Or About Dreams, Chasing of.
Back in the 70’s, I had a paperback book called “Into the Aether”, by Richard Lupoff.
The full title was actually “Into the Aether: Being the Adventures of Professor Thintwhistle and his Incredible Aether Flyer on the Moon”. Richard A. Lupoff, Dell Books, 1974.
I’m sure it was a charmingly written novel, pure steampunk long before the term came into fashion.
“When the ‘Chester A. Arthur’, the world’s first and only coal/steam/paddlewheel-propelled spaceship rose into the skies over Buffalo Falls, Pa., who would have expected what followed? Will Professor Thintwhistle and his crew be able to return to earth? Will Miss Taphammer ever find them? Will Jefferson Jackson Clay’s foul plot succeed? And what of the King of the Cats?”
I can’t recall reading it. I had bought the book for the cover artwork. I no longer have the book. (But I did save the cover.)
Now, Buffalo Falls, Pa may never have existed, and the town where I lived in ‘74 no longer does either, but I’ll bet they had a lot in common. And something in the cover art resonated – the pursuit of the towering stern of a gilded galleon (come to think of it, the “Chester A. Arthur” had a lot in common with the beat-up farm pickup.)
Coming from the Canadian equivalent of Buffalo Falls, Pa., it was only much much later that I discovered the work of Howard Pyle and his iconic oil painting. Pyle painted “Attack on a Galleon” in 1905. Frazetta’s galleon’s ancestor, but with pirates approaching under that overhanging stern with swords in their fists. Curiously enough, thousands of miles away, in a very different world (that would shortly be changed forever), Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Polish Symbolist painter, was putting the finishing touches on “Nec Mergitur”. (The painting is big: 204 x 221 cm , and is now in the Luthuanian Museum of Art in Vilnius. A mental note has been made – visit Lithuania.) Another galleon with towering stern, another wake.
From left to right: “The Galleon” by Frank Frazetta, “Attack on a Galleon” by Howard Pyle, “Nec Mergitur” by Ferdynand Ruszczyc.
Suddenly that seemed like a lot of galleons and coincidences, so I did a little web search and came up with everything from packing crates to puzzles. Towering stern, billowing sails, foaming wake.
From left to right:
Galleon, Ventura Country lemons packing crate label, 1940’s
The Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1935
Burning Galleon by Howard Pyle
Old Voyager, Jumble Jig Saw Puzzles, c.1933
Spanish Galleon in Chesapeake Bay, by N.C. Wyeth
The Immortal Fight of the Little “Revenge”, by Frank Brangwyn
Port of Heart’s Desire by R. Atkinson Fox, Jumble Jig Saw Puzzles, 1933
A Spanish Galleon by Peter Koch, 1925
The Port of Hope by Harry Hadland, puzzle by Allen Winsor, 1937
Galleon, unsigned work of the Brandywine School
Leisure on the Waters Edge, Frederic Grant, Jumble Jig Saw Puzzles, c. 1933
The Galleon by A. J. Rowley
Now, it’s always seemed to me that there is an archetype hidden in pretty much anything that contains some sincerity of substance – form is supposed to be the exterior shell of substance, but form is seductive, and far too often wooed for its own sake. The result of course is to empty the receptacle of content and leave a beautifully, or at worst an adequately, rendered shell. Pleasant enough to let the eye wander over, but ultimately of little interest. (Rather like much Victorian sculpture before modernity in the shape of the Pre-Raphaelites, who managed the exploit of pretending to look steadfastly backward while navigating resolutely forward: beautifully done, but ultimately sterile.)
Back to galleons. That shipbuilding should have tended towards building floating castles is a fantasy extravagence of sorts. The famous Wasa sailed out of Stockholm harbour on her inaugural voyage of August 10th, 1628, caught the breeze, tipped over and sank. ( King Gustavus Adolphus must have had a suitably energetic debriefing with his naval architect afterwards.) Warships eventually followed the same path as castles, lowering their profiles as firepower became more sophisticated – and as steam replaced sail.
But, while their silhouettes disappeared from the sea, those same silhouettes remained artistically charged, making them the ultimate romantic pirate vessel, the most enigmatic of Flying Dutchmen, the most spectral of ghost ships, Captain Hook’s best Jolly Roger. Floating castles, in sum, with such a wealth of lanterns, leaded windows, crooked gables and canted architecture that even the real ships seem like something directly out of fantasy already. Archetype 1.
Not only is the view of the stern more satisfying artistically, offering more dynamic possibilites for an artist, it places the viewer in a complex position of subordination and empowerment. Dwarfed as we are by that towering castle-like stern, whatever craft we are aboard is fragile and our dangeris evident. However, sneaking in under that towering stern potentially gives us the power of David over Goliath, the stealth to exploit ostentation and might with skill and daring. The back door to the untakable keep, the crack in the armour. Archetype 2.
But, for me, there’s a third and more personal archetype involved. Following in the wake of the galleon is very much the epitomy of all archetypes. A sort of eternal pursuit, where the goal is always hovering within reach, but just out of reach. Towering above, but how to scale it if one can indeed get a grip on a dangling line or an angle of fretwork? Overhanging but receding, drawing away just as you stretch out your hand. The enduring impossible at the tip of your questing fingers.
Gosh. Lyrical, eh?. (Don’t worry, I’ll get over it.)
But, seriously, archetypes are worth pursuing, even if the are by nature phantasmagoric and elusive. I do truly believe that somewhere in all the pictures one ends up painting of a particular subject, there is hidden somewhere the true arkhetupon, the one that catches the very essense of that thing. The wave that sums up all waves, the mountain that means all mountains. Naturally, it’s just a vue d’esprit, but it does help a person focus. Naturally there’s no connection between the three paintings (although Frazetta likely used Pyle as a point of departure) but my own, but isn’t that what this business of art is all about? Connecting the dots – and of course drawing one’s own.
But, whatever the case, I already have the first paragraph of my autobiography…
“When the ‘John F. Howe’, the world’s first and only coal/steam/expectation-propelled spaceship rose into the skies over the Similkameen Valley, its shadow slowly climbing the face of K Mountain, Keremeos left resolutely behind who would have expected what followed? Will John be able to return to earth? Will the mirage of the “bestest picture” always hover just over the horizon? Will he be able to procure enough pencils for the flight? And what of the Kingdom of the Archetypes?”
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Just got back yesterday from the trip to China, which was a kaleidoscope combined with a whirlwind – more packed into four days than I normally manage in a year – so if you’ll forgive me, when my mind catches up and I can make sense of my notes, I hope to do a few newsletters about it all.