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Laurence Housman (1865–1959): Fairy Tale Teller, Illustrator and Aesthete

Audrey Doussot
p. 131-146


Laurence Housman’s work in the fields of fairy literature, illustration and book design was one of the most inventive and innovative contributions to the British Aesthetic movement which turned the artistic and literary scene upside down in the second half of the nineteenth century. His four collections of illustrated fairy tales in particular show how his very personal style was a synthesis of various sources and influences that were also those of Aestheticism (Pre-Raphaelitism, Japonism. . .). Published at the beginning of his career, between 1894 and 1904, these fairy tale collections are in keeping with Housman’s conception of book design as a search for aesthetic unity within a book but also with his conviction that art and life are closely linked. The ideals of social harmony that he advocates in his tales are reflected at the visual level, in the harmonious layout and illustrations of his books. Housman’s work is proof that beyond the purely artistic principles of Aestheticism, there could also be social reflection and implications. But, above all else, his fairy tale collections are among the illustrated books which contributed, at the turn of the century, to creating a golden age of book illustration (critics generally regard the 1890s as “the second golden age of illustration” in Great Britain, after the 1860s), an exceptional period during which illustration finally won acclaim as a newly-recognized art while Art Nouveau was gradually promoting new standards for artistic creation.

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  • 1 Simon Houfe, Fin de Siècle: The Illustrators of the Nineties, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1992, p.  (...)

1Laurence Housman’s name is still very often overshadowed by the names of his brother, the poet Alfred Edward Housman, his friends or his collaborators, like Oscar Wilde, the publisher John Lane, or Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, the two artists who founded the magazine The Dial and the Vale Press. And yet, just like his brother, Housman devoted a great part of his life to writing; just like Wilde, he wrote several Aesthetic fairy tale collections; and just like Ricketts (who himself illustrated Wilde’s fairy tales in A House of Pomegranates in 1891), he was a prolific and imaginative illustrator of the end of the 19th century. He belonged to this generation of artists who, towards the close of the Victorian era, challenged the British artistic and literary scene only to give it renewed life. Housman, like many of his friends, was interested in two things above all else: literature and art, and more particularly the art of book-making, which includes illustration as well as binding or calligraphy. He contributed, as an illustrator and a writer, to the golden age of illustration which took place in Britain in the 1890s before dedicating himself wholly and exclusively to writing. His most well-known works are very probably those belonging to this second period of his career, such as the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), or the plays Little Plays of St. Francis (1922) and Victoria Regina (1934). Less well-known are the four fairy tale collections that he wrote and illustrated, at the very beginning of his career, between 1894 and 1904. Now, A Farm in Fairyland (1894), The House of Joy (1895), The Field of Clover (1898) and The Blue Moon (1904), reveal a lot, through their texts and their pictures, about their creator’s aesthetic tastes and about the cultural and intellectual climate of the time. These collections bear the stamp of Aestheticism, this artistic trend which, during Housman’s training in London (in the 1880s), had reached its peak, and which, when he started his own professional career, was still flourishing in more “symbolist” or “decadent” versions. Exemplifying not only Housman’s eclectic style but also the impressive creativity of this significant age in the history of book illustration, they are indicative of what Simon Houfe describes as “[the] maze of influences that surrounded book illustration at the end of the 19th century.”1

Housman’s Style as a Reflection of the Tenets of Aestheticism

  • 2 In this book, the tale “The Bound Princess” is divided into several chapters and therefore illustra (...)

2After leaving Worcestershire with his sister Clemence (who was to become a famous engraver and to engrave most of her brother’s drawings), Housman studied art at the Lambeth School of Art in London, which had also among its students at that time Charles Ricketts and Arthur Rackham. He started his career as an illustrator in 1888, but before illustrating his own literary works, he illustrated the writings of others. His most praised work was a new edition of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti which received very encouraging reviews (notably in The Studio) in 1893. 1894 was then a turning point in his career as it saw the publication of A Farm in Fairyland: following the example of one of his models, William Blake, he simultaneously wrote and illustrated the book, for the first time in his career. Moreover, with A Farm in Fairyland, Housman returned to two of his childhood passions, writing and the world of make-believe described in legends and tales. The book is thus a collection of twelve fairy tales illustrated with as many pictures, appearing as a frontispieces facing the title-page. With the exception of The House of Joy, 2 the three following fairy tale collections published by Housman followed the same principle: each story is accompanied by an illustration which is used as a frontispiece to the tale. From the very first pages of the 1894 collection, the English artist and writer displays his taste for complex symbolism and detailed drawings but also foregrounds his artistic allegiances. The title-page shows how attracted he was to some of the different artistic trends which emerged during the Victorian era. It reminds one of the fact that the Aesthetic movement which swept across Great Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century has many facets, as R.V. Johnson explains:

  • 3 R.V. Johnson, Aestheticism, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1969, p. 10, p. 43.

Aestheticism was not one simple phenomenon but a group of related phenomena, all reflecting a conviction that the enjoyment of beauty can by itself give value and meaning to life . . . [It] was scarcely a “movement” at all, but rather a broad tendency, apparent in individuals who often share . . . a general affinity in taste and ideas.3

3One influence at least is blatantly obvious in the very composition of the page: the frame around the picture could have been drawn by William Morris or Edward Burne-Jones. The vegetal interlacing dotted with flowers or fruit, which is repeated in the coils of the gate, looks very much like the designs created by the two men for the books printed by the Kelmscott Press (for instance, The Well at the World’s End in 1896). Morris, who was desirous to give craftsmanship a new lease of life in a time of frantic industrialization, founded this private press in 1891 to revive the medieval tradition of richly illuminated manuscripts. The vegetal frame, almost overwrought as it is, can therefore be interpreted as a Victorian continuation of the medieval art of book illustration. It can also be compared to the production of the Vale (and notably to Nimphidia and the Muses Elizim by Drayton, 1896), another private press founded by Ricketts and Shannon, who were, like Housman and Morris, enthusiastic bibliophiles and old illustrated book collectors.

4The names of these two artists conjure up another artistic universe, that of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism with its emblematic, but controversial, “Decadent” figures (Wilde and Beardsley), its avant-garde magazine (The Yellow Book) and its rejection of moral rigidness in favour of subversion and artifice. Housman too adhered to the cult of beauty, with its “Art for Art’s sake” credo, and to the idea that art should not pay attention to scientific or moral considerations. As a consequence, his fairy tales are not saturated with didacticism as Victorian fairy tales generally are. They are nevertheless elegant texts with a poetical flavour and carefully-chosen images, that is texts reminiscent of Wilde’s or Andersen’s literary fairy tales more than popular folktales. Here is, for example, how Housman describes the spectacle of kites flying above a beach in “The Way of the Wind” (1904):

  • 4 Laurence Housman, The Blue Moon, Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008, p. 15-6.

The silver sandhills lay in loops and chains round the curve of the blue bay, and all along them flocks of gaily coloured kites hovered and fluttered and sprang. And, as they went up into the clear air, the wind sighing in the strings was like the crying of a young child. “Wahoo!, wahoo!” every kite seemed to cradle the wailings of an invisible infant as it went mounting aloft, spreading its thin apron to the wind.4

  • 5 Mary W. Priebe, Laurence Housman and Children’s Literature, unpublished Master’s Thesis, Loughborou (...)

5Art, which was so essential for the Aesthetes, is also referred to in the tales through the presence of artists among the characters or of artworks. Thus, “A Chinese Fairy Tale” (1904) describes the initiation to painting of a young servant who realizes his dream of becoming an artist when he walks into a painting and finds himself in an alternative world while, in “The White King” (1895), a king is turned into a statue looking like a medieval piece of sculpture, and a minstrel often sits at his feet to sing ballads. The atmosphere and the imagery of the tales are moreover faithfully transcribed in the illustrations: the reader can detect in them the same motifs and the same use of refined and symbolic details as in the texts. As one of Housman’s commentators aptly states: “Illustrations extend the mood and feeling which the story sets.”5 As far as the title-page of A Farm in Fairyland, is concerned, the fin-de-siècle Aesthetic mood is suggested through the presence of certain pictorial elements such as the character’s wings. These wings, which seem to be an integral part of the gate behind the character, are symbolic traditional attributes of the god called Mercury by the Romans and Hermes by the Greeks. These ornaments on the gate are coupled with an evocation of the peacock feather motif that was fashionable at that time in Great Britain. It had been used by James Whistler in 1876-77 for the decoration of a dining-room in F.R.Leyland’s house which came to be known as “The Peacock Room” and it had inspired Wilde, who, like Housman, had included peacocks in his fairy tales (“The Young King” 1891). The androgynous appearance of the character is also of some importance. Bearing a strong resemblance to Ricketts’s own characters, it embodies the era’s fascination with androgyny, or the idea of blurring genders into a third entity or a third sex that would be simultaneously male and female. The very choice of representing such a mythological character is eloquent: it is in keeping with the nineteenth-century Aesthetes’ interest in Antiquity, and notably Greek classical art.

6What is particularly striking in Housman’s illustration is the importance given to the careful rendering of details and their profusion on the pictorial surface. Such a saturated space and the diffuse symbolism that stems from it (the wheel for instance symbolizes the transportation of travellers under Mercury’s patronage as much as the passing of time or the wheel of the female spinner who, by the fire, tells stories and legends) are features of Pre-Raphaelitism. The character’s profile and hair is evocative of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “fair ladies”, and more particularly those, like his 1874 Proserpine, whose model was Jane Burden. Housman’s borrowing from the Pre-Raphaelite style is even more obvious in the illustration that he designed for the tale “The Crown’s Warranty” (1898). Besides the medieval setting, the woman’s thick hair and bulky skirt, which are among the usual ingredients of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, this engraving shows some similarities with the oil painting and the illustration created by Millais from Tennyson’s poem “Mariana”. Among these similarities are the presence of the window and the candle but also the position of the story’s murderous queen who is leaning forward to look into her crystal ball.

7The most notable absentee from this title-page is Housman’s typically Victorian keen interest in Oriental art. From the 1860s onwards, a craze for Chinese and Japanese arts developed in Great Britain after a treaty had been signed which opened diplomatic and commercial relationships between Japan and the Western world. A cult of Japanese wood-block prints and Chinese blue and white porcelain emerged which turned British people into zealous collectors and which inevitably influenced British artists. As they tried to imitate Chinese and Japanese arts, these artists transferred some of their principles (like the use of lacquer or the asymmetry in format) and motifs (like the willow pattern or the contrasts of scale) to their own works. Laurence Housman similarly showed his taste for oriental culture both in his texts and in his illustrations when he chose a Far-Eastern setting for his stories or when he played with perspective and composition in his pictures. With “A Chinese Fairy Tale”, he devoted a whole tale to Chinese painting while, in “The Way of the Wind”, he told the adventures of a heroine who loves flying kites—kites being thought to have been invented by the Chinese. Housman’s tales also betray the somewhat inaccurate conceptions that the Victorians sometimes had concerning the Far East. Whereas, in the text of “The Way of the Wind”, the oriental quality is mainly suggested through the motif of the kite or the exotic-sounding names (Katipah, Bimsha), in the illustration, it can be more clearly identified. The sticks in the character’s bun and the form of the kite, which is like the sail of a junk, rather suggest an allusion to the Chinese or Japanese culture.

  • 6 Simon Houfe, op. cit., p. 26.

8If there are in Housman’s works traces of the different trends and artists who inspired him, he himself was undoubtedly aware of these influences. There is perhaps no better proof of it than one of his own drawings revealingly entitled “Under the divided influence of Rossetti and William Morris on the one hand, and Ricketts and Houghton on the other”. This self-portrait shows four men (William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti on the left and Charles Ricketts and Arthur Boyd Houghton on the right) tugging at the artist’s arms and legs in a way which unambiguously symbolizes the dilemma of the artist being torn between his different influences. And yet, it would be simplistic to regard Laurence Housman’s style as a mere juxtaposition of elements borrowed from others. He succeeded in creating a style both highly individual and easily identifiable without concealing his influences but rather by overemphasizing some of their features, by combining them, and by transcending them in a very personal interpretation. Analyzing Housman’s work, Simon Houfe concludes that he had a real understanding of the artists who had preceded him in the exploration of visual creation6. Housman’s originality is particularly perceptible in the inventive composition of his pictures, which often play with perspective and his sense of movement, especially when applied to characters. His characters are indeed very recognizable: their gangling willowy figures are so elongated that they seem to be pulled upwards by invisible threads and their frozen postures (their heads often bent on one side) are sometimes a little clumsy, as though the artist’s pen had caught them in the act, in the very middle of their actions.

  • 7 Gleeson White wrote for example in a review of Jane Barlow’s The End of Elfin-Town for The Studio i (...)

9Housman’s style, in his fairy tales and illustrations, was in any case sufficiently unusual to have puzzled and titillated the critics of the time whose reviews, without being totally disapproving or negative, were often reserved in their enthusiasm and generally mixed, especially as regards his pictures. While his admirers in The Atheneum or The Studio extolled his inventiveness, his dedication to beauty7 and the peculiar appeal of his illustrations, his detractors criticized him for the lack of clarity of some of his drawings, which they found too intricate, too dark and too obscure, or for the somewhat whimsical physical appearance of his characters. Besides, his propensity towards the grotesque and the uncanny as well as his rejection of classicism in favour of a more experimental art unfortunately kept part of the provincial readership and booksellers (probably less accustomed to the Aesthetes’ eccentric tastes than the Londoners) away from his work as Rodney Engen explains:

  • 8 Rodney Engen, Ibid, p. 111-12.

Just how sales of his books were affected by the illustrations is suggested by the fact they were especially unpopular with the conservative provincial booksellers. Laurence learnt this from Kegan Paul, who had been told by his touring salesman that strong objections had been raised by booksellers to the Housman style of illustration. In fact the salesman himself disliked them, for he “not merely failed to find a market for them, but was met with derision when he offered them”. He claimed they “hurt his sense of dignity; and also his standing with the trade”.8

Of the Work of art as a Harmonious Whole

10If A Farm in Fairyland was the first collection written and illustrated by Housman, it also introduced a principle that was afterwards repeated in the three other collections, that is the representation, in the title-page, of Mercury, standing in front of the entrance of a fairy space. As the patron of roads and travellers, the messenger of gods and the guide to the Underworld, Mercury embodies the journey to Fairyland, sometimes cruel or disturbing, on which Housman wants to take his readers. In the title-page of A Farm in Fairyland, Mercury, who can be identified thanks to his winged hat, stands in front of a finely-sculpted gate. He is the keeper of the entrance of the fairy farm that gives its name to the book and that can be seen in the background. In The House of Joy, a year later, he is represented in a very similar way, standing in front of a sculpted gate, the main difference being that he does not look at the viewer but at a woman who could be one of the heroines of the book.

11Three years later, for The Field of Clover, Housman modifies the representation of the god: Mercury, bare-chested, appears this time amid rosebushes. The patron of travellers still guides the reader on the way to Fairyland, that is on the path in the background that probably leads to the field of clover mentioned in the title, but he seems to be more modest and more human than in the previous pictures. Here, the illustrator moves away from the purely Aesthetic cult of the art object to go back to the essence of the mythological character. In so doing, he privileges the character’s basic meaning in Western culture more than his stylized representation. The accumulation of symbolic accessories (wings, wheel, clepsydra), which is comparable with the art-collecting Aesthetes’ habit of displaying precious objects in their houses, has been replaced by greater sobriety in the depiction of the character. Mercury is now represented less as a roving Aesthete than as a mere traveller or a shepherd (“a weary drover” are the very words used by Housman in the picture), leading his flock to a fairy pasture land. The same choice of visual simplicity is to be found again in 1904, in the title-page of The Blue Moon, in which the drawing is even more simplified and stylized.

12Whatever Mercury’s appearance is, he is among the elements whose recurring presence in the title-pages creates continuity on the visual level between Housman’s four fairy tale collections. The title, which, each time, identifies the fairy world to a particular space, the presence of a smaller character (a pilgrim or Mercury’s guardian angel?), on the right, in the upper part of the picture, the use of a sophisticated frame with vegetal motifs, are as many repetitive elements or pictorial leitmotive, which betray the artist’s will to give some unity to his fairy works. Nevertheless, this coherent group of works can be divided into two subgroups. The illustrations in The Field of Clover and The Blue Moon, with their more elaborate frames and their darker drawings, can be distinguished from those in A Farm in Fairyland and The House of Joy, which have more in common. The continuity between the two is also intensified by the presence of the sculpted gate which simultaneously creates a link between the texts and the illustrations inside the two books. Each arabesque or curl on the doors of the gate indeed refers to a specific tale in the book, either by showing a character or an object of the story, or by reproducing the full-page illustration accompanying the tale. In A Farm in Fairyland, the content of the circle in the top left-hand corner is similar to the illustration of the tale “KcNoonie in the Sleeping Palace” while the pin-cushion at the bottom refers to “Hidden Ends”, a tale in which two orphans who are ill-treated by a witch and her son end up escaping after putting the boy in the pin-cushion into which the witch sticks her needles. With this visual gimmick, Housman emphasized the introductive function of the title-page: very conventionally, by means of verbal signs, the reader is given the title of the book but the gate, by means of visual signs, also gives him information about what he is about to discover in the following pages.

13In his concern to create coherence, Housman went even further since, not content with illustrating books with pictures making direct references to the narrative content of the stories, he often designed the decorations, the layout and even the binding. Comparing a book to a painting, he even went as far as inventing new formats so that the exterior aspect of the books he designed could be in harmony with their content:

  • 9 John Russell Taylor, The Art Nouveau Book in Britain, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1966, p. 109.

The art nouveau book owes to [Housman’s] fertile invention many of its happiest experiments with format, an area of innovation oddly disregarded by Ricketts . . . and hardly touched at all by Beardsley . . . . Housman stipulated from the outset that he should have a say in the format of the books he designed, feeling that it was “as unreasonable to expect a designer always to design within a set format as it would be to expect a painter always to paint within a frame of a fixed size and shape”. And if he may be credited with inventing, or at least publicizing or popularizing, the tall, narrow octavo of Goblin Market, he can also be credited with the evolution of the squat, almost square octavo of Francis Thompson’s Poems (Mathews and Lane) and Sister Songs (Lane, both 1895), another shape much used thereafter, and with the very slightly higher, narrower octavo of the Were Wolf—both formats used before, if at all, only for children’s picture-books rather than for ordinary literature. In each of Housman’s books, in fact, some care and deliberation has gone into the exact choice of format; never, seemingly, does he accept a conventional format just because it is the usual thing.9

  • 10 Rodney Engen, op. cit., p. 38.
  • 11 John Russell Taylor, op. cit., p. 92.

14Laurence Housman’s involvement in almost every stage of the design of the books that he illustrated was no eccentricity of his but rather a choice that artists made more and more often in the nineteenth century. With the growing introduction of pictures in books, the illustrator’s role was indeed more and more important. He gradually moved from having the status of a craftsman ornating a text with pictures to being considered an artist enriching a text with new perspectives or interpretations. The illustrator was now the person who enhanced the artistic quality of a book by giving it visual coherence, therefore making it a true art object. Housman, in fact, shared John Lane’s conviction that a book must show unity and make up a whole, as Rodney Engen remarks in his biography of the artist: “From the beginning, Laurence shared Lane’s absolute belief in the total unity of a book’s design. From binding to typefaces and layout to illustrations, the book must appear as a distinctive whole.”10 He was also in the wake of William Blake (who went as far as handwriting the texts of the books he illustrated and who engraved himself his pictures), Emery Walker and William Morris who insisted that words and pictures (whether full-page illustrations, vignettes or ornaments) should be, in the page as well as in the entire book, nicely incorporated so as to form an aesthetically homogeneous whole. In a conference delivered in 1888, Walker stated the fundamental principle which, according to them, was to make “the happy marriage” between text and illustration possible: “The essential part to remember is that the ornament, whatever it is, whether picture or patternwork, should form part of the page, should be part of the whole scheme of the book.”11

15Housman’s attitude towards book illustration and design was also in keeping with another innovative conception of the relationships between the arts which emerged in the nineteenth century and which aimed at intensifying the fusion of the arts within one single work. Formulated by Wagner and then taken up by the decorative arts, the idea of “total artwork”, or Gesamtkunstwerk, advocates the simultaneous use of different artistic media to create a harmonious work of art reflecting the unity of life, and not its heterogeneity. In the same way that the interior decoration, furniture, and even gardens of a property should be given the same importance as the building itself, the designing of a book should incorporate illustration, typography and binding and place them on an equal footing with the text.

16As he designed books with a true aesthetic coherence, in which texts and pictures are considered complementary and treated equally, Housman positioned himself in relation to the practices of the publishing world of his time and in relation to the old debate over the respective qualities of word and picture. Rejecting the idea of a hierarchy between the arts in which the picture has a secondary status in comparison to the word, he did his utmost to make the art of book illustration a recognized form of art. He advocated the idea of bringing more unity into the designing of an illustrated book to make it a source of visual and aesthetic pleasure, a beautiful object to be admired, that is what the book-loving Aesthetes called “the Ideal Book” or “the Book Beautiful”.

17Laurence Housman simultaneously developed another talent to promote the idea of the book as a possible art object and of book illustration as an art worthy of the name. He became an art critic, publishing articles about Arthur Hughes’s or William Blake’s illustrations, in The Bibliophile and The Universal Review respectively. He even wrote a book on one of his idols, Arthur Boyd Houghton in 1896. Houghton was among the leading illustrators during the 1860s (a decade which is now considered to be a golden age of British illustration). Often praised for his drawing skills and his capacity to adapt his style to the texts that he illustrated, he was a major influence for the author-illustrator, especially as regards the rendering of the play of light on characters and objects. Not only was Housman a prolific protagonist of the late Victorian publishing world but he contributed to building up a genuine tradition of book illustration as an artistic activity by drawing the attention of the public, whether specialist or non-specialist in visual arts, to the names of some great artists and by seeing to it that their works were given the regard and recognition that they deserved and did not sink into oblivion.

Life as an Extension of Art:
The Romantic Socialist and Humanist

18If Housman was a defender of book illustration as a legitimate form of art, he was also an artist who went beyond the purely aesthetic principles of Aestheticism to give them not only an artistic dimension but a social one. Like Morris and Wilde, he privileged the quest for beauty and for a life ideal that would be centred on it. Like the other Victorian Aesthetes, he wanted to give art a central place in life but a place that would not be linked with moral purposes or consumerism. As his fairy tales and illustrations show, Housman did not hesitate to go against the trend and conventions of Victorian classicism. He dared use the grotesque and the nude (and the male nude moreover) in the illustrations of his tales “KcNoonie in the Sleeping Palace” and “The Wooing of the Maze” (1894) at a time when the fairy tale was already regarded as a privileged literary genre of children’s literature. He sided with those who, like the Pre-Raphaelites, had, before him, called into question the current pictorial canons and norms and who had dared to put forward something else, something different from what the official institutions and conventional, or respectable, art advocated.

19Even though his work can be interpreted as a typically Victorian manifestation of escapism into a more rewarding imaginary world, Housman nevertheless showed concern for what was happening in British society at the turn of the century. His tales and illustrations therefore reflect the debates and worries of his time. Fairy literature turns out to be a way for Housman not only to take a stand on the topical issues of the late Victorian era but also to turn his ideals into reality. Insofar as it is based on the idea of a quest for beauty that is also a quest for happiness, the Aestheticism to which Housman adhered is an Aestheticism that goes beyond the limits of artistic creation into life. His ideals of social harmony, solidarity and equality echo his more artistic ideals of aesthetic unity and of greater collaboration between the arts. Housman had indeed become very sensitive to social inequality and intolerance after witnessing acts of social injustice when he was studying to be an artist in London, and the difficulties generally encountered by illustrators (such as their dependence on the publishing industry, their lack of professional recognition or their frequent financial worries) did not the help matters either. Consequently, it is not surprising to find in his tales themes like fraternity or marginality, and the loneliness that often goes with it. Social relationships, and especially the rejection or the acceptance of otherness within these relationships, are obviously a theme in which he was particularly interested. Several fairy tales, like “The Gentle Cockatrice” (1904) and “KcNoonie”, portray heroes who, more or less metaphorically, find themselves excluded from the community in which they live. The little boy in “The Gentle Cockatrice” is thus marginalized because his father is the village’s executioner and the boy in “KcNoonie” because he escaped the spell which plunged the whole kingdom into slumber and was so condemned to wander aimlessly, and alone, in a seemingly death-stricken castle. Otherness is, in the end, what preoccupied Housman. As a declared homosexual (he was a member of “the Order of Chaeronea”, a secret society working for the social recognition of homosexuality), a militant pacifist, a fervent socialist (he belonged to the Fabian Society and considered himself a “romantic socialist”), a supporter of female suffrage (he founded with Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford “The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage” in 1907), Housman worked for a better acceptance of otherness, whether social, personal, or sexual, an elimination of prejudices, and greater equality between peoples as well as between man and women.

  • 12 Mary Priebe, op. cit., p. 5.

20The English author-illustrator, who has been described as a romantic humanist,12 had certainly found in the fairy tale genre a genre in which he could express his ideals of social tolerance and harmony. One of the characteristics of fairy tales is indeed to depict an alternative world (or a “secondary” world as Tolkien called it) which is not subject to the same rules as our reality and which is therefore conducive to the encounter and acceptance of otherness. Housman’s fairy tales often portray heroes who, being unable to reconcile themselves with the conformist norms of the society in which they live, explore other ways of life. In “The Wooing of the Maze” a princess having all that she can possibly want, except freedom and love, has grown so weary of being constantly surrounded by suitors that she asks a gardener to build a complex maze in which her numerous suitors will inevitably get lost. She then hides in a palace in the middle of the maze with the gardener with whom she has fallen in love. When a suitor finally finds the way to her retreat, she refuses to give up her idyllic life to go back to her previous royal life. What is at first regarded by some as cruelty or a malevolent desire to mislead suitors turns out to be the expression of a woman’s deep dissatisfaction with her situation: as a woman and a princess, she is nothing but an object of desire and admiration confined within a palace which is both a flattering casket enhancing her beauty and a stifling prison. She feels that her high social rank only adds further constraints to those that are inherent to her gender. Hiding in the maze is for her a way not only of gaining more freedom but of erasing her royal status, which, she feels, is an alienating difference between her and the other women. Her choice of relinquishing her throne to stay with the gardener can be read as the act of emancipation of a woman who dares to flout social conventions to favour her personal happiness and a simple life over royal duties and pomp. The removal of social class distinctions, the couple’s complete isolation in a garden, which is like a piece of nature worked aesthetically, and their idyllic love affair contribute to creating this state of harmony that Housman valued so much.

21Because he had doubts as to the quality of his talents, Laurence Housman hesitated for a long time between literature and illustration. Thanks to the collections of illustrated fairy tales that he published from 1894 on, he finally found a means of combining his two passions. However, in the same way that he refused to favour one activity over the other, to claim the superiority of one of them over the other, he refused to have only one artistic allegiance and to conform to classicism. He preferred to draw his inspiration from different artistic worlds and to be more experimental in his practice of book illustration. Inspired by Ricketts, the Preraphaelites, or Japonism, Housman undeniably belonged to the British Aesthetic movement that arose from a clever assimilation of various influences and a wholehearted dedication to the worship and promotion of beauty on the part of innovative artists. What is striking in Housman’s work, apart from the legacy of Blake or Morris, is the modernity of his ideas about book design and illustration. As he contributed to the aesthetic revolution which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, affected literature as well as the visual and decorative arts, he played a relatively important part in a significant phase of the history of illustration. Finally regarded as art, illustration no longer was painting’s poor relations. It may not have been classified as fine art, but it had a status and an importance of its own. Housman was also one of those artists of the turn of the twentieth century whose works embodied the transition between Aestheticism, which had come to full maturity, and Art Nouveau, which was starting to flourish across the Continent and to spread its influence in Great Britain. According to John Russell Taylor, Art Nouveau, in its British version, was prompted by a move towards greater simplicity in reaction to the opulence of Victorian visual art:

  • 13 John Russell Taylor, op. cit., p. 19-20.

British art nouveau is a reaction in favour of sparseness and simplicity after the intricacy of what has gone before, while Continental art nouveau is a further elaboration. . . . Continental art nouveau is a reaction against form itself, while British art nouveau is a search for essential form by the stripping-away of inessentials.13

22The elegant sobriety and the extensive use of sinuous curves which characterized this artistic trend are perceptible in the opening pages of The Field of Clover, in the initials drawn for The Blue Moon in 1904 or in the binding created for A Farm in Fairyland. With an inimitable style blending together tradition and avant-garde, Housman, who spent quite a long time trying to find his way in life, finally managed in the end to find himself a place among those who, like William Blake, Arthur Hughes or Arthur Boyd Houghton, had given him a liking, early in his life, for beautiful books, and especially for beautiful pictures.

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Engen, Rodney. Laurence Housman, Stroud: Catalpa Press, 1983.

Houfe, Simon. Fin de Siècle: The Illustrators of the Nineties, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1992.

Housman, Laurence. A Farm in Fairyland, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1894.

Housman, Laurence. The House of Joy, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1895.

Housman, Laurence. The Field of Clover, Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008 (1898).

Housman, Laurence. The Blue Moon, Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008 (1904).

Johnson, R.V. Aestheticism, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1969.

Priebe, Mary W. Laurence Housman and Children’s Literature, Master’s thesis, unpublished, Loughborough University of Technology, 1976.

Taylor, John Russell. The Art Nouveau Book in Britain, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1966.

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1 Simon Houfe, Fin de Siècle: The Illustrators of the Nineties, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1992, p. 39.

2 In this book, the tale “The Bound Princess” is divided into several chapters and therefore illustrated, not with one picture as usual, but with four pictures, each one corresponding to a chapter.

3 R.V. Johnson, Aestheticism, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1969, p. 10, p. 43.

4 Laurence Housman, The Blue Moon, Gloucester: Dodo Press, 2008, p. 15-6.

5 Mary W. Priebe, Laurence Housman and Children’s Literature, unpublished Master’s Thesis, Loughborough University of Technology, 1976, p. 38.

6 Simon Houfe, op. cit., p. 26.

7 Gleeson White wrote for example in a review of Jane Barlow’s The End of Elfin-Town for The Studio in 1894: “Mr Housman displays a conspicuous sense of physical beauty that Mr Beardsley has lost.” Rodney Engen, Laurence Housman, Stroud: Catalpa Press, 1983.

8 Rodney Engen, Ibid, p. 111-12.

9 John Russell Taylor, The Art Nouveau Book in Britain, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1966, p. 109.

10 Rodney Engen, op. cit., p. 38.

11 John Russell Taylor, op. cit., p. 92.

12 Mary Priebe, op. cit., p. 5.

13 John Russell Taylor, op. cit., p. 19-20.

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Bibliographical reference

Audrey Doussot, Laurence Housman (1865–1959): Fairy Tale Teller, Illustrator and AestheteCahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 131-146.

Electronic reference

Audrey Doussot, Laurence Housman (1865–1959): Fairy Tale Teller, Illustrator and AestheteCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 73 Printemps | 2011, Online since 05 October 2015, connection on 27 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Audrey Doussot

Audrey Doussot est agrégée d’anglais, allocataire-monitrice à l’université de Bourgogne, Dijon. Elle prépare actuellement une thèse de doctorat portant sur le masculin et le féminin dans la littérature et l’iconographie féeriques victoriennes et édouardiennes.

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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