Thursday, 12 February 2009

Why I like Edgar Allen Poe and Harry Clarke

I first came across Edgar Allen Poe when I read a legendary treatise on steam locomotive history. The Chronicles of Boulton's Siding by Arthur Rosling Bennett - er - chronicles the fascinating and mysterious locomotives that Isaac Boulton bought, rebuilt, sold, sometimes bought back, rebuilt again and often finally sold as winding engines to collieries. Many of them had illustrious careers before they appeared at Boulton's siding in Ashton-under-Lyme but once Boulton had converted them for industrial use only someone with an infectious enthusiasm and deep knowledge of his subject could hope to piece their stories together. Rosling Bennett was that man. Many stories remain incomplete despite Bennett's best efforts but this book is the start of many enquiries into ancient locomotive lore.

Despite the murky origins of some of these locomotives I especially liked the line drawings that illustrated them in the condition when Boulton owned them.

Boulton even built his own locomotives and it was one of these that was that was painted a peculiar tint of black that Bennett singles out for especial mention. The work's manager, Thomas Boulton, Isaac's first born son and heir to the firm, had been reading Edgar Allen Poe and christened one engine as the Raven. One of their employees, a Mr Knowles, was something of an amateur artist when it came to painting steam locomotives and he endowed it with a blue-black paint finish that served to emphasise the title. Shortly afterwards, Thomas Boulton died suddenly abroad, a blow from which his father never fully recovered.

Bennett drew a link between the two events. "Quoth the Raven 'Never more!'"

I wondered at the time who was this chap Poe who could evoke such doom laden portents? Until then I thought a Poe was a guzzunda - another name for the chamber pot that goes under the bed in case one was caught short in the night.

When I lived in Kent in a shared house the only book in the communal sitting room was Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, illustrated by Harry Clarke. I was captivated by the striking black and whiteness of Clarke's illustrations and the feverish mortality of Poe's over blown prose. I was already familiar with the work of Aubrey Beardsley's work but Clarke's drawings were something else again. With a line or two quoted from Poe's tales, his illustrations left an impression on me has stayed with me ever since.

The other day I found a copy of this book on Ebay and have been re-visiting the sensations this Gothic masterpiece made all those years ago.

Some of Poe's stories are - in truth - a bit boring but most are wonderfully evocative. You can smell the rotting grandeur of The House of Usher, feel the chill of the tomb in The Cask of Amontillado and reel at horror at the The Strange case of M. Valdemar ("upon the bed.... a nearly liquid mass of loathsome - of detestable putridity")

I love the sense of inevitable horror and the dramatic language! It's archaic but it sucks you in so you forget the modern world and it seduces you with odd, long -forgotten branches of experimental science like magento-galvanics. And let us not forget that Poe invented the modern detective story with his Murders in the Rue Morgue. Conan Doyle may be more readily associated with the snug terror in his Sherlock Holmes stories but Poe got there first.

I can't imagine a better illustrator for Poe than Harry Clarke. He brings out the darkness and adds to it, making the poses more exaggerated and the details in costume or plants in the background grandiose and bizarre and unworldly. It must have been a labour of love for Clarke to work on Poe's stories.

I am especially pleased to have this version of Poe's stories because it includes some colour illustrations but to be honest it's the graphic qualities of Clarke's black and white work that pleases me the most. In Clarke's capable hands, a simple black line becomes a thing of beauty and he wields his lines with such exuberance.

I like the line drawings in The Chronicles of Boulton's Siding for different reasons. There is another sort of joy in laying done these lines. They don't capture a dramatic scene or a distillation of Poe's glorious horror but a record of an engineer's idea, a dream that was made real out of iron and copper. The way Arthur Rosling Bennett tells these chronicles, they are indeed tales of mystery and imagination.

In both books, I like the combination of words and pictures. The typeface is old-fashioned but stark against the white of the page. The illustrations seem to squeeze out every nuance from a single line of Poe's rich text - "But then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the Lady Madeline of Usher."

Maybe it's just me but I reckon Harry Clarke sometimes spotted some double meanings in Poe's prose. The best example is from The Assignation, a morbidly romantic story that Clarke considered worthy of a double spread. On the left - "It was the Marchesa Aphrodite - the adoration of all Venice." And on the left, balancing in a gondola - "I had myself no power to move from the upright position I had assumed."

And it's the black and white line drawings that bring me back to The Chronicles of Boulton's Siding, too. The draughtsman behind the line drawings remains uncredited although Arthur Rosling Bennett thanks him anonymously. Many of these engibes were a bit freakish and some even had Gothic fireboxes.

Another of Boulton's engines was called Fowler's Ghost, an almost apocryphal locomotive built for service under the city of London on Brunel's seven foot wide broad gauge. It was supposed to have swallowed its own smoke in the tunnels it habituated but in the end produced "neither smoke nor steam" and was condemned as a failure before arriving at Boulton's Siding.

I can't help but wonder what sort of drawings Harry Clarke would have produced if he had been chosen to illustrate The Chronicles of Boulton's Siding.

Harry Clarke (1889-1931) had an illustrious career as a stained glass designer but it's his black and white work that entrances me. One day I'll travel to the Emerald Isle and see some of his windows. I like stained glass and when the fine lines of his drawing are combined with the colours of stained glass I suspect the overall effect is amazing.

It is rumoured that Harry Clarke's continuing ill health was caused by the toxic chemicals that he and his brother Walter used in the stained glass processes.

These poisons may even have hastened his death, a twist of fate of which Edgar Allen himself would have made much.

Labels: , , ,