Saturday, 19 September 2015

Rackham and Dulac

The years between 1890 and 1920 could be said to be the golden age of British illustration.  The number of periodicals throughout the 1890s and into the Edwardian era was large and always needed a good supply of fresh talent to do the pen and ink line illustrations, which accompanied their stories and articles.  Two such artists were Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

Arthur Rackham was born in Lewisham in 1867 and worked for a time as a clerk in the Westminster Fire Office.  He took night classes at Lambeth School of Art and began to get work illustrating for magazines such as The Windsor Magazine, usually supplying an end design for an article or story, often a silhouette or small roundel.  His first book illustration was for 'To the Other Side' by Thomas Rhodes, which appeared in 1893, and he then followed this with illustrations for 'The Dolly Dialogues' by Anthony Hope, in 1894.

Arthur Rackham
But his first big success came in 1905 when he was commissioned to illustrate Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle'.  He produced no less than fifty-one colour plates for this, which must have been a struggle, but it put him at the forefront of the luxury-book gift market.  He followed it equally successfully with 'Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,' By J. M. Barrie.  He produced beautiful colour work for some wonderful books, some of his best being for Wagner's Ring cycle, that really capture the dark northern world of gods and dwarves, dragons and heroes.  
'Loge, Loge, appear!'  Arthur Rackham.  One of the best Rackham images from his work on Wagner's 'Ring 'cycle, depicting the God Odin calling on the God Loki.  At the time that Wagner and Rackham were working, it was thought that Loki was a fire God (which he wasn't) and that's why he's shown in flames.

 He really did  for the 'Ring of the Nibelung,' what Alan Lee later did for the 'Lord of the Rings.'  When Rackham died in 1939 he had produced a wide range of superbly illustrated storybooks, always indulging his love of twisting pen lines and the grotesque; his world is one of dark gnarled forests, wild mountains and is rugged and bracing.  It is overlaid with a certain sweetness but is never far from the threatening and mysterious.  

Edmund Dulac
  But for most of his career Rackham had a rival, in the form of Edmund Dulac, another brilliant exponent of  luxury book illustrations who was born in Toulouse, France in 1882.  At first he set out to become a lawyer, but soon left his studies and went to study art instead at the École des Beaux Arts, and then briefly at the Académie Julián.  He did work illustrating magazines in Paris, but came to London in 1905, and was soon given a commission to illustrate 'Jane Eyre,' which was followed by nine other Brontë novels.  In Britain, like Rackham, he regularly contributed to popular periodicals and magazines, and went on to illustrate 'The Arabian Nights,' and then Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'  Dulac became naturalised in 1912.

Dulac's work is softer and sweeter than Rackhams; the Englishman tended to use pen and ink lines to define his images, colouring them with watercolour, so his work has a harsher look - it's spiky, with lines of varying thickness to delineate masses and forms.  Dulac was essentially a painter, and rarely picked up a pen, his work is almost completely watercolour and Gouache.  Both artists understood the new printing techniques that were being used in the early twentieth century, and knew exactly how their work would look, varying it slightly to accommodate types of paper.

Scene from the Tempest, by William Shakespear.  Edmund Dulac.  I love the use of space in this design, that great cloud of mist billowing down, so that the figures stand out really well, and look at the movement of both the creature and the men!
 And of course these two artists weren't really rivals, as the kind of work they did suited particular types of subject.  Rackham was great for northern fairly tales, and tales of knightly quests and Nordic gods, while Dulac fitted 'The Arabian Nights' and Chinese and Persian subjects beautifully, although there was some overlap in the subjects they tackled.

Dulac lived further into the twentieth century than Rackham, being a little younger but does seem to have experimented more with the look of his work than Rackham who's work, however good was fairly static in it's approach.  There is a noticable change in Dulac's work, as he moved through the thirties, where something of Art Deco painting starts to show up in the way he paints the human figure, and the decorative way he did landscapes.  His last work was for the 1951 Great Exhibition and stamp designs commemorating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second.  He died in 1953.

Together they represent the short time when these kind of lavish colour works would have been a fixture of children's Christmas gifts, filled with pictures that were realistic, exacting, and intelligent.  What a shame they will probably never appear again.  



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