Saturday, 12 December 2015

This Ghostly little book


As Christmas appears head and shoulders above the horizon, that hardy perennial of the season, A Christmas Carol will no doubt also appear in some form or other.  And that's no bad thing, for there's some fine writing in it, and it can claim to have shaped our present conception of the holiday like no other book.  We have had a hundred and seventy two years to form our thinking about the characters in the novel, and that has been helped along by the vision of illustrators who worked on the book and its re-issues in Dickens's life and after his death.  Charles Dickens was apparently somewhat ambivalent about having his work illustrated, probably because he felt it detracted from the seriousness of the writing, but as his publishers insisted throughout his career that his work have pictures he then tried to take as much control over the process as he was able.

It was not that he disliked the illustrations, or the artists themselves, many of whom were close friends.   It's more that he felt the illustrations were another tool of his writing it was his right to take control of, just as he took control of every word in his novels.  Anyone who tried to keep him out of that decision process was a problem.  This is understandable to an extent, but he seems, like many other writers of the day, to have derived ideas about character from the pictures, often asking for sketches to be forwarded to him so as to gain a clearer idea of the characters during the ongoing work.  And so I think, the ambivalence; on the one hand the pictures were facile but on the other a source of inspiration.

Artists of 'A Christmas Carol'.  Top left - John Leech.  Top Right - Fred Barnard.  Bottom Left - Harry Furniss.  Bottom Right - Arthur Rackham.
His illustrators were often given rigid written or verbal instructions on how a picture should look, and many found themselves doing multiple versions of the same picture before the author was finally satisfied.  He was often fulsome in his praise for an artists work when he felt it was successful but sometimes the publishers must have used their veto on particular pictures and blocked Dickens's influence over them.   So even the illustrator most often associated with his work, H. K. Browne, could sometimes fall a little short of Dickens's standards.  In a letter to his friend John Forster, Dickens wrote of a plate by Browne:

I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs Pipchin and Paul (Dombey and Son).  It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark.  Good heavens!  In the commonest and most literal construction of the text it is all wrong.....I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented.  I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of this book.

The artist who first illustrated A Christmas Carol was John Leech (1817 - 1864) a Londoner of Irish decent, who completed four plates for the novel, and Dickens must have been happy with them as all subsequent depictions of the characters have usually drawn something from them.  I don't think Leech illustrated more of Dickens novels, but then, he was heavily involved in work for the publication Punch, and may have found little time.  I was looking at the quartet of images he produced for A Christmas Carol, and especially the one of Marley's ghost.  This is a pivotal scene in the story, it is filled with atmosphere and really sticks in the mind.   Anyone who wishes to illustrate it would have to get this right, and I feel Leech's effort is a bit stiff and cramped, and although it is the first to realise a scene that other artists drew from, it is maybe not the most effective.

The original.  John Leech's version of Scrooge meeting Marley's ghost.
Another notable artist who tackled the story was Fred Barnard (1846 - 1896) who started illustrating Dickens beginning in 1871, the year after the author's death.  In his version of the Marley's Ghost scene, although his depiction of Scrooge could be sharper I think his version is pretty good, the ghost being impressive and a little comic which I think Dickens actually intended.  He is also possibly the first to include the detail of the ghost existing in its own infernal atmosphere, which causes his hair and clothing to seem to move.  In Barnard's version we see the ghost looking as if he's standing in a gale, but there's a good detail of the candle on the table with a long still flaring flame obviously unaffected by even the slightest draft.

Fred Barnard's version.
Next up there's Harry Furniss (1854 - 1925), born of an English father and a Scottish mother in Ireland.  Like Leech before him, he did a great deal of work for Punch magazine, and didn't start his work on A Christmas Carol until 1910, quite late in his career.  His picture of Marley's ghost is not bad, but is very strongly influenced by Leech's drawing, and looks almost like a re-tread of the same ideas.  Marley is shown in the same position, and posture, Scrooge is slightly more lively but in the same place in the composition, so, a reasonable effort, and a small improvement on John Leech's version.

Harry Furniss's version
Then lastly there's the great Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) who did his version of the story in 1915.  And surprisingly, as a lifetime fan of Rackham, I'm not hugely impressed by his version of the Marley scene.  It still seems static, with little response from Scrooge, the ghost, which should have greatly appealed to Rackham's sense of the grotesque, just seems ordinary, standing in a semi-threatening stance over a seated Scrooge.  I can only imagine that it illustrates the line: -

'How now!' said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever.  'What do you want with me?'

Arthur Rackhams version.
This is the only way to explain the calm and considered expression on Scrooge's face.  But both Leech and later Furniss seem also to have chosen that exact moment for their drawings too.  It got me thinking.  Modern illustrators would almost always choose the moment where the ghost removes the bandage that holds his mouth closed, (presumably placed around his head by the undertaker) and lets his lower jaw fall down onto his chest, a moment exploited wonderfully by Richard Williams in his fantastic 1970's animated version of the story.  To us it has more dramatic impact, but I think it must have been deemed too vulgar for inclusion in illustrations of the past.

So in the end, who gets my vote for the best Marleys Ghost?  Step forward Mr Fred Barnard.

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