Laurence Housman

Laurence Housman (1865-1959) was an author, social reformer, and one of the leading figures in book illustration and design in the 1890s. His work is strongly aligned with the Aesthetic Movement and the artists associated with the group, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Ricketts, and Oscar Wilde. Although most of his books were affordably priced and intended for middle-class consumers, he was able to incorporate some elements of fine press design. In this way, he helped perpetuate Aesthetic and Art Nouveau principles within commercial publishing, reaching a broader audience. Housman referred to himself as a book-artist and worked closely with publishers to ensure his designs were accurately reproduced.  Like Rossetti, Housman considered the book as a whole and integrated the binding, illustrations, and layout of the text into an overall cohesive volume.



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Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1893)
Binding design and illustrations by Laurence Housman (1865-1959)
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Laurence Housman’s binding design and illustrations for Goblin Market signaled his first commercial success. However, Christina Rossetti was not happy with his work, exclaiming, “I don’t think my goblins were quite so ugly!” She preferred the volume created by her brother Dante Gabriel. In comparison, Housman’s cover design is dense, with interconnected forms that speak to a revived interest in Celtic art in the 1890s. Housman may have chosen the narrow format of Goblin Market to harmonize with the short lines of Rossetti’s poem. The repeating vegetal forms on the cover reference the themes of the poem and visually suggest the pseudo-medieval setting of the text.

Housman’s illustrations, while stylistically similar to Rossetti’s (see below), evoke a more sinister aspect, reflecting his association with British Aesthetes like Aubrey Beardsley. The sinewy, elongated forms of the rodent-like creatures mysteriously cloaked in flowing robes heighten the menacing character of the image. Christina Rossetti disliked Housman’s illustrations, comparing them unfavorably to those of her brother Dante Gabriel for the earlier publication. She wrote to a friend, “Would not a study of my goblins as they stand supply an adequate variety and versatility of expression…My brother’s frontispiece exhausts my ambition in this direction…”




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Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1862)
Binding design and illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum


















Letter to from Laurence Housman to George Lillie Craik, undated
Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware

In this letter, Housman carefully instructs Craik, head of the Macmillan publishing company, regarding the cover design for Goblin Market. The detailed description reflects Housman’s particularity in assuring the proper translation of his design. He writes, for instance, “The engraving to be in an almost uniform thickness of line, of a strength midway between the two specimen drawings…”







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“Goblins,” c. 1893, for Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti (London: Macmillan, 1893)
Laurence Housman (1865-1959)
Ink on paper
Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware

These tiny vignettes were placed throughout the text as part of Housman’s integrated design. Christina Rossetti referred to them as ‘masks’ and explained, “… they might illustrate some better poem but mine they falsify.”









Silverpoints, by John Gray (London: Mathews and Lane, 1893)
Designed by Charles Ricketts (1866-1931)
Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware

Charles Ricketts’s design for John Gray’s collection of poetry is quite similar to Housman’s Goblin Market. The likenesses include the upright, “envelope” shape, the repeating leaf design and color palette of the cover, and the placement of the title in the upper left corner. The two works were published simultaneously, so it is unclear who influenced who. Ricketts’s cover design references the theme of nature addressed in each of Gray’s 29 poems.




Laurence Housman