Saturday, February 13, 2010


William Hatherell was a Victorian era illustrator who worked for magazines such as The Graphic, Harpers, Scribner's and the Century. Today he is mostly remembered for crudely printed images such as these:

The printing technology in Hatherell's day was pretty primitive. Combined with cheap paper stock, it stripped Hatherell's work of much of its sensitivity and expressiveness. Of course, like all resourceful artists Hatherell made the best of his limitations; he emphasized strong compositions and high contrasts that could survive the publication process.

But he did more.

Hatherell might easily have used the disadvantages of his medium as an excuse for dashing off fast, limited work. Many artists did. In fact, his employers encouraged him to do so, in order to increase productivity and profits. Instead, Hatherell worked carefully and deliberately, crafting sensitive pictures with subtle features that were undetectable to his larger audience. As one contemporary noted, Hatherell stubbornly refused to lower his standards:
Hatherell became noted for his refusal to be pressured into hasty work. For illustrating current events, for instance, he used models, often carefully posed in his backyard....
When you go back and look at Hatherell's original pictures, you can see the extra effort he put into touches such as subtle shading and expressive faces and gestures:


These delicate touches were difficult and time consuming. Many of them would be undetectable by the reading public. Why did he do all that extra work trying to get it right? Perhaps he shared the view of Robert Fawcett, which I have previously cited on this blog:
The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
Easy to say for one picture. Hard to sustain for a career.

Note how well Hatherell handles the positions of the fingers, or the definition of the flowers which would be lost in the printed version.

Hatherell toiled his entire life accepting that publication would degrade the quality of his pictures. He had no defense to this handicap except his wits and his personal integrity. Of course, today almost any artist can publish sharp, high resolution images to the world at the push of a button. We tend to underestimate the competitive advantage that this gives our work over the work of our talented predecessors such as Hatherell.

Hatherell and some of his peers were a lot better than we remember them today, based on their published work. Now that it is possible to recapture the true quality of their original pictures, we owe it to them to honor all those long afternoons they put into trying to get it right when they thought no one might ever know the difference.