Illustrating Frankenstein

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Frontispiece by Theodore Von Holst of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. The monster in this illustration, which Mary Shelley would no doubt have seen, is closer to the description in the text than the myriad shambling figures that came later.

It’s a recurrent feature of commissioned work that you sometimes find yourself illustrating novels or stories you might otherwise have never attempted. Spanish publisher Editorial Alma have just added a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to their series of illustrated classics, convenient timing with this year being the bicentenary of the book’s first publication. Last year I produced 33 illustrations for Alma’s collection of Poe stories, as well as 3 new illustrations for a small Lovecraft collection. For their edition of Frankenstein I’ve created 24 full-page pictures, one for each chapter. (I produced 25 in total, 24 for the chapters and one for the letters at the front, but the Spanish translation is arranged slightly differently so one of the drawings has been omitted.) In the past I’ve given little consideration to illustrating classic books, preferring to look for subjects which were less familiar. Frankenstein is a book that isn’t illustrated as much as some but Lynd Ward in 1934, and Bernie Wrightson in 1977/78 both produced sufficiently exceptional sets of drawings for me to regard the novel as almost unassailable. Until last year, that is.

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Frankenstein by Lynd Ward (1934).

Despite such formidable predecessors, I felt that with this book at least I might be able to offer something new using the blend of collage and drawing that I’ve been evolving recently. There was additional promise in that the story as it’s written is less familiar than the Poe stories, and much less familiar than its fellow horror classic, Dracula. People think they know Frankenstein but what they often know is the manglings the novel has received in various film and TV adaptations. The Ward and Wrightson illustrations stay close to the text, the latter being replete with period detail, and rendered in a style reminiscent of 19th-century wood engravings. Wrightson even copied two of Gustave Dore’s pictures from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for the opening scenes on the ship, one of which went unused. But Wrightson’s drawings are closer still to Franklin Booth‘s pen-and-ink style which was also derived from wood engraving yet which achieves its effects in a different manner to the engraving process.

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Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson (1977/78).

Even when artists follow the text of Frankenstein more closely than the screenplay adapters, personal tastes can’t help manifest themselves. So Ward’s drawings reflect the angular and stylised compositions of his “novels in woodcuts”, while Wrightson’s work still shows evidence of his earlier career as a comic artist. With my illustrations I wanted to reflect the artistic spirit that gave birth to the novel, namely Romanticism. Frankenstein is very much a Romantic tragedy with violent passions set against the overwhelming landscapes of the Swiss Alps, the Rhine valley and the Arctic seas. Three of the illustrations below allude to Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, while many of the others have had their mundane cloudscapes exchanged for gloom and tumult.

I’ve said before that one of the things I enjoy about the collage technique is being able to use engravings and other graphics from the same period (give or take a few decades) as the story itself. The disadvantage of relying on pre-existing sources is that you’re always limited by the available material, so recently I’ve been pushing the technique further to achieve a hybrid style, something midway between the Ernst/Sätty engraving-collage technique and the very laborious, heavily-shaded pen-and-ink style I used when I was drawing comics. The approach isn’t so different to the one I used in my Lovecraft comics many of whose backgrounds and other details were copied from photographs. The difference is that where I used to spend several days working on a single panel (and two weeks working on a page) I can now create an entire picture in half the time. In these new illustrations I feel the hybrid style is working as I intended, allowing me greater freedom to create the picture I have in mind rather than a picture dictated by the source material. Without incorporating original figures and other drawn elements into the compositions it would have been difficult to illustrate a story with the same characters in so many scenes, a problem I encountered when I was illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and ran out of pictures of Victorian girls.

The full run of pictures follows below, including the one which was omitted from the print edition. All may be seen at a larger size here. Since the scenes aren’t always self-explanatory I’ve included fragments of text from each chapter.

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“In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice.”

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“During one of their walks a poor cot in the foldings of a vale attracted their notice as being singularly disconsolate, while the number of half-clothed children gathered about it spoke of penury in its worst shape.”

This one was omitted from the Alma edition. No loss, really, since the scene doesn’t add much to the story.

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“When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself.”

The diagrams here are taken from some of the books the young Victor Frankenstein is reading. There’s an allusion to this in the magic square on the wall in the back of Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece, the square being the kind of thing seen in books like this one by Cornelius Agrippa, one of the occult philosophers mentioned in the novel.

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Lunar light

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Evening Scene with Full Moon and Persons (1801) by Abraham Pether.

More moons. The thing you immediately notice when looking at paintings of the moon is how many of them show moonlight reflected on water, while the moon itself tends to change its size. There are many more examples here.

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Moonrise Over the Sea (c. 1821) by Caspar David Friedrich.

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View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839) by Johan Christian Dahl.

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Lunar observations

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Seashore by Moonlight (between 1660 and 1664) by Egbert van der Poel.

The moon in art. A wide-ranging theme so there’ll be more tomorrow.

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1820) by Caspar David Friedrich.

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Cornfield in Moonlight (c. 1830) by Samuel Palmer.

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The art of Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1842–1910

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Red Sunset on the Dnieper (c. 1905–1908).

Another Russian painter I’d not come across before, Arkhip Kuindzhi had a fondness for sunsets, moonlight and isolated plumes of cumulus, all of which he painted and repainted obsessively. The obvious model for these atmospheric studies is Caspar David Friedrich although Kuindzhi’s work isn’t as hyper-real, and lacks Friedrich’s Romantic mysticism. One detail that stood out for me in reading about Kuindzhi’s career was that Nicholas Roerich was one of his art pupils. Anyone familiar with Roerich’s paintings of Himalayan mountains will recognise a precursor in his teacher’s many studies of Mount Elbrus and other Caucasus peaks.

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Clouds (1905).

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The Elbrus, Moonlit Night (1890–1895).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vasily Vereshchagin’s temples
Friedrich and Schinkel
Winter light

Atmospherics

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Listening to Joy Division over the weekend prompted another of those idle speculations that are immediately answered these days (so to speak…) by a few seconds of web searching. While Atmosphere was playing I’d remembered a conversation with a friend about the identity of the painting of a cowled figure that appears on the original Atmosphere/Dead Souls single for the Sordide Sentimental label. Neither of us had a copy of the Holy Grail of JD collectors, nor did we know anybody who owned one, so the discussion wasn’t very fruitful.

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Licht Und Blindheit (1980) by Joy Division.

Sordide Sentimental were (and still are) a French company run by Jean-Pierre Turmel and Yves von Bontee whose speciality was limited releases of exclusive material often by bands with a cult following. The typical Sordide Sentimental release would be a 7-inch single in a numbered edition, packaged in an A4-sized sleeve with inserts and an idiosyncratic essay by Monsieur Turmel. Licht Und Blindheit, as the Atmosphere single was called, sold out immediately, and since 1980 has been one of the most collectible (and costly) releases of the era: the cheapest of two copies currently for sale at Discogs is over £1,500. (Many bootleg copies also exist: beware.)

As to the Licht Und Blindheit packaging, the cover collage was by Jean-Pierre Turmel while the enigmatic painting on the back turns out to be an untitled work by Jean-François Jamoul (1925–2002), not Caspar David Friedrich as my friend suspected, although it is very Friedrich-like. Jamoul was evidently a friend of Turmel who used more of his paintings on other Sordide Sentimental releases. During the 1970s Jamoul had been a regular contributor to French SF magazines, both as cover artist and essayist. In 2006 Sordide Sentimental released Temps Incertains, a DVD/book devoted to Jamoul’s art and writings.

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Rite de Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin.

It’s interesting looking at some of Jamoul’s other art in light of all this: one painting on the cover of Galaxie magazine looks distinctly Lovecraftian while another piece was used by a publication named Nyarlathotep. Back in 2008 journalist Jon Savage was corresponding with my colleagues at Savoy Books prior to writing a piece for the Guardian about Ian Curtis’s reading material. (The Savoy bookshops in Manchester during the 1970s and 80s were notable for their comprehensive stock of Burroughs, Ballard and other essential material.) One of the questions was whether Curtis had read (or bought) any HP Lovecraft, something that neither Dave nor Mike could answer. These French magazines at least show one very tenuous connection (which Curtis wouldn’t have known about, of course) via Jamoul’s paintings. Savage’s Guardian piece has since been expanded into an introduction for the recent Faber book of Ian Curtis lyrics; HP Lovecraft receives a passing mention there during discussion of Licht Und Blindheit‘s B-side, Dead Souls.

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