Thora Brylowe on Keats, Haydon, and the Sister Arts (Interviewed by Brian Rejack)

Today we debut a new format: the KLP Interview! To discuss two letters from 23 January 1818 (one to Haydon and one to Taylor), Brian Rejack sat down with Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado, Boulder). You can listen via the file below. We also include a transcript (lightly edited for clarity).


Brian Rejack: This is Brian Rejack from the Keats Letters Project, and for today’s response to two of Keats’s letters on the 23rd of January 1818, I’m sitting down to talk with Thora Brylowe of the University of Colorado, Boulder. And we’re gonna talk about these letters in which Keats is talking with Benjamin Robert Haydon and his publisher—Keats’s publisher, John Taylor—about the possibility of getting an illustration ready for Endymion, which is about to be published. Thora has a book that is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press called, Romantic Art in Practice: Cultural Work and the Sister Arts, 1760–1820. So, we at the KLP thought she’d be a perfect person to talk to about book illustrations and engravings, and what we can learn about Keats and these letters from her expertise. So, welcome, Thora.

Thora Brylowe: Hi, Brian.

BR: And thank you for agreeing to talk to me for this project here.

TB: Well thanks for the chance to do this.

BR: Yeah, absolutely. So, first can you tell us a little bit about the book and, sort of, what you do in it?

TB: Yeah, sure. So, again, the book is about the sisters arts as a kind of cultural practice, right. So I’m trying to think about the way authorship in the middle of the 18th century or so is pretty well defined as a way of understanding how print circulation works: you garner fame through the circulation of print, your name is affixed to whatever you author at the front of it, and that’s a way of forming a literary field. So, I look at the way that painters, at some point, realized that they can do the same thing. The way they’re going to do that is to circulate their work through print, but that means that you have to have subject matter that everybody is interested in, and if we’re going to do history painting in a Protestant nation where you can’t paint pictures of Jesus, who you can paint pictures of is Shakespeare. So what winds up happening is that this sort of visual arts field gets formulated against antiquarians. And that’s probably pretty relevant to what we’re looking at here, because antiquarians in the early part of the period I’m looking at, which is around 1760, are making their own illustrations that they’re commissioning, and the first kind of big, large-format art books, and artists say, “well, we don’t really want to make the stuff you want us to make, we want to make our own stuff.” And so they sort of glommed onto the literary field as a way to attract a public audience as opposed to an audience of patrons, and that meant of course print circulation, which means they had to think about what their relationship was to engraving and to books.

BR: Great. So, at what point did authors sort of respond to how the painters were trying to enter into this, and then I’m guessing that authors then realized, “hey, these painters are glomming onto the literary field, let’s use them to our advantage for forwarding our fame.” Is that a fair assumption to make?

TB: Sometimes, yes, but it depends. I mean, I think Keats and Haydon are a good example of how the Sister Arts might kind of prop each other up. But also there was in the 90s a kind of institutionalization of this relationship, and it came in the form of these big literary galleries that were all in fashionable London, along Pall Mall. And those galleries really brought to bear the tension between artists and authors that engraving really brought out. And in the end it kind of hurt engraving quite badly, because, you know, these galleries thought that they were promoting engraving, but then when you look at pictures of Shakespeare—and I should just back up and say a lot of this is about not living authors like Keats, but canonical authors who had in the 70s come out of copyright. So that meant that not only were there lots of anthologies circulating, but also these guys who were largely print sellers could get in there and negotiate the world of bookselling in a way that they couldn’t before because booksellers were a pretty tight-knit scene. But if you could get hold of Shakespeare or Milton for free, and not have to deal with copyright, all of a sudden that opened it up for these big institutions to do big editions that used the paintings that pretty famous British painters made as the subject matter for illustrations. And I think in terms of the letter that we’re talking about, that’s fairly relevant, because that’s the vision that Keats has, or Keats’s publisher has, for what this frontispiece is going to look like. But at the same time… you know there’s a great quote about the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery from Lamb, who says, you know, what injury has Boydell not done for me with Shakespeare, because now I have to look at a particular version of Imogen, or Ophelia, or whoever. And so, the book is better than the movie, right? It’s always like what’s in your head is what’s significant.

BR: Right, right.

TB: So I think the kind of hesitancy you see in Haydon’s response—which I don’t have so I don’t know exactly what he said—but from what’s quoted in the second letter, my sense is that, you know, that’s part of it. There’s an interpretive process here that since the 1790s artists have been held accountable for their interpretations of the content of the literary work that they’re illustrating.

BR: Yeah, that’s really fascinating, that part of Haydon’s hesitancy might be that he doesn’t want to get Endymion wrong. Right, that he doesn’t… so just to set things up a little bit further for our listeners, we have two letters, one in which Keats is writing to Haydon, and saying, you know, “thanks for your offer, let’s think about this for the next poem.” And then in the letter to Keats’s publisher, John Taylor, Keats explains to Taylor about Haydon’s hesitancy, and what he says is that Haydon doesn’t want to rush doing an illustration of a scene from the poem, because that would be the thing that would require that interpretive work that he would want to get right, and so instead he offers to do an image of Keats’s head, from a chalk drawing that he already has. So it’s interesting—that context, of a sort of already existing, almost institutional convention, seems to be a big part of what’s going on here. So, what else can you tell us about, with this particular—maybe we can talk a little bit about the shift from the idea of illustrating a scene to the idea of an engraving of Keats’s own face. And I love this line he has, where Keats says to Haydon: “Your proposal pleases me—and, believe me, I would not have my Head in the shop windows from any hand but yours.” [Chuckles]

TB: [Laughter] Yeah, yeah.

BR: So how are authors, and how are painters and engravers and publishers, sort of navigating all the issues that are around that: the idea of having the author’s head on the frontispiece?

TB: Well, it’s a pretty old idea, right? And it goes hand in hand with a way that—you know frontispieces sort of work in different ways—but the illustrated frontispiece is a kind of 18th century, late-18th century, invention (although, you know, there are some in Pamela, and that’s the 1740s). Just moving back in time a little bit… if we think about the iconic picture of Shakespeare—right, the idea that that book is a body, it’s your body of work, is a pretty ingrained, what do we want to call that… like a kind of vocabulary of what frontispieces are supposed to do. The original word frontispiece suggests an architectural apparatus, so it’s like a doorway that welcomes you into the book. But then books are metaphorized in a bunch of ways. And one of the ways they’re metaphorized is a sort of body of the author who’s imbued its spirit or mind into the words. So I think that’s what Haydon’s going for. And of course also practically, if Haydon has just stuck Keats into Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, then we’ve got a bunch of chalk drawings of his head kicking around somewhere, that he’s sort of studied that head a little bit. And so therefore I think it’s much easier, but I also think probably, on the other end, that the engraving of a portrait, particularly—I don’t know the specifics of who they would have—but particularly because it could be done in some kind of non-line form, a kind of stipple, or something like that, that would be quicker, it would move the whole process along. So we have drawings that Haydon’s happy with already, and then we also have—or [drawings] that he could do quicker—and then we also have a form that’s easier to mediate into engraving. So, there’s two ways that it would be better for the artist.

Haydon’s Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (1820). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Click for full size. Keats’s head can be seen just above Wordsworth’s (on the right, between the two columns).

One of Haydon’s sketches of Keats. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

BR: Well and it seems like the publisher as well. That’s one of the things that intrigues me about this whole scenario. When Keats took his fair copy of the first book of Endymion to show to John Taylor, Taylor was excited and said, “Hey, let’s talk to Haydon about getting some sort of illustration here.” He’s coming up with this idea, and scheming to try and make it happen. So, if they had gone forward with making an engraving of one of those chalk drawings, what would that process have looked like? I mean, is the publisher the one fronting that money to pay for the engraver, or are there different models for how that might work?

TB: You know as far as I know, no, there are not different models. I took a look at—and this is not really super-well researched—but there is some maniacal collector who was interested in British engraving, [and] collected the signatures of lots and lots and lots of engravers (the autograph signatures, not on plates). And those are in the Philadelphia Free Library, and happily, the ones that the maniacal collector did not cut off the page are usually on bills. So what we do know is that the price for the engraving, regardless of whether or not it was designed to be circulated as a print, or stuck in a book, is more or less the same. We know that engraving is quite a time-consuming process, and especially—I think you said that this book was going to come out in a quarto—so we’re not talking about a particularly small engraving, probably.

BR: Right. Although I think eventually they did… I think when they decided not to do the illustration, then they scaled down in size as well. But yeah, the plan that Taylor said was we’ll do it in quarto if Haydon will agree to this illustration.

TB: So then you’re talking about a generally more expensive process, because it’s more expensive in labor, it’s more expensive in materials. And where a lot of that expense is coming in is with the engraver, who would get some kind of an up-front amount of money with the commission, and then would have to write periodically as he ran out of money, to say, “hey, I need a little bit more.” So usually there was an agreement of a full price, and then some amount of that would come along.

BR: I wish I knew more about what Taylor’s finances were like, and what his business was like at this time, because I’m pretty sure that he’s given Keats an advance on Endymion already, maybe even two? So he’s already invested a decent amount of money in this project, basically before any of it was even written. Now he’s offering to put up more money.

TB: Right. So probably he sees that it’s going to sell well, so he’s looking to make it the nicest book possible to get the return. That’s my guess.

BR: Yeah, too bad he was wrong on that business prediction a little bit. As far as I know, Endymion wasn’t… not quite a best seller. Maybe if it had been in quarto, with a frontispiece from Haydon, things would have been different. [Laughter]

TB: Right.

BR: So, one other thing in the letter here that’s intriguing I think is—and, we were talking about this before, you pointed this out—that Keats says an illustration of this would be better suited to the next poem he has in mind, which he’s already referring to as Hyperion. We don’t know how much he’s figured out about his plan for that poem yet, but obviously he’s got some sense of it. And he says that “the nature of Hyperion will lead me to treat it in a more naked and grecian Manner,” so he’s saying that the illustration [from Haydon] would be more fitting. So can you talk a little bit about that “grecian Manner” and some of the contexts during this time period that might be appropriate for that?

TB: Yeah, I mean, in the book that I just finished, I look a lot at how the relationship between artists and antiquarians shaped the relationships between artists and authors. And one thing that’s really notable is that artists really always want to stay true to these principles. They just don’t want to be ordered around by antiquarians like Richard Payne Knight, who has a sort of established reputation and was deeply hostile to the acquisition of the [Elgin] Marbles because of their state as kind of broken and pitted. So there’s this way that artists and antiquarians are kind of at odds with one another. Ultimately, what I want to say is that Keats is thinking about the Marbles, he’s thinking about something that is… I don’t know—if you think about Grecian Urn, he’s imagining the possibility of an unmediated encounter. And so the rawness or the nakedness or the lack of mediation of some antiquarian telling you how this ought to look, is part of the encoded discussion that he and Haydon are having: “hey, you know, Haydon, you won this battle in 1816 to acquire these things.” And I mean, that was such a significant moment, because it really demonstrated victory of artists over antiquarians in matters of taste, in matters of national taste in particular, and in the understanding of antiquity. It’s a way of [Keats] saying, “I recognize your expertise on this, and I am learning from that expertise.” And I think, you know, it speaks to the relationship between the Sister Arts, and how that’s changed over the course of the period, you know, because of antiquarians who just were getting their meathooks in everything. But they really influenced the relationship between painters and poets in really interesting ways.

BR: But you think that by the 1810s, the artists had sort of gained—

TB: Absolutely.

BR: —in that battle.

TB: Yeah, but after 1816, I mean I think that that is a really important and defining moment, but it was a thing that had been building since the literary galleries fell apart. Haydon’s friend Landseer was instrumental in sort of positioning the artist and the engraver as united, and as something independent, and something where their cultural authority was huge. Because if you think about it—and this is one of the things that’s interesting about portraiture—before this rise of history painting after the 1760s, that’s all England had was portraiture. So if you think back about art history before the 18th century, what you get is the Pelican portrait, or, I don’t know, those Holbein pictures, or whatever. It’s a history of portraiture. But if I’m a painter and you ask me to paint your portrait, then that portrait means something to you—it doesn’t circulate the way literature does. It doesn’t mean something—obviously if you’re an aristocrat of some renown, then it means something to the nation. But not in the way that The Death of General Wolfe does, or any kind of [painting of] literary, canonical literature. You start painting that, and it does sort of change the relationship between artists and authors.

BR: I weirdly just started thinking about Clueless, [laughter] and taking the picture of…

TB: Oh yeah, right.

BR: And then the guy wants the picture because Cher took the picture, even though it’s a picture of someone else. And I was thinking all that before I remembered, “oh yeah, that’s Emma.”

TB: Yeah. [laughter]

BR: I’m a bad romanticist.

TB: Well, Clueless is pretty good.

BR: Oh, it’s great. Yeah. But you know, that association between the person being illustrated versus the person doing the work of illustrating, and how the work of art is connected to both of the people involved in that.

TB: Right. And so is the process of mediation. So, when you’ve got a photograph that’s one thing, because it’s a process of totally mechanical reproduction. But when you move that back into our period, then you’re talking about somebody who has to make that reproduction. So if I’m an artist, I want that guy [the engraver] to be a photocopy machine, or a camera. But if I’m the engraver, I’m like, “I’m an artist, like you. I am mediating or I am translating this from one medium into another.” That’s why I said before, it’s like a complicated relationship; it’s hard to simplify it, because there are so many different points of tension in the field of cultural production (if you want to think about it that way).

BR: Yeah, and it has so much to do with the particularities of the different art forms and the different technologies involved with them…

TB: Exactly.

BR: … and how people are physically involved in working with those technologies. Which is why I’ve always thought in Clueless the thing with the photograph really doesn’t translate very well. It’s just like she snaps a, I think it’s like a Polaroid, and then, it’s not really… anyway.

TB: Yeah, a portrait you make is…

BR: Always comes back to Clueless.

TB: Yeah, maybe it always comes back to Clueless.

BR: Well, thank you, Thora, for sitting down to talk with me and sharing your thoughts with the Keats Letters Project audience in this new format. I guess we’re experimenting with technology here as well as the artists and engravers and publishers were doing two hundred years ago.

TB: That sounds great, and I’m always for technological experimentation, so thank you very much for listening to me rattle on, and good luck with the next interview!

BR: Yeah, thank you!

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