Friday, September 21, 2012

From Buckingham Palace to History's Dustbin

by Alastair Johnston

I am often surprised how some people, well-known in their lifetime, disappear so thoroughly from history. Even in the bibliophilic world I inhabit, where astonishing work has been done to extract marginal figures, like type-cutters, engravers and printers, from the dustbin of time, I constantly come across people who are as elusive today as they were ubiquitous in their day. Step out of the stacks towards politicians and other actors and you fall over insignificant people who strutted or fretted on the world's stage leaving a trail of newsprint.

William Marshall Craig (1750?–1828), Moroccan Slipper vendor, from Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume, London: Richard Phillips, 1804

Despite being a celebrated artist and prolific book illustrator, William Marshall Craig is a sketchy figure in the history of British art. He may even have been two people: a father and son sharing the same name. His father (assuming he is a whole man and not Senior and Junior) was an Edinburgh merchant and his mother was Mary, sister of James Thomson, the poet and author of The Seasons, who also wrote the lyrics to “Rule Britannia.” William’s brother James was the architect who transformed Edinburgh into “the Athens of the North” at the turn of the nineteenth century, along with Robert Adam. Their maternal grandfather, Thomas Thomson, was a Presbyterian minister who died performing an exorcism. Craig’s date of birth is usually given as 1765 but I believe it had to be around 1750. He died in 1828 (not 1827 or 1835 as commonly stated). I searched for him in the Guildhall archives in London and, with the help of newspaper morgues and genealogy websites, managed to put together something of a family tree, but there were many loose ends that did not tie up.

Craig's rise to high society was pretty rapid. He moved from Manchester to London and his artistic talents were immediately recognized. As a polemicist he took on John Gilpin, writing a rebuttal to Gilpin’s Essay on the Art of Sketching Landscape, which he characterized as "truth sacrificed on all occasions." In 1793 William Bulmer printed Craig's Essay on the Study of Nature in Drawing Landscape.

Craig exhibited at the Royal Academy and produced portraits of many nobles and notables. In 1800 his Complete Instructor in Drawing was published, and he was appointed painter in watercolours to the Queen and drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales. In 1804, one of Craig’s major works, Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume, was published by Richard Phillips. The plates were reused in another book titled Modern London.

William Marshall Craig (1750?–1828), Temple of the Fairies, London: Vernor & Hood, 1804

The same year saw The Temple of the Fairies, translated from Le Cabinet des Fées of Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy, appear from Vernor and Hood in 2 volumes, with Craig’s wonderful illustrations engraved by Lee (Volume 2 can be browsed here), and also The Wreath — children’s stories written and illustrated by Craig, dedicated to the 8-year-old Princess.

William Marshall Craig (1750?–1828), The Wreath, London: Bensley, for the Author, 1804

The 36 wood engravings in The Wreath, including initial letters, were executed by Lee (John Lee died in 1804 so it’s either his final work, or else it was the work of his 25-year-old son James Lee). Craig drew directly on the engraver's blocks with ink and wash. (He and John Thurston were considered the top artists on wood for engravers: Thomas Bewick and Richard T. Austin also cut following his work.) The book was printed for the author and Lee, and for Harris, a bookseller, by Thomas Bensley, who has not achieved the status of his rival William Bulmer, but was certainly one of the finest printers in London, along with Charles Whittingham. It must have been a success because a second edition was printed soon after, retitled A Wreath for the Brow of Youth.

William Marshall Craig (1750?–1828), A Wreath for the Brow of Youth, London: Thomas Bensley for the Author, 1804
From 1806 to 08, Vernor, Hood & Sharpe published Craig's series of engraved portraits of nobility. He also illustrated the part-work Beauties of England and Wales (1801–16), issued by the same firm.

Craig retranslated Cervantes' Galatea; a Pastoral Romance (1813), from a French edition; it was illustrated with woodcuts executed by his son Frederick. Craig published three more books on art technique: Instructions for Drawing and Understanding the Human Figure (1816), Treatise on the Art of Painting (1817), and Course of Lectures on Drawing, Painting & Engraving (1821).

It's all the more remarkable that he is a forgotten man when you consider his place in the royal household. He was close to the Queen and the young Princess Charlotte, next in line to the throne. (He called his own daughter Charlotte and even lived on Charlotte street: you can see he was afflicted with Charlotte Fever.) But Princess Charlotte was a pawn in the struggle between the ailing George III and his profligate son who had been forced into a marriage with her mother, Caroline, to annul his debts. As the only legitimate daughter of George IV, Princess Charlotte was in line for the throne but after a forced marriage and two miscarriages, she died in childbirth, aged 21, on 6 November 1817. The shock to the nation was unequalled until the death of another Princess of Wales, Diana, 180 years later. When her mother, the Queen, died a year later, Craig sat down and wrote his memoirs of the royal family, which was published a month later as Memoir of Her Majesty Sophia Charlotte, of Mecklenburg Strelitz, Queen of Great Britain (Liverpool: Caxton Press, 1818).

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