Some of the illustrated editions of Shakespeare I’ve looked at in the last year were published by Hodder and Stoughton – Dulac’s The Tempest, Thomson’s As you like it and Robinson’s Twelfth Night. Most recently I looked at Arthur Rackham’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was published by Heinemann. I read recently that the Hodder books were an attempt to compete with and surpass Rackham’s MND which is sometimes said to be his masterpiece. Despite the different publishers the books followed a similar format – 40 coloured plates with some additional black and white pictures and decoration. Thomson followed the same formula when he did the Merry Wives of Windsor for Heinemann (a blog post looking at those pictures will be coming up in the next month or so, almost certainly the last of these Shakespeare related posts). But when Robinson was asked to do his own version of MND for Constable in 1914 he went his own way and produced a completely different kind of book with only a dozen colour plates and many more black and white pictures.
Arthur Rackham’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was acclaimed as one of the finest illustrated books of its day so its reputation overshadows William Heath Robinson’s version of the same play published only six years later. To my mind however, the Robinson version is better.
It isn’t a competition of course. Rackham’s version stuck to the formula for that set of books, Robinson wisely tried another way.
Many of Robinson’s picture are openly comedic, almost cartoon-like in a way that Rackham doesn’t attempt. But many of them are very special and striking, – minimalist, stark, graphic, modern – where Rackham’s pictures are intricate, detailed, grotesque and resolutely Victorian. You can enjoy both. But give Robinson a chance.
The monochrome pictures show Robinson’s debt to Aubrey Beardsley. (Or does any intricate black and white image from this period echo Beardsley?)
The colour plates, like some of the pictures for Twelfth Night, have an interesting quality about them. Something like a stage set. Or something like a dream in fact. A not quite three dimensional space. An exterior masquerading as an interior.
A scene with classical costumes and a small number of props. A floor with a regular geometric pattern, as we saw in some of the Twelfth Night pictures.
Minimalism is the key here. A cool place with the air of antiquity.
Calm beings , human or semi-supernatural sit and wait by the side of a calm pool, its surface barely disturbed.
When action occurs it is magical. Titania shakes smaller faeries out of her hair, sending them on their way to serve her. She poses like a dancer.
It’s a striking image, perhaps my favourite. Robinson shows the raging sea but somehow you imagine the sound muted as she shakes her hair and the wings rustle. Robinson uses the blank space in the pictures to add to the sense of distance and unreality. As below.
He also uses blocks of black to convey the mood.
This makes the coloured prints leap out as in this scene of lush foliage, water, and a temple.
The major characters are visible, but sometimes seem like features in the landscape.
Oberon, casting his spell while Titania sleeps, accompanied by a pair of perturbed lesser fairies.
Puck squatting on an overgrown pillar.
And Bottom. Here again, at a distance we see. We see his companions retreating at the sight of his transformation.
Later, he sleeps and Titania seems quite content with her new companion.
Robinson’s lesser fairies, like Rackham’s, also look like a different species but don’t have any of the repellent qualities of his insect-like creatures.
The forest of the play is a dream landscape of ruined temples, broken columns and obelisks around which the fairies play.
An almost science fiction book cover image of an overgrown landscape around a temple as the fairies stream past.
And Puck says goodnight.
Taking my cue from the pictures my comments have been quite minimal. I’m posting late this week because as sometimes happens the post stalled about half way through and I had to wait for inspiration. Inspiration didn’t quite come so I fell back on the pictures. You can always rely on them. Next week, inspiration might arrive, or (whisper it), Isabel’s latest post might be ready. Either way there will be something here for you to look at.
Thanks again, for the final time, to Peter Collins for loaning a copy of this wonderful book.