Imaging M R James

The days are drawing in, and here at Ty Isaf it’s the time for stacking the logs high on the fire, shuttering the windows against the early dusk and pulling a little reading matter from the shelves appropriate to this dank, blustery season. To celebrate Halloween, I offer Artloggers a brief canter through some of the artists who have created images for the ghost stories of the great M R James.

Hardcover edition by Tiger, 1991, with drawings by Rosalind Caldecott

While the M R James ghost stories are acknowledged the best of their genre, they haven’t always been served well by illustrators or by the artists who produced images for dust-wrappers and paperback covers.  James’ writing is so evocative that illustrations are not at all necessary, though as a lover of illustrated books I admit I’ve long wanted to meet the M R James-ian challenge of creating page decorations that might chill the eye as effectively as his prose icily clutches at the heart. One day, perhaps. (You can see an image I once made while thinking on MRJ, HERE)

A Pleasing Terror: the complete supernatural writings of M R James. Published by Ash Tree Press, 2001

Paul Lowe illustration for A Pleasing Terror. Ash Tree Press. 2001

I’m intrigued by Paul Lowe’s images for the Ash Tree Press ‘complete supernatural writings’ edition of 2001, though I like the cover rather less. (Badly designed… the lettering is terrible… and the image is too ‘pulpy’ for MRJ.) The drawing illustrated above has a quality of Mervyn Peake, who I think would have made a spectacularly good job of  James’ tales. (it’s a shame they never came his way.) Lowe works his images in different techniques. The crispness of the ink drawing above has a nightmarish clarity, while the softness of his drawing for the story Rats (see below) is wonderfully creepy precisely because of the lack of detail.  Despite its merits, I prefer a more consistent visual character than is managed in this edition.

Above and below: Charles Keeping made some evocative images for a 1973 Folio Society edition of The Ghost Stories of M R James

These vintage Pan editions have a period charm, but are far from the M R James-ian spirit.

Above: 1953 edition  of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary from Pan.

Above: 1955 edition of More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary from Pan.

Above: the ever reliable Penguin make an elegant job of atmospherically wrapping James’ ghost stories in a paperback. This edition is titled The Haunted Dolls’ House and other stories. The image is by photographer Simon Marsden, better known for his book Visions of Poe (Webb & Bower, 1988) in which he selected stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, and accompanied them with his photographs.

Finally, I come to James McBryde, illustrator for the first edition. In 1893 McBryde came up to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and while there become friends with the Dean of King’s and deputy director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, M R James. McBryde was ten years younger that MRJ, but the friendship flourished and continued beyond his time at Cambridge in annual summer vacations the two took together in Denmark and Sweden. (1899 -1901)



James McBryde’s illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad from M R James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, has in this version been cropped and tinted for a paperback edition.

McBryde would have known the ghost stories first hand from the readings MRJ had given to his circle of friends at Kings, and when the suggestion was made that he illustrate the first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, he accepted the challenge.

In his excellent article on McBryde for The Spectator in 2010, Robert Lloyd Parry writes of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad:

‘McBryde captures perfectly the bleak atmosphere of the tale and the stark terror of its finale. Told in James’s dry, unhurried style Oh, Whistle… is, nonetheless, a story full of frantic movement — of stumbling and flapping, scurrying and darting, leaping and running — and the same sense of agitation is brilliantly conveyed in the picture. Those uncanny, wriggling shadows seem to zoom in on Parkins, trapping him in that shaft of moonlight. The bedsheets roll on, like a wave about to break over him.’

‘In the story it is the apparition’s ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ that provides the focal point of terror. McBryde concentrates more on the grimace of the victim: Parkins is skeletal, his mouth a lunatic rictus, his cheeks hollowed out by a scream. The story has him lurching out of the window to escape his attacker; McBryde hems him in against a chest of drawers, his clawlike hands reaching out to fend off a being that he is too terrified to touch.’


On 6 May 1904, McBryde wrote to MRJ:

‘I have finished the Whistle ghost…I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…’

While working on the illustrations the young artist had been suffering from appendicitis, and he was convalescing from an operation to remove his appendix when his pregnant wife Gwendolyn wrote a letter to James assuring him that all was well. However McBryde had not completed his work when on 6 June 1904, he died from complications arising from his surgery. His widow returned the manuscript to MRJ, together with her husband’s last drawings. James’ publisher suggested that another artist resume where McBryde had left off. But the author was adamant that the edition would stand as a memorial to his friend, and it was subsequently published with just four completed McBryde illustrations.


McBryde illustration of the apparition from Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

McBryde  illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

McBryde illustration from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

McBryde illustration from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

MRJ was named the legal guardian of McBryde’s daughter Jane, who was born six months after her father’s death, and he remained life-long friends with mother and daughter. James never married, and the two women became as close to him as he would ever come to having a family of his own.


John Coulthart on Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad.

Robert Lloyd Parry on James McBryde in The Spectator.

conjuring a minotaur with a flowery-tail

Given the ‘foliate’ themes that I’ve expressed for Marly on the covers of Val/Orson (leaves dropping), The Throne of Psyche (rampant vegetation on the cover and leaves tumbling through the pages of the book) The Foliate Head (branch-disgorging green man) and Thaliad (a girl with leaves, flowers, berries and a small bird patterning her cheek), it was perhaps inevitable that Glimmerglass would offer up some botanics. So here’s a minotaur trailing a foliate-tail simultaneously sprouting leaves, blossoms and fruits. What could be more natural?

Equus through the years

While waiting for the new Penguin Modern Classics edition of Equus in a cover by me to finally appear in bookshops, I’ve discovered that there have been many covers for the play over the years. My favourite is the beautiful black and white image designed by Gilbert Lesser that was the original poster for the play, and later appeared as a cover for the paperback. Here are two versions of it that were made for the ‘Bard’ edition.

There are editions that carry photographic images from the film and various stage versions of the play, though relatively few with ‘artwork’. I haven’t been able to track down with any certainty the designers, publishers and dates of the following covers. (I’d need the knowledge of John Coulthart for that.) But as and when I gather any more information, I’ll be adding to this post.

And the most recent, with an image by me.

colour comes to Glimmerglass

I’m beginning to think about the colour for the cover of Glimmerglass, and here’s the first exploration, a red and turquoise, almost embroidery-on-calico effect. Clearly this is a much simplified and some might say less dramatic version of the strongly marked maquette dragon I’ve previously posted here. (Having a black ground for the cover is still an option I favour.)

Nevertheless I need to play with alternative options before coming to conclusions about how best to serve Marly’s beautiful text, and I can see this little bi-coloured collage on a neutral ground, has qualities that might yet be profitably explored. I worked it with commercially available coloured papers that I lightly stained with boot-polish, but I think it almost certain that I’d make my own coloured papers if I went down this route, and add frottage to them to bring in some of the patterned elements of the black and white image.


Equus, at last

Today my copy of the Penguin edition of Equus arrived. It’s been over a year since the publishing house asked my permission to use a horse/man maquette for the cover of the Shaffer play in its new ‘Modern Classics’ livery, and so it’s been a long wait to get a copy in my hand. But here it is at last, and I don’t mind telling you it’s the biggest thrill for me to  see one of my images make it onto a Penguin book. (Especially this book, which means rather a lot to me.)

The maquette was made as a ‘visual aid’ when I was working on the Old Stile Press illustrated Equus. This means there are currently two available editions of the play carrying my artwork on the covers, a fact I’m finding quite hard to process.

Below: cover of the Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Equus

Below: the Equus maquette. You can see a little film with the figure in:


The book is available direct from Penguin, HERE

The illustrated Equus is available direct from The Old Stile Press, HERE.

La Belle et la Bête: last word

There’s been a charming postscript to my recent La Belle et la Bête posts. I was able to arrange for a US bookseller to send a copy of Jean Cocteau’s Diary of a Film to my friend Anita in N Carolina. Anita, too, is a big fan of the film.

The book arrived safely, a fine copy with the dust-jacket intact. On opening it, Anita discovered some ‘extras’ tucked into the flap. She writes:

‘There were three reviews of the film: one by William Whitebait, from the New Statesman & Nation of London, Jan. 8, 1947; one by Otis L. Guernsey Jr. from Dec. 24, 1947; and one from Bosley Crowther, New York Times, Dec. 24, 1947.’

There was also a review of the book by Tennessee Williams. But most exciting of all, a newspaper ad for the American premiere at the Bijoux cinema on 45th St…
… and last and best, the programme for the premiere itself, measuring 5.25″ x 4.25″.
With its cache of unexpected extras hidden in the dust-jacket flap, Anita has called the book ‘the gift that continues to give’.

the Beasts of Glimmerglass

So that’s farewell to Mask Week at the Artlog. We looked at Schandmaskes, the coiled rope masks of Bertjan Pot, a paper-lamimate mask I once made inspired by the 1920 film of The Golem, animal masks from Latvia by Yevgeniya Kilupe, and last but not least, the schlocky monster-masks manufactured by the American company Topstone. There were many more mask posts I could have made, but they must wait for another time.

Above and below: maquettes of a dragon and Minotaur

Back now to the cover and decorations I’m preparing for Marly Youman’s forthcoming novel Glimmerglass. As usual there are maquettes and studies galore. However simple the finished work for a book may appear, the amount of preparatory work is like the greater part of the iceberg that sits under the surface of the water. For the beasts of Glimmerglass, the dragons, geese, lions, salamanders and minotaurs that will appear no matter how briefly on the dust-wrapper, on page decorations and in vignettes, the groundwork must be put in to make sure that they play their roles perfectly.

I started with a dragon. First there were the sketches…

then a couple of collages…

… and finally, the maquette:

Often the maquette is the first thing to be made, but in this case I came late to it, having already worked out in sketches what the beast would look like. I made double-joints for the narrow attachments, such as the jaw-to-neck-to-head and the upper-to-lower-leg-to-foot, because they give much more flexibility.

And although maquettes are labour intensive to make, I always get a lot of use from them beyond their original function. They get used over and over again, especially as compositional aids in my paintings. (And it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this particular beast will get used for a Glimmerglass themed painting or paintings, that will have nothing to do with what’s needed for the book.) Because it’s been double-jointed at significant points, the maquette lends itself well to stretch and compression. I also like the slight disjunctions that come with the technique.

Below: reverse of leg showing double-joint attachments