Egg, Augustus: The Travelling Companions (1862)

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About the artist

Some pictures are proverbial.

Like certain phrases and characters from literature, they become quotable, in-vokable. They can be referred to in a newspaper cartoon with every expectation of recognition. They're known by people who don't know their title or who they're by. They acquire honorary anonymity. They're usually images that retain their power, and may even increase it, in reproduction. They can be conjured up in a black-and-white drawing. They're memorable. They stick in the mind's eye. Proverbial - or as we now say, iconic.

Examples? They're always likely to be disputable. Well-known quotations are never well-known to everyone. But pictures that pass the newspaper cartoon test, at least among a British broadsheet readership, would include: Sir Henry Raeburn's The Skating Minister; Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat; William Blake's The Ancient of Days; Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog; Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People; Sir John Everett Millais's Ophelia; Sir Edwin Landseer's The Monarch of the Glen; Edvard Munch's The Scream; Grant Wood's American Gothic. Of course, names alone are precisely not a test for the proverbial picture. Visual recognition is the only test.

Those pictures are all art. Examples could equally come from other fields of picture-making.

With the proverbial, questions of medium, of genre, of cultural status, don't signify. Delacroix's Liberty is no more and no less proverbial than a propaganda poster like Your Country Needs You, or an advert like the HMV dog and phonograph, or a photo like Joe Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. And cartoons themselves, like some by James Gillray or by David Low, can pass the cartoon test.

When it comes to gaining a place in the great, half-conscious, public, mental bank of pictures, it's image alone that counts.

But there's another, related class of picture - the picture that looks as though it ought to be proverbial, the picture that has a proverbial quality to it, without apparently having achieved a proverbial standing. Take a recent instance: could a cartoonist base a drawing on Paula Rego's painting The Policeman's Daughter, and expect readers to get the reference? Probably not. Yet Rego's image of a young girl with her arm thrust right down inside a jack-boot, vigorously polishing it with the other hand, seems a perfect candidate.

It's a simple, encapsulating visual metaphor for a complicated psycho-sexual power relationship, which could easily be given a topical political twist. The image itself has the boldness and economy that you find in a great cartoon. It is strongly proverbial. But it hasn't (yet) entered the dictionary of visual quotations.

Or take an older case: Augustus Egg's The Travelling Companions. Two Victorian young women, in capacious travelling costumes, are on a train to the south of France. One reads. One sleeps. But seated opposite each other, their extravagant forms are almost mirror images, which echo the symmetrical architecture of the carriage.

Outside, the bright coast stretches away. Inside, the space is extremely close. A scene of modern life is given the clarity of an icon.

Proverbial? The painting is semi-famous, and probably better known than its artist. It has qualities that would recommend it to a cartoonist. Its shapes, its light and shade, are sharp and simple. Its symmetrical design is very striking. It is rich in metaphorical possibilities.

A pair of figures, almost identical, barricaded in their clothes, cramped and crushed together, while making a journey - it's an image that might embody all kinds of awkward alliance, with an extra incongruity joke in equating seasoned politicos with nice young ladies.

But could a cartoonist be confident that people would pick it up? Once perhaps - but now?

And yet - there's something about the painting that makes it seem familiar, even when it isn't. A person could see The Travelling Companions for the first time, and feel that somehow they knew it already. It has a strange recognisability.

The reason is nothing mysterious, nothing to do with the fundamental archetypes of the human mind. It's because Egg's picture reminds us subliminally of something we really do know well. It looks like a scene from Alice.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are extraordinary books for many reasons, not least because almost every bit of them has become proverbial. There's hardly a character or an episode that isn't a by-word. The white rabbit, the smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen, the Walrus and the Carpenter, Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight... the whole cast passes the cartoon test, and still make regular cartoon appearances. This is partly thanks to a cartoonist. It's largely through the illustrations of Sir John Tenniel that the world of Alice sticks so strongly in our minds.

And it echoes throughout the Egg. The echoes go like this. There's the basic interest in young ladies, and their inner lives (of course Alice is much younger). One of the girls is sleeping, dreaming. They look like identical twins: shades of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They are voluminous females, like the Duchess. The scene is set in a railway carriage, as in Chapter Three of Through the Looking Glass. And the girls are tightly confined within a chamber, like Alice when she drinks from the magic bottle and grows too big for the room she's in.

These echoes aren't direct, and they certainly aren't allusions, conscious or unconscious. The first Alice book appeared in 1865, three years after The Travelling Companions. You could call it chance, or you could call it the mid-Victorian mindset. There may well be a bit of influence going the other way.

Tenniel's image of a railway carriage closely recalls Egg's - the design and viewpoint are identical.

But however the echoes arise, there are enough of them for the dream world of Alice to cast its spell, and its fame, over Egg's social realism. A strong image in itself, The Travelling Companions is empowered by borrowed memorability. It's a case of pictorial déjà vu.

  About the artist

Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-63) enjoyed one of the most ridiculous names in the history of art. He aspired to be a Hogarthian painter - moralising, humorous, popular. Along with Richard Dadd (of The Fairy Feller 's Masterstroke fame), he was a member of the artists' group called "The Clique". He was also part of the literary circle of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. He admired the younger Pre-Raphaelites. He engaged in charity work and amateur theatricals. He travelled to southern Europe for his poor health. His most famous work is in Tate Britain, Past and Present, a narrative triptych about adultery and its tragic consequences.