Sunday, October 11, 2009


Tonight I would like to introduce you to one of my favorite books, Trilby. Written by Georges du Maurier and published in 1894. This is the the story of three painters studying in the artistic bohemia of mid 19th century Paris. It is illustrated by the author who himself had studied painting in those ateliers. It is a combination romantic comedy, and Gothic novel. It is a charming and amusing little book filled with excellent illustrations and writing that we would call droll today. Du Maurier was a writer for the satirical magazine Punch and wrote a lot of other books and was always a little embarrassed and befuddled at the success of Trilby. Besides writing this book he put a lot of phrases into the English language, including "bedside manner" and "in the altogether".

Trilby was the Star Wars or the Harry Potter of its day. It was one of the most popular books of the century and inspired an endless number of silverware patterns, clothing designs, plays, spin off novels, sheet music, you name it, because Trilby was a sensation. Everyone read it, talked about it and longed to study painting in the garrets of Paris. It gave us many of our popular notions on what an artist is and how the artistic life is lived. It pretty much defined the idea of the romantic artistic life for generations. It is a wonderful window into the ateliers of the mid 1860's, although by the time Trilby was written they were really becoming a part of history, as the great era of the Paris ateliers was passing.

Above is a scene that actually represents something that was a ritual in some of the 19th century ateliers. They were pretty wild. A new arrival might be made to sing or preform as the entire atelier rode their chairs around the room like a mad horse race. He would then be required to buy wine for the entire troupe, lots of wine. It could be a rough competitive environment and was no place for the easily discouraged or the less assertive. Places in front of the model were had by competition and the students labored to outdo one another.

Into the lives of the three painters comes Trilby who boldly enters their studio hoping to find work as their model. She is an Irish girl who is working as a model for a number of artists. She is a wonderful character, and by the standards of the day, scandalous, liberated and self sufficient.All of the three immediately fall in love with her. Her great claim to fame as a model is that she has a perfect foot, and much is made of that. She is in constant demand, for that.

The story follows Litle Billee a diminutive English painter and his two friends through their lives that parallel that of Trilby. The book introduces the character of Svengali, a mystic and musician who is a sort of hanger on about the studio. Svengali has inspired a lot of characters over the years since Trilby, and the Phantom of the Opera was written in imitation of its success.

Svengali entrances Trilby with what was then the rather newly discovered science of hypnotism, still often called mesmerism in that time. Although she is totally tone deaf he is able to get her to sing so beautifully that she becomes an international star under his musical direction. He controls her completely. Little Billee and his friends discover this many years after they had left Paris and gone on to their artistic careers.

The story line of Trilby and Svengali is really secondary to the wonderful descriptions of the artistic life in 19th century Paris.

It is surprising to me how little known the book is today, but it can be read online at

Because about a zillion copies were printed, a used copy from the 1890's may be had very cheaply through Amazon, here is a link to that. It is so cheap they I have bought and given away to friends several copies over the years.
The link I have posted shows a copy at fourteen dollars, but I think there are probably other copies on Amazon for less, although it is an old book, it is anything but rare.
images from which incidentally also features some 5000 Grateful Dead concerts you can download legally and free! If you're not a head, you're behind!


Gregory Becker said...

I'll have to check that out

Philip Koch said...

What a hoot! Stapleton's blog gets the highest marks for esoterica.

Tom said...

hi Stape

Read your last couple of posts on memorey drawing. I just wanted to add that when you understand how things work it becomes much easier to draw from the imagination.
As details follow or react aganist the large overiding elements or masses of a composition. And the Chinese who I think have produced some of the world's best landscapes never worked in front of the model. They would take a walk in nature and return to the studio to make the painting. I have also notice the better I draw from memorey the better I draw from life.

Marian Fortunati said...

What an interesting post..

Your fascinating blog makes me wonder how you learned about all of this and how you find the time to kindly teach us all AND paint and have a life!! I thank you!

Unknown said...

Great post Stape. I'm ordering the book now. It reminds me a bit of La Boheme by Puccini.

Also, I got a kick on how you described your mother as elegant on her visit to Gammells me insight on why she may have given you the name Stapleton

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Esoterica, I go. Erotica, I lack.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have noticed the same thing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Remember I have been studying this stuff since high school. I have never done anything else. As for having a life, the blog is like a hobby, perhaps it is like practicing a musical instrument. I sit down after dinner every night and write for a couple of hours. Sometimes I am tired and it is hard to do.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think you should get a kick out of Trilby I like having the actual book rather than reading it on line, because it is cool to hold and read something over a hundred years old. The paper has that feel and the book is an artifact. Of course I love old stuff.

Unknown said...

Hopefully I can get my copy soon...I bought it from a seller in Ca. I can't wait to read it.

Check out Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs" . Great read and you can get a sampling as its also online but I would hate to read it there on the screen. I am bugged eyed as it is.