Noel Paton
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Joseph Noel Paton

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published by the Art-Union of London, 1863. 28 pages, plus 20 illustations by Joseph Noel Paton; lithography by W.H. McFarlane of Edinburgh. 36 × 52 cm.

Twenty-five years after David Scott’s edition of the Ancient Mariner the Art-Union of London commissioned another Scottish artist, Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901), to illustrate the poem on a similarly grand scale. A pamphlet containing three of Paton’s twenty illustrations, together with a specimen of type, was issued to encourage members of the Union to subscribe: ‘Every Subscriber of One Guinea for the current year will receive a Copy, with the Poem, handsomely Bound in Cloth’.

Paton was born in Dunfermline, and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1843. Although he found the training uncongenial, while in London he formed what was to be a lifelong friendship with John Everett Millais, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on his future career was considerable. He also entered the circle of Samuel Carter Hall, editor of the Art-Union Monthly Journal (from 1849 the Art Journal), who commissioned illustrations for his Book of British Ballads (1842–4).

In the course of his long career Paton achieved great popularity as a painter of religious and historical subjects, and of scenes from fairy tale. He was also a sculptor and a poet; Poems by A Painter (1861) and Spindrift (1867) supplemented the themes he explored in his painting. A prolific illustrator, his publications include Compositions from Shakespeare’s Tempest and Compositions from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (both 1845). In 1863 he illustrated not only the Ancient Mariner but also Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and, most famously, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. A notable public figure, Paton was appointed Queen’s Limner for Scotland in 1865, and knighted the following year. His great energy was matched by an imposing physique; Alfred Story described him as ‘almost Herculean in breadth of shoulder and depth of chest’ (Story 1895, p. 127).

On an invoice to the Art-Union asking 200 for the twenty engravings, Paton wrote that ‘the first draughts of these illustrations were made at the instigation and under the roof of my old friend Allan Park Paton, at Greenock in the years 1849 and 50’. It was not until 1860, however, that he first began to make serious preliminary sketches. The similarity between the figures in the designs is perhaps explained by several studies, now at the National Gallery of Scotland, which reveal that all the figures were modelled by the same person – Donald ‘Dan’ MacKenzie Wallace, Paton’s close friend and travelling companion.

In contrast to Scott’s spare, abstract designs, Paton’s Ancient Mariner illustrations teem with detail: the elaborate costumes of the wedding guests; the ropes, buckets, sails, masts and rigging of the mariner’s ship; the huddles of gesticulating sailors. They are also more didactic. Paton’s father was a Swedenborgian, and he was early acquainted with William Blake’s art and poetry, but he saw his role as a religious painter in more conventional terms. ‘Heart, mind, and soul, with reverent love confess’ he wrote in his poem ‘A Confession’; he considered himself ‘The Christian Painter, sent to purify and bless’. In a device printed on both the cover and title page (see opposite), a serpen-t coils itself around a crossbow, which forms part of a radiant cross. Crucifixes are conspicuous in many of the designs, and the plumed spirits are recognisably angelic, even, on occasion, fairy-like. There is, in addition, an overriding concern for beauty that is integral to much of Paton’s work. One commentator wrote of the ‘intense feeling for beauty that conditions Sir Noel Paton’s art. In other words, while his art is essentially didactic, or becomes so in his matured manner it is a necessity of his nature that his sermon shall be clothed in the most beautiful language at his command. He cannot even make his devil ugly’ (quoted in Klesse 2001, p. 48). Accordingly, his bare-breasted Life-in-Death (illustrated on p. 54) and saturnine ‘Spirit who bideth by himself’ (p. 56), are not at all threatening.

In drawing the inevitable comparisons between Paton’s illustrations and Scott’s, contemporary reviewers recognised that Paton had none of Scott’s intensity, but found that his skilful compositions and graceful linear style achieved a beauty which the earlier illustrations had lacked:

Paton, more than Scott, employs Beauty as his vehicle, but does not shrink from grappling with the most powerful passages of the wild legend, and does it nobly too. The time of the poem may be supposed to be about the end of the fifteenth century, when the spirit of adventure sent many men of many nations abroad over the faces of land and sea; and the costume chosen by the artist is carefully studied, and in thorough keeping throughout the whole series.

The same review considers the problem central to book illustration: how does an artist stay true to the spirit of the poem, and at the same time not suppress his own artistic vision? The reviewer considers Paton to have been successful: ‘we think that the Idea of the Poem may be gathered from this series of drawings with singular clearness and power, and in strict accordance with the poet’s intention; enforced, too, with a beauty and pathos no less truly the painter’s own.’

The Art-Union issued two versions of Paton’s Ancient Mariner: a standard edition, and a deluxe version which added a soft yellow tint to the lithographs, had more generous margins, and used a finer quality paper. Subscribers could also purchase plates individually, and a limited number of artist’s proofs could be had for five guineas. Paton’s original drawings prepared for engraving are both larger and more varied in their tone than the final prints, which have a two-dimensional frankness.