Infectious enthusiasm

Walter Crane sword-in-stoneBarbara Tepa Lupack, Alan Lupack
Illustrating Camelot
D S Brewer (Arthurian Studies) 2008

As befits a study on Arthurian book illustrations, Illustrating Camelot has a generous helping of examples of the genre – forty in monochrome and thirty-two in colour. If a picture is worth a thousand words then we have a text automatically augmented by 72,000 words!

And what a text it is. Using thirteen named illustrators as her framework, Barbara Tepa Lupack takes us through two centuries and more of imaging the court of Arthur, commenting on the politics, mores and personalities of the times and their inter-relationship with the depiction of the Arthurian ideal.

The casual reader may well be familiar with a number of the main illustrators who provide the chapter headings – Gustav Doré, Aubrey Beadsley, Walter Crane (pictured), Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle – but may raise a quizzical eyebrow at others such as Dan Beard, Sir William Russell Flint and Hudson Talbott. For the record, Dan Beard is well known to North American readers for his illustrations to Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Flint’s “theatrical” watercolours for Malory influenced many a lesser artist, and Talbott reveals an indebtedness to the visual arts of the late 20th century, especially comic books. The final chapter discusses Anna-Marie Ferguson, best-known as the first ever female illustrator of the Morte Darthur.

There is a lot of pleasure to be had in the reading of this, an obvious labour of love for the author, whose enthusiasm for her subject is as infectious as her wide research is impressive. Every page in this hardback has something to stimulate the imagination: at random I find that the publication of illustrated Arthurian books between 1890 and 1910 was three times that of the previous five decades (166), that Beardsley “discomforted viewers … by defamiliarizing familiar objects” (80), and that Howard Pyle’s illustrated Arthurian books were not only a model for behaving but for “Americanizing, or at least democratizing, the medieval legends”.

While disappointed that there is no mention of Lotte Reiniger, whose pseudo-woodcuts so graced the 1953 Penguin edition of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, this reader is grateful for the opportunity to delight in old favourites (like Rackham), be introduced to unfamiliar artists (like Lancelot Speed, who must be a prime example of what New Scientist calls “nominative determinism”) and to place all the artists in their cultural and historical context.

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2 thoughts on “Infectious enthusiasm

    1. Yes, those old illustrated children’s editions of classics can haunt you deep into adulthood, can’t they, long after they’ve fallen apart, been junked or recycled or left mouldering in some forgotten corner. Must search out some of mine, if they’re still around!

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