John Austen’s Harlequin

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The familiar characters of the Commedia dell’arte—Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot et al—are depicted here by British illustrator John Austen for The Adventures of Harlequin (1923), a prose recounting by Francis Bickley of events in the life of the trickster character. Or a life… Since Harlequin has only ever been a theatrical archetype Bickley has to employ considerable invention to flesh out the details. The enterprise may be a questionable one but I’m always happy to see another book illustrated by Austen, especially when so many of his illustrated editions remain difficult to find. A Pierrot figure appeared in the first of these, The Little Ape and Other Stories, at a time when Austen’s drawing style was closer to Harry Clarke in its use of decorative detail. His style continued to evolve throughout the 1920s. Here it’s closer to George Barbier, the French artist who drew his own Commedia dell’arte trio when illustrating Michel Fokine’s Carnaval for a ballet portfolio, Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Emshwiller illustrates Bester

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Having finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo I thought I’d, er jaunt from the 1840s into the far future by revisiting Alfred Bester’s Dumas-derived The Stars My Destination. I prefer the alternate title to Bester’s novel, Tiger! Tiger!, but Stars… is the one that’s more commonly used, with the unfortunate side-effect of making the book sound like a typical space opera of the 1950s. The story may begin in space but most of it takes place on Earth in the 24th century. Bester borrows the revenge theme and a couple of other details from The Count of Monte Cristo but wisely resists any attempt to imitate the labyrinthine plotting of the Dumas novel.

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Before publication in book form, the story was serialised in four parts in Galaxy magazine, from October 1956 to January 1957; Ed “Emsh” Emshwiller illustrated each instalment as well as the cover of the debut issue. I’ve said before that one of the great benefits of being able to browse old magazines online is having the opportunity to turn up neglected illustrations like these. Bester’s novel has long been regarded as a genre classic—Michael Moorcock and William Gibson both refer to it as a favourite—but its print editions haven’t generated many memorable covers. Here we have Emshwiller illustrating the entire story, and doing an excellent job, yet his drawings have been buried for years.

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For the purposes of this post I’ve removed the text surrounding some of the illustrations in order to highlight the drawings. The original printings, plus the full text of the serialised story, may be found at the links below:

Galaxy, October 1956
Galaxy, November 1956
Galaxy, December 1956
Galaxy, January 1957

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Weekend links 640

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Aquarius (1910–1914) by Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald.

• “…they created a unique Afro-Caribbean soundscape—Battiste’s exceptional skills saw him use the studio as an instrument, voices flutter in and out, instruments shiver and shriek, over which Rebennack mutters and chants, a shaman of sorts.” Garth Cartwright on the life and works of Mac Rebennack, better known to the world as Dr John.

• Issue 3 of Man Is The Animal: A Coil Zine is now available for pre-order. I contributed to this one with a piece entitled “Singularities of Art and Nature”, an examination of the Coil discography via the Wunderkammer concept and the Musaeum Clausum of Thomas Browne.

• Among the recent arrivals at Standard Ebooks, the home of free, high-quality, public-domain texts, is Arthur Machen’s episodic and influential horror novel The Three Imposters (1895).

Media History Digital Library: “A free online resource, featuring millions of pages of books and magazines from the histories of film, broadcasting, and recorded sound.”

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shall I, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, conjurer, introduce myself to you, viewer? And why not?

• At Public Domain Review: The Blood Collages of John Bingley Garland (ca. 1850–60).

• Mix of the week: Endymion, an autumnal ambient mix by The Ephemeral Man.

• “New Webb image captures clearest view of Neptune’s rings in decades.”

• New music: Of Endless Light by Cleared.

• RIP jazz giant Pharoah Sanders.

Conjuration (1977) by Tangerine Dream | Necronomicon—Conjurations (2004) by John Zorn | A Boy Called Conjuror (2020) by Teleplasmiste

Georges Méliès, Mage

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Georges Méliès: magician. Yes, indeed. I was watching Martin Scorsese’s Hugo again recently, a film I found more enjoyable the second time around mostly for the Méliès side of the story. The flashback to the Star Films studio offers in miniature a history that this book delivers in detail. Georges Méliès, Mage (1945) by Maurice Bessy and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca is a copiously illustrated guide to Méliès’ entire career, beginning with his early years as a conjuror and a creator of the kinds of theatrical fantasies that formed the basis for his first films. The text is in French throughout but there’s a wealth of pictorial material, with many production sketches and drawings that show how some of his more complex effects were achieved.

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One of the things I’ve always found attractive about Méliès’ films is the way they resemble 19th-century illustrations brought to life. The same can be said about some of the later Hollywood productions, especially the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, but they lack the overt theatricality of Méliès. For a taste of those hand-tinted marvels, go here.

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Ralph Steadman, 1977

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This is the kind of thing I like to see: 35 minutes of an artist doing nothing but drawing or talking about drawing. Michael Dibb’s profile of Ralph Steadman is the earliest BBC portrait of the artist, made for the long-running Arena arts series. Arena was launched in 1975 but films from the series prior to 1980 are rare things on the internet. This one concentrates on Steadman’s creation of a drawing for a new book, The Cherrywood Cannon, an anti-war story by Dimitri Sidjanski. In between work on the drawing Steadman describes how he approached illustrating Alice Through the Looking-Glass, and his drawings of the Patty Hearst trial, before repairing to the local pub where he sketches the regulars. Hunter S. Thompson only receives a passing mention, which may surprise some viewers; if it’s Thompson you’re after then you’ll want to see Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, the 1978 Omnibus profile of the writer which features Steadman again, plus many more of his drawings.

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The Arena film is relatively short but valuable for the insight it gives into Steadman’s technique: no preliminary drawing, for example, he starts with ink on a blank sheet of paper. I was amused to see him using a spray diffuser to fill in the background. This is a kind of lung-powered airbrush, an angled tube which you place in your bottle of ink then blow through to create spray effects. I used one myself for a while as a rougher (and cheaper) alternative to an airbrush, before graduating to using old toothbrushes which are easier to control when spattering ink. I’d always assumed that Steadman used an airbrush himself but seeing his loose approach to sketching it makes sense that he’d like the grainier, less predictable textures created by a diffuser.

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Michael Dibb’s film is at the producer’s Vimeo channel together with many other excellent documentaries, including John Berger’s landmark Ways of Seeing series.  Vimeo changed its policies recently, insisting that you sign in if you want to see something that hasn’t been rated by the user (ie: most of the things there). This can be avoided by using the mobile Vimeo app, an option which also gives you better search facilities.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ralph Steadman record covers
Beardsley and His Work