William Heath Robinson’s Old-Time Stories

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William Heath Robinson’s illustrated edition of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, published in 1921, is a more substantial collection than the Dulac edition with eleven stories in all. The translator was AE Johnson who notes that three of the tales—Beauty and the Beast, The Friendly Frog, and Princess Rosette—aren’t from Perrault at all, but Beauty and the Beast by this time was part of the general canon.

Robinson’s illustrations in this particular volume are badly damaged in places but they maintain his high standard in their characterisation and use of space. A couple of the pieces are rather alarming in a book for small children: the giant crushing a village while pursuing the fleeing captives in Little Tom Thumb, and Blue Beard (again) threatening his wife with a cutlass. The imperious Puss-in-Boots is particularly good. Browse the rest of the book here or download it here.

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William Heath Robinson’s Rabelais

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Ending the year with some Heath Robinson illustrations I’d not seen before, probably because their grotesque qualities set them apart from the rest of his whimsical drawings and fairy tale illustrations. Illustrated editions of Rabelais are rare owing to the coarse and scatological nature of the novels. Gustave Doré‘s robust and bloodthirsty character made him a good match for the material but it’s a surprise to find a generally light-hearted illustrator like Heath Robinson tackling the same stories.

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Robinson’s illustrations were for a two-volume set published in 1904 (see here and here), and are suitably dark with plenty of solid blacks and heavy cross-hatching. Some of the drawings are so different to the artist’s usual work they could be taken at first glance for pieces by Sidney Sime or Mervyn Peake. More typical are the numerous vignettes that appear at the ends of chapters. The examples here are from Google scans at the Internet Archive but some of the original drawings may be seen in better quality (and purchased if you have the money) at the Chris Beetles gallery.

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The Talking Thrush and Other Tales of India

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British illustrator William Heath Robinson died in 1944 which means that 2015 will see his own books fall into the public domain in many countries. The books he produced during and after the First World War established his reputation as a creator of impromptu contraptions, to such a degree that the term “Heath Robinson” has the same currency in Britain as “Rube Goldberg” does in the US when describing an improbable mechanical device. Robinson’s whimsical drawings have always been his most popular works but I favour his earlier illustrations, especially his illustrated Poe and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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The Talking Thrush and Other Tales of India by William Crooke and William Henry Denham was first published in 1899; the version linked here is a reprint from 1922. The fin de siècle is evident in the Art Nouveau styling of some of the borders, the kind of detailing that Heath’s brother, Charles Robinson, often deployed. Heath’s later illustrations dropped the decoration to concentrate on human figures, caricature and the positive use of white space.

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La Vie Électrique by Albert Robida

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Albert Robida (1848–1926), a French illustrator and writer, might be less well-known today had he not authored several books which attempt to predict what life might be like in the 20th century. He was sufficiently well-regarded in his lifetime to be given the task of imagining “Old Paris” for one of the attractions at that cult event of mine, the Exposition Universelle of 1900. These days his work mostly appears in histories of science fiction as a result of books such as Le Vingtième Siècle: La Vie Électrique, a comic novel published in 1890 that looks at French life in the distant year of 1955. The attitude may be humorous, with a drawing style that resembles the contraptions of William Heath Robinson rendered by Gustave Doré, but some of Robida’s predictions are as prescient as those of HG Wells. The inhabitants of France in the 1950s may still dress like those in the 1890s but they communicate via “Téléphonoscope” while the military wage biological and chemical warfare. The usual fleets of fanciful airships fill the skies; the idea that everyone in the future would be the owner of a flying-machine goes back a long way. Robida also shows submarines, transit tubes connecting cities, and pollution caused by the new technologies.

La Vie Électrique is copiously illustrated so the selection here is a necessarily small sample. Anyone wishing to see the whole book can browse it or download it at the Internet Archive.

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Max Reinhardt’s Dream

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In which the great German theatre director goes to Hollywood to show America how to stage Shakespeare. Nearly everyone who was anyone in pre-war German cinema passed through Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin so it seemed natural that he’d gravitate eventually to film himself. The 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was directed by William Dieterle but it’s very much a Reinhardt production, especially in the fantastic opening of Act II where the fairies dance into the moonlit sky on paths of mist accompanied by Mendelssohn’s music. With its blend of music, dance and lavish production design Dieterle’s film gives us some idea of the harmonising artistry at work in Reinhardt’s stage productions.

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There are other reasons to recommend this version over later adaptations, not least James Cagney’s performance as Bottom. A fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney played Puck although he’s frequently more annoying than mischevious. Then there’s the mystery of whether that’s the young Kenneth Anger uncredited in the role of The Changeling Prince. Anger has always claimed it was him (he was a child actor for a while), Anger biographer Bill Landis agrees but plenty of other people have disputed the claim in recent years. The best viewing I had of the sequence in which the Changeling appears was on a big screen in a season of Kenneth Anger’s films in 1990. Whether Anger played the part or not, the charm of Dieterle’s film subtly invests The Magick Lantern Cycle, from the glittering surfaces in Eaux D’Artifice and the artificial forest in Rabbit’s Moon, to the appearance of Mickey Rooney’s Puck on a TV screen in Scorpio Rising. Anger’s later works were productions of Puck Films, their motto “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Ideally the magical opening of Act II would be on YouTube but it seems not. This scene, however, gives an idea of the atmosphere, while Doctor Macro has stills and more information.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Midsummer Chronophage
Another Midsummer Night
A Midsummer Night’s Dadd
William Heath Robinson’s Midsummer Night’s Dream