Edmund Joseph Sullivan was born in Putney, London, on 8 September 1869. He was the second son and third of twelve children of the Irish-born art teacher, Michael Sullivan – then an assistant teacher at the Roman Catholic school, St Mary Magdalene’s, Mortlake – and his wife, Mary Anne (née Melady). During the early 1870s, the Sullivans lived at 3 Beech Hill Terrace, Kendal, Westmoreland. Then, in the middle of the decade, the growing family moved to Hastings, settling at 1 South Terrace, and later moving to 8 Quarry Terrace.
Michael Sullivan became the first headmaster of the new School of Art at the Brassey Institute (and would later be appointed Chairman of the Society of Art Masters, in the years 1891-93).
Edmund Sullivan was educated at Mount St Mary’s College, at Spinkhill, near Chesterfield, a Roman Catholic boarding school in the Jesuit tradition. Following his family’s move to Hastings, he may have attended the local Grammar School. Certainly, by 1885, he was studying under his father, as did his brothers, Leo and Basil, both of whom became architects. (However, the cartoonist, James Frank Sullivan, was not related, contrary to a long-held assumption.) While still a student in 1887, Edmund became an Assistant Master at the School of Art, and was advertising his services as an experienced drawing master in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer. The label in his copy of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake evidences his having won the book from Hastings School of Art in 1888 as a prize for obtaining a ‘class excellent in the 3rd grade examination in art’ and achieving similar distinction in other exams.
In 1884 and at the age of 15, Sullivan published his first drawing in the children’s comic, Scraps. Then, in 1889, he moved to London and took a room in Chelsea, becoming a staff artist of the weekly illustrated newspaper, the Graphic, the studio of which was led by Godefroy Durand.
A year later, Sullivan also began to work for its new sister title, the Daily Graphic, mainly producing portraits. However, in 1893, he was dismissed by its founder, William Luson Thomas, possibly for showing too much originality. This provided an opportunity for him to extend his ambitions, and he quickly moved to the weekly Penny Illustrated Newspaper to contribute as both artist and writer. In the same year, he began to share lodgings at 18 Fitzroy Street with Frank Dean and Archibald Standish Hartrick, who had also drawn for the Daily Graphic. Dean, Hartrick and Sullivan together became close friends and admirers of their fellow contributor, Phil May. Hartrick, Sullivan, and possibly Dean, worked at Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea, and Hartrick proposed Sullivan as a member of the Chelsea Arts Club.
On 18 July 1894, Sullivan married the journalist, Frances Louisa Williamson, at Marylebone registrar office. She was the daughter of the farmer, Matthew Williams, and widow of the journalist, William Williamson. The Sullivans’ only child, Lilian Eileen, would be born in 1896.
Both Sullivan and Hartrick joined the staff of the weekly magazine, The Pall Mall Budget, as relaunched by William Waldorf Astor, and also contributed to his new publication, The Pall Mall Magazine. When The Pall Mall Budget folded in 1895, Harry Furniss took it on, renaming it The New Budget, and merging it with his own periodical, Lika Joko. Sullivan and Hartrick continued to work for this weekly until its swift demise later that year.
As a member of the newly founded, but short-lived, Society of Illustrators, Sullivan contributed an illustration to W E Henley’s anthology, A London Garland, which was published in 1895 to mark the society’s inauguration. While continuing to work for many periodicals, he turned decisively to illustrating books during the late 1890s, many of which were editions of popular classics published by Macmillan (including George Borrow’s Lavengro of 1896). He worked both in pen and ink and in chalk and wash in a style that has been compared to that of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, and shows the influence of Continental, especially German, artists, including Dürer.
Dürer’s influence may be seen in his work for Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (George Bell, 1898), one of his earliest successes as a book illustrator, which exemplifies both his beautiful balance of design and his often bizarre imagery. Though he fully exploited the innovative processes of photographic reproduction, that particular book makes use of wood-engraving. James Thorpe has stated that with it, ‘he has very definitely arrived and begun to establish his position as the greatest book-illustrator in line that this country has produced’ (Thorpe 1948, page 25).
An early member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Sullivan included 18 drawings for Sartor Resartus in its second exhibition, held at the Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, in 1899. He also submitted drawings for Tennyson’s A Dream of Fair Women (Grant Richards, 1900) to the famous ‘Loan Exhibition of Modern Illustration’, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1901. The book developed what he had achieved in Sartor Resartus. Another significant group of his works was exhibited in Vienna in about 1903.
At the time that he was working on Sartor Resartus and A Dream of Fair Women, Sullivan and his family were living at 30 Belsize Road, Hampstead. In the opening decade of the twentieth century, and certainly in the years 1905-8, they moved out to Stile Gate at Cookham Dean, in Berkshire, though he continued to use 8 Wentworth Studios as a London base. While at Cookham, he received a visit from the father of Stanley Spencer, who showed him drawings by his teenage son and asked him for advice. During this period, he worked regularly for the publisher, George Newnes, providing frontispieces for two thin paper series – ‘Novels’ and ‘Great Poets and Prose Writers’ – and illustrating classics for the Caxton Series (notably The Pilgrim’s Progress of 1901). At the same time, he contributed to volumes in the series of ‘Daily Mail Sixpenny Novels’ (including three by Stanley J Weyman, ‘the Prince of Romance’).
In 1910, Sullivan returned to the writings of Carlyle, illustrating The French Revolution (Chapman & Hall), which many, including Percy Bradshaw, have thought his masterpiece. He showed drawings for this at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of Modern Art, in 1910, and at the ‘VI Exposición Internacional de Arte’, in Barcelona, in 1911 (when they were praised in the Spanish periodical, Museum, as ‘a prodigy’). Similarly, he showed drawings for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (that he had developed in over more than a decade and published by Methuen in 1913), in the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1914.
By the outbreak of the First World War, Sullivan was living at 18 Hill Road, St John’s Wood, and had become a member of the St John’s Wood Arts Club, like his neighbour, Edward Handley-Read. While Handley-Read saw active service in the Machine Gun Corps, Sullivan’s main contribution to the war effort was his volume of powerful satirical images, The Kaiser’s Garland (exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in October 1915 and published by Heinemann later that year). Before the end of the war, he was drawing political cartoons for the National News, a Sunday newspaper.
A very versatile artist, Sullivan also produced advertisements, portrait studies, independent watercolours and etchings. Yet, despite his many achievements, his greatest influence probably lay in his qualities as a teacher, in the tradition of his father. He published two manuals, The Art of Illustration (1921) and Line (1922), and lectured on Book Illustration and Lithography at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art. His students included Eric Fraser, Rowland Hilder, C Walter Hodges, D L Mays and Graham Sutherland. In addition, he was an examiner for the Board of Education and the Joint Matriculation Board, Manchester.
Sullivan was a member of the Council of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers (from 1904), and President of the Art Workers Guild (in 1931). Exhibiting widely, he was elected associate and full member of both the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1903, 1929) and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (1925, 1931).
Continuing to live at 18 Hill Road for the rest of his life, he died there on Easter Monday, 17 April 1933. Having remained true to his Catholic faith, he was given a requiem mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, and then buried at East Finchley Cemetery. His wife and daughter both survived him.
Memorial exhibitions of his original drawings were held at the Royal Institute Galleries, Piccadilly, London, the Mortimer Museum, Hull, and Sunderland Public Art Gallery in 1934, and at Wakefield City Art Galleries in 1935.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A; and The Morgan Library & Museum (New York, NY) and the Harold B Lee Library (Provo, UT).
Percy V Bradshaw, E J Sullivan and His Work, London: Press Art School (Art of the Illustrator), 1918; Mark Bryant, ‘Sullivan, Edmund Joseph (1869-1933), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edition: October 2015; James Thorpe, Edmund Sullivan, London: Art and Technics (English Masters of Black-and-White), 1948