The Art of Illustration – Millais And The Illustration Of Verse

IF the drawing is as fine as can be in its appeal to the aesthetic faculties, it stands to reason that the pleasure taken in it will be still greater if it intrigues other faculties of the mind in addition, but its primary appeal must always be to the aesthetic sense. This, however, being satisfied, the more fully charged the drawing with interest the better. Much that is written in the criticisms of poetry is equally applicable to the study of art in line. Certain verse forms lend themselves to a condensation of thought and a closeness of packing that might be compared to a telegraphic style of writing, where every superfluous word is omitted and each one that is put in is weighed as though it had a money value ; yet there are others where the gallop of the rhythm ight be checked if the line were overcharged with meaning. The condensation of thought in a Shakesperean sonnet would ill accord with Swinburne’s anapaestic style. Equally the close packing of Durer’s angular and charactered method would ill accord with the melodic rhythm of Beardsley. One is a weight carrier, the other for speed, and the choice of a style should be made in accordance with the object in view.

While an illustrator may be moved by a fine line of verse, not only an image, he has no means of matching it by the content of his drawing, but only by some intensity of vision and quality of expression in line that if it could be defined instead of only described would make pictorial art a superfluity :

” Here, oh, here will I set up my everlasting rest,

And shake the yoke of unauspicious stars

From this world wearied flesh—eyes, look your last,

Arms take your last embrace—”

Here he fails—he has cold and pathetic beauty, and living beauty in dramatic and passionate relation, but all the rest—” Out of me—out of me I ” is all that he can say. It is not that the artist is less moved by these most moving of all words, but that—being so moved he realizes that the movement and the pathos belong to words read or spoken and not to lines, masses or surfaces drawn or painted. It is necessary to make a sharp contrast between the functions of literature and pictorial art. What picture can match :

” O Absolom, my son, my son ! ”

It requires for its literary effect the progress of a lengthy precedent narrative, and the dry habit of statement into which, when the ear is accustomed to the bald statement of facts, there falls this sudden ejaculation of inarticulate grief—too full for words to bear —and we get nothing but a sob. Music, perhaps, but not the art of the illustrator may match it. Dramatic gesture is untrue—a broken heart is not expressed by gesticulating hands, extended fingers and protruding . eyes. The illustrator will be well advised to seek his subjects elsewhere, unless he is anxious to show up the limitation of his craft.

The mind may be struck, in reading poetry, by a vivid image or a cadence in certain words so forcibly as to be moved to attempt a material illustration of the words or image in the hope that thereby the magic of the poem may be communicated to the drawing. Take the first verse of Omar Khayyam :

” Awake ! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight :

And Lo ! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.”

It would be difficult to imagine a verse more tempting, as it supplies two obvious images to choose from, the flinging of the stone and the hunter’s noose ; and yet, while vivid and lucid in their effect upon the mind in the reading, the symbols would be most likely to appear in a drawing either confusing or prosaic, and so miss the point and fail of all the magic.

To take another instance :

” The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon Turns Ashes—or it prospers ; and anon Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.”

What could be clearer or more concrete ? There is a symbol ready made for Hope—Suppose then we start off with an Anchor. What next ? The Anchor has to turn into Ashes or to prosper : and anon ?—no, an Anchor cannot fall like snow : the anchor must be given up.

Hope—Worldly Hope—Faith, Hope, Charity : how do we represent these ? As fairy ladies in Greek gowns ?

It is difficult to get modern process engravers to match these slaves of the burin in a Menzel.

upon the Dusty Face “—suggests a frosted picture like a Christmas card—a picture that leaves out the movement, the change, that it is the object of the verse to bring home, and does nothing but tack a fringe upon the subject. ” Men set their Hearts upon—”. What ?

Something that shall hold in it the seeds of prosperity and of ruin—Chance ; Change ; The Wheel of Fortune—the turn of a card—the fall of the dice. And so we sift out and choose some symbol, probably not actually mentioned, through which the whole and not the partial meaning of the verse may be graphically brought out.

It is generally in the illustration of poetical work that such difficulties are to be encountered ; where the facts used stand not only as facts, but where everything is made to bear some burden of meaning outside itself. This should never be used as an excuse for slovenliness of technique or composition, on the plea that it is the idea to be conveyed and not the manner of its conveyance that is the important matter. The finer the idea the more dignified should be the rendering of it ; and the setting out of abstractions in concrete form often calls for a more intense realism and pressure of interest in the facts presented, than is necessary for the illustration of the ordinary ” matter of fact ” prose. It may almost be laid down as a rule that the illustration of poetry will call for a greater degree of particularization than will prose. A general statement may be made in prose ; but in poetry all must be as vivid and sharp as though seen by lightning—without hesitaftion and alternatives—not vaguely suggestive, except perhaps in cumulative effect, and this holds equally of the illustration of it. There must be no timidity in the grasp of the facts of the imagination, but dragons, Titans, fairies, gods and devils, must be drawn with even more precision and conviction than the portrait of ” the man in the street “—in failure is inevitable. The more far-fetched the image the more precise it should be in the presentation.

Witness the Apocalypse, where, while the Revelation is debatable, every image is as clear as daylight, no matter how vague its significance , and let us see how Albrecht Durer dealt with it. Here is no fumbling, slipping and feeling about blindfold or in a mist, but a tread sure as upon a rock. The line is laid down with a firmness that to some is almost repellent. The statement is as bald and dry as a statement of account.

The lack of clarity which is thought by some to be a mark of the imagination is the mark not of imagination but of wool-gathering—to envelop a symbol in a fog is like stirring up a shallow puddle in order to conceal its shallowness. A cartoon in tone is an abomination.

The treatment of an idea is as important as the idea itself. There may be two opinions upon any subject, and either opinion may be nobly or meanly held : a man may be accidentally and meanly right, where another is quite nobly wrong—the manner of statement of what is held as Truth is the measure by which the artist is judged. The vision may be partial and the technique may be faulty, but conviction, even a narrow one, may atone. Quiet statement may be even more of a passport to acceptance than vehemence. So that it is well that Michael Angelo was restrained by the intractability of marble, and that Blake had his apprenticeship as an engraver of works of despicable inferiority to his own, otherwise these overflowing and impatient minds, unschooled by the stern discipline of craftsmanship, might have been poured out in too chaotic a splutter for comprehension instead of in a clear stream. A great deal of Blake’s work was poured out in this way with the result that to this day many people believe that he was a madman. Without these objective difficulties to give pause to the rapid utterance the result might have been not only a partial but an entire torrential jumble in which fact and fancy, idea and symbol tangled together in inextricable confusion. Ideation was in excess, but in order to get itself expressed, happily for us, this appears to have lent an executive fury to both artists. Albrecht Durer was more happily constituted, being weighed down with a leadweight of Teutonic ballast, like a yacht which could not carry so much sail without a heavy counterpoise. His ideas are never in excess of his craftsmanship, but are part of it, while Blake, who was persistent, but not patient, ran and stumbled where Durer walked warily and secure.

Interest in series of drawings

Everyone must have thought at times what a pity it is that two personalities could not be rolled into one—in fact, that qualities had not their defects. But such minds as Blake, not primarily craftsmen, but poets expressing themselves in form, must be judged not by a single masterpiece, as many artists can be, but by their work as a whole, which is a cumulative expression of their thought, with a beat and rhythm throbbing through the whole of it as through a poem or melody. This is best seen in the case of a series of drawings like the illustrations to Job, where there is a quite legitimate reference of one design to another ; there is progression as in a work of literature, where the end is the corollary of the beginning. The first drawing shows Job sitting with his wife, his sons and daughters, kneeling under a tree in whose branches hang all sorts of musical instruments. The sun rises on the left, and the moon is in the last quarter upon the right. In the last picture the sun and moon are reversed ; and Job and all his family are again gathered together beneath the tree, but they are standing—the instruments are taken down and all are being played in an orchestra of happy praise. The effect of repetition with variation, playing as it does on the memory by its allusion to the opening, adds an extrinsic charm to the drawing, which is then to be judged as following on something already seen, not as a unit but like a chapter in a book. A purist may say that such cumulative effect is improper to pictorial art, and yet all art that contains rhythm contains reference backwards or forwards, even though its development be interrupted from time to time ; in this case as though the rhythm were extended beyond the frame of one picture into the next, making one scheme. In book illustration the interest of one drawing .is frequently greatly enhanced by its reference to another of the series, though the actual quality of the craftsmanship is unaltered thereby and each drawing must stand upon its own merits as a drawing, Indifference to this extrinsic interest in the artist is a frequent source of irritation to the spectator, who naturally expects to see the same character consistently displayed throughout a story, so that if Don Quixote at the end of the book has a shorter nose than he has in the front-is piece, although each drawing may be of equal merit and interest, the reader imputes blame to the illustrator for disturbing that unity of impression it is his business to make. This may happen easily enough, but the illustrator should make it his business to establish his types firmly to begin with, so that he may stick consistently to them throughout the series and make the drawings proceed step by step with the text. It is good to have well marked differences of character, as of height, stout or lean, style of dress, dark or fair, young and old, clean shaven and bearded, where such are appropriate, as the drawing will have more variety of interest, and ” read ” more readily, and give effect to those more subtle differentiations of character which otherwise might not have their full value.

Although any work that contains a concrete idea or fact is capable of illustration, there are pitfalls for the unwary who should undertake certain tasks without due forethought. Particularly is this the case with the illustration of poetry, where not only the facts are to be represented, but, if possible, the poet’s exaltation. Take Tennyson’s ” Maud,” where the characteristic magic of the poem would be in danger of evaporation as soon as the dramatis persona were bodied forth to the eye in the costume of the period ; and the drawings might more easily than not convey nothing more than the illustrations of a melodramatic novel, since ” Maud ” is nothing more nor less than a novel, where the narrative is indicated in a series of lyrical outbursts. The novel might be emphasized and the lyricism expelled, the husk alone remaining. ” In Memoriam ” presents even greater difficulties. Passion would have to be implicit in the technique of the illustrator—Millais as a young Pre-Raphaelite might have achieved the task, though it is easy to see how he was worried by some of the verses he undertook in the Moxon Tennyson, where he found it difficult to reconcile modernity of character and costume with his conception of dignity of presentation. Where there is discrepancy between the style and the thing to be expressed, a few of the drawings fall little, if at all, short of the comic. Romantic exaltation is easy for a knight in armour, but to express it clad in a frot, coat and trousers is another matter. Millais, though young, was by no means immature when judged by his extra-ordinary achievement in other cases in this volume, where he found subjects more congenial to his stricter style of treatment ; and he succeeded exquisitely when he abandoned this stringency for a more tender and less ambitious manner in his drawing to ” Edward Grey ” ; a simple tale where such treatment was warranted by the verse. This drawing does not nullify but bears out what has been said in relation to ” Maud” and ” In Memoriam,” for the drawing might well stand among Millais’ later and better known illustrations to the novels of Anthony Trollope, many or most of which, in spite of their popularity, this drawing surpasses in artistic and delicately dramatic quality, even after a certain thinness of effect is allowed for.

Later, in full maturity, when he came to the illustration of the Parables, we find how triumphantly his passion carried him to the creation of a number of masterpieces ; but how, this failing him, and in spite of obvious effort and laboriousness, his heart being no longer in it, the interpretation becomes perfunctory. It may be that only youth can maintain the stress of such intensity except at ever increasing intervals ; and that, with its passage, less exacting forms of expression are instinctively felt out for. As he grew older his work declined in artistic intensity, though as it lost its poetry and became more prosaic it increased in popularity. Perhaps on account of the greater familiarity of the subjects taken and the effort needed to carry them this ” well enough ” for their ephemeral purpose being ess exacting, he succeeded well, where he failed in his more ambitious work of the same period. But these successes were on a lower plane of aim and achievement ; the composition is never so close knit ; physical energy of production takes the place of mental, even though this had been hesitant, and so these products are less interesting to the student than early comparative failures.

In looking at the early drawings by all the Pre-Raphaelites in the Moxon Tennyson, it is difficult, for a modern student, accustomed to process reproduction, to realize in face of their minuteness that he is looking at a print from the actual surface drawn upon by the hand of the artist, and that consequently no reduction has taken place.

The ” Edward Grey ” drawing measures no more than 3 1/4 wide by 3 high, yet in the ” Collected Illustrations ” of Millais it is not overpowered by the blank margin of a page of a by 12 3/8. More wonderful is it that so elaborate a composition as ” The Revival ” and ” The Sleeping Palace ” should measure but 3 3/4 wide and 31 high, with all their amount of precise and detailed drawing. No painted composition by Millais had more care put into it than these tiny drawings, which yet maintain an unentangled simplicity of effect—” reading ” without difficulty or magnifying glass to the most elderly eye. Rossetti is sometimes involved and ” precious ” in comparison, but in his case the block is handled as though it were the gold on which the early engravers learned their trade rather than a few square inches of wood.