Tag Archives: Arthur Rackham

Rackham and Shakespeare: mortal fools, offending shadows

I know it was Shakespeare’s year last year (400 years – I suppose waiting for 500 might be asking too much) so I’m a little late celebrating by continuing this series of posts featuring illustrations to Shakespeare plays by some of the great artists of the pre-WW1 golden age of book illustration. But let’s not stand on ceremony.

The last pair of posts featured the Hugh Thomson As you like it and the Heath Robinson Twelfth Night. (I started much earlier in the year with Edmund Dulac’s the Tempest.) I couldn’t leave this subject without devoting a post to Arthur Rackham’s illustrated version of A midsummer night’s dream, Shakespeare’s other “magical” play.

This was another in a series of illustrated Shakespeare texts mostly published by Hodder and Stoughton and like Thomson’s Merry Wives of Windsor it was published by Heinemann in  a similar format with 40 colour plates and many other monochrome illustrations and decorations. Rackham agreed to do the pictures in 1906 when he was also working on a set of illustrations for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, another work which features Rackham’s unique perspective on fairies.

Rackham’s conception of fairies seems initially to be that they are inhabitants of the natural world at the same level as insects.

He sees them competing with small animals, like creatures which crawl through the undergrowth, infesting the trees like a fungus or a parasite. (You can see some  more of his fairy-insect action here)

As always with Rackham the trees are a presence in themselves, often grotesque and threatening.

In this image you see spiders, caterpillars, an anthropomorphic beetle, worms, something which looks like a scorpion, along with a surprised hedgehog, a snake and a crow (or is that a rook?) above an ethereal crowd of fairies.

But at the same time the fay take other forms, larger and more like humans.

Titania and Oberon,ill met by moonlight.  Rackham noted that Shakespeare’s fantasy was “full of the wildest anachronisms…Titania seems to have been entirely (his) own creation, but Oberon is doubtless drawn from the German Erl King, whilst Puck was never know in classical times”

One of the best ideas (I nearly wrote explanations but then realised that might not be the right word) of the nature of fairies and the worlds they live in comes from John Crowley’s 1981 fantasy novel “Little, Big”. One of the characters says this:

Paracelsus is of the opinion that the universe is crowded with powers, spirits, who are not quite immaterial – whatever that means or meant, perhaps made of some finer. less tangible stuff than the ordinary world. They fill up the air and the water and so on; they surround us on every side, so that at our every movement we displace thousands…..

……The difference observed in size is another matter. What are the differences? In their sylphlike or pixie manifestation they appear no bigger than a large insect or a hummingbird; they are said to inhabit the woods, they are associated with flowers. Droll tales are spun of their spears of locust-thorns and their chariots of nut-shells drawn by dragonflies, and so on. In other instances, they can appear to be a foot to three feet in height, wingless, fully-formed little men and women of more human habits. And there are fairy maidens and warriors on great steeds, banshees and pookahs and ogres who are huge, larger by far than men.

The explanation is that the world inhabited by these beings is not the world we inhabit. It is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this one; it is in a sense a universal retreating mirror image of this one……I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until at the centre point, it is infinite

Hence the title, Little,Big. I had to  edit  that  passage down a bit. But I think it provides a rationale for the fairies of folklore and fiction. Here they are again, flowing like water through the trees with faces.

Fairies are fond of tricks of course and the trick played on Titania by Oberon is one of the most celebrated in literature.The transformation of Botttom into a creature with an ass’s head looks to modern eyes like an instance of body horror reminiscent perhaps (if you’ve got a mind like mine) to Jeff Goldblum’s metamorphosis in Cronenberg’s The Fly. (Another insect connection.)

Titania’s acceptance of the new flesh is also reminiscent of Cronenburg.

Let’s stay with the human characters for now. Here is Helena:

 

She’s dressed for classical Greece but Rackham also reminds us of the play’s setting in Shakespeare’s own times.

Hermia looks all set for another woodland drama.

 

Like some of Thomson’s Shakespearean characters she could get away with that outfit in a modern high street.

Also like Thomson, Rackham shows us some sleeping al fresco.

Ministering to the sleepers we mustn’t forget Rackham’s slightly androgynous Puck.

“What fools these mortals be..”

In the end, with Titania and Oberon reconciled, the two pairs of human lovers are prepared to wake up and forget the world of dreams.

As far as they can.

Rackham’s biographer Derek Hudson says “Rackham cast his spell over the play: his drawings superseded the work of all his predecessors…..his gnarled trees and droves of fairies have represented the visual reality of the play for thousands of readers.” He quotes William de Morgan who described MND as “the most splendid illustrated work of the century so far.” (although it was only 1908).

 

Postscript

We haven’t finished with Shakespeare’s fairies yet, because at the same time as borrowing the Rackham book from our good friends at Westminster Central Reference Library (Thanks again to Peter Collins) I also took the opportunity to look at another illustrated version of MND, by William Heath Robinson created for Constable in 1914. I know some people who read the Twelfth Night post were pleasantly surprised by Robinson’s dark view of the play. He has his own take on MND too, which we’ll come to in the next week or so.

If you’ve never read John Crowley’s Little, big (1981), don’t hang about, read it. Anyone who liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell should love it.

I found the quote from Rackham in James Hamilton’s excellent book Arthur Rackham: a life with illustration (1990). Derek Hudson’s Arthur Rackham : his life and work (Heinemann 1960) is also excellent.

For another fairy narrative look here.

 

 


Christmas Days: In the Studio

This year I spent a little time doing some research at Chelsea Library in bound copies of the Studio magazine from the early 1900s. As well as finding what I was looking for I also came across a number of pictures which were both unfamiliar and fascinating. The pictures in in today’s post are a selection of the images that appealed to me, beginning with one of young artists at work.

Studio vol 19 pp54-55 Glasgow School of Art first floor corridor

This view of a corridor at Glasgow School of Art was one of a group showing students working on pictures. They’ve obviously been told to act natural but the two closest to us can’t resist looking at the camera.

Below, a drawing by Arthur Rackham. In the past I’ve said how Rackham often places faeries and other supernatural beings in the world of insects and pests. This is an example.

Studio Vol 34 p193 Arthur Rackham The rescue

The Rescue – the rescuers are not much larger than insects as they are seen pulling a fly out of a spider’s web. Perhaps the spider preys on faeries too.

The picture below by Alberto Martini is even more grotesque.

Studio Vol 34 p141 Alberto Martini Drawings

A group of villagers discover the remains of a man pulling a wagon (or was he tied to it?), caught in the night and frozen to death.

A rather more pleasant image:

Studio Vol 33 p31 The cellist by C H Shannon

The cello player, a drawing by C H Shannon. A group of young women musicians literally lying around. Their dresses are billowed out around them creating a continuous surface which they are half-absorbed into. It reminds me, inevitably perhaps, of the inner image on a LP’s gatefold sleeve. The pencil technique makes the scene fuzzy and langorous. I would like to see this recreated with a modern band. (I’d also like to see the picture coloured in, which would be relaxing for someone.)

The picture below by J R Weguelin reminded me of Charles Conder. In a villa by a lagoon another group of women relax while a maid covers them in veils, presumably to protect them for the heat of the sun.

Studio Vol 33 p201 Venetian Gold by J R Weguelin

I can feel the sense of heat in the air and the sleepy postures of the women.

The Studio also featured architectural drawings like this one by Dan Gibson and TH Mawson.

Studio Vol 33 p132 House and garden at Berkhampstead by Dan Gibson and TH Mawson - Copy

Finally a picture distinctly reminiscent for me of the work of Aubrey Beardsley.

Studio Vol 34 p263 Summer-time by Miss Annie French

The artist, Annie French was a student at GSA, one of the so called “Glasgow girls”. The GSA’s website has a number of pictures of students at work. There is one showing Annie French herself, which brings us back to where we began. I don’t know  if any of the women in the corridor was Miss French.

I hope these picture fit with an atmosphere of stillness as Christmas Day arrives and some of the frantic activity is done.

Today’s soft toy greeting is another Japanese character. From the Studio Ghibli animation the gentle and mysterious My Neighbour Totoro, that engaging character the many legged Cat Bus seen here in many sizes. A Happy Christmas from the hybrid creature.

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And all the characters featured on the blog. See you tomorrow.

 


Faeries in Kensington Gardens

We’re getting close to Christmas now so what about something a little seasonal?

I don’t much like Peter Pan.  The familiar story of the irritating boy and the nice crocodile who never gets to eat him (or the equally annoying pirate) is a sickly mixture of cliches and sentiment. Before you dismiss me as a grumpy old man can I point out that I have disliked the boy who wouldn’t grow up since I first came across him, well before I grew up. Winnie the Pooh on the other hand I loved and I came to appreciate the writing of A A Milne even more as I grew older. I read those stories to my son when he was young and took him to an ideal venue for Poohsticks on Putney Common.The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland – both classics. I never came across E Nesbitt or George MacDonald as a child but I read some of their work later.We didn’t have Paddington Bear when I was young but we did have another bear, Mary Plain (by Gwynedd Rae). And I didn’t read any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books until I worked in a library. So I’m no enemy of the classics of children’s literature. But I can’t stand Peter Pan, in any of his incarnations,

Peter Pan of course has Kensington connections.

Kensington Gardens Peter Pan statue PC1386

But the Peter Pan in this picture is not the one featured in the 1905 book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. In that book Peter Pan is a weird baby who ends up living in the hidden world of fairies, birds and other supernatural creatures located in Kensington Gardens unobserved by the daytime visitors and workers.

We have copies of the 1905 and 1912 editions which are probably of most interest for the illustrations by Arthur Racknam, 49 colour plates in the 1905 edition with additional black and white pictures in the 1912 edition.

If you concentrate on the pictures which don’t feature the proto-Pan you find a set of faery images which are beautiful and sometimes grotesque.

The Serpentine

This view of the Serpentine at dusk has the traditional winged fairies you can imagine sharing the same eco-system as insects and birds. These  fairies come from the same place as Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies, out of the deep Victorian imagination, via the Pre-Raphaelites and the darker works of individuals like Richard Dadd.

Rackham also depicts the ordinary world of daytime. He still prefers a gloomy scene though, with grey skies, and mysterious islands.

The island

The three girls in front are keeping their backs to the island so no one will know they are discussing Barrie’s unlikely notions about babies hatching from eggs and turning into birds (or is it vice versa?).

Kensington Gardens ducks PC1353

One of the better themes in the book is the idea of a hidden world beneath the park which children are half aware of already.

Fairies in hiding till dusk

During the day things are happening out of sight. But at night….

The fairies sit on mushrooms

A feast, featuring some non-winged faries adopting a variety of costumes, not worried about mixing with mice creatures. Some images dip into the grotesque.

An elderberry hobbled

Here Rackham is not far from Sidney Sime or Harry Clarke who both illustrated the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

I was particularly intrigued by this picture.

If the bad ones happen to be out

The bad fairies emerge from beneath the trees like crawling insects. Rackham depicts them as an infestation, like ants or termites. Something rotten.

Back in the daylight world the Elfin Oak looks merely decorative, hardly creepy at all.

Kensington Gardens Elfin Oak PC1388

Images like the one below may represent the glamour  cast by fairies to fool us into thinking them beautiful…..

looking very undancey

As beautiful as any mortal woman in the daylight world.

Kensington Gardens 712.5 KEN-JA K65-23

For the children the search goes on. Below a girl called Maimie hides from the adults, so she can stay in the gardens after dark.

She ran to St Govor's Well and hid 2

The spot she’s chosen, St Govor’s Well is a real place

St Gover's Well 712.5 Ken-Pm P1966 L-5638

With some real Edwardian children playing in it.

Touching site Walter Stephen Matthews and Phoebe Phelps

At the end of the book Barrie  tells about the gravestones erected by the proto-Pan and his acolytes to mark the passing of lost children. Rackham undercuts the notion by placing the illustration in a pastoral scene set years before, the 1840s by the look of the costumes.

For me all the imagination in the book is in Rackam’s illustrations and it is they who turn a real place – Kensington Gardens – into an outpost of Faery.

Postscript

Was I a bit hard on the infant Pan? Maybe. But Rackham’s pictures are so much better than the text, They have a weird intensity. Rackham was one of those artists who was rediscovered in the 60s and 70s in glossy paperback editions along with many other illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian period.

This week saw the soft launch (as they say) of our World War one website: http://www.kcworldwar1.org.uk It’s full of contemporary images and text from the Local Studies collection with the additional opportunity for readers of adding their own text and/or pictures. Like a blog, it will grow over months, maybe even years to form a permanent record of Kensington and Chelsea in the Great War. Take a look, I’m sure there will be something there to surprise you.

Your Christmas surprise on this blog is that next week instead of just one long post on Thursday I’m writing short daily posts starting on Monday. I come across lots of pictures when doing research for the blog which are interesting but won’t fit the 10 or more pictures and a thousand words format I’ve adopted. So next week there will be mini-posts from Monday to Friday. Read them daily or save them up. See you Monday.


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