Tuesday 30 August 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities by Catherine Hokin

My chosen item for the cabinet of curiosities is perhaps not such an usual choice for a writer as it is a book, in this case a 1933 edition of the Arthur Rackham Fairy Book. It probably ranks as my prize possession and the first thing I would grab if we ever got hit by a fire - or more likely a flood given I live in Glasgow.

 Arthur Rackham Fairy Book
Firstly apologies for the photograph: the copy has been well-loved and its once white cover and gold lettering have faded badly; it also bears more than one set of grubby fingerprints. I'm glad of that - it is clearly no museum-piece and I hope it passed through many happy hands before landing, very recently, in mine.

Arthur Rackham was the leading illustrator in what was known as the 'Golden Age' of British book illustration which ran from roughly 1890-1914. He is particularly known for his fairy drawings with his most famous works including Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1908) and the posthumous Wind in the Willows (1940). He began his illustrating career in 1893 and was widely exhibited and bought in his lifetime. After 1918 the market for lavishly-illustrated books collapsed in Britain but Rackham's work is once again in vogue and editions of his work are highly collectible (and frighteningly expensive).

I first came across his work when I was an impoverished student taking my over-active imagination and empty purse fantasy shopping in antique book shops. I fell in love with his fairies: they were mischievous, wicked and strong - no soppy Victorian fluff here. I was no artist (I learnt to appreciate his technique, which combined woodcut-style work with advances in colour-printing, much later) but I was entranced by the mix of pen and ink drawings, watercolours and line sketches he sprinkled liberally through the stories. I also loved his women - I once played Mustard Seed (as a silver-clad scouse punk, as you do) in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream and the director took his inspiration for Titania from the Rackham depiction of her striding away, chaos in her wake. It's still one of my favourite pictures and hangs in my study.

So why is this edition special? It is hard to get complete original editions of Rackham's work anymore - most of them seem to have been dissected to feed the antique stalls in Portobello Market - so owning a copy of one at all is pretty good. But this is no ordinary edition, it has been signed by the great man  himself. There is something about a signed copy of a book that makes it intensely personal. As a writer, being asked to sign your novel is incredibly flattering - a real rock star moment. To be honest, I'm at the stage where I'll sign them whether people ask me to or not. So to own a book signed by someone whose work I've loved for years is thrilling and, with a book that has clearly been so well-loved, it is hard not to weave  stories round it. There is a pink smudge across the signature which I rather hope belongs to the Pamela Taylor who this edition was presented to in 1935. It looks suspiciously like lipstick and I want to imagine she was so excited, she kissed it. Which, I'm not ashamed to say, was what I did - I was probably meant to kiss the husband who was responsible for the gift, but he didn't seem to mind. 

The stories are wonderful, a mixture of traditional English and French fairy tales and the Arabian Nights, but it is the illustrations that make me go back to this book over and over again. They are witty and beautiful with just the right amount of edginess, the perfect Rackham mix and extend even to his 'self-portrait'. I love the work but I am also increasingly intrigued by the man. A little like our own Glasgow artistic hero, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, it seems marriage had quite an influence on Rackham's work. In 1903 he married the portrait painter Edyth Starkie who he apparently regarded as his most stimulating, if severest, critic. I fell in love with her most famous painting (The Spotted Dress) in the Musee D'Orsay without having any clue about their relationship until very recently. When you know the link, it's hard not to see a connection between their work and it's certainly something I hope to explore at some point in far more detail. My cabinet choice continues to feed my curiosity - now I've just got to find a way to pay for what could prove a costly addiction...  


Susan Price said...

Oh, I envy you that book! I love fairy stories and Rackham illustrations. What a wonderful gift.

Unknown said...

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Exile on Peachtree Street said...

Rackham is so ethereal. Thanks so much for sharing this!