Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Slightly Nuts - But Not Crazy: Artist Henry Alken Lampoons Art

By Stephen J. Gertz

Plate 5. All Effect—The Subject far from good, but Rich

The terminology of art can be as confounding as that of rare books  and bibliography. That arcane aspect of the book world was delightfully and satirically dealt with by Ronald Searle in Slightly Foxed - But Still Desirable in 1989. 

165  years earlier, in 1824, the veil of mystery was torn off artist language in a similarly humorous manner.

Plate 2. Unpleasant in Effect—but the keeping is Good.

A Touch at the Fine Arts by Henry Alken and published by Thomas M'Lean in 1824, was "an attempt to elucidate, by graphic delineations, a variety of terms generally and perhaps exclusively made use of by artists, amateurs, connoisseurs, virtuosos, and the like. Long, indeed, has a generous public been, doubtless, puzzled in the endeavour to discover some ray of meaning in those glowing, brilliant and forcible phrases, which the critical catalogues, Catalogues Raisonnées, etc., of the day are woefully burdened with" (from the Preface).

Plate 9. A Very Warm Effect.

 "It is a cheap kind of humour at the best. To take two of the most deserving subjects - ‘A Moving Effect; the Execution rapid,’ is represented by a runaway coach, with expressions of the utmost horror in the faces and attitudes of the occupants; ‘A Striking Effect, the handling by no means good or pleasant to the eye,’ is illustrated by a fracas between two returning roisterers and some night-watchmen.

Pl. 4. A Striking Effect—The handling by no means good, or pleasant to the eye.

"In these and in plate 2, a prison-scene depicting ‘An unpleasant effect, but the Keeping is Good,’ Alken shows genuine power as a draughtsman, and infuses his work with a character lacking elsewhere. The last plate, indeed, might almost be a coloured lithograph from the hand of Daumier. All twelve plates, it should be said, are soft-ground etchings, with colour applied by hand” (Martin Hardie, English Coloured Books, pp. 183-184).

Plate 3. A Moving Effect—the Execution Rapid.

Cheap, low humor, perhaps but, as Jonathan Swift observed in regard to punning, it "is a talent which no man affects to despise but he that is without it.” In other words, it's lousy unless you're the one who thought of it.

Adam Gopnik, of The New Yorker, notes that “Wit and puns aren't just decor in the mind; they're essential signs that the mind knows it's on, recognizes its own software, can spot the bugs in its own program.”

Alken  spotted the bugs in art and exterminated its pretensions with a slapstick pasquinade of painters and painting.

Plate 7. A Sudden Effect.

Alken was known primarily as a painter and designer of sporting scenes, producing many satires of horsemanship and the hunt, i.e Specimens of Riding Near London (1821), a rollicking lampoon of a horse's ass on a horse's back, many of its scenes capturing the horseman in a header over his steed and unceremoniously delivered unto the ground. 

Plate 1. An Imposing Effect.

Henry Thomas Alken (1785-1841)  "was the dominant sporting artist of the early nineteenth century... he delivered a long series of designs to the leading sporting printsellers—S. and J. Fuller, Thomas McLean, and Rudolph Ackermann among others.

"He was also a prolific designer, etcher, and lithographer of scenes relating to racing, shooting, coaching, and other sports... He wrote several books on aspects of engraving, including The Art and Practice of Engraving (1849).

"In later life he drifted into ill health, consumption, and poverty... He died in the early summer of 1851" (Oxford DNB),  a Lethal Effect - the Result Permanent.

ALKEN, Henry. A Touch at The Fine Arts: Illustrated by Twelve Plates, with Descriptions by Henry Alken. London: Published by Thomas M’Lean, Repository of Wit and Humour, 1824.

First edition. Large quarto (11 15/16 x 9 1/8 inches; 304 x 232 mm.). Twelve hand-colored soft-ground etched plates (8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches; 216 x141 mm.) mounted on heavy card stock, with the leaf of descriptive letterpress mounted on the facing page. Bound without the half-title, title, preface leaf, and leaf of advertisements.

Martin Hardie, pp. 183-184 and 319. Siltzer, p. 71. Tooley 58. Not in Abbey.

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

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