Mr Herbert Railton, illustrator

In 1910 the entertainingly named W. Outram Tristram had a book out called Moated Houses. I find Tristram’s prose style a little hard to follow. It’s pompous, rambling and obscure. And that book is long. I never knew that Edwardian England had so many houses with moats. Possibly many of them got knocked down and the moats filled in over the course of the twentieth century.

But as it happens water and architecture were an excellent combination for Tristram’s illustrator, Herbert Railton who died aged 53 of pneumonia in the year of the book’s publication. This picture is of Gedding Hall in Suffolk.

Gedding Hall p155 - Copy

Railton combines a precision about the details of the buildings – brickwork,  windows etc –  with an overall impresion of indistinctness as foliage, water and the refection of the house leave you with a sense of looking through mist or being dazzled by sunlight.

I know Railton’s work because we have a collection of his pictures in the library, and from his illustrations to Leigh Hunt’s book about Kensington, the Old Court Suburb (1855) . (Many of the pictures are the originals of images in the book.) But I came across more of his book illustrations recently while following the trail of the equally prolific Hugh Thomson. They both worked on Tristram’s Coaching Days and Coaching Ways (1901). Thomson’s best pictures are of people. He has a gift for catching action and comedy. Railton can do people too when he has to, but he is best at houses.

Lonely houses that is, glimpsed through foliage, like this view of the rear of Bullingham House. Click on the picture for more of the detail.

Bullingham House garden front CPic263

The original edition of Leigh Hunt’s book had no illustrations. But there was a deluxe edition in 1902 with illustrations by Railton and others, and an introduction by the editor, the near ubiquitous Austin Dobson, a famous writer in his day not much remembered now. (Not by people like me anyway). But Dobson was all over the place in this era producing biographies, essays and volumes of poetry illustrated by Thomson and others. (And he had a day job too. he has a slight connection with Kensington so he might get his own post one day)

Gore House p50

Gore House, the home of the Countess of Blessington’s literary salon. The liveliness inside where Leigh Hunt himself rubbed shoulders with Dickens, Thackeray and other figures (including the ill fated Letitia Elizabeth Landon ) is contrasted with the loneliness of the garden.

I think you could describe Railton’s style as elliptical. He loves to give you glimpses of his subject matter or fragments rather than the whole thing. Sometimes you have to work out exactly what some detail or other might be.

Where Lord Camelford was killed CPic299

This is the site of a duel in the grounds of Holland House. Railton’s unique way of handling lines renders the empty view almost abstract, but somehow meaningful, as if the violence that had been played out there was still imbued in the lawns and trees.

The Moats p164

This moat is also in the grounds of Holland House. I scanned this from the printed version as it was almost impossible to scan the original clearly.

Railton could do an ordinary street scene too when necessary.

The Rookery Ansdell Street CPic282

This pencil drawing shows Ansdell Street which would have been in a small pocket of poverty in a back street of Kensington. Calling it a rookery might be excessive, but Railton had a romantic, even gothic eye for his subject matter. The puddle with its refections is a characteristic touch.

Old Garden Wall to Campden House CPic303

The overgrown wall and the wild grasping trees dominate over the view of the house which looks distant and where you could easily imagine an imprisoned heroine in a tower room.

The same kind of trees occupy the background of this picture which actually has a supernatural title.

The Ghost's Avenue p168

The Ghost’s Avenue. I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say that the large tree on the right of the path resembles a malevolent alien presence more than an ordinary tree. The branches are already reaching into the path. Would you walk there late at night?

Along with his evocations of the wild countryside of Algernon Blackwood, Railton also did a bit of traditional urban gothic.

Turret stairway to Triforium p43

The sinister staircase.

Corner in Clifford's Inn p267

The black cat on your path.

Gateway to Staple Inn p289

The shadowy figure before you.

Clifford's Inn p271

The heroine beats a hasty retreat with something in a hat box. Let her go. We have another moated house to see.

Ightham Mote Courtyard p231

Let’s leave it to Tristram to tell us about it. He had firm opinions on the place: If Compton Winyates has been called a house in a hole, Ightham may be described as being a house in a ravine, if such a precipitous expression may be properly applied to the pastoral scenery of Kent. The descent to the place, especially by a certain footpath, is almost headlong. Suddenly this moated manor is seen hiding itself in the opening of a small valley. Nor does the word “hiding” quite convey the weird secretiveness of the site. Weird better suggests the first impression made on the mind at the first sight of Ightham, and especially is this the case if the place is first seen at the close of a winter’s afternoon with snowflakes falling about gables which seem to be nodding in a conspiracy of silence, or melting into the broad and dark waters of a moat, whose murmurs seem the murmurs of distrust. The house wears a wicked look.

Ightham Moat p240

And it is characteristic of a house of the Ightham type that such an object of danger and mistrust should so suddenly obtrude itself, at the very moment when the mind is occupied with a contemplation of the place’s serener surroundings. You turn from looking at a sunset from the window of a Jacobean drawing-room, and a piece of mediaeval treachery stares you in the face. Your hostess rises from a civilized tea-table and touches a spring at the side of the fireplace: you open a door, and if you had not been warned not to go forward, you would have fallen into the moat.

I couldn’t have put it better. It’s like we’re in one of Robert Aickmann’s strange stories where an uneasy atmosphere can suddenly present a bizarre or threatening occurence.

Postscript

You can find Railton’s work in many books from the turn of the 19th century. You’ll also find more of it here as I have ideas for at least two more posts featuring him which will come up soon, at least one of them overtly supernatural (without any forcing from me). I’m writing this at the beginning of July just after the hottest July day on record. The lassitude induced by heat and the atmosphere of humidity both seem to be represented in Railton’s work.

William Outram Tristram. Moated Houses . Methuen, 1910.

W J Loftie. The inns of court and chancery. Seeley, 1895. Thanks to Kim for finding a copy for me.

Leigh Hunt. The Old Court Suburb. With an introduction by Austin Dobson. Freemantle & Co,1902

This week’s post is dedicated to my old friend Graham for an obvious reason.


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