George Louis Palmella Busson Du Maurier (1834-1896) Equally talented as artist and writer, George Du Maurier developed a cartoon format for Punch that balanced text and image in order to record and satirise the fashions and foibles of society.
George Du Maurier was born on 6 March 1834 in the Champs-Elysées, Paris, and baptised in May 1835 at Rotherfield, Sussex. He spent his childhood, between England and the Continent, in an atmosphere of precarious gentility. His father came from a French family of master glassblowers but, obsessed with social status, gave himself the aristocratic name of Du Maurier. As a novelist, George Du Maurier would rehearse the events of his early life in general but, as a cartoonist for Punch, he would concentrate on dissecting the pretensions and foibles of the society in which he lived, and to which his family had been prey.
Though Du Maurier failed his baccalauréat, his father was determined that he should take up a steady profession. So, in 1851, he enrolled at the Birkbeck Chemical Laboratory, University College, London.
After a wasted year, he left to work as an analytical chemist, but spent his most profitable hours drawing at the British Museum so that, on the death of his father in 1856, he returned to Paris to study art. He spent a sociable year at the Atelier Gleyre as part of the English group, befriending Edward Poynter and meeting James McNeill Whistler, and then moved to Antwerp to further his studies at the city’s Academy of Arts, under Jacob Van Lerius. The sudden loss of the sight of his left eye, however, led to a period of great uncertainty as to his future career. Joined by his mother, he lived first at Malines and later at Düsseldorf, desperately consulting oculists while still attempting to work. In 1860, he finally decided to settle in London and, encouraged by the example of John Leech, tried to earn his living as an illustrator.
In London, Du Maurier reacquainted himself with Whistler and members of the English group, and became immersed in an enlightened social circle while beginning to contribute – as artist and writer – to such leading periodicals as Once a Week, Good Words and The Cornhill Magazine. By evolving his own style from the work of the finest of contemporary illustrators, he developed the extensive repertoire of immediately recognisable motifs and gestures on which he drew increasingly for the satires and parodies that he published in Punch. Du Maurier became a regular member of the Punch team in 1864, when John Tenniel and Charles Keene both voted for him to succeed the recently deceased Leech as observer of society. In its pages he developed a very literary type of cartoon, which married often- extensive texts to subtle drawing and displayed an understanding of wider cultural issues. This reached its peak in his satires of the upper middle class attempting to follow the fashions of the Aesthetic Movement. Through his career, he moved from a position of Bohemianism – from which he defended the Pre- Raphaelites and tolerated Whistler – to one that, at worst, revealed ‘his essential snobbery, conservatism and loathing of change’ (Ormond 1969, page 248), and inevitably lost him many friends.
Though Du Maurier has been dubbed as ‘naturally lazy’*, he had to provide for a wife and three children without straining his one good eye. For much of his career, he could work safely for only two hours a day, and during the 1890s considered retiring from illustration in order to become a professional lecturer. By that time, he needed to work with a magnifying glass in order to complete his regular work for Punch.
But as his graphic talent failed, he found new, and phenomenal, success as the novelist of Peter Ibbetson (1891), The Martian (1896) and particularly Trilby (1894), in which he returned to the youthful extremes of Bohemian life that he had eschewed in his cartoons. He died at home in Oxford Square, Paddington, on 8 October 1896. A memorial show was held at the Fine Art Society in the February of the following year.
*Simon Houfe, The Dictionary of 19th Century British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1996, page 124
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A.
Further reading: Leonée Ormond, ‘Du Maurier, George Louis Palmella Busson (1834-1896)’, in H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Volume 17, pages 177-180; Leonée Ormond, George Du Maurier, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969; Leonée Ormond, ‘Du Maurier, George (Louis Palmella Busson) (b Paris, 6 March 1834; d London, 8 Oct 1896)’, in Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 9, page 384