William A Donnelly: cartoons and a controversy.

I have an old sketchbook titled on the front "Original Sketches by W.A. Donnelly, Artist."

William Donnelly (1847 - 1905) was a Victorian artist "whose sartorial splendour made him in Glasgow the most conspicuous artist of his time" (Neil Munro). He was indeed a man you could not miss, with a huge beard and red hair that he coiled into a plait on the top of his head.

According to the Dictionary of Scottish Painters, he painted landscapes, seascapes and birds. I have a large watercolour of his signed and dated 1882, which he titled "Ben Nevis."

"Ben Nevis" by W.A. Donnelly, dated 1882. It shows a famous view looking across to Fort William, and Ben Nevis, from Corpach.

His father ran a successful fashion business in Glasgow, which gave Willam junior access to Royal circles, and he received a number of commissions from the Royal family over a period of several years. He was also appointed Scottish correspondent for the Illustrated London News. But, as my sketch book shows, Donnelly was also something of a cartoonist.

Original cartoon by William Donnelly from his sketchbook, dated 1872.

Original cartoon by William Donnelly from his sketchbook, dated 1872. "Young Squire...."Ah, Riggs, where are you for this morning with your old 'FRIEND'? Farmer Riggs: "No, na freened, just an auld acquaintance LIKE YERSEL.!!!"

"Candid Opinion(from the north) on the War!" The siege of Metz was an action in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870.

Perhaps neither is side-splitting to us today, but what good artwork.

This is another cartoon from the sketchbook, depicting the ascent of Ben Lomond. The distinctive figure of the artist himself can be seen painting upper right:

The ascent of Ben Lomond, a cartoon by William Donnelly.

The ascent of Ben Lomond, a cartoon by William Donnelly.

The sketchbook is of particular interest in revealing things about Victorian society - their sense of humour, which differs from ours today, and how the society worked. Here is a double cartoon, revealing romance on a train. Are the couple being chaperoned?

I suspect that the main body of the sketchbook (there are lots of loose sheets too) was a celebration of a romance, which may well have ended in marriage. Here is one page, in which the artist falls in love with his pupil:

The pupil is seen to be making great progress, leading to romance, though it appears her father does not approve. Whether this was the course of Donnelly's love affair I do not know, but the girl seems to appear in other sketches. This is a sequence which depicts a day at the races:

Some of the content of the book is simply representative artwork:

Untitled, the artist at work in a garden. He was a keen ornithologist.
A hunting scene on the coast, signed and dated Feb 13th, 1872. Florence Boyle has kindly advised me that the area depicted is that around Dunglass Castle. Bell's Obelisk, and Dumbarton Rock are both visible.
"John Buck's Cottage", subtitled "Hard Frost". Signed and dated Oct 13th, 1871.
"Milbon(?) School", signed and dated Jan. 22nd, 1872. Florence Boyle suggests the title in fact reads 'Milton School'. Milton, near Dumbarton is where Donnelly lived.
Another scene, depicting a tense moment for some coach passengers. Possibly Milton again?

Others are caricatures:

"Washing Day"
Various anthropomorphic characters. The "Two Old Snakes" was an image that appeared in Valentine cards, etc. which were surprisingly vicious.
"To the Pure All Things are Pure."
"Henry MaHoy's Coo".
"He'll Rise in the World." The Victorians loved taking a phrase and illustrating it in the form of a visual pun. Cruikshank did many such.

Two celebrate the year 1872, though 'In Memoriam' is dated January 1872, and 'Resurgam', May 1872!

Many of them, though, I simply do not understand. The collection is clearly personal, and I imagine the lady, who appears in some form or another on many of the pages would understand what to those of us on the outside is a mystery.

"To Paisley", the girl in the last image "Nicer still."
"A True Tail." Once again, the girl is in the last image.
"There's nothing half so sweet in life as love's young(?) dream"
"O give! O give me back my love..."
"Reading the Programme, eh!"

If the meaning is not always apparent, what does shine through is the energy of the man. Sad to say, that energy was sapped by a controversy that developed late in his life. One of his interests was archeology, and in 1898, he discovered some carved artefacts. Dr Robert Munro of Galsgow University doubted their authenticity, and the debate turned acrimonious. It broke Donnelly's spirit, and he died aware that his reputation had been ruined.