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

Weekend links 549

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The Shepherd’s Dream, from Paradise Lost (1793) by Henry Fuseli.

• “16 April. A card from Tom King with news of the tattoo of me that he had put on his arm: ‘The tattoo remains popular, though bizarrely one person thought it was of Henry Kissinger. It also makes for an amusing conversation during intercourse.’ This suggests the intercourse might be less than fervent, my name in itself something of a detumescent.” Alan Bennett‘s diary for the year is always a highlight of December.

• “I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.” The Paris Review removed its paywall on their Art of Fiction interview with JG Ballard.

• “A biologist and composer have turned the aurora borealis into sound to create a magic melding of art and nature.”

If we let it, dreaming gradually erodes wake centrism—that waking consciousness to which Westerners in particular are inordinately attached. You might think of wake centrism as a pre-Copernican-like worldview that presumes waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, while relegating sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. It is a matrix, a cultural simulation evolved to support adaptation, yet it inadvertently limits our awareness. Wake centrism is a subtle, consensual, sticky and addictive over-reliance on ordinary ways of perceiving that interfere with our direct personal experience of dreaming. To paraphrase the 16th-century British clergyman Robert Bolton, it is not merely an idea the mind possesses, but an idea that possesses the mind. Wake centrism is a flat-world consciousness. It warns us to stay away from the edges, to refrain from dialoguing with dreams and the unconscious.

Rubin Naiman on sleep and dreams

96th of October: an online fiction magazine dedicated to “tales of the extraordinary”.

• “Punk artist Barney Bubbles joins Manet among works given to UK public in 2020.”

• The results of the Nature Photographer of the Year contest for 2020.

• A list with a difference: Twenty Four Psychic Pop Relics by Woebot.

• Merve Emre on how Leonora Carrington feminized Surrealism.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 675 by Teebs.

I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) (1966) by The Electric Prunes | The Room Of Ancillary Dreams (2000) by Harold Budd | Blue Dream (2001) by Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz

Fanned to sleep

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“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” — Jorge Luis Borges

As with writers, so with other artists. Post-Surrealism, and especially post-Max Ernst, we view these kinds of pictures through different eyes. In 1874 this was merely a fanciful illustration in The Ladies’ Floral Cabinet, a magazine that peppers its cultivation and arrangement advice with sentimental images of childhood. “Fanned to sleep” says the subtitle, although it might be “Fanned to Eternal Rest” given that Death’s-head hawkmoth hovering over the child’s head. The Internet Archive has several thousand pages of this particular journal so I’ve yet to see anything similar, but the engraved illustrations are all high quality, and may be ones I find myself ransacking in the future. Via @MlleGhoul.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

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

The Spring Codex

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Lou Taylor Pucci in Spring.

It was good to finally see Spring (2014) at the weekend, the film that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made in between their connected time-twisters, Resolution (2012) and The Endless (2017). Halfway through Spring there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment of intertextuality when the poster above is shown among the pictures that cover the apartment walls of the mysterious Louise (Nadia Hilker). Most of the other pictures in the room are charts that depict the stages of animal evolution; Louise’s poster also depicts a process of evolution but one that occurs only within the pages of the Codex Seraphinianus (1981), the celebrated guidebook to an invented world by Luigi Serafini. If you’re familiar with Serafini’s drawing, which originally filled two pages of the Codex, then the reference is especially enjoyable. Spring‘s themes of sexual obsession and physical transformation are neatly paralleled here, as is the Italian setting of the film, Serafini being an Italian artist whose work is still more visible in Italy than elsewhere. Many other directors would give more attention to this but Benson & Moorhead leave the reference in the background.

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Spring is available on blu-ray in the UK from 101 Films. For more on the Codex Seraphinianus there’s this piece of mine written a few years ago for Fantastic Metropolis.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Codex Seraphinianus