Born in 1865 in rural Worcestershire at his father’s ancestral home of Perry Hall in Bromsgrove, Laurence Housman was the sixth of seven children. The Housman children were a close-knit group of highly literary, artistic, and intellectual siblings whose childhood play included writing sonnets and acting plays of their own composition. Housman’s eldest brother, Alfred (1859-1936), became the well-known poet and classical scholar, while his sister, Clemence (1861-1955), became a wood engraver and novelist. Laurence lived with Clemence most of his life, working with her collaboratively on both artistic projects and feminist causes.
Laurence Housman had a varied and prolific career over his long life. His discovery of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of Blake when he was seventeen was critically important to his development (Housman, Unexpected 106). Thereafter Blake was his model and inspiration. Fittingly, Housman’s first publication was Selections from the Writings of William Blake (1893), and he subsequently followed Blake’s model as artist, author, and designer. His artistic education comprised two years at the local Bromsgrove art school followed by four years in London, first at the Miller’s Lane Art School in South Lambeth and then at the National Art Training School in South Kensington.
In 1890 Housman met Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), who encouraged him to move away from fuzzy chalk drawings to detailed pen-work in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites (Housman, Unexpected Years 115). Housman set himself the task of copying, in facsimile, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and The Prince’s Progress (Kooistra, Christina Rossetti 84). He became the first artist to design Goblin Market (1893) as a stand-alone volume. Although only his second commission, Goblin Market remains one of Housman’s best book designs as well as one of the most innovative of the fin de siècle.
Housman’s illustrations for Goblin Market caught the attention of Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), President of the Royal Academy, who introduced him to Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), then art editor of The Yellow Book. Beardsley secured some of Housman’s illustrations for the magazine, and John Lane (1854 1925) hired him to join Ricketts as a designer of The Bodley Head’s belles lettres series (Housman, Unexpected Years 118). Housman designed Bodley Head books by John Davidson (1857-1909), Katharine Tynan Hinkson (1861-1931), Clemence Housman, Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), Charles Newton-Robinson (1853-1913) and Francis Thompson (1859-1907), as well as his own volume of poems, Green Arras (1896). Housman also collaborated with friend and fellow Yellow Book artist Mabel Dearmer (1872-1915) on the enchanting Story of the Seven Young Goslings (1898).
Housman was particularly drawn to writing and illustrating fairy tales, which he published in both magazines and collections. Some of these were collaborations with his sister: Clemence engraved his pictures for The Field of Clover (1898) and The Blue Moon (1904), as well as for her own The Were-Wolf (1896). Clemence wrote her gothic novella in 1884, and Laurence later said this work inspired him to pursue fantasy writing himself ( Unexpected Years 111). His fairy tales also owe much to the precedent of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), and he made a practice of sending Wilde his books on publication (Kooistra, “Legacy” 90).
Housman participated in the networks formed around fin-de-siècle magazines in a variety of capacities: as author, illustrator, and editor. The two pen-and-ink drawings he contributed to The Yellow Book— “The Reflected Faun” (vol. 1) and “Barren Life” (vol. 10)/—are both highly charged compositions, expressing sensuality and spirituality in a densely crowded natural environment laden with symbolic details. He also contributed to Gleeson White and Charles Hazelwood Shannon’s annual, The Pageant, and to Charles Ricketts and Shannon’s The Dial. His “Death and the Bather,” reproduced in line-engraving for the first volume of The Pageant (1896), recalls themes of homoerotic desire and narcissistic reflection found in “The Reflected Faun.” Housman contributed the fairy tale “Blind Love,” and its accompanying illustration “The Invisible Princess,” to the second volume of The Pageant, but the editors separated the story from its picture by almost sixty pages, inexplicably choosing to insert Shannon’s “Study in Sanguine and White” into Housman’s narrative instead of his own artwork. Housman published his whimsical story about a mother and daughter who trick Death, “Open the Door, Posy,” in the fifth and last volume of The Dial. Between 1903 and 1905 he co-edited The Venture: An Annual of Art and Literature with Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Here Housman included work by many in his circle, including writers Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Alice Meynell (1847-1922), and Arthur Symons (1865-1945), and artists Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Charles Ricketts, and J. M. Whistler (1834-1903). The Venture also included advertisements for Pamela Colman Smith’s “Green Sheaf Gallery.”
Although he retained a lifelong interest in the book arts, Housman’s eyesight was not strong enough to continue his fine pen drawings, so after the turn of the century he focused on writing. Housman worked as art critic for The Manchester Guardian from 1898-1914 and continued to write poetry, novels, memoirs, and plays throughout his life, publishing some 80 books in all. His greatest popular success was the anonymous epistolary novel, An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), which was a transatlantic best-seller as long as the public believed it to be a genuine memoir. The income he gained from this gave him the financial stability to enter the risky world of theatre (Housman, Unexpected Years 184-85).
Housman’s first play, Bethlehem: A Nativity, was privately produced by Gordon Craig (1872-1966) in 1902. From this time on, Housman was involved with the stage, eventually earning a “dubious distinction as ‘the most censored playwright in England’” (Engen 106). Thirty-two of his plays—he wrote over 100—were banned from commercial theatre for what was deemed inappropriate presentation of religious or royal figures. Two successes bookend his career as a dramatist. The first, Prunella: Love in a Dutch Garden, which he co-wrote with Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), was a commercial failure when first mounted in 1904, but, by 1916, it had become popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The second, Victoria Regina, first appeared in Glastonbury community theatre, but later became a Broadway hit with Helen Hayes in the leading role. In 1937, when Edward VIII (1894-1972) lifted the ban that had been placed on it, the play was finally produced for enthusiastic London audiences (Oakley 127).
Laurence Housman was a lifelong activist for human rights and social justice. An energetic supporter of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Housman helped form two men’s organizations for the cause—the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Men’s Social and Political Union. He was a frequent speaker at suffrage rallies in Hyde Park, where his parodic version of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy this and Tommy that” was declaimed as the popular “Woman this and Woman that.” In 1909, Housman and his sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier, where they produced designs for banners and pamphlets, including the famous “From Prison to Citizenship” banner prominent in many processions.
Housman belonged to the secret homosexual society, The Order of Chaeronea, and became a founding member of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology when it was launched in 1914 (Kooistra, Artist 217). After Oscar Wilde’s release from prison, Housman traveled to Paris to deliver to the exiled author the funds that had been collected on his behalf by friends at the Café Royal. He published Echo de Paris as a tribute to Wilde in 1923. In this memoir and the one he wrote after the death of his brother A.E. Housman, he made pleas for the acceptance of same-sex love.
A deeply spiritual man, Housman found the institutional Christian church’s stance on war intolerable. At a time of great nationalist and imperialistic feeling, Housman declared himself a pacifist during World War I. His anti-war work, coupled with his campaigning for Indian independence, led to his presiding at a meeting to welcome Mahatma Gandhi to the Round Table Conference on the future of India in 1932 (Housman, Unexpected 378). By this time, he and Clemence had moved to Street, in Somerset.
When he died in 1959, Housman had lived long enough to see the inchoate beginnings of the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and the gay-rights and peace movements that would dominate the 1960s. For the venerable Victorian suffragist, pacifist, socialist, and advocate for sexual freedom and tolerance, this must have seemed like a new dawn.
© 2010/2019, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra
Lorraine Janzen Kooistra is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Selected Publications by L. Housman
- A.E. H.: Some Poems, Some Letters, and a Personal Memoir by his Brother Laurence Housman , Jonathan Cape, 1937.
- “Barren Life,” The Yellow Book, vol. 10, July 1896, p. 165. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2012. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV10_housman_barrenlife.html
- “Blind Love,” The Pageant, vol. 2, 1897, pp. 64-81. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2018. Web.
- The Collected Poems, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1937.
- “Death and the Bather,” The Pageant, vol. 1, 1896, p. 199. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2018. Web.
- Echo de Paris: A Study from Life, Jonathan Cape, 1923.
- An Englishwoman’s Love Letters, John Murray, 1900.
- “The Invisible Princess, from a pen drawing,” The Pageant , vol. 2, 1897, p. 125. The Yellow Nineties Online , Ryerson University, 2018. Web.
- Little Plays of St. Francis. 3 vols. Sidgwick & Jackson, 1935.
- “Open the Door, Posy!” The Dial, vol. 5, 1897, pp. 4-7.
- “The Reflected Faun,” The Yellow Book, vol. 1, April 1894, p. 117. The Yellow Nineties Online, Ryerson University, 2010. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YB1_housman_faun.html
- The Unexpected Years, Jonathan Cape, 1937.
- Selections from the Writings of William Blake, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1893.
- The Story of the Seven Young Goslings, illustrated by Mabel Dearmer, Blackie & Son, 1898.
- The Venture: An Annual of Art and Literature. Co-edited with Somerset Maugham. 2 vols. 1903 and 1905.
- Victoria Regina, A Dramatic Biography, Jonathan Cape, 1934.
Selected Books Written, Designed, and Illustrated by L. Housman
- All-Fellows: Seven Legends of Lower Redemption with Inserts in Verse , Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1896.
- The Blue Moon, John Murray, 1904.
- A Farm in Fairyland, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1894.
- The Field of Clover, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1898.
- Green Arras, John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1896.
- The House of Joy, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895.
- The Little Land, with Songs from its Four Rivers, Grant Richards, 1899.
- Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden. With H. Granville Barker. A. H Bullen, 1906.
- Spikenard: A Book of Devotional Love-poems, Grant Richards, 1898.
Selected Books by others Designed and Illustrated by L. Housman
- Barlow, Jane. The End of Elfintown, Macmillan, 1894.
- Davidson, John. A Random Itinerary, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.
- Hinkson, Katharine Tynan. Cuckoo Songs, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.
- Holmes, Edmond. The Silence of Love, John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1899.
- Housman, Clemence. The Were-Wolf, John Lane at The Bodley House, 1896. The Were-Wolf, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra et al, COVE Editions, 2018. https://editions.covecollective.org/edition/were-wolf
- Meredith, George. Jump-to-Glory, Jane, Swan, Sonnenschein, 1892.
- Nesbit, Edith. A Pomander of Verse, John Lane at the Bodley Head, 1895.
- Newton-Robinson, Charles. The Viol of Love, John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1895.
- Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market, Macmillan, 1893.
- Thompson, Francis. Poems, Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893.
- Thompson, Francis. Sister-Songs: An Offering to Two Sisters , John Lane at The Bodley Head, 1895.
Selected Publications about L. Housman:
- Engen, Rodney. Laurence Housman, Catalpa Press,1983.
- Hart, Linda. “Laurence Housman: A Subject in Search of a Biographer,” Housman Society Journal, vol. 31, 2005, pp. 15-36.
- Hill, William W. “Laurence Housman in Books: A Checklist,” Colby Library Quarterly vol. 10,1973, pp. 79-88.
- Hodgkins, I.G. Kenyur. The Housmans: Laurence Housman 1865-1959; Clemence Housman 1861-1955; Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936 , National Book League, 1975.
- Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. The Artist as Critic: Bitextuality in Fin-de-siècle Illustrated Books , Scolar, 1995.
- —. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History , Ohio UP, 2003.
- —. “The Legacy of Oscar Wilde: Fairy Tales, Laurence Housman, and the Expression of ‘Beautiful Untrue Things.’” Oscar Wilde and the Cultures of Childhood , edited by Joseph Bristow, Routledge, 2018, pp. 89-118.
- —. “Materialising the Word: Aestheticism and the Art of the Book.” Aesthetic Lives: New Experiences, New Subjects of Poetry, New Forms of Art , edited by Benédicté Costé and Catherine Delyfer, Rivendale, 2013, pp. 37–67.
- Monaco, Pamela. “Laurence Housman (1865-1959),” British Playwrights, 1860-1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook , edited by William Demastes and Katherine E. Kelly, Greenwood, 1996, pp. 225-36.
- Oakley, Elizabeth. Inseparable Siblings: A Portrait of Clemence & Laurence Housman , Housman Society 2009.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “Laurence Housman (1865-1959),” Y90s Biographies, edited by Dennis Denisoff, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/housman_bio/