Isabelle Émilie de Tessier, born in France in 1847, worked as a music hall performer and, despite a lack of any formal training, went on to forge a separate career as a cartoonist in Britain. Very little is known about her life , although newspapers describe her performances and she was once cited as the “other woman” in a divorce suit. Her illustrations are signed with the pseudonyms “Marie Duval”, “Noir” and even, on one occasion, “S.A. The Princess Hesse Schwartzbourg”.
“She doesn’t draw like anyone else,” said Simon Grennan, research fellow in fine art at Chester, principal investigator on a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council whose outputs include an image archive, touring exhibition and two books. He points to her “incredibly lively”, “prehensile” style, a bit like a Victorian Dr Seuss, which often “extends bodies and blows them apart”, or depicts people tumbling and falling in ways that surely draw on her stage experience.
The period from 1860 to 1900 is sometimes known as “the first great age of leisure”, Dr Grennan continued, as well as a time when there was “a burgeoning of comic strips”.
Duval is great at capturing “recognisable types such as men and women at the races, older women at the seaside, the young honeymooners who go abroad without enough money”, he said. She was also the first to depict a character called Ally Sloper, “a work-shy, scheming, louche, drinking, working-class but not working London man”, who later became “the first comic superstar” with his own newspaper and merchandising right up to the First World War.
Duval was largely published in a magazine called Judy, which Dr Grennan described as “a lower-class conservative rival to Punch, Disraelian rather than Gladstonian”. Although he and his fellow researchers only expected to find about 250 of her illustrations, they eventually discovered about 1,400 by sifting through 15 years of Judy and 40 other publications. Nine hundred of them can already be seen on the digital Marie Duval Archive.
Although they hope that the work will form the basis for further research, Dr Grennan also admitted that “we just like it. Duval is much funnier than her contemporaries. As long as it’s funny, everything is grist to her mill. In carrying out our research, we have been cautioned by other users of libraries for laughing.”