The Moxon Tennyson

The Moxon Tennyson

Dante Gabriel Rossetti; John Everett Millais; William Holman Hunt (artists)

Dalziel Brothers; William James Linton (engravers)

Bradbury and Evans (printer)

Edward Moxon (publisher)

Accession number: 1978P203

The Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poems is a significant publication both for the collaboration of three Pre-Raphaelite artists (Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais) and for the interaction of image and text with Britain’s foremost poet of the period. The Pre-Raphaelite Brothers read contemporary poetry widely, and were enthused by Tennyson’s work, giving the poet a place in their ‘List of Immortals’. Tennyson’s use of medieval topics and imagery to illuminate contemporary issues was no doubt one of the greatest appeals of his work to the PRB, but his use of nature and his highly detailed visual poetry was a contributing factor. It is often through the illustrations that we recall the poems; as Simon Cooke points out:

Tennyson’s blend of medievalism and the everyday is fixed in the mind by the illustrations of Rossetti and Millais in the famous Moxon Tennyson of 1857[1]

Of course Tennyson’s poems also usually have moments of high drama which provide excellent material for the artistic imagination, and their engagement with his work extends far beyond the Moxon edition to a range of paintings and sketches which bot preceded and post-dated Moxon.

Tennyson’s enthusiasm for the Brotherhood was also apparent, and he agreed with Edward Moxon that the Pre-Raphaelite artists should be commissioned to illustrate poems in the book (though other artists were also included, such as Daniel Maclise and Thomas Creswick). There were 54 illustrations in total, of which 30 were produced by the PRB. The book was not particularly successful in terms of sales (perhaps because of its cost), but as a book it was significant – a ‘particularly generative’ ‘textual event’, as Lorraine Kooistra states.[2]

This was not straightforward, however: Tennyson’s view was that the artist should depict exactly what was represented on the page, and no more; this lack of room for artistic licence caused some problems, opening up an interpretative gap in the two works. For example, regarding Holman Hunt’s illustration of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which was later worked as an oil (Wadsworth Athenaeum, 1905), some difficult conversations were had:

‘But I didn’t say that her hair was blown about like this. The there is another question … Why did you make the web wind around and round her like the threads of a cocoon?’

Now, I exclaimed, ‘surely that may be justified, for you say

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
a mark of the dire calamity that had come upon her.’

But Tennyson broke in with, ‘But I did not say it floated round and round her.’

My defence was, ‘May I not urge that I have only half a page on which to convey the impression of weird fate, whereas you use about fifteen pages to give expression to the complete idea?’ But Tennyson laid it down that ‘an illustrator ought never to add anything to what he finds in the text.’ [3]

The difficulties of working closely with a poet to produce art are highlighted by this exchange. The Pre-Raphaelites were not illustrators but artists, though they did produce a number of illustrations throughout their careers, but Tennyson’s views on the visual interpretations of his own highly-crafted poems indicate a battle of wills. Though we may now associate the Pre-Raphaelite engravings with the poetry – especially in the case of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and the Arthurian poems – they are not a replication of the poems’ details, or necessarily indicative of the poet’s eye.

There is a wealth of information and images concerning the Moxon Tennyson on the Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/moxon.html.

You can view it online at the British Library website: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-moxon-illustrated-edition-of-tennysons-poems

[1] Simon Cooke and Paul Goldman, Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855–1875 (Farnham: Ashgate 2012), p. 2.

[2] Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, ‘The Moxon Tennysonn as Textual Event: 1857, Wood Engraving, and Visual Culture’, available online at http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=lorraine-janzen-kooistra-the-moxon-tennyson-as-textual-event-1857-wood-engraving-and-visual-culture.

[3] William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1905), vol. 2, pp.124-5.