Art is a mill whose thirlage, in different ages, widens and contracts

The first part of the following refers to contributions of RLS to the Magazine of Art under Henley’s editorship.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1123.]

To William Ernest Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, p. 169]

La Solitude, Hyères [17 or 18 July 1883]

Dear lad,

Glad you like Fontainebleau. I am going to be the means, under heaven, of aerating or literating your pages. The idea that because a thing is a picture-book all the writing should be on the wrong tack is triste but widespread.

‘Fontainebleau: Village Communities of Painters’ appeared in the Magazine of Art for May and June 1884 []

Thus Hokusai will be really a gossip on convention, or in great part.

‘Phoenix’, woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Cassel’s advertisement leaflet for the Magazine of Art beginning November 1883 listed a forthcoming article on Hokusai by RLS: this never materialised []

And the Skelt will be as like a Charles Lamb as I can get it.

Skelt’s Juvenile Drama. The “Skelt” is the promised article ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ celebrating the delights of the toy theatre and the sheets of scenes and character for it published by Skelt []

Toy theatre []

Charles Lamb (1775-1834), by W. Hazlitt, 1804 []

Charles Lamb, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ []


The writer should write, and not illustrate pictures: else it’s bosh.


Your remarks about the ugly are my eye. Ugliness is only the prose of horror. It is when you are not able to write Macbeth that you write Thérèse Raquin.

Latter of two ca. 1641 reissues of the 2nd edition of the collected plays of W. Shakespeare, commonly known as “the second folio” []




[…] Fashions are external: the essence of art only varies in so far as fashion widens the field of its application; art is a mill whose thirlage, in different ages, widens and contracts; but, in any case and under any fashion, the great man produces beauty, terror, and mirth, and the little man produces cleverness (personalities, psychology etc.) instead of beauty, ugliness instead of terror, and jokes instead of mirth. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be ever, world without end. Amen!

And even as you read, you say, ‘Of course, quelle rengaîne!’


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