Skip to main content
No. 2809:
A Goblin Book

Today, Goblins, sisterly love, and a masterpiece of book design. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

title page

Two generations of talented siblings haunt the history of an elegant, slim volume published in 1893 titled Goblin Market. British artist Laurence Housman designed every aspect of the book and drew the illustrations. Poet Christina Rossetti had first published Goblin Market three decades earlier.

She was born in 1830 in London to a family of poets and artists. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti is better known today. He was an artist and a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. You may have seen his paintings on medieval themes and portraits of pale women with long, wavy hair. But, when Goblin Market came out in 1862, Christina had the spotlight and was hailed as the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

Thirty years later, a young Laurence Housman was struggling to establish himself as a book designer and illustrator. Like Christina, one of Laurence's brothers now outshines him. But in 1892, A. E. Housman had not yet published his poem cycle A Shropshire Lad. Now Laurence proposed a new edition of Goblin Market to Christina Rossetti's publisher, sending sketches of masked goblins and sample pages. Amazingly, he got the job, with only one concession. Christina requested that he un-mask the goblins to make them less threatening.

A double page from Goblin Market

The title poem weaves a shocking, sensuous tale of a girl who eats addictive fruit from a band of mysterious goblins and falls mortally ill, desperate for more. Her elder sister saves her by braving the goblins' temptations and withstanding their physical assault as they try to force fruit into her mouth. Loaded with symbolism as well as graphic descriptions of the goblins' attack, the poem is anything but a children's tale.

Goblin Market text

Laurence Housman broke with tradition in many ways with this book. His innovations influenced fine book design for years to come. He created a unique shape and size for the book— only 7 ½ inches high with narrow pages. He placed illustrations on facing pages, forming two halves of the same picture. All aspects of the design worked together.

Laurence created a total of 33 black-and-white drawings for this 63-page book. The goblins dominate, with little space given to the loving sisters. Laurence may have removed their masks, but they remain threatening. He gave them weasel and cat-like features and dressed them in swirling capes. Christina complained that her goblins "were not quite so ugly," but her poem supports Laurence's interpretation.

Artists and critics loved the book. Laurence designed more books and joined artist Aubrey Beardsley in illustrating the first issue of the infamous Yellow Book. When his eyesight began to fail, he found a new career as a playwright. Actress Helen Hayes starred in his play Victoria Regina on Broadway. But surely the Goblin Market ranks as one of his most powerful works. That tiny exquisite volume broke through design barriers while it captured the darkness and light of all true fairy tales.

I'm Margaret Culbertson, from the Bayou Bend Collection, where we too are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Goblin Market book cover

C. Rossetti, Goblin Market. Illustrated by L. Hausman (London, MacMillan and Co., 1893)  

In Houston, one may make arrangements to view Rienzi's copy of Goblin Market by calling 713-639-7800. 

J. Bryson, "Christina Rossetti," in Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 10 Jul. 2012.

K. Cockin, "Housman, Laurence (1865-1959)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

R. Engen, Lawrence Housman. (Stroud, Glos.: Catalpa Press Ltd., 1983).

E. Hodnet, Five Centuries of English Book Illustration. (Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press, 1988).

L. Housman, The Unexpected Years. (London: Cape, 1937).

J. Taylor, The Art Nouveau Book in Britain. (Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing, 1979).

All images are from the copy of Goblin Market in the Harris Masterson Collection, Rienzi, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Margaret Culbertson is Director of the Kitty King Powell Library, Bayou Bend Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She also authored the book Texas Houses Built by the Book: The Use of Published Designs, 1850- 1925.

My thanks to Christine Gervais, Associate Curator, Decorative Arts and Rienzi, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for her invitations to give gallery talks on books in Rienzi's library, including Goblin Market.

This episode was first aired on July 17, 2012