Richard Doyle (1824-1883) One of the most inventive illustrators of the Victorian period, Richard Doyle achieved a fine balance between observation and imagination, and so was able to work equally well as a Punch cartoonist and an illustrator of fairy subjects. His incisive draughtsmanship complemented the fine stippling of his watercolours.
Richard Doyle was born in London in September 1824, the second son of the Irish caricaturist, John Doyle (‘HB’). Educated at home, he showed an early talent for drawing, and was encouraged to observe and memorise the London scene and work the results into paintings. To counterbalance such demands he filled many sketchbook pages with ‘nonsense’ figures and, in 1840, illustrated his own diary. (It was published in 1885 as A Journal Kept By Richard Doyle in the Year 1840.) His first published book, providing a comic interpretation of the mediaeval-inspired Eglington Tournament, appeared in the same year to wide acclaim.
The combination of fantasy and observation that comprised the work of his childhood set Doyle in good stead for his employment by Punch in 1843. The decorations and initial letters that he first produced extended the playful images of his sketchbooks, while the cartoons that he began in March 1844 were all the better for his father’s training; the series ‘Manners and Customs of ye Englishe’ (1849) was instrumental in making him a household name.
Resigning from Punch in 1850 because of its anti- papism, Doyle devoted the rest of his career to illustrating books and painting in watercolour.
Projects of the 1850s centred upon such contemporary subjects as Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1854-55) and his own comic novel, The Foreign Tour of Messrs Brown, Jones and Robinson (1854); but his illustrations to Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River (1850) gave a better indication of the course that his work was taking. Making use of both black and white and colour, he began to create a complete fairy world, best known through his images for In Fairyland (1870), with verses appended by William Allingham. However, his fairy world is shown at its most atmospheric in his exquisite independent watercolours. These paintings – built up from small stippled strokes or structured by ink cross-hatching – depict families of subjects, such as fairies sitting in the branches of a tree or various versions of The Altar Cup of Aagerup. Doyle also produced landscapes and views of country houses, such as Longleat, that he visited as a house guest, but these were less well received and he gave them up when he became ill. Devoted to Blanche Stanley, who became the wife of Lord Airlie, he never married. He died at his home – 7 Finborough Road, West Brompton – on 11 December 1883.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston MA).
Further reading: Rodney Engen, Richard Doyle, Stroud: Catalpa Press, 1983; Rodney Engen, Michael Heseltine and Lionel Lambourne, Richard Doyle and his Family, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983; Michael Heseltine, ‘Doyle, Richard [pseud. Dick Kitcat] (1824-1883)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 16, pages 841-843