Just a week before Christmas in 1843, the 19-year-old artist Richard Doyle wrote this illustrated letter to his father, playfully but apologetically putting off work that he had promised to finish before Christmas. He is in the midst of preparing his first contributions to the magazine Punch and wants to let his father know that "the nearer it becomes to Christmas the more awful does my situation, with regard to certain annual productions called "Christmas things" appear." Punch is seen here, somewhat maniacally bursting through the page.
Regarding the project for his father, Doyle says that he has gotten so little done that he is afraid to look at it and that no one should be surprised if "the unfortunate being who now addresses you should in a fit of despair put off his Christmas day until some future period" when he will be better prepared. He apologizes for not finishing the project, citing an overwhelming amount of "Punchification." Turning the page, his father was then confronted by this two-page allegorical drawing.
Following further playful remarks ("Now, don't you think that it will be much better, instead of showing you in an unfinished state the little work I have done for you, to wait until after Christmas and get it into a more satisfactory condition? Of course you do!"), Doyle launches in to a detailed description of the scene: "The composition is an allegorical one, and may be looked upon (by those who wish to do so) as superior to anything of the kind by the best of the old masters. All must acknowledge that it is very affecting, and in fact it could not be better, unless, indeed, it were improved, which it is not likely to be." He goes on: "It represents the youth reclining against the back of his chair pensively gazing at -- nothing, and looking most melancholy ... The demon Punch perched upon the table, in exultation, points to the "Procession" of his "Christmas Piece". Harlequin &c., as indicative of Christmas, weep over the little quantity of yours ... and others in the background are plainly showing that it was not for want of paper." Doyle, it seems, was not the best at making his deadlines. But what father, at least, could refuse to forgive him after so charming a letter?
This letter will be on view at the Morgan next year, in an introductory section of the exhibit "Beatrix Potter's Picture Letters" (2 November 2012 to 27 January 2013). For more information about the letter, click here.
The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.