Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
In a letter to her friend Virginia Woolf dated 5 January 1940, Elizabeth Bowen writes of an illustrated French edition of Maupassant she had recently read. Reflecting on the power of the images that accompanied the text, Bowen wonders “whether illustrations were such a bad thing” and goes on to remark that “Nobody illustrates now, I wonder whether they could.” Such musing remains as valid today as it did when Bowen wrote this letter, for don’t illustrations, as she puts it, open “windows in the writing”? If this is indeed the case, does it explain the peculiar draw of the illustrated edition? Moreover, what does it mean for a text to be illustrated and do illustrations contribute in a meaningful way to the text, or can such an illustrated impression simply damage the text’s integrity?
Elizabeth Bowen published her sole children’s book, The Good Tiger, in the US in 1965. Originally illustrated by M. Nebel, it was subsequently reissued in 1970 by Jonathan Cape in the UK using the superior artwork of Quentin Blake. His distinctive scribbly yet humorous drawings fit wonderfully with Bowen’s simplistic prose, while Blake’s sparing use of colour (orange) unites the eponymous feline with his human friends and his love of cake. It is perhaps unsurprising that Blake was drafted in to illustrate such a story given his iconic work on the novels of Roald Dahl. Indeed, having grown up on these, Blake’s drawing and Dahl’s writing are inseparable in my mind with one always informing the other. Perhaps a child’s mind doesn’t distinguish between the two as separate artists as discriminately as an adult might, although I have always been equally aware of both as contributing to the one work. While invariably (but not always) executed by a separate artist and once writing has already been completed, I wonder what do illustrations mean to a text?
In a recent Guardian blog-post entitled “Why Tolkien was a fine modern artist”, Jonathan Jones considers that J.R.R. Tolkien “imagined his otherworld of hobbits, elves and wizards in pictures, as well as words” (29 November 2012). Tolkien’s artwork conjures up the world of Middle Earth he writes of in The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954 and 1955). It is at once traditional, in its strong affinity with folk art, and modern, in its definitive rendering of the author’s world. The authorial control Tolkien exerts on both text and image, in this instance, not only displays great artistic integrity but, because of this, is also incredibly modernist. However, although Tolkien was accomplished in both fields, if a literary work is to be illustrated for publication by a hand other than the author’s, how does this affect the text?
While Tolkien’s visulaisations serve to enrich his own text and deepen our understanding of his vision, Aubrey Beardsley‘s illustrations for Oscar Wilde‘s Salomé (1891) threaten to overwhelm this tragedy in one act. Beardsley’s artwork accompanies the first English edition of 1894 and, although Wilde had initially been enthusiastic at the prospect of the artist illustrating his work, this was not to last. The play, which focuses on the narrative of Herod’s daughter Salomé and her request for the head of John the Baptist, was in Wilde’s eyes Byzantine in style. Upon seeing Beardsley’s illustrations, however, his impression of the artist soured: Wilde considered Beardsley’s drawings to be “like the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybooks.” Far from being in an appropriately Byzantine style, Wilde branded the images “too Japanese.” This reaction might be understandable given the aesthetic employed by Beardsley in such pieces as The Peacock Skirt (below) and given that Wilde was no doubt mindful of how his work would be perceived and received packaged thus. As Mary Beth McGrath notes, “Beardsley’s illustrations possessed so much power independent of the text that they might subordinate the play entirely” (Beardsley’s Relationship with Oscar Wilde).
In the right circumstances, book illustration can add immeasurably to a published text. In popular fiction, the illustrated editions of Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon series – Angels and Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003) – for instance, ensure that the reader can follow the intricacies of visually-specific symbology. In children’s books, such as Bowen’s The Good Tiger and those of Roald Dahl and Jill Murphy, illustration can achieve a balance that compliments the text. Indeed, as in the case of Tolkien or Arthur Conan Doyle, it can extend and deepen how we view the text, creating “windows in the writing” and into the worlds contained within. However, when the illustration threatens to supplant the author’s words, as in the case of Wilde and Beardsley, does the illustrated edition become unwieldy, problematic, even redundant? Or does the illustrated edition become more attractive by virtue of its imagery? If the draw of the illustrated edition is this, then the question of when does it add and when does it subtract from a text would seemingly fall silent. At any rate, while I have perhaps posed more questions than I have answered, this is a topic that fascinates me and to which I’ll return here in the future.