Orthodox art appreciators make dogmatic distinctions between art and illustration. They omit from the established roster of prominent 19th century artists the names of those who put fine art between covers for ordinary people.
The Golden Age of Illustration did not survive the Great War. It flamed into life in the interregnum between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, flourishing between the first Treaty of Versailles (1871) and the second (1919). Named in retrospect la Belle Époque, those decades of creative stability overlapped with England’s Pax Britannica and our own Gilded Age. The illustrated books and magazine covers produced during those years are among the loveliest works ever made for a general public.
Newspaper illustration, too, was at its zenith:
Thanks to technological advances in printing, the justly named Golden Age was a period of unparalleled quality and beauty in graphic arts. Public demand for the pleasure of it was high. Boundaries between “fine art” and illustration were in flux, softening under the hand of such artists in Britain as Randolph Caldecott, eponym of the Caldecott Medal, and Walter Crane, patriarch of the era. Perfected means of reproduction stimulated magazine publishers like Scribner’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Weekly (“A Journal of Civilization”). It offered unprecedented opportunities to artists, and granted a mass public access to fine art in illustrated books and magazines.
For the first time, art was in Everyman’s hands, under his fingers and up close. William A. Coffin, a celebrated American painter and art critic in his day, put it well in 1892: “More has been done through the medium of illustrated literature… to make the masses of people realise [sic] that there is such a thing as art and that it is worth caring about.”
That brings me to Frank C. Papé (1878 – 1972) a British artist who outlived his own success. His career began in the first decade of the 20th century, slumped in the post-war twilight, and revived in the 1920s.
Spend a moment with this glorious image for a book of Russian fairy tales. The rider is a woman (“She put her good steed to the walls, then lept lightly over them.”) wearing ethnic dress but depicted in the heroic attitude of the Maid of Orléans on horseback. A centuries-old trope as popular in 19th century Paris as in antique manuscripts, Papé invested his riff on it with a rare dynamism.
It is the dynamism of a Resurrection scene: A central luminous figure surrounded by a nimbus of light dominates the composition. At its feet, a terrified palace guard strikes a defensive posture. We have met that crouched figure and all his cousins in sundry Renaissance and Baroque treatments of the Resurrection theme.
Among Papé’s illustrations for Russian Fairy Tales, is this:
We recognize that robber. He belongs to the grotesque tribe of demons who have tumbled into hell, taking sinners with them, throughout the history of Western art. A Russian knight errant looks on with the same detached calm as Signorelli’s armored angels overseeing a mass plunge into perdition.
The work of a fine illustrator is as expressive as any. It differs from gallery art in that the expression must serve a text, just as Giotto served the gospel stories. A genius for loyalty to someone else’s text—an entirely different art—is crucial to illustrators. Compare this passage from “Falcon the Hunter,” one of the Russian fairy tales, to Papé’s magnificent rendering of it, below:
Flames flashed from the mouth of the steed, lighting up the heavy clouds which hung over the dark-grey sea, sparks of blue fire showered from his nostrils, and from his erected ears smoke curled in tiny wreaths which quivered and then vanished in mid-air. The helmet on the head of the hero glowed like fire, and blue rays of light darted from ornaments on his doublet, from his pointed spurs and his stirrups of bright steel. At his left stirrup ran a swift greyhound, and a fire-eating dragon was chained to the right which sang and whistled with a strange music as the horse and its rider passed on towards the dark-grey sea.
From shoulder to shoulder hopped the clear-eyed bird from which Falcon the Hunter took his name, and as it passed it plucked at the long yellow locks of the rider, which streamed upon his shoulders like tongues of living flame.
• • • • •
Henry Pitz illustrated the cover of a later edition of John Bennett’s Master Skylark. (Scroll to previous post.) Growing up, Pitz was an avid fan of the work of the great Howard Pyle and went on to study under several of Pyle’s former students at the Pennsylvania Academy. The original edition of Master Skylark: A Story of Shakespeare’s Time was published in 1897 and illustrated by Reginald B. Birch with black-and-white drawings. (Women took to heart Birch’s 1886 illustrations for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, and dressed their sons to suit, setting a fashion craze in boys’ clothing.)
Young Nicholas Atwood, dubbed Master Skylark for his lovely voice, sets out to make his way to see the players act at Coventry—and onward, eventually, to sing for the queen. There are adventures and misadventures along the way, sustained by barley cakes and Banbury cheese. But upon my word, and on the remnant of mine honor, all’s well that end’s well.
Because of the book’s appeal for its depiction of life and speech in the Bard’s day (let alone the Victorian sensibilities of Birch’s day) the entire text can be found on the Project Gutenberg website. It includes Birch’s line drawings. These, below, give the flavor of them: