Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Seymour, Robert

SEYMOUR, ROBERT (1800?–1836), book illustrator, born about 1800, was the posthumous son of Henry Seymour, a gentleman of Somerset, who, falling on evil times, moved to London, and obtained employment as a cabinet-maker with an upholsterer named Seddon. Robert's mother, Elizabeth Bishop, was a native of Marston, Somerset. A widow in poor circumstances, with two sons and a daughter, she gave her children such education as she could at home, and in due time apprenticed Robert to Vaughan, a pattern-drawer, of Duke Street, Smithfield. She died in 1827. Seymour, notwithstanding the humorous character of his best known works, inherited from her a very serious cast of mind.

During his boyhood, Seymour's spare time was devoted to sketching and painting. Apart from the mere A B C of pencil and water-colour drawing learned in his trade of pattern-drawing, he was indebted to his own exertions alone for his future proficiency. During his apprenticeship he devoted much of his leisure to miniature-painting, whence he derived a facility in catching likenesses. After the determination of his indentures, he entered on the career of a professional artist. At first he occupied himself chiefly in painting, and in 1822 was rewarded by the acceptance of a picture for exhibition by the Royal Academy at Somerset House. This was his first and last appearance there. He offered another, but it was rejected. He was fortunate enough to be brought early into the society of the artist, Joseph Severn [q. v.], whom he may have met at the house of his uncle, Thomas Holmes [see Holmes, Edward]. There also Robert saw much of his cousin Jane Holmes (b. April 1801), whom he married in 1827.

Although Seymour never wholly abandoned oil-painting, he mainly confined his energies to preparing illustrations for the publishers of books, journals, and caricatures. Nothing seemed to come amiss to him. He was as much at home with ‘Don Juan’ as the ‘Book of Martyrs,’ and passed with the confidence of youth from the illustrations of Demosthenes and Ovid, to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Gay, and Southey. He thus spent six busy years, during which all his work was drawn on the wood, or at any rate with a view to the graver. He worked with extraordinary rapidity, and at a very low price. Most of his illustrations were remunerated at half a guinea apiece. In 1827 the firm of Knight & Lacey, by whom he had been largely employed, went bankrupt. This, although pecuniarily a disaster, gave Seymour the opportunity he had long desired of dispensing to a great extent with the middleman, the wood-engraver, by whom his work had been terribly mutilated. In self-defence he directed his attention to etching on copper. His earliest attempt was the rare and badly bitten plate, ‘Assisting, Resisting, and Desisting.’ McLean, the printseller, now gave him employment. The earliest work done for McLean was signed ‘Shortshanks.’ This pseudonym was soon dropped in deference to an objection raised by George Cruikshank. He also did much book illustration for the publishers Maddeley and William Kidd, and to this period belonged ‘Snatches from Oblivion,’ 1827, and the ‘Devil's Progress,’ 1830; besides a series of illustrations for Richardson's two series of plays, the ‘New Royal Acted Drama’ and the ‘New Minor Drama,’ 1827–30.

Although a keen reader from early days (chiefly of religious and philosophic books), his neglected education was always apparent in the defects of his handwriting and spelling. This (together with his rather serious cast of mind) may account for his abstention from the society to which his talents and professional income would have readily admitted him. He was for a long time a keen sportsman. In 1830 his health was seriously affected by overwork, but complete change of air soon brought about his recovery. From 1831 his artistic output was enormous.

Successful though Seymour was with the etching needle, he soon to a great extent, though not completely, abandoned it for the more expeditious method of lithography. His works on stone are numbered by hundreds. The best known are the ‘Humorous Sketches,’ first published, at 3d. apiece, between 1833 and 1836, and afterwards collected. They have been republished and re-engraved in many forms. Their popularity has, paradoxical though it may sound, gone a long way to damage Seymour's reputation as an artist, for it caused the plates to be printed and reprinted until the impressions were mere smudges. Other successful lithographs included those done for McLean's ‘Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, or the Looking-Glass,’ from 1830 to 1836, and the twelve illustrations for ‘Maxims and Hints for an Angler,’ 1833. From 1831 to 1836 his woodcuts were mainly executed for ‘Figaro in London.’ Of this weekly sheet, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett [q. v.], then a mere youth, was editor. Until 1834 the collaboration continued, during which time all things smug and self-satisfied were mercilessly satirised by their joint pen and pencil. Editor and illustrator then quarrelled. Seymour objected to the careless cutting and printing of his blocks, and to the editorial patronage of his youthful employer. On 16 Aug. the paper appeared unillustrated. A fortnight later Seymour resigned. In a few months the editorship passed into the hands of Henry Mayhew. In January 1835 Seymour again became the illustrator, and so continued until his death. Between 1831 and 1835 were also published, with Seymour's illustrations, Miss Louisa Sheridan's ‘Comic Offerings,’ Miller's series of the ‘Old English Drama,’ ‘New Readings of Old Authors,’ and Hervey's ‘Book of Christmas’ (1835), in which thirty-six etchings by Seymour proved his best work in that line; these plates were afterwards published separately. During the winter of 1835–6 the publishers, Chapman & Hall, employed Seymour to illustrate a comic publication called ‘The Squib Annual.’ This led to Seymour's suggesting to Chapman a series of ‘Cockney sporting plates,’ to be published, with letterpress, in monthly parts. Hall applied to Charles Dickens [q. v.], then an obscure journalist, to write the letterpress. Dickens modified the scheme, and, entitling his work ‘The Papers of the Pickwick Club,’ quickly became the dominant partner in the undertaking. Seymour could not brook the mere toleration of his designs, and when to this was added something in the nature of dictation from his collaborator (though couched in the kindest terms), his overtaxed nerves magnified the matter until it grew unbearable. The first part of the ‘Pickwick Papers’ duly appeared and met with a triumphant reception; Seymour, who therein proved beyond all dispute his ability as a graphic humourist, executed the plates for the second part; but before it was published he shot himself with a fowling-piece on 20 April 1836. The often repeated statement that Seymour's suicide was the result of à Beckett's treatment of him is contradicted by chronology. By his wife, who died 4 July 1869, Seymour had two children: Robert, who survives, and Jane (d. 1881).

A few of Seymour's original pencil studies for the Pickwick plates were subsequently sold at Sotheby's for 500l. There is a miniature of himself in ivory, the whereabouts of which is not known; it was painted about 1827, and represents him leaning one hand on Paley's ‘Moral Philosophy.’ An extremely rare lithograph (not a first-rate portrait), published by his widow in 1841, has been reproduced in facsimile.

[Information kindly supplied by Mr. R. Seymour; the memoir of the artist prefixed to Hotten's edition of Sketches by Seymour, 1866, obl. 4to; Everitt's English Caricaturists; Fitzgerald's History of Pickwick; Forster's Life of Dickens.]

G. S. L.