Monday, December 16, 2019

Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration

Arthur Rackham: A Life with IllustrationArthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration by James Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this beautiful volume up while in Wales visiting the "book town" of Hay-on-Wye this past Summer. Now, I am normally very particular about which books I buy, whether online or by travelling halfway around the world (or thereabouts) as on this trip. I had a want-list and filled some of it. But this pickup was spontaneous. I had stopped late in the day at the last bookstore we would get to visit before having to get in the car and drive back over the border to the Cotswolds.

How did I end up picking this one, out of all the thousands of books (and this is no exaggeration) available in Hay-on-Wye? I think it was because of the place itself. Tolkien's ghost seems to haunt the area, or at least our trip. We ate at The Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where J.R.R. used to drink a pint with C.S. Lewis - incidentally, they had the absolutely best fish and chips I've ever eaten - the town we were staying in, Moreton-in-Marsh (it isn't, really . . . in a marsh, that is, at least not anymore) was, apparently the model for Bree. One of the pubs there, The Bell, provided the inspiration for the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and they celebrated this with a map of Middle Earth drawn across one entire wall (scroll down after clicking the Moreton link and you'll see it). And if you closed your eyes and opened them again on a hike through the hills (and we took a 12 mile hike, one day), you would swear you were in The Shire. Eastern Wales was much the same and had even more sheep than the Cotswolds.

So, in my last desperate rush to pick out a book, I spotted this volume of Rackham's work. And I thought of Ian Miller's art of the '70s, which I grew up with as my visual token of Middle Earth. Take Miller's art, soften it (a lot), pump it full of whimsy, and give it ethereal tones of sepia and silver, and you've got Rackham. Of course, that analogy is an anachronism - Rackham died before Miller was born (both events on either side of World War II). In fact, I wonder if Miller was not heavily influenced by Rackham's books and prints? There is a certain likeness . . .

What about the book itself? It's a wonderful biography replete with lots of color pictures of Rackham's work. Unlike some monographs, this one is almost completely filled with his beautiful, dreamlike paintings. I believe only one non-Rackham art piece is featured, and that is a Durer engraving used to show how Rackham (self-admittedly) copied one of his painting's layouts from the German master's print. I greatly enjoyed the focus - I wanted a Rackham book, I got a Rackham book! My only real complaint is that the paintings and illustrations are not given in strict chronological order, while the biography is, of necessity so organized.

The biography is thorough and a touch coy with sensitive subjects. It's never completely clear to me whether or not Rackham had an affair or affairs, but . . . maybe? My blunt American-ness gets in the way of fully understanding English subtleties, at times, even though I lived in England for three years (from age 15 to 18). Rackham's life story is refreshingly normal, so far as biographies go. There is no attempt to make him a hero or a martyr. He lived life, had ups and downs, seems to have loved his family, went through times of financial difficulty and times of affluence, had health difficulties as an older man and essentially died working. If the book is to be believed, his remarkable-ness was poured entirely into his art. And it is remarkable!

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  1. Never heard of this artist before, I'll try to find a copy of this.

    1. I'm guessing you can find a good deal of his art online.