Saturday, August 22, 2009
When I was just old enough to understand the stories my father would read to me as I was going to bed, my first exposure to literature was from two giant story books which he’d been given as presents when he was very young. ‘Long, Long Ago…” collected the Greek myths and “Grimm's Fairy Tales” included the original versions, those with the nastier endings that Stephen Sondheim appreciated (cf, Into The Woods).
They were both being printed on quite rough paper (having been published during wartime) but inside were brightly coloured watercolour plates illustrating the action, of Perseus confronting Medusa and pigeons pecking out Cinderella’s stepsisters' eyes. Older eyes might have considered these a bit naïve and of the kind you’d see in the storybooks that introduce classic Disney films, but I investigated those pictures for hours, even days, as they transported me away from my drab seventies existence.
So it’s with some nostalgia I flick through the pages of Arcturus Publishing’s lushly printed new edition of Hamlet, which intersperses the text with paintings and drawings by the late Victorian painter Harold Copping, wondering if my interest in Shakespeare would have developed far earlier if I’d been given this to read too. This is Hamlet presented in a similar storybook style poignantly reflecting backwards to those simpler times.
Copping, who was taught at the Royal Academy before completing his training via a Landseer Scholarship in Paris, is perhaps best known for his work on the best selling Copping Bible (which he researched by visiting Palestine), but he worked on literature too, various Dickens, "Little Women", and as I’ve discovered, this play. The paintings and engravings reproduced here were originally published in 1897 by Raphael Tuck and Sons, both as a book and postcards.
The artist presents Shakespeare's characters in a similar fairytale style to those old books, Claudius and Gertrude the very figures of a medieval king and queen, Hamlet a prince charming with golden locks. Copping’s background in Bible illustrations only really reveals itself in his depiction of a Polonius carrying a staff and sporting a gloriously whispy beard which wouldn’t look out of place on Charlton Heston’s Moses.
These pictures won’t be to everyone’s tastes; there is an element of kitsch especially in the image of Ophelia’s madness where Hamlet’s ex stares vacantly off the page as the King and Queen concernedly huddle together in the background. The illustration of her ensuing suicide owes much to John Everett Millais and I’d say that if you hate the Pre-Raphaelites with their romantic notions you’ll hate these too.
But I like the Pre-Raphaelites and I like these very much too. The visions of Hamlet Snr greeting first Horatio then his son on the battlements is genuinely spooky and the gravedigger is exactly as I imagine him, a wizened old man with an earthy face. In just three images we see the death of Polonius, first skulking behind the arras, next on the floor behind the curtain Hamlet nearby sword in hand and then out in the open having later been abandoned by the prince.
There is one curious drawing though (on page ninety-four) of what appears to be Hamlet drinking from the poisoned cup, which could be Copping misunderstanding the story or perhaps using artistic license (as so many have before him and since) and showing a moment during his final speech in which he hastens death having seen how quickly the concoction works on his mother. Or at least, that’s what the younger, more imaginative version of me might have decided.
'Hamlet' Illustrated by Harold Copping will be published on 1st September 2009 by Arcturus Publishing.