‘nincompoopiana’: meaning and origin

The derogatory noun nincompoopiana denotes the late-19th-century aesthetic movement (which advocated a doctrine of ‘art for art’s sake’) and, more generally, the vogue for aestheticism which accompanied it. This noun was chiefly used as a satirical attack on the affected dandyism of the writers, artists, etc., associated with the movement.

In The Palimpsest (Iowa City: Published by the State Historical Society of Iowa) of June 1937, Hubert H. Hoeltje (1894-1968) presented the cultural context in which the noun nincompoopiana was coined:

“Think of Faint Lilies”

In the late seventies and early eighties of the past century, the aesthetic wave in England, dubbed derisively the Pre-Raphaelite movement, was ebbing. The splash on the rocks was becoming a trickle among the sands. The earnestness inspired by the masters (Rossetti and Morris), no longer a fresh and vigorous force, was subsiding into a cult expressing itself in intellectual attitudinizing and eccentricities of manner.
It was not long until the humorous magazine Punch was leveling its shafts of satire at these vagaries in a series of amusing drawings over various titles—“Nincompoopiana” appearing conspicuously. Certain characters appeared in these drawings again and again—Jellaby Postlethwaite, the poet; Maudle, the painter; Prigsby, the critic; and the intense Mrs. Cimabue Brown—all set frequently against a background of lilies, the lily, as readers of Punch knew, having been affected by some of the painters of the aesthetic brotherhood. In contrast to the long-haired and languorous males of these cartoons was the Colonel, who represented English common sense and whose function it was to leave the reader in no doubt of the ludicrous nature of his companions. There was a good deal of fun, too, with the pet phrases attributed to those satirized—“intense”, “really quite too-TOO”, “most consummately so”, and others suggesting extravagance. It was all very amusing. In the years during which Punch had its sport with the aesthetes, its readers were educated to understand innumerable subtle allusions to the weaknesses of its victims. “Nincompoopiana” pleased the public fancy.

From the noun nincompoop, denoting a foolish person, and -iana, a variant of the suffix -ana, forming nouns denoting a collection of sayings, customs or attitudes belonging to a particular person, period, etc., the noun nincompoopiana was first used—and probably coined—by the French-born British novelist, cartoonist and illustrator George Du Maurier (1834-1896) in the following cartoons, published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England):

1-: On Saturday 14th June 1879:


Maud and Clara. “What a lovely Sunset!”
Young Alkestis Trotter. “I—a—confess that I’ve never seen a Sunset that thoroughly satisfied me yet! At least not in Naytchah, you know!”

2-: On Saturday 20th December 1879:


(Surfeited with excess of “cultchah,” Prigsby and his Friends are going in for extreme simplicity.)
Prigsby. “I considah the words of ‘Little Bopeep’ freshah, loveliah, and more subtile than anything Shelley evah wrote!” [Recites them.
Muffington.”Quite so. And Schubert nevah composed anything quite so precious as the Tune!” [Tries to hum it.
Chorus. “How Supreme!”

3-: On Saturday 14th February 1880:


Our Gallant Colonel (who is not a Member thereof, to Mrs. Cimabue Brown, who is). “And who ’s this young Hero they ’re all swarming over now?”
Mrs. Cimabue Brown. “Jellaby Postlethwaite, the great Poet, you know, who sat for Maudle’s ‘Dead Narcissus’! He had just dedicated his Latter-Day Sapphics to me. Is not he Beautiful?”
Our Gallant Colonel. “Why, what ’s there Beautiful about him?”
Mrs. Cimabue Brown. “Oh, look at his Grand Head and Poetic Face, with those Flowerlike Eyes, and that Exquisite Sad Smile! Look at his Slender Willowy Frame, as yielding and fragile as a Woman’s! That’s young Maudle, standing just behind him—the great Painter, you know. He has just painted Me as ‘Héloïse,’ and my Husband as ‘Abélard.’ Is not he Divine?” [The Colonel hooks it.
N.B.—Postlethwaite and Maudle are quite unknown to fame.

The noun nincompoopiana then occurs in the following two texts:

1-: From the Horsham, Petworth, Midhurst and Steyning Express (Horsham, Sussex, England) of Tuesday 17th February 1880—it seems that, here, Nincompoopiana (with capital initial) denotes “the Liberal metropolis”:

Others, like Lord Derby 1, may have bent and bowed before the storm, but the Earl of Beaconsfield 2 has never lowered the Union Jack a single inch in the worst of times—no, not in that dark day when just as we were most deeply involved in Europe and Asia, came the news that Sir Bartle Frere 3, thinking only of Africa, had added a Zulu War to the weight of England’s difficulties. That was, indeed, a moment of supreme trial for the Prime Minister, yet he stood it all, and had even to hear himself abused in Nincompoopiana, the Liberal metropolis we take it, for having wickedly plunged us into a war in South Africa!

1 This refers to Edward Smith-Stanley (1799-1869), Earl of Derby, three-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
2 Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Earl of Beaconsfield, was then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
3 Henry Bartle Edward Frere (1815-1884) served as High Commissioner for Southern Africa from 1877 to 1880; his policies led to regional wars.

2-: From a correspondence from Boston, Massachusetts, by ‘Greta’, published in The Art Amateur (New York City, New York, USA) of August 1880—in the following, ‘Greta’ begins by quoting Mr. Hunt’s Teaching, by the U.S. painter Francis Davis Millet (1848-1912), about the U.S. painter William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), published in The Atlantic Monthly (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of August 1880:

“The disciples of the Hunt School […] remain like people who have learned the beauties of a language before they can write or speak it. Their works show that they see aright, and that their intentions are the best. But they can be called neither artists, idealists, nor impressionists, for their performances go little farther than intentions. For this they may be descriptively named ‘intentionists.’” This is a happy thought, indeed, a witty and a just characterization, and it will stick. “Intentionists” is the proper designation for the little coterie of strivers after the excruciating, and to them, truly, unattainable, in New York also, who come the nearest, it is to be hoped, of anything in America to the “Nincompoopiana” so wholesomely ridiculed by Du Maurier in Punch.

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