre Collection has one of these photographs. (A companion photo at the V&A is of higher quality.) Additionally, the Collection holds a solo photo of Mathews. It seems plausible that Phelps and Toole also took solo photos at the same sitting, but none has been found here at Harvard. It’s tempting to think it was one of these photos that Barnard requested from Toole, desiring it for work on his illustration for the Illustrated London News.

Photo of Phelps, Toole, Mathews in John Bull, 1873. TCS 18Photo of Charles Mathews as Shuffleton in John Bull, 1873. TCS 18

Incidentally, the Gaiety production of John Bull was a huge success, despite the fact that it provoked a bit of a diva battle among the three stars, as recounted by Gaiety’s manager John Hollingshead:

I now produced what I called “The Nine Days’ Wonder.” having nine days vacant before Christmas, I determined to make a coup de théâtre. I had engaged Mr. Phelps, principally for matinées; and as I was ending the first of my short Gaiety leases, the idea occurred to me to do it with becoming spirit…My plan was to get Phelps, Toole, Mathews…and others to act together in The Hypocrite and John Bull. I had great difficulty in carrying out my plan, as the “star system, which much annoyed Charles Dickens, had firmly taken the place of strong casts, and I met with much good-natured but determined opposition from two of the principal actors. Toole wrote to me from the country under the impression that I had lost faith in him as an individual attraction; Charles Mathews consented unwillingly, warning me that I was destroying his value as a lonely star, or planet—a value in which I was as much interested as he was himself. Phelps consented readily. He said little but thought much, and inquired curiously of Toole what my Machiavellian policy really meant, taking, to some extent, the same view as Mathews…My judgment as to the attraction of this novel combination…was correct. At the dullest season of the year—a season when any excuse was used for closing…—all the seats that could be booked in the theatre were sold for nine nights a couple of months in advance. As the two chief actors who were to appear were each over seventy years of age, this caused me a little anxiety. The time came, however, and with it the men. I had to displace the band, and turn the orchestra into stalls.
—John Hollingshead, Gaiety Chronicles (1898)

Fred Barnard, an ardent pipe-smoker, died tragically in a bed fire on this date in 1896. Deeply affected by the sudden death of his son Geoffrey at the age of 21 five years earlier, he suffered from sleeplessness and depression and had been known to seek respite in a drug “of hypnotic nature,” according to the inquest in the Times. He also liked to smoke in bed. He was probably under the influence of an opiate, perhaps laudanum, when on that fateful Sunday morning the ashes from his pipe ignited the bedclothes. Though his body sustained serious burns, the coroner stated suffocation as the cause of death. It appears he died mercifully insensate, thanks to the drug that may have been his undoing.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Emily Walhout, Reference Assistant, for contributing this post. Additional thanks to Annette Fern and Dale Stinchcomb for their helpful advice and timely discoveries.]

1 Comment

  • Great story. One of the most exciting things for me, having been following this series, is that these historical treasures still exist.