The Forgotten Voyage of William M. Timlin
Several months ago, I received one of those offers that cannot be refused. Calla Editions, the fine art book imprint of Dover Publishing, was preparing a re-edition of William M. Timlin’s book The Ship That Sailed to Mars. Would I like to write an introduction?
Well, yes, of course yes.
I had seen the images here and there on the net, and gazed longingly at original editions for sale from antique booksellers. (There was another edition published in the ‘90’s, which is affordable if not cheap, but no judging the quality, seller’s protestations to the contrary.)
Suddenly, there seemed to be so much to find out. Most tantalizing was the web page of someone who had felicitously stumbled on a copy of the book for a few dollars in a yard sale, and who had actually been in touch with Timlin’s descendants. I wrote, but in vain. I wrote to every link provided by the page in question. In vain. I asked all my South African work colleagues, all artists, if they had relations in Kimberley. No luck. I wrote to all my artist acquaintances in South Africa, who promised they would check. No news. I wrote to auction houses offering Timlin’s originals. No replies. My able researcher Ann Carling and I wrote to architects and museums, we received gracious replies and as much help as could be provided from many. Information began to arrive, a clue here, a snippet there.
Left: Portrait of William M. Timlin by John Henry Amshewitz. Right: Newspaper clippings from Kimberley.
A portrait in pencil. Newspaper clippings. Timlin’s personal emblem. Other information, often complementary, often contradictory. I felt like jumping on a plane to Johannesburg and catching a bus to Kimberley; no armchair detective has ever felt more frustrated. Sketches for sale at auction houses, original editions priced at several thousand dollars, landscapes in private collections…
Left: William Timlin’s personal emblem. Right: Cover of the original edition and sketches by Timlin.
A collector in the US sent me a scan of the poster for the ill-starred movie “Get Off The Earth!”, which, alas, it was deemed more prudent, for copyright reasons, not to include. (The story of the whispering silent film actor, Raymond Griffith, is a remarkably poignant one, but had to be reduced to a parenthesis.) From dozens of sources, we gathered little snippets, checked facts as best we could; to my knowledge, this is the first time so much information has been reunited in one text on William M. Timlin. It is paltry enough.
Poster for “Get Off The Earth”, starring Raymond Griffith, followed by the images from Timlin’s book that went into composing the poster. Far right: “Be Yourself”, typical of Raymond Griffith’s productions.
We were not able to find Timlin’s own words, other than those of his fairy tale; we found no images of the decorations he created, those “castle turrets and fairytale dragons” have long fallen prey to the wrecker’s ball. Anecdotes came to light, side alleys that wanted exploring: the site of the Coloseum was bought by the Prudential Insurance Company who duly applied for a demolition permit in order to build an office block. The granting of the permit was hotly contested in 1982 by the Heritage lobby and, in particular, Herbert Prins, an architect/architectural lecturer who specialised in heritage issues. The Prudential publicly accused Herbert that his opposition to the demolition was through some ulterior motive, suggesting that he was in some way to gain possibly as restoration architect if the building was not demolished. Herbert took them to court for defamation but the Prudential settled with an amount of money. Since Herbert did not want to benefit from the loss of the fine building he donated the money to the then Witwatersrand Heritage Trust who used the money to commission South African artist Cecil Skotnes (who died in 2009) to produce a ‘floating trophy’ which is known as the ‘Colosseum Award’ and is awarded annually “in recognition of a notable achievement by an owner, a developer or interested individual or group in conserving a building, clusters of buildings or other place or element/s of the environment.” Timlin would have no doubt approved. (The office block, unoriginally christened the “Colloseum”, was built in 1985. It has since been converted to apartments.)
Left: The Coloseum Theatre, Johannesburg. Right: The Colosseum Award
We discovered grainy photos of his other buildings and monuments. The more we researched, the more William Timlin himself emerged from behind the pages of his book. Images of his landcape paintings and other fantasyscapes slowly accumulated. There were hints of his energy and dedication to the community and the town he called home, little anecdotes and quotes, stories of those ambitions and errors so common to artists (It’s hard not to sympathize with Timlin selling off originals of The Building of the Fairy City on the promise they be made available when a book was to be published, losing track of who had what and where, and doggedly setting out to repaint the book once more.) The more we researched, the more he began to feel very much alive.
Finally, William M. Timlin provided a glimpse of what must endanger any biographer, however modest and ipso facto: the temptation to speak for him, to put into the now-silent mouth the words that should have been said. It is especially acute when dealing with those who express themselves in images, and who leave few words. Consciousness grew of being perched on the tip of the iceberg (or a little expedition working its way diligently upstream in search of the source of the Nile), knowing there was much more that could be discovered had time and resources permitted. Accompanying all this, a sense of regret that his other work, varied and remarkable, is not available to the public.
Left: Landscapes by William M. Timlin, including one from his trip(s) to Bali. Center & right: Fantasy watercolours and sketches from various sources, collections and publications.
Thankfully, an introduction is short. It needs to be to the point; no getting caught up in daydreaming about castles in the air…
Or sailing ships against the stars…
I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing.
In this instance, having thought long about writing these words of approach, I have an unusual request; I would beg the reader to postpone the introduction, and to read William Timlin’s marvelous and elegant book before turning back to these pages. “The Ship that Sailed to Mars” contains such troubling genius, fragility and conviction that it needs to be read without a priori, if possible with the candour and the desire for wonderment that only children truly possess. When you are done, please kindly return here; there is a quite lot to say about William M. Timlin and his truly remarkable book.
Published in 1923, it is today one of the rarest, most original and beautiful children’s books of the 20th century. It was the only book he would ever publish.
Timlin was hardly the retiring dreamer, though, if his spirited activity is any indication. Timlin founded the Art Section of Kimberley’s Athenaeum Club in 1914, remaining chairman until its disbandment in the 1940’s. He regularly exhibited his watercolours, pastels and oils, as well as writing stories, composing and teaching music. (He won a bronze medal in a nationwide competition for his musical compositions.) Member of the South African Academy, Timlin exhibited at the annual salon from 1919 until his death.
He produced (unremarkable) pen and ink drawings for several South African history and travel books, and designed seals, decorations and theatre programs. He was closely associated with the popular South African weekly Outspan, for which he designed covers and contributed many illustrations. His familiar emblem, a white owl with a disturbingly human gaze, was created in memory of the accidental killing of a snowy white owl during a hunting expedition with his father on the Gaap Plateau. (The emblem is a poignant salute to a bird beautiful and mysterious enough to belong in his delightful dream worlds, which Timlin chose instead to fill with weird caricatures of Nature, as in The Zoo, where grotesquely leering creatures contrast with the delicate figures in the foreground.)
In March 1934 he designed the illuminated address commemorating the visit of Prince George to Kimberley. He also began an ambitious series of illustrations for a book entitled “The Building of the Fairy City”, which remained unpublished. As an architect, he was responsible for several major buildings in Kimberley, including the Kimberley Hospital, Boys’ High School, Girls’ High School and the Cenotaph.
William Timlin’s first wife Marjorie was killed in an automobile accident in 1937. Timlin remarried. He died of pneumonia on June 7, 1943, after fracturing his arm in a fall. He was 51, and was survived by his son Billy and his second wife. Timlin’s brother Clifford assembled a large number of his works, later bequeathed to his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The collection was put up for auction in 1987, and was purchased by the De Beers Company, who placed it on permanent loan with The William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley.
A memorial exhibition in 1964 presented one hundred and fifty works: paintings in oils, watercolour and tempera, etchings, silverpoint, pen and pencil sketches, carvings and cameos. Speaking of his brother, Clifford Timlin offered glimpses of his “naturally – but only slightly temperamental” artistic sibling, who, in preparation for an exhibition, would shut himself away in his studio for two or three months straight to emerge at the end with 50 or 60 new works. The Ship That Sailed to Mars was one of his most absorbing occupations.
The William Humphreys Art Gallery today houses the largest public collection of Timlin’s work
Timlin sent the project to London publisher George G. Harrap and Company Limited, who had a long-standing reputation for publishing lavish illustrated books with the best illustrators of the day. Apparently eager to find a successor for Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogány, George Harrap enthusiastically agreed to publish the book without typesetting. Timlin’s watercolours and calligraphic pages were reproduced, hand-mounted on grey art paper, and bound. The Ship That Sailed to Mars was published in November 1923, priced at five guineas. George Harraps’ enthusiasm, though, was well tempered with business acumen; Timlin paid for half the production costs. Only 2000 copies were printed, of which 250 were distributed in America by Stokes of New York in 1924, selling at twelve dollars each.
There was no second edition, no reprints or newly assembled and bound copies, after that first and only print run of 2000 books. In 1927, Timlin embarked on another book, for which he completed the text, entitled The Building of the Fairy City. By this time, his popularity was such that acquaintances and friends clamoured to be able to purchase the original watercolours. He sold many on the understanding that the pictures would be made available when the time came to publish the book, but some buyers were subsequently reluctant and Timlin lost track of the others, so he began painting a new set, only to die before it was completed.
At first glance, this might well appear a stilted and precious choice of terms, rather than the conventional “written and illustrated”. Nevertheless, a story “told” implies that the author is not necessarily making it up, but conferring the authority of the realm of the oft-told tale, where the storyteller is a mediator, not an author. “Told” hints at archetypes, not simply fiction. It is a common enough device in modern fantasy, but Timlin employs it here implicitly, in passing, easily overlooked. “Pictured” removes all notion of subservience of image to text, the tale appears to the teller as much in images as in words. Neither takes precedence, painting and prose offer simultaneous versions – a telling and a picturing – in parallel. It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to tell which came first in every episode, word or image, so intertwined is the genesis of the two.
The tone of Timlin’s telling is also far removed from common storybook fare. It is not self-consciously medievalist, like Howard Pyle’s Arthurian cycle, nor sweetly condescending, as were many edifying stories written to children early in the century. It is more closely reminiscent of Howard P. Lovecraft’s novella “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” than of the nursery (although Timlin has nothing of Lovecraft’s foreboding cosmicism). The text is strangely distant and dreamlike, despite Timlin’s elegant touches of humour, but nevertheless allows the author the occasional grim observation of the unenviable state of mankind. Essentially, it is the story of an outcast, the Old Man who builds the Ship.
There are other Old Men in myth and literature, from the Wandering Jew to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. More often than not, these Old Men are personifications of fate; Timlin’s Old Man, who “had not always been old, and in his dim, forgotten youth, he had said ‘I will go to Mars; sailing by way of the Moon, and the more friendly planets” is very different. He is an uncomplaining dreamer, whose response to the world’s wickedness is to withdraw into the workshop in his back garden.
The Ship that Sailed to Mars is certainly not science-fiction; science plays little part. The Ship’s sails are filled with fairy winds, not solar impulses, and indeed the solar system owes far far more to myth than to astronomy. Timlin places in the mouths of scientists and astronomers only scornful phrases and numbers destined to daunt, not elucidate: “But those around him, Scientists and Astronomers some, cried out in scorn, “Have we not ever taught you that Mars is thirty thousand miles away, and nothing could ever live on a journey there?’ And they left him, muttering in their beards as they went, for they had no faith, nor any belief, in Fairies.”
Timlin contents himself with only a few planets amongst those known to the ancients, but the route towards Mars also contains the Star of Classic Myths, where Medea enjoys a docile retirement and where Orpheus and Eurydice live happily reunited; the Pirates Planet, the Seven Sisters, the Sorrowful Planet and others either visited or glimpsed. There are dangers too, a meteor (“a giant spark from the Anvil of some Industrious God who was forging, maybe, an iron circlet for the ankle of his Beloved”), and the Eden Serpent, a gigantic ophidian with jewels for eyes and a many-fingered tongue, a Biblical intruder into classical myth, cast out of Paradise and now haunting the depths of space.
Other passages could have been penned by H. P. Lovecraft: “Once the fiery breath of that One whose Name is shuddered at on Earth, and whispered to-and-fro on dark and windy nights, nearly engulfed the Ship, and shrivelled it in the cascading flames that ascended from its myriad eyes and mouths. His horrible spouse, that evil that had troubled men through all the fabled days, wallowed at his side, and adding her voice to his, shrieked in maniac rage her hatred of mankind.” Timlin’s cosmic pantheon is a personal cornucopia of classical myth, folklore and intimate nostalgia; the god Pan sends along two gifts for the fairies of Mars, one of which is “the quickening joy of an English Spring”.
When the Old Man arrives at his destination, amongst the wonders of the City of Mars, (built by fairies who had fled first the Earth, then the Moon when this satellite became cold) it is to find a classic folk tale of love and longing: a sorrowful princess mourning her lost prince. The Old Man resolves to set things aright, and, journeying on dragonback (still wearing his carpet slippers!) far over the dark forests of Mars to the Thunder City in the Iron Hills, finds the Prince in the grip of the Misery that continual storms inflict on the listless inhabitants. The Old Man, with his earthly knowledge of electricity, constructs a lightning rod, which draws away the storms, and the prince, released from his melancholy, returns to the City, where he and the Princess are reunited. “…the Tower with its head amongst the Lightnings became the wonder-sight of that mysterious world, – and strange indeed it seems to us that the most fairylike thing in that Land of Fairies should be a monument built by a Man.”
The Old Man does not return to Earth. (Only a farmer had even noticed his departure, as the fairies embarked one of his cows, along with a swath of meadow in tow behind the Ship, to have fresh milk for the journey, prompting him to consider the “portentous step of Writing to the Newspaper.”) The epilogue tells us that the last fairies of the Earth finally build a ship of their own and quit the Earth. Magic has definitively deserted our planet. (In this sense, Timlin rejoins Tolkien, who suggests that in poetry, art and music lie the faint glimmerings of a lost Elven heritage.) Timlin hints at further adventures for the Old Man, but they remained unwritten.
Griffith was a sensation of the silent era, though sadly today he is almost completely forgotten. Contemporary of Timlin, born into a theatre family, he lost his voice in childhood to respiratory diphtheria (the loss being the result of a too-vigorous scream during a play, as Griffith himself liked to relate, is almost certainly apocryphal), and could not speak above a hoarse whisper. Abandoning the stage (he had already played the lead in Little Lord Fauntleroy at the age of seven) young Griffith joined a circus, did a brief stint in the Navy, and eventually found himself in Hollywood. He starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s Changing Husbands, and was acclaimed in Paths to Paradise in 1925. Screenland magazine confidently predicted he would be the next Charlie Chaplin. In an unabashed blurb for an upcoming comedy entitled Fresh Paint, Paramount declared: “RAYMOND GRIFFITH has reached the point now where they start laughing as soon as his name is flashed on the screen. That means real money at the box office. Griffith has a big de luxe staff of directors, writers, cameramen and technicians of all kinds doing nothing but devising ideas and working on Griffith comedies. The result is that every Griffith picture now is a big comedy special presenting the new favorite plus the best in story material and invention that brains and money can secure…” Unfortunately, 1927 passed the pitiless judgment of the box office – declining ticket sales – and Griffith and Paramount parted company. The advent of the “talkies” was the end of his acting career. Paradoxically, his last – and unaccredited – screen appearance, in All Quiet on the Western Front as the mute French soldier stabbed by Lew Ayres, who then shares a foxhole with him as he slowly dies, is one of the most harrowing and memorable of movie history. After that, Griffith became a production supervisor and associate producer. He died in 1957.
One wonders what William Timlin must have thought of the whole episode; perhaps it came and went so quickly that by the time he was notified, it was already over. Luckily for him, the film was never made; it’s not difficult to imagine his dismay, or at very best, his stoical indifference, had the film been completed. Griffith and his “big de luxe staff” would have joyfully mauled and dismembered the story in pure Hollywood style, a clumsy caricature of a dreamlike fable. Oblivion is undoubtedly preferable to such dubious posterity.
Timlin’s voice speaks through the Old Man, with his sour view of Science versus Art, of how Science deludes with a need to diminish and dissect through the use of figures and factual analysis, dissipating and dispelling the miracle and the magic of worlds. The Old Man is “old” in being out-of-step with current ideology, still clinging to his dream of wonder, but choosing exile to rediscover it. The flight to Mars of a fugitive reveals Earth as the alien environment, unbalanced by the dominance of science and rational modernity. Timlin’s now-vanished fairy turrets and dragons in the Colosseum clearly show his desire to help people rediscover the enchantment of childhood, which he assumed they had lost but still needed somewhere in their lives. Timlin’s work is a reminder of our need for balance, and our inability to achieve it.
Where to place William M. Timlin in the pantheon of late 19th and early 20th century illustrators? Oft-cited Richard Dalby in The Golden Age of Children’s Book Illustration describes The Ship That Sailed to Mars as “the most original and beautiful children’s book of the 1920s.” Timlin’s illustrations are rightly compared to those of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. His masterful use of composition can only be compared to W. Russell Flint’s Morte d’Arthur. His architectures rival the best work of Sidney Sime and his monstrous creatures would not be out of place in the work of José Segrelles. Only the rarity and singular nature of his unique book wrongly deprives him of a more ample – and amply merited – entry in the who’s who of 20th century illustrators. This edition, published nearly ninety years after the original, repairs at least in part that omission, with the rediscovery of Timlin’s timeless and visionary talent.
Thanks to Neil Fraser, Herbert Prins, Bruce Calvert and particularly to Hesta Maree of the William Humphrey Art Gallery, for their gracious and precious help. Special thanks to Ann Carling.
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Calla Editions (October 20, 2011)
Product Dimensions: 11.1 x 8.8 x 1.3 inches
For more information, visit Jeff Menges’ excellent blog V.I.E.W.