Thackeray Gets Grotesque
October 27, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
When William Makepeace Thackeray died, near the end of 1863, he left behind a formidable library in a mansion he’d only recently designed, erected, and occupied. A few months later, his home was dismantled and his books were put to auction. On the flyleaves and margins, their new owners discovered a wealth of Thackeray’s sketches, some in pencil and others in pen and ink.
Thackeray’s talents as an artist were no secret—he’d contributed illustrations to many of his own novels, including Vanity Fair—but few were aware of the extent of his doodling habit. More than ten years later, in 1875, the art collector Joseph Grego published Thackerayana, an assemblage of more than six hundred of Thackeray’s drawings with extracts of the books in which he’d drawn them. (Grego, perhaps fearing the consequences of his blatant copyright infringement, presented the collection anonymously.)
What surprises most about the sketches in Thackerayana is their range—Thackeray was an adept caricaturist, but these drawings find him equally at home in more high-flown styles. As his source material moved him, he could do landscapes and portraiture, the irreverent and the solemn, the macabre, the surreal, the juvenile. It’s these last three qualities, in particular, that caught my eye; with Halloween around the corner, it seems as good a time as any to present a portfolio of Thackeray at his most imaginatively unhinged. He had a thing for combat, for instance, and for men with hideously bulbous noses. Here, then, are a series of Thackerayana’s more unsettling entries.