Monday, June 8, 2009

An Illustrated Point

The only flaw in my otherwise handsome and durable set of Robert Louis Stevenson is the inferior illustration. Mine is an American set, based though, I should think, on a superior British. It was a common practice to reproduce expensive editions for the American market without the expense of the original illustrations. It would seem that for this edition, some hack was paid to copy, very badly, the originals and, judging from the muddy colors, poor draftsmanship and consistent failure of perspective, that this was done very much on the cheap and the fly. Some of the pictures, like the picture of the author in a western hat, in which the hat out-sizes the man by roughly a figure of four, are so painfully amateurish as to even distract from the pleasure of the writing. I tend to turn these pages quickly.

But as a rule, I rather like the custom of illustration. Thackeray, having once applied to Dickens to work as his illustrator, and having been rejected, eventually illustrated his own work, being nearly as charming with his pencil as with his pen, if by no means as accomplished. Chesterton, later and likewise doubly gifted, often drew the pictures for his work as well. There was, from the mid-Victorian forward at least, a whole army of talented draftsmen who worked for the illustrated papers as well as for the publishers and, hack or fine artist, most of these were kept busy. Some men of genius, inevitably, found not only steady work, but founded reputations and made associations, like that of "Phiz" with Dickens, that survive down to this day. In this last case, it is now all but impossible to picture some of those immortal characters in any form but that given them by the illustrator, admittedly in the case of Dickens' novels, under the sometimes exacting supervision of the writer. Nevertheless, there are elements of originality and invention in "Phiz" that are wholly his own and admirable for what they add to, rather than simply what they illustrate of, the novels.

The novelty of illustration eventually became something like necessity, as the public had come to expect no less, but the whole era of great illustration had largely ended by the time after The Great War, when the rejection of earlier conventions seemed, sadly, to include the dismissal of the illustrator from all but children's books and the occasional deluxe commemorative reissue of classics.

But nowadays, we are witnessing the triumphant revenge of the illustrators. In the illiterate age of the graphic artist, too many instances of cleverly illustrated, but by no means properly written "novels" see print every day. There have been books created by artists, often as not without any written narration. The form is not new. What is new is the claim that a gift for cartooning constitutes all that is necessary to lay claim to the title of novelist. (As an experiment, it would be worthwhile, if depressing, to take even the best of recent graphic novels and read just the words. Try this, for instance, with Blankets, by the talented Craig Thompson, from 2003. See if the resulting narrative and dialogue would qualify even as an outline for a screenplay, let alone a "novel.")

Even when illustrators were a regular part of published fiction, there were those, usually the authors, who protested at the imposition of another's imagination on an original work. Some, nearer the end than the heyday of illustrated novels, like Henry James, actively disliked the custom. Understandable, specially for the modernists. But many old books benefit greatly by having had interesting and accomplished representations of the characters and settings larded into them, not only as being attractive pictorially, but also for the point of reference these pictures can provide to the contemporary reader, unacquainted, for instance, with the look of a common carriage, or the way Becky Sharp might have worn her hair.

Two well illustrated books have recently come across the counter. One, Nell Gwyn: The Story of Her Life, by Lewis Melville, an actor and popular biographer of the early decades of the last century, is a charming old book. Unlike more recent, and no doubt more scholarly biographies, Melville's is a fairly light-hearted telling of the life of the most entertaining of the mistresses of England's Charles II. I like it for telling my favorite anecdote of the lady on the very first page!

"Nell Gwyn was always a favorite, as is proved by the oft told story: she was driving through the City in her coach, and, being mistaken for the Roman Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth, another mistress of the King, was hooted; whereupon she leant out of the window, and cried, 'Pray, good people, be civil. I am the Protestant whore.' and so drove on, amidst cheers."

Have to love Nelly, and like Melville for starting things off so well.

I also enjoyed the deliciously pretty, if slightly twee illustrations, many in full color, provided by one Kitty Shannon, of whom, even with the computer, I could learn nothing. (Her name pulled up a girl on Facebook, but nothing of this charming illustrator. Alas.)

The other beautifully illustrated book was Izaac Walton's The Compleat Angler, or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation: Being a Discourse of Rivers Fishponds Fish and Fishing not unworthy of the Perusal of most Anglers. I include the full title here not only because it was given in full on the cover of this particular Weathervane Books reprint, but because I think it goes a long way toward explaining my failure to ever really appreciate this favorite of so many readers down the centuries. In it, Walton famously said many wise and amusing things, but I've never quite been able to get past the fish. The author has the hobbyist's o'erweening pleasure in his subject, rather like an oddly erudite duffer encountered with his fishing gear on a country lane, and will insist on sharing his enthusiasm, returning to it whenever the conversation threatens to move on to more interesting meditations, for as long and at such length as he is allowed the reader's company. Walton is a bore, a sweet and pleasant man, but a bore none the less, bless 'im. This edition though has the illustrations created by one of the true masters of the form, the great Arthur Rackham, and these make even Walton's book all but irresistible.

So then the question becomes, can even the gloriously fine pen and brush of Arthur Rackham make me want to try reading even Walton again? and the answer, in illustration of my point as to the relative value of illustration to word, is no. I might have to own the book though, just to look at the pictures. Maybe...

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