David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Curious Relations

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“It is the function of creative people to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expressions that seem utterly different, and to be able to Connect the seemingly Unconnected.” — William Plomer

Regular readers will know that I relish an art mystery, and also enjoy finding pastiches of Aubrey Beardsley’s endlessly influential drawings. The cover of this book by William Plomer and Anthony Butts, a gift from the generous Mr TjZ, manages to combine both fixations in one. Curious Relations was first published in 1947 with the authors concealed behind the pseudonym “William D’Arfey”. The Sphere edition dates from 1968, a year when Beardsley mania was still prevalent in Britain following the landmark retrospective of the artist’s works at the V&A in 1966. The mystery on this occasion is the identity of the cover artist who isn’t credited, although the solution (for once) hasn’t been particularly elusive. After looking through the Sphere covers at ISFDB I guessed that Bill Botten might be responsible since publishers have a tendency to redeploy artists and designers, and Botten’s covers for science fiction novels displayed a bold graphic style. The guess proved correct, thanks to Mr Botten having a website that details his long career as designer, illustrator and art director for Sphere, Jonathan Cape and others. Some of his other covers have a Beardsley-like quality although there don’t seem to be any more direct pastiches.

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Bill Botten cover for My Mother (1972) by Georges Bataille.

As for Curious Relations, this is Plomer and Butts’ account of the upstairs and downstairs world of the d’Arfeys and the Mountfaucons, two invented branches of the Edwardian aristocracy based on Butts’ own family, a confection that looks bizarre and absurd enough for me to enjoy. Where the English upper classes are concerned I prefer to see them skewered by the acid wit of Saki; I only want to hear about Downton Abbey if it’s invaded by Sredni Vashtar and his ravening polecat horde. Biographical notes describe Plomer as homosexual so that’s another plus if this is reflected in the book. The double entendre of the title suggests as much. We’ll see.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Aubrey fakery
Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Harry Clarke online

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The Devil’s Wife and her Eldest. A frontispiece for The Golden Hind, July, 1924, a magazine edited by Clifford Bax and Austin Osman Spare. I’ve seen this drawing referred to in print as “Goddem with Attendants” although this isn’t how it was titled in the magazine.

It’s taken some time but with a little careful searching it’s now possible to see (almost) all of Harry Clarke’s major works of illustration online. The Poe illustrations have been available in a variety of different scans for many years, their popularity being followed by some of the Faust drawings. But Clarke’s other books are more elusive, so what you have here is links to the most complete collections of illustrations from each title, several of which also include the accompanying text.

This isn’t all of Clarke’s illustration work, of course. He produced many single pieces for magazines, as well as two rare promotional publications for the Irish whiskey distiller, Jameson. If he hadn’t been so tied up with the stained-glass business he inherited there would have been much more. The biographical books mention titles he suggested to publishers as potential projects, a list which includes Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Huysmans’ À rebours, and—most tantalising of all—Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, 1916.

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A post at Flickr. Despite Clarke’s achievements as a stained-glass artist his colour illustrations aren’t always as successful as those in black-and-white. That’s certainly the case here.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, 1919.

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The 1923 edition is at the Internet Archive, a reprint which added several new colour pieces, none of which fare well in this scan. The book is also missing the frontispiece.

The Year’s at the Spring, edited by Lettice D’Oyly Walters, 1920.

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Another complete edition at the Internet Archive.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 1922.

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An almost-complete edition. This one again suffers from a missing frontispiece.

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1925.

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Not great reproductions since this edition is adapted from an e-book, but it does feature all of the black-and-white Faust illustrations in order, and with their accompanying quotes. No colour plates, however.

Selected Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1928.

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Clarke’s most Decadent and erotic work, this one has yet to turn up in complete form but the defunct art blog, Golden Age Comic Book Stories, posted all of the art here.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Harry Clarke record covers
Thomas Bodkin on Harry Clarke
Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art
Harry Clarke and others in The Studio
Harry Clarke’s Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Harry Clarke in colour
The Tinderbox
Harry Clarke and the Elixir of Life
Cardwell Higgins versus Harry Clarke
Modern book illustrators, 1914
Illustrating Poe #3: Harry Clarke
Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke
Harry Clarke’s stained glass
Harry Clarke’s The Year’s at the Spring
The art of Harry Clarke, 1889–1931

Weekend links 546

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The next release on the Ghost Box label, Cosmorama is “tropicalia tinged psychedelic dream pop” by Beautify Junkyards. The album will be available in January. Design, as always, is by Julian House.

• Reading a review of John Gray’s Straw Dogs several years ago I remember thinking facetiously that Gray should write a follow-up about cats. (Straw Dogs isn’t a book about dogs.) The joke is on me with the publication of Gray’s latest, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. I should set up as a literary agent.

• All you need is doom: Plague Notes, Unnamed, Unknown, A Finger Dragged Through Dust, the debut album from My Heart, an Inverted Flame, is released on the 11th of this month. “Absolutely NO guitars were used in the casting of these drone metal voidscapes.” Excellent work.

• What a difference a week makes: “A Utah monolith enchanted millions and then it was gone, leaving mysteries behind.”

• En Pleine Mer: The underwater landscapes of Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, 1867.

• Imaginative drawings of travel during a pandemic lockdown by Oscar Oiwa.

• The beauty of starling murmurations as photographed by Søren Solkær.

• Cosmic Dancer: Alice Finney on the strange world of Michael Clark.

• Mix of the week: Invaders by The Ephemeral Man.

Cosmos (1972) by Bruno Menny | Gliding Thru The Cosmophonic Dome (1981) by Bernard Xolotl | Radio Cosmos (1981) by Ippu-Do

Harry Clarke record covers

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Hector Berlioz: Highlights From La Damnation De Faust (1960); Paris Opera Orchestra And Chorus, André Cluytens.  Artwork: “I wish you had something else to do than torment me when I’m quiet” from Faust (1925).

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Harry Clarke would have been added to this list some time ago but it’s taken a while for Discogs to fill in the gaps ignored by its dominant core of techno-techno-techno obsessives. Clarke’s work is also much more visible today, as a result of which many of the releases here are very recent. The viral nature of internet popularity is a great thing for artists whose work can be shared and appreciated instantly. The drawback is demonstrated by the following albums, many of which recycle the same few drawings from Clarke’s Poe and Faust volumes. I’m sure the musicians who relish Clarke’s work for its grotesque or decadent qualities would find something equally appealing in his Swinburne illustrations if they sought them out. As before, this is probably an incomplete list so if anyone knows of other suitable candidates then please leave a comment.

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Tales of Terror (1971) read by Nelson Olmsted. Artwork: The Man of the Crowd from Tales of Mystery and Imagination (second edition, 1923).

A double album of readings from horror stories. I used to own this one, mainly for the cover since I don’t recall playing it very much. The gatefold interior features Clarke’s painting for The Fall of the House of Usher together with a note from beyond the grave by HP Lovecraft.

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Hector Berlioz / Claude Debussy: La Damnation De Faust / La Damoiselle Elue (1988); Suzanne Danco, David Poleri, Martial Singher, Donald Gramm, Victoria De Los Angeles, Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Artwork: “Forward! Forward!—Faster! Faster!” from Faust (1925).

The classical labels are at least justified in their use of the Faust illustrations. This cropped painting is one of two pieces depicting Faust and Mephistopheles on horseback that suggest Clarke’s parallel career as a stained-glass artist.

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New Dark Age (1998) by Solstice. Artwork: collage of drawings from Faust (1925).

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Mythical & Magical (2008) by Pagan Altar. Artwork: collage of drawings from Faust (1925).

Continue reading “Harry Clarke record covers”