Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gaskin's Hans Christian Andersen and the Kelmscott Press

by Stephen J. Gertz

Extra illustrated title page.

"Mr. Gaskin's pictures ... of the tales are precisely what they should be, not because they belong to the manner of the Birmingham Art School and symbolize past all patience and affect the absence of aerial perspective shown in the very old wood cuts, but because, in spite of their mannerisms, they give life to the text and express it somehow or other in their long, lank Thumbelinas and Helgas and their young babes. They catch the attention and fix it upon the expression, arbitrary perhaps, yet adequate, of a persoality. Once seen, Mr. Gaskin's Thumbelina will always be the Thumbelina of the story..."

So said the New York Times book review in 1895 of a new edition of The Stories and Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Arthur J. Gaskin's illustrations to this edition would serve as his calling card to William Morris and lead to assignments for the Kelmscott Press, the most celebrated private press of them all.

The Philosopher's Stone.

Arthur Joseph Gaskin (1862 – 1928) was an English illustrator, painter, teacher and designer of jewellery and enamelwork. Gaskin was a member of the Birmingham Group of Artist-Craftsmen, which sought to apply the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement across the decorative arts. Like many of the group, Gaskin studied at the Birmingham School of Art under Edward R. Taylor and later taught there.

What the Moon Saw.

Gaskin worked as a decorative artist from 1890, and within a few years attracted the  attention of William Morris.

The Marsh King's Daughter.

"...Where in England was Morris to find the artists who could satisfactorily illustrate the Kelmscott books? The answer, surprisingly, was Birmingham, where the arts-and-crafts movement flourished more vigorously than anywhere else in the provinces, mainly through the influence of the municipal School of Art. 

She Was Good For Nothing.

"Three youthful artists associated with the School - Artur J. Gaskin, Charles M. Gere, and Edmund New - were doing attractive book illustrating during the 1890s, and Morris was aware of them and their work. 'Gaskin, a young Birmingham artist, called in the afternoon [at Kelmscott House] with a number of very pretty drawings for an edition of Hans Andersen which Geo Allen is going to publish,' [Sydney] Cockerell noted in his diary...

The Old House.

"...Morris's attitude towards Gaskin and Gere was ambivalent: he was grateful for their loyalty to the arts-and-crafts ideals, yet his praise for their work was often cautious and qualified. In an interview in the Daily Chronicle (9 Oct. 1893), he was quoted as saying that 'there is a great quantity of excellent art, but the only thing that is new, strictly speaking, is the rise of the Birmingham school of book decorators...these young men of the Birmingham School of Art - Mr. Gaskin [et al] - have given a new start to the art of book decorating.'

The Wild Swans.

"In another interview...two years later, however, Morris remarked: 'I think they have, in Gaskin and New, two very good men, who have ideas and originality. For the most part, however, they follow too slavishly the opposition to conventionality...but you must remember that the Birmingham people have not yet found their feet. They will do good work yet, I am sure.' This was faint praise indeed...

The Sleep of Holger Danske.

"Gaskin's relationship with Morris was, if anything, even more turbulent than Gere's. Subsequently known as a designer of jewelry, Gaskin was scheduled to illustrate a Kelmscott Press edition of The Roots of the Mountains that never materialized; Morris also arranged for him to design the pictures for The Well at the World's End and The Shepheard's Calendar (1896).

Illustration by Gaskin to The Shepheard's Calender (1896).

"The twelves designs for the latter book are impressive - Gordon Ray has called them 'perhaps the most successful of Kelmscott Press illustrations,' a judgment in which Colin Franklin concurs" (Peterson, The Kelmscott Press, pp. 157-8).

Big Claus and Little Claus.

The Rose Elf.

"Mr. George Allen issues  also a really excellent edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales. The translation is by Dr. H.O. Sommer, and there are 100 drawings by Mr. Arthur J. Gaskin, under whose direction the 'Book of Pictured Carols' was produced. It will be a pleasure to many to renew acquaintance with Big Claus and Little Claus, and all the other friends of our childhood, in this excellent edition" (Literary World, December 1, 1893).

[GASKIN, Arthur J., illus.]. ANDERSEN, Hans Christian. Stories and Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by H. Oskar Sommer. With 100 Pictures by Arthur J. Gaskin. London: George Allen, 1893.

One of 300 Large Paper Copies printed on hand-made paper. Two quarto volumes (9 3/4 x 7 5/16 in; 248 x 186 mm). [2], xi, [1, blank], 398, [2]; [2, blank], xii, 426, [2, blank] pp. Initials. One hundred black and white illustrations, many full page, including frontispieces and extra illustrated title pages.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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