John Howe CHRONICLES of an illustrator Sun, 27 Sep 2015 19:30:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 NOTHING CHILDISH ABOUT CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS Fri, 14 Aug 2015 14:00:40 +0000 1922, London: Edmund Dulac, pen in hand, is not inking an illustration, but writing an introduction.

Impossible to guess at the exact circumstances surrounding the encounter of Edmund Dulac and an exhibition of children’s drawings that took place in London the year before. Was he amongst the guest invited to the opening, or was he alerted by acquaintances? Did he initiate creation of the book or offer to participate, or was he approached, as a prominent artist, to contribute an introduction?

“Christmas: pictures by children with an introduction by Edmund Dulac” was published simultaneously in London by J. M. Dent & Sons, and in Vienna by Burgverlag Richter & Zôllner, in 1922. The book reproduces fourteen artworks created by the pupils of Professor Franz Čížek’s Juvenile Art Class in Vienna in the 1920’s.[1]

Here are Dulac’s words:

We have all been brought up with the superstition, that efficiency in drawing and painting is the privilege of a few adults, that it can only be achieved after a long and arduous struggle, and by means only revealed to an intellectual oligarchy.

From time to time, however, the performance of some extraordinary child seems to throw a doubt on this belief and starts us wondering whether in the face of such achievements, the result of a few tender years’ work, the long efforts of maturity are no so much waste of misplaced energy.

But quite recently in a comprehensive exhibition organized in London by Mr. Hawker, we were shown not a few isolated examples, but an impressive number of works by children between the ages of 6 and 16 done in the schools directed by Professor Čížek of Vienna. These displayed not only the most vivid imagination, and uncanny power of observation, but an unusual freshness of vision, and remarkable ability.

The importance of the problem cannot be overlooked any longer. It goes further than aesthetic pure and simple, it opens a door upon the unexplored and somewhat disturbing processes of the human mind, and the child prodigy can no longer be looked upon as a freak.

Life, some will have it, is a never ending attempt at solving the sempiternal problems that have faced man since his first contact with realities; by seeking his knowledge through them, he evolved Science; when he stretched his activities beyond contingencies in an endeavour to organize the forces hidden behind his consciousness, Art was born, – Art, which was at the beginning Magic, and has remained Magic.

The Artist put at man’s disposal a tangible world of unrealities by means of the most illusory elements, things that have no existence outside our senses – colour, lines, sound – and made him master if he wishes of a world he could conjure up at will.

Through Art man becomes a child again, that is, his consciousness is lulled back into that sleep full of wonders from which he was tragically awakened by the phenomenon of the real world, and whose phantasmagoria lingered through his younger years.

We forget that we had those treasures of imagination, open to our hands and eyes and that we have deliberately buried them under the burden of our growing consciousness, and that all the while the child is there refusing to abandon them and sometimes making them visible and tangible for us and as perfect as the sophisticated phantasies of those more mature years!

To our utter astonishment, he uses a technique which we associate with a training of many years, a fact most worthy of notice, for it is evident that a very good knowledge of drawing can be acquired in an incredibly short space of time, and this may lead to an extension of the methods that have accomplished such good results, not only in art, but in all branches of educational training: a different and better comprehension and use of all the different kinds of memories and associations of ideas.

We fail, in general, to realise that technique is based on memory, the regulating element of most subconscious phenomena. The artist, even in drawing from nature, is reproducing forms that are memorised between the moment he looks at his model and the moment he puts his pencil on paper. Whether the model is immediately in front of him or was, a day or a month before, the process is the same, and it should not be any more difficult to keep an impression of a form for many hours or even days than for the short space of time required in drawing from nature.

Now, the child has this faculty developed to an extraordinary degree, because his subconscious organisation is still unimpaired, and his mnemonic stimulants have not yet been completely replaced by conscious habits. The younger he is, the easier the process. Why then, should we view accomplishments with wonder, and sometimes suspicion seeing that we take it for granted that learning of languages, which involves a far more complicated mechanism, and is sometimes an impossibility to grown-ups, is the natural privilege of children?

Professor Čížek has successfully demonstrated with his methods that the scope of reflexes can be enlarged, and that because a child is taught to paint, he need not necessarily have in view Art as an end and a profession. Understood in that manner, it ought merely of every child’s education; it should not consist any in the drudgery of drawing or stuffed animals, but should aim at preserving the freshness and spontaneity of the subconscious machine that is still at our disposal in the lumber room of our childhood.

This would help us to develop a greater sense of balance between objective and subjective worlds, to lose the fear engendered by the paralysing respect for our own habits, and we might be able instead of taking our cue from the puzzling contingencies that surround us, to time realities to the rhythm within ourselves, and realise perhaps the perfect harmony described by the Chinese philosopher when he said:

“Last night, I dreamt I was a butterfly, and now that I am awake, I do not know any more whether I am a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.”

Edmund Dulac

˜ ˜ ˜

Edmund Dulac, as everyone knows, was an immensely talented and energetic artist. His other writing (how one wishes for a book by Dulac in the same vein as “The Elements of Drawing” by John Ruskin)

Dulac is right in comparing art to Magic. Images were Magic once, and established in ocre and madder and soot the sacred and intimate connections to the world. The earliest artists drew the world in the same spirit that the First Humans in many mythologies are said to have named the animals: an act of appropriation, preparatory to the act of propitiation. The gesture of image-making was equally sacred, some practiced in secret, some in ceremony, Neolithic art is only the residue of the act of its making. Eventually the very act of drawing was dissociated from the drawing itself, the sanctity being invested in the image itself, the making no longer a part. Nonetheless, in images both sacred and profane magic exists in the intangible made tangible, the very definition of Dulac’s Magic

The Artist put at man’s disposal a tangible world of unrealities by means of the most illusory elements, things that have no existence outside our senses – colour, lines, sound – and made him master if he wishes of a world he could conjure up at will.”

Here Dulac touches on the very reason that pushes the maker of imagery (and for that matter, all the liberal arts) forward: the possibility of touching with your mind’s fingertips the indicible, of conferring a form of reality to something not real – a tangible world of unrealities.

Nevertheless, as Dulac underlines, this “intelligence” is a capacity lost to most adults. “…the child has this faculty developed to an extraordinary degree, because his subconscious organisation is still unimpaired, and his mnemonic stimulants have not yet been completely replaced by conscious habits.” In other worlds, nature, not nurture; a natural capacity which the apprenticeship of adulthood relegates to a memory. No wonder Dulac was enthused by the artwork displayed in London.

˜ ˜ ˜

The illustrations are mostly Christmas scenes, and the artists were all aged between 6 and 16. Every image in the book represents a remarkable achievement. What is it that made the work of these children and teens so accomplished?


christmas pictures 03 intro2christmas pictures 01 title page

christmas pictures 02 intro1

Title page and introduction by Edmund Dulac

Professor Franz Čížek inaugurated his Juvenile Art Class in Vienna in 1897. Prior to that, “the ‘father’ of creative art teaching” studied at The Academy of Fine Arts. Lodging with a carpenter’s family, Čížek spent much time drawing with the carpenter’s many children, and was struck by the spontaneity and directness of their drawing. Sharing his observations with his friends, these latter encouraged him to open his own school and put them into practice. He established a mandate, developed programs, and was allowed to open his first classes.

It’s worth noting that the art scene in fin de siècle Vienna rivaled Paris and Brussels. Čížek rubbed shoulders with Secessionist artists such as Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser and architect Otto Wagner. The official magazine of the Vienna Secession, “Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) began publication in 1898, echoing the German publication “Jugend”, and more traditional “The Studio” in London. An artistic revolution was in the air, stuffy and formalized academism was being supplanted throughout Europe in the wake of the breach opened by the Pre-Raphaelites several decades earlier. Art was Young and Art was New: Jugenstil, Art Nouveau, Modern Style, Secession, Liberty and their less ambitious counterparts: Młoda Polska, Arts & Crafts and Skønvirke, to name a few.

In the words of Ruth Kalmer Wilson, a former pupil of Čížek’s, “When Čížek, himself, came around, the procedure was that you were encouraged to draw something or he would tell a story, or ask some questions or say “draw whatever you want.” That was always in a small format. Then you would draw and make several drawings. Then when Čížek came through after about half an hour, he would go around and look at what people did. When he found something he liked, he asked us to make it big. What was used to work on was white wrapping paper stretched over frames. There were squares three feet by three feet or rectangles three feet by four feet or more.”

She adds: “Figures should be big, at least three quarters of the height of the paper. Pencil or charcoal lines had to remain visible; the paint had to be applied very carefully within or around them. Colours were opaque and flat. A quarter inch border line, painted in a colour of one’s choice was to serve the picture as a natural frame.”

christmas pictures 06 pg17

christmas pictures 05 pg15

christmas pictures 09 pg23

christmas pictures 07 pg19

christmas pictures 08 pg21

christmas pictures 10 pg25

christmas pictures 12 pg29

christmas pictures 11 pg27

christmas pictures 13 pg31

christmas pictures 15 pg35

christmas pictures 14 pg33

Illustrations from “Christmas: pictures by children with an introduction by Edmund Dulac”

Čížek’s classes were free. His teaching has all the idiosyncrasies of a highly personal pedagogy, but was dedicated to nurturing the artistic potential in each individual, not about filling up the ranks of art societies. He stated “The child comes into the world as creator and creates everything out of his imagination… The child is born with creative power, but at a certain age this power begins to decline. Either mannerism or naturalism appears, as a substitute for creative power.” He adds “too many pictures, books, visits to the theatre, cinema, etc., are bad for the child. The child is so strong and rich in his own imaginative world that he needs little else.”

In many ways, his approach echoes the then-prevailing sentiment that simpler peoples, who were considered child-like, had a deeper connection with nature; Rousseau’s noble savage in a classroom with pastels and paints. Nonetheless, the artwork produced by his pupils, if we are to judge by the book, displays many fin-de-siècle tendencies and characteristics, some ascribable to simply drawing from life, others attributable to the Secessionist taste for flat colours and graphic compositions. His observations are indictments against the Victorian establishment as much as they are invitations to explore an artistic purity of spirit.

Nonetheless, an evident sincerity and respect pervade his undertaking. While his pedagogic approach might not seem so extraordinary today, this was a time when girls were still happily excluded (for their own good of course) from many art academies.[2]

Up to fifty pupils attended his Saturday classes and were able to experiment with a wide range of materials, including drawing, painting, wood block printing, wood and plaster carving and modeling with clay. In 1904, the class was incorporated into the School of Applied Arts (where he also taught older students) and continued on until 1938. Franz Čížek died in Vienna, on December 17, 1946.

It is of course impossible to draw any all-embracing conclusion about children’s art from one example. Experts in the field abound, but of course, they are all adults, and I doubt any of them, myself included, recall what drawing actually meant when a child. The Child Art Movement was an eminently laudable undertaking, except the practitioners’ careers are necessarily brief, so definition and direction is by default in the hands of educators and school boards. Remains the encounter between an energetic French expatriate, one of the finest illustrators of all time, and a small exhibition in London, in 1921 or 1922, and the modest book that was the result.

Dulac’s musings, interrogations and appreciations are as fresh as the day they were penned. The ink never dries as far as we adults and Art are concerned: art is for everyone, until art decides what it wishes to do – or not – with us.



[1] To raise money for his Juvenile Art Class, Franz Čížek held the first exhibition of his pupil’s paintings and woodcuts in England as early as 1912, and until 1935. In November 1920, the children’s art was exhibited at the British Institute for Industrial Art in Kingsbridge, before touring the country. Birmingham teacher Francesca Wilson reportedly exhibited the child art in London in 1921, though Dulac attributes the organization of the exhibition he saw to a Mr. Hawker. (1912 also saw the first exhibition of children’s art in Alfred Stieglitz’s New York 291 gallery on Fifth Avenue.)

[2] See previous newsletters:


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DEAR GANDALF, Wed, 15 Jul 2015 11:26:17 +0000 I’ve been meaning to write for some time and have finally resolved to do so following your recent escapade in Paraguay. (I do realize that it was several years ago, but I only just found out about it a couple of weeks ago.) We need to have a talk.

Now, we’ve had a long history together, and I like you very much, another reason which prompts me to write. I do know you love appearing in print – who doesn’t? – but you really MUST pay more attention where you do so. You simply can’t clamber up on just any book cover offered by some publisher; you are supposed to ask first.

Ever since your first appearance in the 1991 Tolkien calendar, and the encore on the cover of the one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings – not to mention a host of other editions, all duly accounted for, I’m sad to have to point out you’ve occasionally gone astray.

First of all, you wandered off to Slovenia, of all places, and while I do concede that the title lettering has a certain panache, you did come out rather greenish-grey, not very becoming.

LOTRfront cover

A Slovenian edition of  The Lord of the Rings, with a certain panache in the title lettering but a certain lack of permissions for use.

In 2003, you were in Turkey, on packages of bubble gum! That awful orange background would have been enough to keep me away. (The gum wasn’t very good either, by the way, but I kept the wrapper.) I suppose I should be grateful I haven’t found you on other foodstuffs. (This said, I’m quite partial  to peppermint-flavoured ice cream; if you’re going to stray, it might as well be on something that I like.)

Turkish Gum Wrapper 3

Gandalf in Turkey, on chewing gum.

Then there was the Ukraine and Serbia, both surprise appearances. You’ve also been a little less discerning than I’d like in other places as well. Those two odd covers in Bulgaria, for example, where you let the publisher re-paint a lot of the picture, and that book in Germany, where you didn’t stay long enough to appear as you were, and they did a portrait from memory. Oddly enough, these seem to involve you donning a red cloak. If you don’t like the grey, we could talk about it, but honestly, that is how you are described in the book.


Serbia & Montenegro - Fellowship of the Ring

Gandalf in Belgrade, both on an edition of the Lord of the Rings, on the Fellowship of the Ring and on David Day’s book. (The various editions pictured on that cover front and back are all illegal uses, at least as far as my images are concerned.

Gandalf twiceLOTR-BulgariaFotR-Bulgaria
Left: A very odd cover commissioned by a German publisher, though Gandalf has swapped his grey cloak for a red one. The next edition of the book featured a new image. Centre and right: Gandalf in red again, this time in Bulgaria, and in curious circumstances.

You do look like you have a guilty conscience on that Russian cover, looking over your shoulder. Also, you’re backwards, you really must make sure if you’re going to let publishers pirate you, they should at least keep you the right way around. You visited Basque country in the same year you were in Turkey (you do get around), admittedly in another image, but still not one I would ever have remotely entertained the idea of approving. Do you recall what the publisher said, that all three Tolkien covers they published were original works, created with Middle-Earth themed elements?

The Fellowship of the Ring - Basque

From left to right: Gandalf in the Ukraine, wandering in Basque country, and looking over his shoulder (backwards) in Russia.

You were all over things with that games publisher in Holland – booster packs, binders – I’m still very peeved about that escapade. But, if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone in your wayward ways, that Nazgûl with the Dark Tower is VERY popular with Russian heavy metal bands, and has appeared on dozens of albums, none of them with permission of course. But then, I kind of hesitate to remonstrate – the Witch King is hardly an amenable fellow, and as for the fell beast, those things have a wicked bite. Ulmo, Lord of the Waters gets around pretty well too, for a guy who can’t leave the sea. Do you recall that Spanish publisher who used 23 (twenty three!) of my illustrations without permission? Happily they agreed to a fee, but I might never have noticed if we hadn’t been in Valencia for an exhibition. (That Turkish publisher comes in second with only eight, but they never bothered to reply.)

2nd Dutch binderdutch ICE DISPLAY BOX





Gandalf in the Low Countries, making an appearance on a binder and on a card box, all without checking beforehand.

And now I discover that back in 2006 you sneaked into Paraguay without a visa and ended up on a book by an author who had a fellow writer condemned to a couple of years behind bars for plagiarism. You really MUST mind the company you keep. People are going to think I somehow condone all that. I confess, though, that I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the world, so I did enjoy appearing in the papers there, even if it was in conjunction with something terribly ironic and so very awkward. (You’ve been to all these countries I would love to visit. Surely you could have sent a card or two.)

En Busca del Tesoro de los Dioses

Gandalf in Paraguay without a visa.

You see, this is the problem, you can’t just think of yourself in these matters. I drew you to make a living and I’m counting on your assistance to continue to do so. You need to explain to publishers that while you can’t necessarily judge a book by it, the cover is nevertheless an important element of the whole and deserves a minimum of attention. You can remind them that they pay the printers and the distributors; why I bet they even pay the caterers when they order in lunch for editorial meetings! Mention that sub-right fees are not very expensive, especially if they publish in a small territory. Mention that nowadays, if you do a Google search by image, chances are that if it’s indeed one of mine, the first hit that comes up will be my web site. So you can stop them right there when they tell you they tried to find me and couldn’t. You are a VERY well known Gandalf and you should not undersell yourself.

In turn I will send them to the picture rights people at HarperCollinsPublishers, and they can work out a fair fee for your appearance. (Please remember to ask them to send copies once you’re printed, I always forget and I hate having to go back and scrounge up contact details and beg copies for my archives.) You have ended up occupying quite a section of shelf space, in a number of languages, it’s an accomplishment you can be proud of, so don’t ruin it by appearing on some unrelated cover with some publisher who thinks you do all this for free. Tell them it’s a livelihood, like any other. They don’t leave the gas station or the restaurant without paying, do they, or decline to pay their phone bills or rental cars?

Here are a few fallacious arguments you might hear:

“We didn’t know whom the image belonged to.” I think I already answered that one. Google. If they found an image of a high enough resolution to use in print, surely they can do an image search.

“We didn’t know how to contact the illustrator.” Suggestion: that they take out an Internet subscription.

“We only used part of it.” Now that’s like handing back half a sandwich and asking for a refund.

“We made changes to the image.” That one is even worse, not only pirating the image, but disfiguring it as well, which is insult Photoshopped on injury if you ask me. Remember that editor who said they had done “original covers based on Middle-Earth themed material”? Tell them to look up “moral rights” on the net.

“It’s a collage, so it’s an original artwork.” I won’t even comment on that one.

“We’re showcasing the your work.” That one is my favourite, for sure. That’s as bad as swiping a book and saying you only did it to promote the author.

“What’s all the fuss about? It’s only a picture.” Tell them it’s the principle of the thing. That may sound a bit old-fashioned, I concur, thou shalt not steal and all that, but copyright is copyright, if they expect theirs to be protected, they should simply respect others’. Or is that a bit too old-fashioned as well? (Also, they must realize that another publisher in the same territory is not going to put in a legitimate request if the image is already pirated in the same bookshops, mustn’t they?)

I agree, some of it leaves you tongue-tied, so you’ve got to be on your toes. Just say to them “You know, sub-rights for re-use of an image can be acquired for a modest fee, for the cost of the price of a few dozen copies of the book, so it would just be so much simpler to ask.”

And while we’re having this conversation, it’s been seventeen years since you were stolen, along with ten other originals, from the exhibition in Sedan, France. Surely the people who still have you, along with Eowyn & the Nazgûl and The Uruk-hai, might think you’ve been staying with them long enough, and that you might come back home now?

Yours, as ever,


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TRANS-ATLANTIC NOCTURNE Fri, 19 Jun 2015 19:36:28 +0000 “With The Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A. D.” by Rudyard Kipling

Surprises are usually found in the most unlikely places (Otherwise, they would hardly be surprises, would they?)

The other day I stumbled on an unusual set of illustrations by Frank Xavier Leyendecker. How does this lead to Kipling? Serendipity of course, which should be a mandatory discipline in schools; I was actually looking for work by Frank Xavier’s brother Joseph Christian.

J. C. Leyendecker epitomizes the glamorous flamboyance of the covers of the Saturday Evening Post for almost the whole first half of the 20th century.[1] He was a friend and an inspiration for Normal Rockwell, he popularized Santa Claus as we know him today (the modern Santa more or less invented, by the way, by Haddon Sundblom for a 1930’s Coca Cola campaign) immortalized the New Year Baby theme and generally reflected everything patriotic and glamorous about the America of his time.

Hardly surprising then, that J. C.’s younger brother Frank, also an illustrator, has seen posterity tuck him away in the shadow of his elder sibling. But first of all: Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling spent his whole life it seems, struggling with belonging and exclusion. Born in India, he was denied the perceived pedigree of birth on British soil. As a citizen of the occupying powers in India, for whose inhabitants, despite prevailing prejudices of the time, he felt a deep affection, he remained a foreigner. Clothing his emotions in literary gruffness and apparent imperialism, Kipling was nevertheless the epitome of a decent man and a gentleman, and above all, besides his better-known poetry, Just So Stories (for which he did truly extraordinary illustrations himself, which marked my childhood deeply) and Jungle Books, he wrote science fiction.[2]

His futuristic story was first published in the United States, in the November 1905 edition of McClure’s Magazine. It appeared in The Windsor Magazine, December 1905, in England. “With The Night Mail: A Story Of 2000 A.D., together with extracts from the magazine in which it appeared” was followed over six years later by a sequel entitled As Easy as A. B. C.” in The London Magazine, in March and April 1912.

Strictly speaking, “With the Night Mail” is hardly a novelette; it belongs more to the undefined realm of journalistic fiction. Kipling develops no plot, presents few characters and no story arc; his tale is a fact-filled fictional report of a night-time Atlantic crossing, beginning with the loading of the mail in Highgate tower, near London, and ending at dawn, arriving at the Heights Receiving Towers in Quebec with twenty minutes to spare on the schedule.

Kipling offers little in the way of explanations; there are no expository passages, instead, he provides a partial view of a complex world with which we, as readers, are as if expected to be familiar. The result is companionable and almost complicit. We learn that airplanes have not caught on; indeed they may have been legislated out of the air, and only dirigibles ply the skies. And what dirigibles, they are pure steampunk eighty years before the term was coined. Kipling imagines them as varied and colourful as sailing ships of old.

Approaching the North American coast “… we met Hudson Bay furriers out of the great Preserve, hurrying to make their departure from Bonavista with sable and black fox for the insatiable markets. We over-crossed Keewatin liners, small and cramped; but their captains, who see no land between Trepassy and Blanco, know what gold they bring back from West Africa. Trans-Atlantic Directs, we met, soberly ringing the world around the Fiftieth Meridian at an honest seventy knots; and white-painted Ackroyd & Hunt fruitiers out of the south fled before us, their ventilated hulls whistling like Chinese kites. Their market is in the North among the northern sanatoria where you can smell their grapefruit and bananas across the cold snows. Argentine beef boats we sighted too, of enormous capacity and unlovely outline. They, too, feed the northern health stations in ice-bound ports where submersibles dare not rise.

Yellow-bellied ore-flats and Ungava petrol-tanks punted down leisurely out of the north like strings of unfrightened wild ducks. It does not pay to “fly” minerals and oil a mile farther than necessary; but the risks of transhipping to submersibles off Nain or Hebron are so great that these heavy freighters fly down to Halifax direct, and scent the air as they go. They are the biggest tramps aloft except the Athabasca grain-tubs. But these last, now that the wheat is moved, are busy, over the world’s shoulder, timber-lifting in Siberia.”

“Fleury’s Paradox of the Bulkheaded Vacuum” powers these multifarious airships. “Even Fleury, who begat it and, unlike Magniac, died a multi-millionaire, could not explain how the restless little imp shuddering in the U-tube can, in the fractional fraction of a second, strike the furious blast of gas into a chill grayish-green liquid that drains (you can hear it trickle) from the far end of the vacuum through the eduction-pipes and the mains back into the bilges. Here it returns to its gaseous, one had almost written sagacious, state and climbs to work afresh. Bilge-tank, upper tank, vacuum, main return (as a liquid), and bilge-tank once more is the ordained cycle. Fleury’s Ray sees to that; and the engineer with the tinted spectacles sees to Fleury’s Ray. If a speck of oil, if even the natural grease of the human finger touch the hooded terminals Fleury’s Ray will wink and disappear and must be laboriously built up again. This means half a day’s work for all hands and an expense of one hundred and seventy-odd pounds to the G. P. O. for radium-salts and such trifles.”

Air traffic is guided by Mark Boats – dirigibles tethered to locations – and powerful beacons. “Our planet’s overlighted if anything,” says Captain Purnall at the wheel, as Cardiff-Bristol slides under. “I remember the old days of common white verticals that ‘ud show two or three thousand feet up in a mist, if you knew where to look for’em. In really fluffy weather, they might as well have been under your hat. One could get lost coming home then, an’ have some fun. Now, it’s like driving down Piccadilly.”

He points to the pillars of light where the cloud-breakers bore through the cloud floor. We see nothing of England’s outlines: only a white pavement pierced in all directions by these manholes of variously coloured fire – Holy Island’s white and red – St. Bee’s uninterrupted white, and so on as far as the eye can reach. Blessed be Sargent, Ahrens, and the Dubois brothers, who invented the cloud-breakers of the world whereby we travel in security!”’

All this is under the watchful eyes of the A. B. C. or Aerial Board of Control “… that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of box sexes, controls the planet. ‘Transportation is Civilization,’ our motto runs. Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies.” Practically, the A. B. C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of private administration on its shoulders.” The A. B. C., we conclude, is a dystopian de facto world government, but Kipling tells us little about it.
He does, however, provide us with a wonderfully inventive series of mock advertisements that flesh out the world of the Night Mail, touting everything from Ardagh’s hydraulic buffer-stops (“Remember our motto ‘Upward and Outward,’ and do not trust yourself to so-called ‘rigid’ guide bars) to Wright & Oldis’ Hooded Binnacles with dip-dials automatically recording change of level. (Catalogues free throughout the Planet).


The mock advertisements accompanying the magazine publication, also included in the book.

We find out a good deal more in the sequel “As Easy as A. B. C.,” first published in various Sunday papers in the United States on 25 February and 12 March 1912 and in the London Magazine of March and April the same year. We are in the year 2065 and the Aerial Board of Control send a gang of trouble-shooters to Illinois, which has severed communications and where people are muttering about dangerous and distasteful concepts like democracy. Naturally, there will be trouble. Novelistically more ambitious, the sequel has triggered much debate about Kipling’s stance on society, though it seems few critics agree on more than Kipling’s dislike of agitation and turmoil, and his idealistic and paternalist yearning for a happier world.


Artwork by F. Gardner for “As Easy As A. B. C.”, including an advertisement for the issue in which it appeared.

The story was published with the illustrations of F. Gardner (1882-1968) Gardner was a British illustrator, active from the early 1900’s to 1940’s, producing advertisements, cartoons, posters, book and magazine illustrations (including illustrations for “The Morning of Time” by Charles G.D. Roberts, a prehistoric novel in which a stone-age tribe flees from volcanic dangers and seeks a new home, meeting dinosaurs and waging war with its enemies, serialized in The London Magazine in 1912/13) and was a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and president of the London Sketch Club in 1943-44.

As for the illustrations accompanying the various appearances of “With the Night Mail”, they are the work of three illustrators. F. X. Leyendecker’s illustrations appeared with the publication in book form, accompanied by one illustration by H. Reuterdahl, who had provided three images for the serialization in McClure’s Magazine. Windsor Magazine commissioned H. C. Seppings Wright to illustrate its edition, also including two illustrations by Reuterdahl.

Henry Charles Seppings Wright (1850-1937) was a British artist and naval illustrator who served as a war correspondent and contributed to numerous magazines such as Vanity Fair (under the unusual nom de plume de “Stuff”) and the Illustrated London News.

Henry Reuterdahl (1870-1925) was a Swedish-American marine painter, the US Navy’s official artist during WWI, member of the Society of Illustrators and the American Watercolor Society. He also taught at the Art Students league of New York.


Artwork by Henry Reuterdahl and H. C. Seppings Wright for Windsor Magazine, London, and McClure’s Magazine, New York.

As for Franz Xavier Leyendecker (also known as Frank or F. X. Leyendecker), whose work it was that initially drew me into this whole newsletter, he was born in Montabaur, Germany in March 1876. Youngest of four children; his three siblings were Adolph, born in 1869; Augusta Mary, born in 1872, and Joseph Christian, in 1874. Peter and Elizabeth Leyendecker and their four children emigrated to America and settled in Chicago in 1882. They set up house at 5334 East Lake Avenue, with Peter working as a brewer in the McAvoy Brewery.

In 1897 Adolph struck out west, eventually settling in Kansas. The two younger brothers packed their bags and went to Paris, where they studied at the Académie Julian.[3] The year they spent in the French capital left them with an enduring influence of Art Nouveau, and Frank with an addiction to morphine.

On their return to Chicago, Christian and Frank shared a studio in the Fine Arts Building at 410 Michigan Avenue. First commissions were not long in coming, presaging successful careers for them both. Frank ‘s first jobs were book illustrations and book cover designs. Joseph produced his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1899. In 1900, the Leyendeckers moved to New York City, where Elizabeth died at age 60, in 1905. Frank illustrated “With the Night Mail” for Doubleday four years later, in 1909.[4] The following year saw the remaining members of the Leyendecker family move together to 114 Pelham Road in New Rochelle. A few years later, Joseph’s fame was at its height, making him wealthy enough to build a private mansion. The whole family, the two brothers, their sister Augusta and their father, along with Tom Beach, Joseph’s “model, lover, cook and business manager,” moved into 40 Mount Tom Road in 1914. Frank occupied an independent wing of the house. Two years later, Peter Leyendecker died, aged 79.

Frank, battling depression and his morphine addiction, fell out with Joseph in 1923, moving out of the Leyendecker mansion. He found refuge in an unfinished garage apartment belonging to Norman Rockwell. Rockwell later said, “Frank had the furniture from his bedroom in the mansion moved in. A magnificent four-poster Baroque Italian bed, set against the west wall, occupied half the floor space. He also moved in hand-carved chairs from the same period and a large oriental rug that he never bothered to unroll. With his failing health and a career that was all but over, Frank Leyendecker passed away on Good Friday, 1924.” One of Frank’s last published illustrations, entitled “A Modern Witch”, appeared on the cover of the October 4th edition of Life magazine in 1923.

F. X. Leyendecker ARTWORK

A Selection of Artwork by F. X. Leyendecker: “The Flapper”, far left, is one of his better-known covers for Life Magazine. Far right: “A modern Witch”, cover art for Life Magazine, October 4th, 1923, the last of his paintings to be published before his death.

There is a good deal of speculation about Frank’s sexual orientation, and the difficulty of living in close proximity to his far more successful brother. It is possible his death was a suicide. He was 47 years old.

Beach and Leyendecker remained together for 49 years. Joseph Leyendecker’s lavish lifestyle saw the last years of his life plagued by financial concerns; Augusta and Beach sold many of his paintings – now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – for a pittance to make ends meet. Leyendecker died on July 25th, 1951, followed a few months later by Beach.

For “With the Night Mail,” Frank supplied endpapers and three illustrations, possibly the cover design as well. One illustration by Harry Reuterdahl, originally published in both MacClure’s and Windsor magazines, was also included. Frank’s imagery possesses the Old-World elegance and ready allegory he must have encountered as a student in Paris. The paintings are done with a freedom that characterizes his brother’s later work: sureness of hand, elegance of proportion and a clear sense of post-modern design… how one wishes to have been the fly on the wall while sketches and originals were being produced in that studio in the Fine Arts Building in 1909.

All in all, “With the Night Mail” is an extraordinary book, with the bonus of having Reuterdahl’s haunting painting of the pithed dirigible reproduced in colour; most of the others for Windsor and McClure’s Magazines were printed in black and white.

Above all, though, it is the encounter of two worlds that interests me: the visual world of F. X. Leyendecker and the dystopian vision of Rudyard Kipling, both having ventured into the realm of imaginative futurism for the space of a few pages. Leyendecker, to my knowledge, never pursued science fiction, nor did Kipling, with the exception of the sequel to Night Mail.

The result is an odd little book, handsomely bound, (the pages printed only on one side; the verso of each page is blank) elegantly illustrated, and augmented with Kipling’s fanciful advertisements and “period” texts. It is quite unique. I’m grateful for the coincidences that allowed me to stumble on it.

Serendipity. As I said, it should be taught in schools. And 2000 A. D. was only a decade and a half ago. Where are all the airships?

WITH THE NIGHT MAIL  From left to right: Cover, endpapers, frontispiece, title page, interior illustrations. See extended captions below


“A Planet liner, east bound, heaves up in a superb and takes the air of us humming. Her underbody colloid is open and her transporter-slings hang down like tentacles. We shut off our beam as she adjusts herself – steering to a hair – over the tramp’s conning-tower. The mate comes up, his arm strapped to one side, and stumbles into the cradle. A man with a ghastly scarlet head follows, shouting that he must go back and build up his Ray. The mate assures him he will find a nice new Ray all ready in the liner’s engine-room. The bandaged head goes up wagging excitedly. A youth and a woman follow. The liner cheers above us, and we see the passenger’s faces at the saloon colloid.


Captain Hodgson opens the underbody colloid, swings the heavy pithing-iron out of its rack which in liners is generally used as a settee, and at two hundred feet releases the catch. We hear the whir of the crescent-shaped arms opening as they descend. The derelict’s forehead is punched in, starred across, and rent diagonally. She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her.

 “THE STORM” Following page 39 

He is less than just to the good element. If one intrudes on the Heavens when they are balancing their volt-accounts; if one disturbs the High Gods’ market-rates by hurling steel hulls at ninety knots across the tremblingly adjusted electric tensions, one must not complain of any rudeness of reception.

 “I’VE ASKED HIM TO TEA ON FRIDAY.” Following page 58

In ten seconds the coach with its clerks clashed down to the receiving-caisson; the hostlers displaced the engineers at the idle turbines, and Tim, prouder than all, introduced me to the maiden of the photograph on the shelf. “And by the way,” he said to her, stepping forth in sunshine under the hat of civil life, “I saw young Williams in the Mark Boat. I’ve invited him to tea on Friday.”


[1] I will leave a proper exploration of J. C. Leyendecker’s prolific career to those who have already done so. (“J. C. Leyendecker: American Imagist”, by Laurence Cutler & Judy Goffman Cutler is a good volume as any to start.) He is a pivotal figure in the flourishing of the image of the American Dream. It is likely you have seen his work, even if you have not put a name to it.

[2] I will leave proper exploration of Kipling’s life, work and political views to those who have written extensively and expertly about them. There is a wide choice. There is also his autobiography “Something of Myself”, written in 1937. “Just So Stories”, published in 1902, with Kipling’s own pictures, is a must-have for every library.

[3] Notable students of the Académie are far too many to list, but include such names as Alfons Mucha, Fernand Khnopf, Charles F. Goldie, Käthe Kollwitz and John Singer Sargent. The school was founded in 1868.

[4] Coincidentally, this was the year that saw the founding of Futurism, which, while it left great piles of manifestos on just about everything, (including such oddities as “Perspectives of Flight”, a passionate defense of “Aeropittura” or aeropianting, in 1926, although aeropainter Fortunato Depero did design the Campari bottle), had faded away by the 1930’s . In a sense, the future caught up with it.

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BLACK CATS, STILL LIFES & CLOUD MAKERS Sat, 28 Feb 2015 06:37:06 +0000 The Astonishing Fantasy Art of Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter

Serendipity is a wonderful thing; on occasion one’s eye is snagged by a chance image, opening up a whole new world. It happened to me a year or so ago, when I stumbled on the work of Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter.[1] (I subsequently mislaid the folder in which I had amassed a handful of images, and even managed to forget her name, though a little diligent searching and some adroit key words unearthed it again.)

That’s the way it is when you fall in love with an image. They never go away.

Nelly Littlehale was born in 1867, in Stockton, California. “As a twelve year old, Nelly Littlehale Murphy showed an early talent as a floral watercolorist, roaming the hills of Butte, Montana, and capturing the wildflowers with her paints.” [2]   By age seventeen, she had enrolled at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, studying under Otto Grundmann, Joseph DeCamp and C. Howard Walker at the MFA School from 1885-87. There she met her future husband, the artist Hermann Dudley Murphy, who courted her, but unsuccessfully at the time.

According to another short biographical note, she was a “…painter, illustrator, and etcher, noted for her watercolor paintings of landscapes and flowers. Lived and exhibited in the Massachusetts area. Nelly Littlehale married Herman Daniel Umbstaetter in 1893. In 1916, she married again, to painter Hermann Dudley Murphy.”

Nelly’s first husband, editor, publisher, and short story writer Hermann Daniel Umbstaetter (b. 1851 – d. 1913), was the founder of “The Black Cat”, a fiction magazine dedicated to short stories. Founded in 1895, it might be considered the precursor to the famous pulps that were to follow several decades later; the Black Cat showed a preference for “unusual” stories. The May 1899 issue featured “A Thousand Deaths” by Jack London. Other writers included Rupert Hughes, Rex Stout, O. Henry, Frank Pollock and Harry Steven Keeler. Clark Aston Smith, close friend of H. P. Lovecraft, contributed two adventures stories to the publication.

The first issue of The Black Cat appeared in October 1895, with a cover by Nelly. She created a grand number of covers for “The Black Cat”, a serious of variations on the trademark black cat of the title, as well as providing material for the inside pages.





Left: Nelly Umbstaetter’s cover designs for The Black Cat, from 1895 to 1897. Right: From 1898 to 1902

001 - BLACK CAT 3 1902-1909

001 - BLACK CAT 4 1910-1922





 Left: Nelly Umbstaetter’s cover designs for The Black Cat, from 1902 to 1909. Right: From 1910 to 1922

In the editors’ own words: “The Black Cat is devoted exclusively to original, unusual, fascinating stories – every number is complete in itself. It publishes no serials, translations, borrowing, or stealings. It pays nothing for the name or reputation of the writer, but the highest price on record for Stories that are Stories, and it pays not according to length, but according to strength.” 

The first issue of The Black Cat appeared in October 1895, with a cover by Nelly, featuring a very Victorian lady with a witch’s hat placing a laurel crown on the head of a black cat, both seated on a crescent moon. Issue 2 continues in a similar vein, followed by covers featuring the trademark black cat. The cover price of 5 cents doubled in 1908, finally reaching 20 cents in the late 1910’s. The publishing history of the Black Cat comprises some 300-plus issues (64 pages, 6 x 9 inches), mostly on a regular monthly basis, with the issues of the first half of 1922 appearing twice monthly. Until 1919, it was published by The Short Story Publishing Company, in 1920 by Black Cat and 1922 by William Kane, who was the last editor of the magazine.[3] Founder Hermann Umbstaetter remained editor until his death in1912. Nelly seems to have created all the covers during this period, with others featuring her designs afterwards. The S. E. Cassino Company acquired The Black Cat after the death of its founding editor, moving operations from Boston to Salem. The last issue appeared in 1922 or 1923.

It is likely that the changes or proprietor (and the format: the magazine appeared in larger pulp format in 1920) led to its demise. The Black Cat gave many well-known writers their start, most notably Jack London, who paid tribute to the editor in an introduction to “The Red-Hot Dollar and Other Stories from The Black Cat”,  published in 1911. London, who found himself struggling to earn a living, and find editors who would grudgingly pay him the going rate of ten dollar per thousand words, received a letter from Umbstaetter offering him 40 dollars for the 4,000-word story, “A Thousand Deaths,” and requesting permission to cut the story in half. “Give permission!” London wrote. “It was equivalent to twenty dollars per thousand, or double the minimum rate. Give permission! I told Mr. Umbstaetter he could cut it down by two-halves if he’d only sent the money along. He did by return mail.” London was forever grateful to Umbstaetter, saying he had saved his career. Aspiring 27-year old Henry Miller received his first cheque for a published piece of his work, part

of a series of story critiques for The Black Cat Magazine in 1919.

001 - Cat's Kindergarten Nelly Littlehale Umbstaett copy001 - BLACK CAT 5 All Pearl & Diamond Dyes ads

 Left and centre Advertisements from The Black Cat featuring Nelly’s artwork. Right: The terms and conditions of publication in The Black Cat.

 Hermann Umbstaetter’s death was premature. On November 25th, 1913, he died of a self-inflicted wound in a hunting accident. According to a newspaper account, “as he was climbing a wall his rifle was discharged and the bullet penetrated his body just below the heart.”

˜ ˜ ˜

Nelly’s second spouse, Hermann Dudley Murphy, (b. 1867 in Marlborough MA; d. 1945, in Lexington) “son of a shoe manufacturer, was educated at Chauncey Hall School and at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts under Joseph DeCamp. Murphy worked as artist and surveyor for the Nicaragua Canal Survey Expedition (1887-88) and did newspaper and magazine illustration (1886-1891). He went to Paris in 1891 and studied at the Academie Julian where he served as massier in Laurens’ atelier. In 1895 he married Caroline Bowles, a student in the Laurens’ class. Upon the couple’s return to the United States, they settled in Winchester, MA. where they built a house and studio in 1903. Murphy and Charles Prendergast set up a frame business, Carrigrohane Shop, in the basement of the house. In 1905 the business was moved to Boston and later joined into partnership with Vose Galleries. The frames designed by the artists were hand carved and influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Whistler. Murphy divorced Caroline in 1915 and the following year married Nelly Littehale Umbstaetter whom he had known in Paris. Murphy taught life drawing at the Harvard School of Architecture (1901-1937). During World War I he worked as inspector of camouflage for the U.S. Shipping Board. His work is heavily influenced by Whistler and exhibits his qualities of aestheticism, delicacy and poetic feeling. Murphy was interested in portraiture early, but soon turned his focus to landscape painting and in the 1920s to flower painting. Murphy painted on Cape Cod, Marblehead, Woodstock, New York City, Ogunquit, Mt. Monadnock (with Charles Woodbury in the winter of 1907), the Mediterranean (1908), the Azores (also with Woodbury), Puerto Rico (with Henry Ward Ranger), California and Mexico (1930s). A memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Grand Central Art Galleries in 1946.”[4]




Left: A selection of Nelly’s still lives. Centre: Nelly’s landscape paintings. Right: Nelly’s signatures; worthy of note, the anagram NLM, which echoes her signature NLU from her first marriage.

There seem to be few identifiable milestones in Nelly’s life. Born in 1867, she entered art school at a precocious age of 17, married a first time at the age of 26 (Umbstaetter, 16 years her senior) was in Paris some time between 1911 and 1914, married a second time in 1916 (at age 49, to Murphy, who had divorced from his first wife Caroline H. Bowles after a lengthy estrangement). She died in 1941 (or 1942), survived by Murphy, who died four years later. She exhibited at the Guild of Boston Artists in 1926 (solo) and 1937 and at Macbeth Gallery in New York (solo) and at the Boston Art Club in 1929. A memorial exhibition of her work was held in 1942; the catalogue published by the Guild of Boston Artists.

The Nelly Littlehale Murphy archive, preserved in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, contains:
“Clippings, exhibition catalogs, and photographs documenting Murphy’s work as a painter and illustrator in the Massachusetts area. The clippings are comprised of reviews for Nelly Murphy and her husband, painter Hermann Dudley Murphy, and his 1945 obituary. The exhibition catalogs, many of them illustrated, range from 1846 (National Academy of Design catalog inscribed to Murphy) to 1942 (her memorial exhibition). Photographs depict paintings and Murphy and her husband. Other materials consist of an original pencil sketch, 4 reproductions, a 4-page inventory of her paintings, a 1941 letter inventorying her work, and a short original essay entitled ‘The Land That Never Was’”.[5]

Following her second marriage, abandoning fantasy for fine art, Nelly painted a healthy number of appealing if traditional watercolours of flowers and landscapes, in this echoing her second husband’s largely conservative career.

Nelly studied at Harvard during the summer of 1914.  Shewas an avid gardener, arranging flowers from her own garden for the still lifes done in the Lexington studio. Of her work, her husband said:  “Rarely have flowers been painted with greater charm in arrangement, and mastery of the technique of Water Color.”

She and her second husband seem to have traveled widely. They certainly spent time in Italy; the house they built in 1919 in Lexington (which still exists today) was apparently inspired by a home they fell in love with in Florence. An oil painting (signed, and dedicated “To my friend Sidney Sargent and his wife… June 5th 1921”) by her husband indicates they also visited Venice. A 1925 watercolour by Nelly (if indeed done in situ) places her in the Borda Garden in Cuernavaca, Mexico. An undated landscape from Puerto Rico indicated travels in the Caribbean. England was also one of their destinations.

Some idea of their life and travels is certainly contained in the Hermann Dudley Murphy papers, circa 1878-1982.

“The papers of painter and frame maker Hermann Dudley Murphy measure 2.8 linear feet and date from circa 1878-1982. Found are biographical materials, correspondence, writings, personal business records, printed materials, a scrapbook, photographs, and original artworks, including sketchbooks.

The bulk of the papers focus on the later part of Herman Dudley Murphy’s career. Specifically, correspondence focuses on the sale of still-life paintings and sketches and sketchbooks are mostly from Murphy’s travels through Europe and Mexico from the 1920s to the 1930s. Correspondents include: Mary Ogden Abbott, Edwin S. Barrie, Maurice Prendergast, Chauncey Ryder, Theodore Sizer, Edmund Tarbell, Alexander Trowbridge, and Vose Gallery among others. Personal business records comment on the sale of works of art from 1897 until 1944. Printed materials include clippings and exhibition catalogs spanning Murphy’s career. One scrapbook contains photos and printed materials. Photographs and snapshots are of Hermann Dudley Murphey and family, family travels, and works of art and frames. Artwork consists of loose sketches, prints, and sketchbooks.”[6]

Nelly was awarded the Purchase prize for watercolor from the Boston Art Club in 1929. Her works can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Stockton Museum of Arts, and the New Britain Museum of American Art. She was a member of the American Watercolor Society, Copley Society and the Boston Guild of Artists. [7]

PORTRAIT OF A LADYNelly’s possible self-portrait.

Regrettably there are no photographs of Nelly publicly available, though Herman Murphy’s papers do contain snapshots of both his families, including Nelly. An intriguing portrait of a lady, painted some time before 1925, signed “Little Murph” is potentially a self-portrait.[8]

˜ ˜ ˜

Most remarkable, though, is the work she produced for “Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge In Ten Volumes”, published by Geo. L. Shuman & Company, Chicago and Boston, in 1914.

The ten volumes were entitled as follows.











Our Wonder WorldIn Fairyland





 Left: Nelly’s frontispiece for Volume V of Our Wonder World. Right: Title page of Our Wonder World.

Nelly’s work is featured in Volume V, Every Child’s Story Book, in the form of a modest series of illustrations that place her shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Heath Robinson and Arthur Rackham. While it is admittedly presumptuous to imagine what she might have done with similar subjects over a longer period, the handful of illustrations offers a glimpse of a visual universe unlike any other; impossible to confuse Nelly Umbstaetter’s work with any other artist.

Volume V contains only five of her illustrations. There is a frontispiece, and two sets of images: The Leaf Makers and the Cloud Makers, between pages 148 & 149 and 386 & 387 respectively. Each set shows the inhabitants and their abode, on facing pages, with a simple title and a copyright notice. They are not part of one of the many chapters (which mix texts on exotic lands, historical accounts and traditional stories) nor are there any accompanying texts. Were they not listed among the other illustrations; it is as if they had been bound into the book at the last minute, almost an afterthought, or a sudden decision to add a touch of (subdued) colour and fantasy.

As far as I can tell, there are five sets of illustrations, though only two are in Volume V; the other two are perhaps in another volume of the series, or in another publication. I have found a modest handful of her fairy tale work, but all in all, perhaps only a dozen or so images. Perhaps not enough after all to imagine her rubbing shoulders with the prolific likes of Robinson and Rackham, only a wistful hint of might-have-been.

Home of the The Leaf Makers

The Leaf Makers





 Left: Home of the Leaf Makers. Right: The Leaf Makers.

Home of the Cloud Makers

The Cloud Makers





 Left: Home of the Cloud Makers. Right: The Cloud Makers.

Home of the Snow Makers

The Snow Makers





 Left: Home of the Snow Makers. Right: The Snow Makers.

Home of the Rain Makers

The Rain Makers





Left: Home of the Rain Makers. Right: The Rain Makers.

Home of the Wind Gatherers

The Wind Gatherers





 Left: Home of the Wind Gatherers. Right: The Wind Gatherers.

Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter’s bibliography is frustratingly brief. She illustrated “Stories of the Olden Time” by Boston author Edna Dow Littlehale Cheney, published in 1890. She also provided illustrations for “Chicken Little told in rhyme”, by Anne Haven Thwing, published by the Press of S. J. Parkville & co., Boston, in 1899. There are several catalogues of her exhibitions, one intriguingly titled “Elephants and others: exhibition of water colors by Nelly Littlehale Murphy”. Almost certainly, there would be more titles, additional publications, perhaps even her own words, tucked away in those archives in Washington.

While it’s hardly appropriate to regret that she painted flowers rather than fantasy, I cannot help wondering what world these brief glimpses offer. So, you’ll have to forgive me for exploring every trivial detail of her life and career (the Murphys shared an interest in deck-seat canoeing, for example), for seeking out ALL the covers of The Black Cat, for tracking down her varying signatures and detailing the lives of her two spouses. All this is because we are missing the most important thing: Nelly’s herself, and, above all, Nelly’s own voice. Very possibly that voice is to be found in the papers at the Smithsonian. I hope someone, one day, seeks it out.

 ˜ ˜ ˜

So, faced with a mirage and a few pictures, I find myself musing on the nature and definition of style, intrigued by the sudden resonance that can exist between the spectator and a picture. How many times we have all said, “I love that!” in front of a painting or an illustration? It’s a familiar sentiment in my case – each and every time I stumble across an old illustration that strikes a chord. Immediately, I wonder who the person was, what life they led and where, how they worked; I imagine a studio, grand or modest, and an array – or disarray – of materials, paper, paints. I imagine them at the publishers, or gazing at a proof, all of those things we do ourselves…

Naturally, all of this is daydreaming. Daydreaming I owe to those Image Makers, long gone and sometimes long forgotten, to whom I am forever grateful. I imagine them in some extraordinary dwelling that Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter herself might have imagined: The Home of the Image Makers, where the inhabitants cast nets over rainbows, haul them in and squeeze the colours into jars, where they harness the wind to breathe life into their paintings, peer into magical telescopes through whose lenses they can see into the lands of illusion, scribbling in sketchpads, or wetting brushes in the warm liquid light of dawn and the cool washes of dusk… listening to the wind, which brings distant strains of melody from far across the valley, where the Home of the Music Makers is perched…

That’s the way it is when you fall in love with images. They never go away, they never fade. They simply grow richer.

˜ ˜ ˜

 Next newsletter will be about the extraordinary work of another astonishing female illustrator: Rose Cecil O’Neill.

Special thanks to the Vose Gallery in Boston. None of the images reproduced in this newsletter are shown with the express consent of the original copyright holders; I am more than happy to add copyright notices, or remove illustrations if requested.


[1] Born Nelly (or Nellie) Littlehale, she signed her work as Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter and subsequently Nelly Littlehale Murphy.

[2] Text from the web site of the Vose Gallery, Boston

[3] The full list of editors of The Black Cat is as follows: 1895 – 1912: Herman D. Umbstaetter; 1912: Theresa Dyer; 1914: T.H. Kelly; 1915 – 1921: Harold E. Bessom; 1922: William R. Kane.

[4] Ibid

[5] The collection was donated to the Smithsonian by Alexander B. Samoiloff and Dudley D. B. Samoiloff, are the sons of Nelly Littlehale Murphy’s stepdaughter, Caroline Bowles Murphy Samoiloff.

[6] From The Hermann Dudley MURPHY Papers, circa 1878-1982, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, by Jayna M. Josefson. The archive contains a folder temptingly labeled “Nelly Murphy Material, 1936”. The collection was donated in 1985 by Alexander B. and Dudley D. B. Samoiloff, grandsons of Hermann Dudley Murphy. (He had two children by his first wife Caroline Bowles.)

[7] Edan Hughes, “Artists in California 1786-1940 ” and Erica Hirshler, ” A Studio of Her Own, Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 .”

[8] How regrettable Washington is so far away – how I would love to consult the archives at the Smithsonian. That, however, is a task for a serious biographer. Hopefully it will happen one day.

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ILLUSION’S FAR COASTS – THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF RUTH HAMBIDGE Sun, 01 Feb 2015 09:07:22 +0000 A couple of years ago, I bought a book entitled The Coasts of Illusion, written by a certain Clark B. Firestone, published by Harper Brothers Publishers, New York & London, in 1924.[1]

It is a curiously inspired book, given that it seems to be only time that the author ventured into the genre; his other writing consisting principally of travel books. The book itself is entertaining and knowledgeable, but most of all, and this was a surprise, it is illustrated. In all, there are seventeen illustrations: eight are reproductions of period paintings or photographs, the remaining nine are illustrations done by Ruth Hambidge.

Naturally, once the book opened on one of those eight illustrations, I immediately went to the title page, where her name figures with the mention

With Drawings by


Of course, from there, straight to an Internet search, which yielded practically nothing initially (aside from Google’s helpful hint that I might have meant Ruth Hamblin). A bit more digging, though, did uncover several titles that she illustrated. There are certainly more.

Palace Playtime (in the Pinafore Palace Series) by Kate Douglas Wiggin & Nora Archibald Smith, published by Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York, in 1923. The book contains poems by Kate Greenaway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Mapes Dodge, Laurence Alma Tadema.

In the same Pinafore Palace Series: Nursery Nonsense, by Kate Douglas Wiggin & Nora Archibald Smith, also published in 1923 or 1924.

Baby’s Friend and Nursery Heroes and Heroines, by Kate Douglas Wiggin & Nora Archibald Smith, published by Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York, 1923

Baby’s Plays and Journeys, by Satis N. Coleman & Alice G. Thorn, 1923

Singing Time: A Book of Songs for Little Children, by Satis N. Coleman & Alice G. Thorn, published by the John Day Company, New York, 1929.

The Candy Box, by Anna Bird Stewart, published by Robert M. McBride & Company, New York, in 1929. Collection of children’s poems about candy, illustrated in black and white, 57 pages.

Children Are Like That, by C. Madeleine Dixon, published by the John Day Company[2], New York, in 1930. (It is part of a slightly disquieting series of books with titles ending in “…Are Like That” concerning, to name a few: Men, The Japanese, Jews, The English…)

The Gingerbread Man and Other Songs of the Children’s Story-Book Friends, by Satis N. Coleman, published by The John Day Company, New York, in 1931

Other books illustrated by Ruth Hambidge

A selection of books containing Ruth Hambidge’s illustrations

˜ ˜ ˜

In its December 29th issue, the New York weekly The Saturday Review of Literature (est. 1924), published the following review:


By RUTH HAMBIDGE. Day. 1929.
Since small children are both ignorant and uncensorious they will doubtless be delighted with this map with its attractive coloring and profusion of small figures scattered over the face of the globe. Their elders, however, may very probably take amiss, despite the publishers’ explanatory comment, the exaggerations and distortions of the map. No impressions are more tenacious than those formed in early youth, as anyone will attest who has gone through life subconsciously checking off the reality of geographical knowledge against the mental images formed in childhood. Deliberately to shrink the waters about Europe so as to make it appear a ferry ride from Greece to Alexandria, for instance, seems to us an entirely mistaken scheme. So, too, does it seem to us strange to make Switzerland, the country of Heidi, barren of all child life—as are also New Zealand and Madagascar—and Italy inhabited solely by a small boy perpetually strumming on a guitar. In them- selves the figures presented are vivacious and attractive, even though in one of the dairy sections of the United States a youngster of about four years of age towers above the cow against which he leans. And, judiciously supplemented with a parent’s comments, there is, to be sure, much information to be derived from Miss Hambidge’s map. But it needs such supplementing. Otherwise it were best to regard it merely as designed for amusement and not for instruction at all.

 Ruth Hambidge seems to have worked almost exclusively for New York publishers. Whether this places her in New York or environs is only speculation (as “Miss Hambidge” might – or not – conceivably be taken as an indication she was unmarried in 1929). Had she met the authors she illustrated: Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856 –1923), the author of the bestseller Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and tireless militant for children’s rights; her sister Nora Archibald Smith, also a prolific children’s author; Satis Narona Coleman (1878-1961) a pioneer in music instruction for children; songwriter and composer Alice G. Thorn (nee Green); educator and children’s book author Anna Bird Stewart, or Claire Madeleine Dixon? No other detail of her life emerged.

˜ ˜ ˜

 This is where the detective episode really starts. lists a reprint of a book called “Enchanted Acre: Adventures in Backyard Farming, 1935, by Gove Hambidge and Ruth Hambidge. The August 10, 1964 issue of the Monterey Peninsula Herald states, in the obituary of a certain Graeme D. Hambidge, that “In addition to his wife, he leaves a sister, Mrs. Ruth Hambidge Camp of Huntington, Long Island, N.Y.; and a brother, Gove Hambidge of Kensington, Md.” From there, the Scarsdale Examiner, in the column The Children’s Bookshelf of March 9, 1934, mentions “‘Old Mother Wiggle Waggle’ which dates back to 1870, is among the play songs in this book. No group of songs for little children would be complete without those of Mrs. Satis Coleman, illustrated by Mrs. Ruth Hambidge Camp.” This leads to a possible date of birth: 1893, and death: 1986. And to a potential spouse: Kenneth F. Camp (b. Aug. 4, 1897, d. Aug. 7, 1963), married 15 September 1921, in Queens… and that is about as far as I am willing to go without taking out subscriptions to ancestry tracing sites. An acceptable biography of Ruth Hambidge will have to wait for a real illustration historian.

It is doubtful whether she might have encountered Firestone, who had, by the time Coasts of Illusion was published in 1924, moved back to his native Ohio (he was born in Lisbon on September 10th, 1869) as the editorial writer for The Cincinnati Star-Times. (He became associate editor in 1930, until his retirement in 1954.) His other titles include Sycamore Shores (1936) relating river journeys in the Middle West; Bubbling Waters (1938), walking tours in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee; Journey to Japan (1940) and a popular title called Flowing South (1941), the account of extensive travels on the Missouri and the Mississippi. Later in his life, he penned three volumes of poetry, The Winding Road (1937), Tower Window (1949) and The Yesterdays (1953). He died in Cincinnati on June 3rd, 1957.


Left: Dust jacket of the The Coasts of Illusion. Right: The book cover.



Left: Ruth Hambidge’s design for the endpapers. Right: Title page

A review published in the London weekly The Spectator on January 24th, 1926 describes The Coasts of Illusion in these terms:

“In The Coasts of Illusion (Harpers) Mr. Clark B. Firestone has produced an extraordinarily interesting and thorough work on the ” travel tales which have been told in good faith from the earliest dawn of history to the middle of the nineteenth century “; ” veracious stories ” of crocodile tears, mermaids, hippogrifs, unicorns, dragons, dog-headed men, monkey-tailed men, one-eyed men, ” men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” men who could blanket the upper parts of their bodies with their ears,” men formed like eels, who ” are harmless unless provoked. They will `stand bolt upright for hours together, gazing on the boyes at their sportes, never offring to hurt any of them.’ ” Mr. Firestone comments : ” Perhaps two-score of these imaginary tribes are better documented, and not so long ago were better known, than most of the tribes of real men and women upon the earth.” As an extreme contrast to this book comes Sir William Bragg’s Concerning the Nature of Things (Bell), which reminds us by the first lecture (on the atom) how much we can know that no eye-witness can ever testify to. These are Sir William’s now famous Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in 1923-24 ; they give entrancing accounts of the atom, of gases, liquids, and crystals. Many people would put Telepathy and Clairvoyance, by Herr Rudolf Tischner (Began Paul), somewhere between the two book but honest researchers like Herr Tischner have suffered gravely from a pig-headed scepticism more absurd than the warmest credulity. He quotes, for example, a striking argument of Dr. Kispert : ” We must reject this clairvoyance which is supposed to occur, as it is only possible to give a semblance of clairvoyance when you have previous know- ledge of the facts. The man who has no previous knowledge of the facts has no clairvoyant faculty.” This book seems to be written with fairness and in a scientific temper.”

The reviewer does not mention the illustrations. So, in the end, I’m not left with a great deal, just an intriguing near encounter with an illustrator who remains something of a mirage. Hopefully she will not remain so, her work deserves to be catalogued and rediscovered. Above all, a person: a face, a family, a few important dates, might be added to the name.

˜ ˜ ˜

 In the meantime, I’ll do that review myself.

“The talented American illustrator Ruth Hambidge has graced the pages of Mr. Firestone’s book with illustrations reminiscent of Charles de Sousy Ricketts, Edmund J. Sullivan or Edmund Dulac, embodied by a bold spontaneity of line and sweeping penmanship that enhances the romance of the text. Rather than choosing a more pedestrian, historical approach, Miss Hambidge seizes the allegorical. Spanish explorers, searching for cities of gold and fountains of youth, owe more to Keats’ “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” than to any historian’s account. In the same spirit, she depicts the legendary Upas –Tree, the marvelous plant described by Mandeville, upon which grow lambs, and the unattainable isles and mountainous heights of legend. Her flights of fancy cast in a poor light the photographs and historical paintings the publisher has seen fit to include in the same volume. We look forward to seeing her talents applied to the innumerable myths the world might offer to her imagination.”

A Voyage to These Strangely Peopled Countries of the World’s Yesterdays Would be a Voyage Along the Bays, Gulfs, and Promontories of the Human Mind in Its States of Dream. Illustration facing page 2In Cadilhe There Growth a Manner of Fruit, and Men Find Within a Little Beast as Though it Were a Lamb Without Wool. Illustration facing page 58

According to Tradition, a Putrid Stream Flows from the Roots of the Tree and the Vapors Thereof Kill. Illustration facing page 24

Left: A Voyage to These Strangely Peopled Countries of the World’s Yesterdays Would be a Voyage Along the Bays, Gulfs, and Promontories of the Human Mind in Its States of Dream. Illustration facing page 2. Centre: According to Tradition, a Putrid Stream Flows from the Roots of the Tree and the Vapors Thereof Kill. Illustration facing page 24. Right: In Cadilhe There Growth a Manner of Fruit, and Men Find Within a Little Beast as Though it Were a Lamb Without Wool. Illustration facing page 58

The First People Engaged in Such Cosmic Adventures as Warfare Against Stone Giants. Illustration facing page 116The Steeps Overhead Seemed Fit Abode for Giants and Dwarfs and Griffins - for Cities of Enchantment. Illustration facing page 206

Men Feared Them, as Embodying the Loneliness of Waste Places. Illustration facing page 128

Left: The First People Engaged in Such Cosmic Adventures as Warfare Against Stone Giants. Illustration facing page 116. Centre: Men Feared Them, as Embodying the Loneliness of Waste Places. Illustration facing page 128. Right: The Steeps Overhead Seemed Fit Abode for Giants and Dwarfs and Griffins – for Cities of Enchantment. Illustration facing page 206 

The Enchanted Woods of Romance with Their Goblin Glooms and Talking Trees Faded from the Minds of Men. Illustration facing page 216 The Things of the Spirit Animated Spain in Some of the Quests It Followed Beside the Still Waters of the Lakes of Dream. Illustration facing page 314In Islands Men Placed Their Ideal States... To Reach Felicity One Must Cross Water. Illustration facing page 254

 Left: The Enchanted Woods of Romance with Their Goblin Glooms and Talking Trees Faded from the Minds of Men. Illustration facing page 216. Centre: In Islands Men Placed Their Ideal States… To Reach Felicity One Must Cross Water. Illustration facing page 254. Right: The Things of the Spirit Animated Spain in Some of the Quests It Followed Beside the Still Waters of the Lakes of Dream. Illustration facing page 314

Next newsletter will be dedicated another amazing and almost as equally forgotten female illustrator. I’ll leave you the surprise.


[1] Like many purchases of old and out-of-print books, the titles emerge from the bibliographies of other old and out-of-print books.

[2] The John Day Company was a New York publishing firm that specialized in illustrated fiction and current affairs books and pamphlets from 1926-1968. It was founded by Richard J. Walsh in 1926 and named after John Day, the Elizabethan printer. Walsh was the editor and second husband of Pearl S. Buck. The John Day Company was sold to the Thomas Y. Crowell Co. in 1974. (Thank you Wikipedia.)

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INTO THE WOOD Thu, 01 Jan 2015 08:38:26 +0000

“Out of our deepest memories come the forgotten forms of the past,

given new life by the living sentience of an ancient and eternal forest.”

– Robert Holdstock


‘How heavily
That old wood sleeps in the sunshine; — not a leaf
Is twinkling, not a wing is seen to move
Within it; — but, below a mountain-stream,
Conflicting with the rocks, is ever heard,
Cheering the drowsy noon.
                                        of this grove,
This pigmy grove, not one has climb’d the air
So emulously that its loftiest branch
May brush the traveller’s brow. The twisted roots
Have clasp’d, in search of nourishment, the rocks,
And straggled wide, and pierced the stony soil: —
In vain, denied maternal succour, here
A dwarfish race has risen. Round the boughs,
Hoary and feeble, and around the trunks,
With grasp destructive, feeding on the life
That lingers yet, the ivy winds, and moss
Of growth enormous. E’en the dull vile weed
Has fixed itself upon the very crown
Of many an antient oak; and thus refused
By Nature kindly aid – dishonoured – old –
Dreary in aspect – silently decays
The lonely Wood of Wistman.’

 – Nicholas Toms Carrington (died 1832)


A little over a year ago, I went on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of sorts, not a proper pilgrim, with commitments of faith and leagues on foot; it was more of a detour of opportunity, of serendipity seized. Years ago, I read John Fowles’ The Tree. Fowles is a gruff, sophisticated and demanding author, whose fiction borders on the fractious, but this slim non-fiction book reveals the heart under his rough bark, and his intense relationship to nature and trees. He dwells at length on a particular forest in Devon: Wistman’s Wood. Not long after that, I was in Devon, but of course completely forgot the Wood and went for to wander on the moors in the steps of Holmes, forgetting Fowles, then berating myself for my poor memory when I realized how close I’d been. In November 2013, I was back, in Cornwall with a day off during a documentary shoot and only a handful of miles away, determined this time to correct my error.

So, I found myself in the company of a small group of artists from nearby Chagford, heading for Wistman’s Wood. It’s not a long walk – three quarters of an hour from the nearest road, upstream along the shallow valley of the Dart. It is a smudge on the hillside at first, which quickly resolves itself into a small wood, hardly more than a few acres in extent, tucked under the brow of the moors.

The trees are low; the edge of the wood is well defined; you could walk around it in half an hour.

A few steps take you into the wood itself. Everything changes – the sound, the light, the wind and even the temperature. Above all, even in company, you are quite curiously alone, there is something that both unites you to and isolates you from your companions of the hour, something acknowledged in every gesture and word.

That is when you know you have entered something somehow sacred. You have entered the Wildwood.

˜ ˜ ˜

The Golden Fleece was nailed to an oak, or hung from one of its low boughs. The Grove of Ares in Colchis was famed the world over, until Jason stole the golden winged fleece from under the nose of the never-sleeping dragon. The oak was sacred in all Greece, until the laurel usurped its place. Oaks stood in Delphi, until Apollo slew Python, but the most sacred grove was Dodona, in Epirus. A temple was built in the grove when the grove could no longer serve as temple (man always has to better nature, usually by inscribing his impermanence in everlasting stone). The temple was dedicated to Zeus, because thunderstorms raged there more than in any other place. The temple was at the foot of an oak, through which Zeus would speak with rustling leaves, despite the still air and absence of breeze. This was not yet the Olympian father of the gods, but one closer to the Pelasgic Zeus. The Arcadian Zeus had only one shrine: the oak-woods of Mount Lykaeos.

Now, the leaves of trees are privy to all secrets, and will offer them to those who know how to ask, thus Merlin is often depicted with a chaplet of oak leaves, symbol of the wisdom of the tree that he shares. When Apollo chose the laurel (after pursuing Daphne, until, in her despair, she changed into a laurel tree) he discarded the oak then and there – centuries of laurel wreaths adorn stern marble brows of Rome’s emperors because of a suit too ardently pressed.

probably 1470-80JOHN WILLIAM WATERHOUSE - Apollo-and-Daphne-1908

ARTHUR RACKHAM - Daphne transfroms into a Laurel - Illustration for Comus 2

 Left: Antonio del Pollaiolo – (1431/32-1498) -Apollo and Daphne (1470-80). Centre: Arthur Rackham: Daphne transforms into a Laurel. Illustration for Comus. Right: John William Waterhouse: Apollo and Daphne, 1908.

Despite Daphne’s renown in Greek and Roman mythology as a determinedly chaste nymph who took refuge in treeform to deter an unwanted suitor, hers was only one of several sylvan transformations related in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Book I also recounts how the naiad Syrinx was sympathetically transformed into reeds on a river bank to escape the lascivious Pan – the melodious pipes that bear his name were first fashioned from the hollow stems of those same plants. The sun god’s daughters, the Héliades, and their transfiguration into poplar trees as they grieved over their fallen brother Phaethön, is a subject of Book II. In Book VIII, the kindly old couple, Philemon & Baucis, are granted their heart’s desire of meeting death at the same moment, by being transformed together into a pair of trees that provide welcome leafy and whispering shade to weary travelers, in perpetuity. Dryope was the daughter of a Grecian king (Dryops, or “oak-man”, of Oeta, where the legendary Herakles, facing his own demise, later built his own funeral pyre), and her destiny, as another object of Apollo’s unwanted attentions, is described in Book IX. Walking one day with her child by that enforced union; Dryope plucked the blossom from a lotus tree, unaware that it was the transfigured body of Lotis, a nymph who had fled from the foul embrace of the god Priápus. Transfixed, she too began to take root, and turned into a lotus tree herself. The melancholy fate of Myrrha, mother of Adonis, and her punishment for incestuous passion, is a subject of Book X. In her shame she pleaded with the gods to chastise and transform her, and so she metamorphosed into a fragrant myrrh tree. Also in Book X is the pitiful tale of Cyparrisus and the sacred stag. This noble beast was Cyparrissus’ beloved companion, but one day whilst out together in the woods, Cyparissus carelessly cast a spear, which mortally wounded the creature. Overcome with guilt and grief, the young man begged the gods to allow him to mourn his friend forever more, and his request was granted as he henceforth took the form of a cypress tree, eternal symbol of sorrow. Book XIV tells how Appulus, or, the Shepherd of Apúlia, was punished for his unpleasant behavior before a dainty band of wood nymphs, by being turned into a wild olive tree as he mocked their graceful dances, his contemptuous capering cut short by his swift comeuppance.

After CORNELIS FLORIS - Cyparissus 1565

After Cornelis Floris: Cyparissus 1565

In his Heroïdes (Epistles of the Heroines), Ovid recounted the ill fortune of Phyllis, abandoned by the transient king Demophoön (taking an amorous detour on his way back to Athens from the Trojan War). This was a fable also found in the works of Hyginus, Virgil, and, further on, in the fourteenth century, Boccaccio, followed by Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporary, the poet John Gower.[1] Phyllis, a young Thracian queen, fell in love with Demophoön when he came ashore whilst on the voyage home to his father. When he set sail again, the despairing damsel, bereft of her beloved and her innocence, at last took her own life by hanging herself from the bough of a tree within the lonely woodland nearby. Some versions of the story say that she was transformed into an almond tree that would only flower when her faithless paramour returned. Others (Hyginus for example) relate that the trees in that sombre forest shed their leaves in mourning for the loss of their tragic queen.

Leaves sing the same notes as the harmony of the spheres. Japhet, one of Noah’s sons, invented the first instrument after hearing the rustling of restless leaves strummed by the breeze. A young nymph in a Swedish ballad played so beauteously the leaves accompanied her with an overhead polyphony. The prow of the Argo, made from oak from the magical grove of Dodona, could speak.


W. Russell Flint: The Argo.

It was from the spilled blood and broken body of the slain Titan Rhoecus that the first oak grew, when Zeus and the victorious gods contemplated the wreckage of the Titanomachy. Oak was called the “Mother Tree”; its first acorns fed mankind.

Mankind’s beginnings are often entwined in trees. The Greeks looked upon the oak as having produced the first humans. For the Romans, according to Juvenal in his Sixth Satire, it was the opening Oak that produced mankind’s first food. Ovid echoes this by affirming that man’s first nourishment was “acorns dropping from the tree of Jove.” According to the Eddas, Odin and his two brothers were wandering the newly created world when they came upon two trees near the seashore, and changed them, one into a woman the other into a man. Odin gave them life and a soul, the second gifted them wit and the will to move, the third speech, sight and hearing. The gods gave the new humans clothing and names: Ask for the man, Embla for the woman. From the Ash: the first man, from the Elm: the first woman.

The tree can symbolize life beyond life. There is a legend in Cornwall that recounts how Tristram and Iseult were buried in the same church, a proximity grudging granted them by King Mark, though their graves were set some distance from each other. Ivy found root in each grave, and joined in the vaulted roof above.

The sky doesn’t stay up on its own. It may be on the shoulders of a god or a mountain, or supported by a pillar. The world-tree holding up the heavens may in time become a garden, perhaps the earliest form of the intertwining of the sacred and the forever lost, because the garden becomes walled and guarded, and mankind, fallen from grace, is thrust out into the wilderness. The sacred grove becomes the place where a hint of that grace may be preserved, and the stern God propitiated. Sacred groves are the first temples and cathedrals. (Vienna arose around a scared grove; all that now remains is the Stock am Eisen, a memory in the middle of the city.)

World-trees have roots on every continent; even the four corners of the sky over Ancient Egypt were supported by forked trees. (They were later replaced by four mountains, joined by chains of lesser peaks.) The Persian world tree, the Homa, the first tree planted by Ahura-Mazda, has its roots in the clear waters of the fountain of life. It resembles Yggdrasil in many aspects, notably the dragon or lizard serving Ahriman who gnaws ceaselessly at its roots. (Happily, according to the Zend-Avesta, the demon is thwarted by ten fish that swim ceaselessly around its roots to protect it.) Two fabulous trees visited by Alexander the Great, the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, grow on the frontiers of India east of Persia. In Siberia, the Samoyed world-tree links the three worlds of the gods, men and the underworld. In Uralic lore it grows out of the back of a reindeer and carries the sun and moon in its branches.

In Saxon myth, Irminsul is the tree-column famously cut down by Charlemagne. There is little agreement over the nature of the wooden sky-pillar, though it is possibly a Saxon version of the Norse Yggdrasil. Sacred trees throughout those regions likely suffered a fate similar to Donar’s Oak in the region of Hesse. According to the 8th century Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, Saint Bonifacius had it felled and used the wood to build a church on the same spot. Before the era of Christian missionaries, innumerable sacred groves, called nemeton in Gaulish, were likely found throughout northern Europe. The Romans had undoubtedly destroyed many by the 1st century.

Carl Emil Doepler - Saint BonifaciusBERNARD PICART -Thoron Divinité des Lapons - 1726 (as described by Schefferus in 1674)

Externsteine - Irminusl - detail

 Left: Carl Emil Doepler: Saint Bonifacius. Centre: The Externsteine Descent from the Cross relief, the bent structure in the right centre is popularly identified as Irminsul. Right: Bernard Picart: Thoron, Divinité des Lapons – 1726 (as described by Schefferus in 1674).

Hungarian folk tales mention the shamanistic Égig érő fa (Sky-reaching tree), also called the világfa (World tree). The mythical turul lives in its upper branches. The “táltosok” (shamans) are entitled to climb up the égig érő fa and wander in the seven or nine layers of the sky. (It is tempting to see a connection, even if only onomatopoeic, with Ratatoskr, the squirrel that scampers up and down the trunk of Yggdrasil, carrying messages – and insults – between Nidhoggr and the eagle in the uppermost branches.)

Mesoamerican myth is rich in world-trees, symbolizing the axis mundi, either at the four cardinal points, or a central world-tree of a fourfold nature. Hindu myth also provides a grand number of world-trees, notably the Ashvattha or sacred fig, visited by two birds of heavenly beauty representing the sun and the moon.

(There are underworld-trees as well. Virgil speaks of the Tree of Morpheus in the vestibule of Hell: “In the midst a gloomy Elm displays its boughs and ancient arms, which seat vain dreams are commonly said to haunt, and under every leaf they dwell.” The Hantakadruma, or Tree of Thorns, is the tree of Yama, the Hindu god of death.)

There is a wood at the centre of the world, from which four streams flow. Water flowing from a tree’s roots is also the voice of the tree: Zeus could speak as eloquently from the brook that flowed from the roots of the sacred oak at Dodona as he did through the murmuring leaves. Four rivers flowed from the garden east of Eden, from the roots of the two Trees. The Babylonians placed the world-tree at Eridu, near the mouth of the Euphrates. The roots of the tree went deep into the watery abyss of Ea, the first god. Upon the leafy crown of the Tree, rested the primeval mother goddess Zikum, the mother heaven, from whom all things come. Midway up the trunk: the world of men.

The fabled Yggdrasil, or “Odin’s horse”, the great three-rooted World-Tree rising from the fertile soil of Norse mythology, drew its name from verses in the Elder or Poetic Edda, recounting the story of Odin’s sacrifice in his search for the sacred secrets of the ancient Runes. The tale is narrated by none other than All-father himself in Hávamál, The Words of Odin the High One. He speaks of the self-inflicted suffering he was prepared to endure in his quest after the Runes described by translator Olive Bray (1776-1823) as “the letters of the old Germanic alphabet, but (the) earliest meaning must have been something softly spoken, whispered, or ‘rounded’ in the ear…especially used for those metrical charms which preserved from all danger whosoever whispered or chanted them. As civilisation advanced and the art of writing was learned, these charms were inscribed in characters cut in stone or wood, and thus seemed to lend the characters themselves a magic power. The transmission of thought by writing must have seemed strange and supernatural to the uninitiated, and the name of runes was soon applied to letters of the alphabet.”[2]:

I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear,   offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree   of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven.
None refreshed me ever   with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud   I lifted the Runes,
then back I fell from thence.
Nine mighty songs   I learned from the great
son of Bale-thorn, Bestla’s sire;
I drank a measure   of the wondrous Mead,
with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.
Ere long I bare fruit,   and throve full well,
I grew and waxed in wisdom;
word following word,   I found me words,
deed following deed, I wrought deeds.
Hidden Runes shalt thou seek   and interpreted signs,
many symbols of might and power,
by the great Singer painted,   by the high Powers fashioned,
graved by the Utterer of gods.

In additional notes Bray speaks of the solemn tone of these stanzas, appearing amidst “half-humorous, half-serious words of warning and advice, a recital of love tales and charms… (then) suddenly…this awful and mysterious scene of a god offering himself in sacrifice upon the World Tree in order to attain the maturity of his wisdom and power.” There is further speculation on “whether…in some old and mystic legend we are entering the very sanctuary of heathendom, or whether…it is merely a scene borrowed from the Christian sacrifice, where Tree and spear must be identified with cross and lance.”[3]

Carl Emil Doepler-Odin Hanging on worldt ree 1905W. G. Collingwood - Odin on Yggdrasil - The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive BrayYggdrasil and the nine worlds

 Left: Carl Emil Doepler: Odin Hanging on world tree, 1905. Centre: Yggdrasil & the Nine Worlds. Right: W. G. Collingwood: Odin on Yggdrasil. From The Elder or Poetic Edda, translated by Olive Bray.

 The gigantic Yggdrasil was an ash. According to Alexander Porteous,[4] a significant grove, sacred to three principal gods, Thor, Odin and Freya, and home to a celebrated temple, had arisen in Upsala (sic), the ancient religious capital of Sweden. Within this grove one specific tree, magnificently proportioned and evergreen, flourished and was regarded as representative of the World Tree. When festivals of nine days duration were held at the Vernal Equinox in honour of these special gods, the bodies of sacrificial victims, including men slain alongside dogs and horses, were hung from the sacred tree.

The oak that grew on the eastern edge of Valhalla yielded the lethal sprig of mistletoe that cunning Loki fashioned into a fatal dart for the blind god Hödur to cast at Baldur the Beautiful.

The Druids regarded the mistletoe plant itself as a potent herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, ranging from infertility in domestic animals to an antidote for all poisons. It had to be plucked only from sacred oaks, losing its potency as a symbol of healing if taken from any other tree. Pliny says “The Druids …held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the robur [oak]. Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it.” [5]

The Druids or Derwydd, “the sublime and intellectual philosophers who directed the machineries of the state and the priesthood, and presided over the dark mysteries of the consecrated groves”, apparently derived their name from the Celtic words derw (for “oak”) and ydd, a common termination of nouns in that tongue. (Dryad would have the same origin.) The emblematically named Bardds and Ovydds, musicians and noviciates, from bar (branch) and ov (raw, pure) respectively, formed the other two orders of Druidism. “The Derwydd was the trunk and support of the whole; the Bard the ramification from that trunk arranged in beautiful foliage; and the Ovydd was the young shoot, which, growing up, ensured a prospect of permanency to the sacred grove.[6]

A nineteenth-century appraisal of Welsh folklore tells us that the fairies “favour the oak-tree, and the female oak especially (for their fairy rings and dances), partly because of its more wide-spreading branches and deeper shade, partly because of the ‘superstitious use made of it beyond other trees’ in the days of the Druids. Formerly, it was dangerous to cut down a female oak in a fair dry place.”[7]

Mistletoe rarely grows on oak, but is thought to have special qualities when it does. In winter, the vital essence of the tree, the true spirit of the oak, takes refuge in the mistletoe during the winter months. Bringing a sprig of mistletoe into the home brings with it the tree-spirit.

˜ ˜ ˜

Wistman’s Wood might not be there, might not have survived, were the rocks less jumbled and close. Trunk and boulder, bark and stone – the tree and the substituted column, tree-pillar or standing stone possessed similar functions and strengths, but the sacredness of the tree was a growing part of it, whereas numen had to be conferred on the stone through ritual invocation. The story of Pygmalion, seen in this light, is a different tale indeed. That the rock, inherently soulless, should be the protector of the wood, is a prosaic enough occurrence, but with wider philosophical implications, redefining our notions of usefulness and worth.

Of course others have spoken of it better far than I ever could.

Foremost among them is John Fowles (31 March 1926 – 5 November 2005), author of The Ebony Tower and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who abandons his habitual ever-so-slightly-sententious stance for a more personal testament in “The Tree”. This extraordinary and quite slim book is a personal ode to the trees in his life, and notably the forest of Wistman’s Wood.

The following excerpt is drawn from the closing pages of the book. On reaching the place long-sought, Fowles writes:

“But then suddenly, like a line of hitherto concealed infantry, huddled under the steepest downward fall of the slope near the bottom, what we have come for emerges from the low grass and ling: a thin, broken streak of tree-tops, a pale arboreal surf. For me this secret wood, perhaps the strangest in all Britain, does not really rise like a line of infantry. It rises like a ghost.

I can’t now remember the exact circumstances of the only other time I saw it, except that it must have been late in 1946, when I was a lieutenant of marines in a camp on the edge of Dartmoor. This was not part of our training area, and I can’t have been on duty. It was winter, there was ice in the air and a clinging mist, and I was alone. I think I had been walking somewhere else, trying to shoot snipe, and had merely made a last-minute detour to see the place, perhaps to orient myself.

At least it lived up to the reputation I had once heard a moorland farmer give it: some tale of an escaped prisoner from Princetown a few miles away, found frozen to death there – or self-hanged, I forget. But it had no need of that kind of black embroidery. It was forlorn, skeletal, almost malevolent – distinctly eerie, even though I am not a superstitious person and solitude in nature has never frightened me one-tenth as much as solitude in cities and houses. It simply felt a bad place, not one to linger in, and I did not go into the trees; and I had never gone back to it, though often enough on Dartmoor, till this day. In truth I had forgotten about it, in all those intervening years, until I began writing this text and was recalling my father’s suspicion of the wild. One day then its memory mysteriously surged, as it surges itself from the moorland slope, out of nowhere. Its name is Wistman’s Wood.

I do not know who Wistman was – whether he was some ancient owner or whether the word derives from the old Devonshire dialect word wisht, which means melancholy and uncanny, wraithlike; and which lies behind one of Conan Doyle’s most famous tales. There would never have been a hound of the Baskervilles, were it not for the much older Wisht Hounds of Dartmoor legend.

Wistman’s Wood may be obscurely sited, but it is no longer, as it was in the 1940s, obscurely known. The rise of ecology has seen to that. In scientific terms it is an infinitely rare fragment of primeval forest, from some warmer phase of world climate, that has managed to cling on – though not without some remarkable adaptations – in this inhospitable place; and even more miraculously managed to survive the many centuries of human depredation of anything burnable on the Moor. Culturally it is comparable with a great Neolithic site: a sort of Avebury of the tree, an Ur-wood. Physically it is a half-mile chain of copses splashed, green drops in a tachist painting, along what on Dartmoor they call a clitter, a broken debris of granite boulders – though not at all on true tachist principle, by chance. These boulders provide the essential protection for seedlings against bitter winds and grazing sheep. But the real ecological miracle of Wistman’s Wood is botanical. Its dominant species, an essentially lowland one, should not really be here at all, and is found at this altitude in only one other, and Irish, site in the British Isles. Here and there in the wood are a scatter of mountain ashes, a few hollies. But the reigning tree is the ancient king of all our trees, Quercus robur, the Common, or English, Oak.

We go down, to the uppermost brink. Names, science, history . . . not even the most adamantly down-to-earth botanist thinks of species and ecologies when he or she first stands at Wistman’s Wood. It is too strange for that. The normal full-grown height of the common oak is thirty to forty metres. Here the very largest, and even though they are centuries old, rarely top five metres. They are just coming into leaf, long after their lowland kin, in every shade from yellow-green to bronze. Their dark branches grow to an extraordinary extent laterally, are endlessly angled, twisted, raked, interlocked, and reach quite as much downward as upwards. These trees are inconceivably different from the normal habit of their species, far more like specimens from a natural bonsai nursery. They seem, even though the day is windless, to be writhing, convulsed, each its own Laocoön, caught and frozen in some fanatically private struggle for existence.

The next thing one notices is even more extraordinary, in this Ice Age environment. It is a paradoxically tropical quality, for every lateral branch, fork, saddle of these aged dwarfs is densely clothed in other plants – not just the tough little polypodies of most deciduous woodlands, but large, elegantly pluming male ferns; whortleberry beds, grasses, huge cushions of moss and festoons of lichen. The clitter of granite boulders, bare on the windswept moors, here provides a tumbling and chaotic floor of moss-covered mounds and humps, which add both to the impression of frozen movement and to that of an astounding internal fertility, since they seem to stain the upward air with their vivid green. This floor like a tilted emerald sea, the contorted trunks, the interlacing branches with their luxuriant secondary aerial gardens . . . there is only one true epithet to convey the sight of Wistman’s Wood, even today. It is fairy-like. It corresponds uncannily with the kind of setting artists like Richard Dadd imagined for that world in Victorian times and have now indelibly given it: teeming, jewel-like, self-involved, rich in secrets just below the threshold of our adult human senses.

We enter. The place has an intense stillness, as if here the plant side of creation rules and even birds are banned; below, through the intricate green gladelets and branch gardens, comes the rush of water in a moorland stream, one day to join the sea far to the south. This water-noise, like the snore of the raven again, the breeding-trill of a distant curlew, seems to come from another world, once one is inside the wood. There are birds, of course . . . an invisible hedgesparrow, its song not lost here, as it usually is, among all the sounds of other common garden birds, nor lost in its own ubiquity in Britain, but piercing and peremptory, individual, irretrievable; even though, a minute later, we hear its prestissimo bulbul shrill burst out again. My wood, my wood, it shall never be yours.

Parts of all the older trees are dead and decayed, crumbling into humus, which is why, together with the high annual humidity, they carry their huge sleeves of ferns and other plants. Some are like loose brassards and can be lifted free and replaced. The only colour not green or bronze or russet, not grey trunk or rich brown of the decaying wood, are tiny rose-pink stem-beads, future apples where some gall-wasp has laid its eggs on a new shoot. But it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here – a drama, but of a time-span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.

We drift from copse to copse. One to the south is now fenced off by the Nature Conservancy to see what effect keeping moorland sheep, bullocks and wild ponies from grazing will have. It has a much denser growth of ground level, far more thickety, and is perhaps what the wood would have looked like centuries ago, before stock was widely run on the Moor; and yet now seems artificial – scientifically necessary, aesthetically less pleasing, less surreal, historically less honest beside the still open wood, ‘gardened’ by what man has introduced. There is talk now of wiring off the whole wood like this, reserving it from the public, as at Stonehenge. Returning, we come on two hikers, rucksacks beside them, lying on their backs inside the trees, like two young men in a trance. They do not speak to us, nor we to them. It is the place, wanting it to oneself, and I am prey to their same feeling. I persuade my wife to start the long climb back. I will catch up.

I go alone to the most detached and isolated of the copses, the last and highest, to the north. It grows in a small natural amphitheatre, and proves to be the most luxuriant, intricate and greenly beautiful of the chain. I sit in its silence, beneath one of its most contorted trees, a patriarchal gnome-oak. The botanist in me notices a colony of woodrush, like a dark green wheat among the emerald clitter; then the delicate climbing fumitory Corydalis claviculata, with its maidenhair-fern leaves and greenish-white flowers. A not uncommon plant where I live in Dorset; yet now it seems like the hedgesparrow’s song, hyperdistinct, and also an epitome, a quintessence of all my past findings and knowledge of it; as with the oaks it grows beneath, subsuming all other oaks. I remember another corydalis, bulbosa, that they still grow in the garden at Uppsala in honour of the great man, who named the genus.

From somewhere outside, far above, on top of Longford Tor, I hear human voices. Then silence again. The wood waits, as if its most precious sap were stillness. I ask why I, of a species so incapable of stillness, am here.

I think of a recent afternoon spent in discussion with a famous photographer, and how eminently French and lucid his philosophy of art seemed, compared to mine. I envied him a little, from the maze of my own constantly shifting and confused feelings. I may pretend in public that they are theories, but in reality they are as dense and ravelled as this wood, always beyond my articulation or rational comprehension, perhaps because I know I came to writing through nature, or exile from it, far more than by innate gift. I think of my father and, wryly, of why I should for so many years have carried such a bad, unconsciously repressing mental image of Wistman’s Wood — some part or branch of him I had never managed to prune out. It is incomprehensible now, before such inturned peace, such profound harmlessness, otherness, selflessness, such unusing…all words miss, I know I cannot describe it. A poet once went near, though in another context: the strange phosphorus of life, nameless under an old misappellation.

So I sit in the namelessness, the green phosphorus of the tree, surrounded by impenetrable missappellations. I came here really only to be sure; not to describe it, since I cannot, or only by the misappellations; to be sure that what I have written is not all lucubration, study dream, in vitro, as epiphytic upon reality as the ferns on the branches above my head.

It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened word, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality. But this is nature’s consolation, its message, and well beyond the Wistman’s Wood of its own strict world. It can be known and entered only by each, and in its now; not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and non-human, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption.

I turned to look back, near the top of the slope. Already Wistman’s Wood was gone, sunk beneath the ground again; already no more than another memory trace, already becoming an artefact, a thing to use. An end to this, dead retting of its living leaves. [8]

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The forest, though, is not passive. While its vastness and latent hostility might awaken the age-old fears of becoming lost, the woods themselves are alive. Liminal sentience and even more frighteningly, as embodied by the slowly rising anger of the Ents and the sudden purposeful advance of the Huorns, pervades the wood; the forest can move.

There is a side-path here, leading to Wild Men, Green Men and Green Knights, woodwoses, daurogs and Entwives, but for once I’m not going to take it. My copy of Alexander Porteous’ Forest in Folklore, Mystery and Romance (I have the 1928 edition from Macmillan) is open to the chapter on Chapter V: Mythical Denizens of the Forests and Woods. Woodwives “frequented the old sacred forests or groves, and apparently it had been they who formed the court or escort of the ancient gods when they sat enthroned on the trees… (they) were the quarry of the Wild Huntsman, but were saved from him if they could reach a tree with a cross on it… Occasionally the Wood-Wife was known as the Wish-Wife, and her clothes were believed to be kept in an Oak tree.” Even Linneaus wandered off the main track, adding the Wild Man, or Homo ferus, to his Systema Naturae in 1735. According to him, the creature was mute, covered in hair, walked on all fours and inhabited the wilder forests and mountainous regions. As for the Green Man, he may have first opened his eyes under the Roman Empire, carved in stone in the Levant, before finding more fertile ground in medieval Europe. There is so much more to explore, but for another time.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder - The Fight in the Forest

Green Man in Poitiers Cathedral

Martin Schongauer - Coat of arms with a Dog, Held by a Woodwose with a Club.

 Left: Hans Burgkmair the Elder: The Fight in the Forest, early 16th century. Centre: Martin Schongauer: Coat of arms with a Dog, supported by a Wild Man armed with a Club. Right: Green Man in Poitiers Cathedral

The legend of Herne the Hunter is associated with Windsor Forest, recounting the fate of Richard II’s favourite keeper and companion of the chase, a young man skilled in woodcraft who, falling prey to the jealous plotting of his peers, hanged himself from a huge oak tree in the gloomy heart of the great wood. His spirit in the form of a mysterious antlered figure astride a black steed, and followed by a pair of fierce black hounds, has led to comparisons with the Wild Hunt of ancient folklore. There is a curious parallel with Odin or Woden, the traditional leader of the Huntsmen, who, according to Norse mythology hung nine days and nights from the “Windy Tree” or World Tree Yggdrasil, in order to acquire the arcane wisdom of the mystic Runes. In the legend of Herne, his vengeful shade demanded retribution through the hanging of those found guilty of plotting against him. This aspect of the story is another echo of pagan practice, through an ancient ritual of hanging the corpses of victims sacrificed to the Scandinavian gods on the boughs of the great trees within their sacred groves. Comparison has also been made between the distant origins of Herne and those of the Nature god Cernunnos, also depicted as a horned deity. The name may have some connection with the Einherjar, those selected heroes slain in battle and borne to Valhalla by the Valkyries to await the dawning of Ragnarök. Close on their heels come the unearthly Wild Huntsmen who, with their spectral hounds, follow Woden (Odin) or other mythical war-leaders such as English Herla or Welsh Gwynn ap Nudd in their perpetual gallop through the folk tales and superstitions of countless cultures and localities.

Franz von Stuck - Wilde Jagd -1899

FRANZ VON STUCK - The Wild Hunt 1

Wodan's wilde Jagd - F. W. Heine 1882

 Left: Franz von Stuck: Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt), 1899. Centre: F. W. Heine; The Wild Hunt, 1882. Right: Franz Von Stuck: The Wild Hunt.

The forest’s gods are darker and grimmer than the gods who identify with groves and sacred trees. The Finnish god of the forest (and ruler of the game therein) is named Tapio.[9] Human-like before, from behind he might be mistaken for a gnarled tree. (Tolkien gives us a glimpse of a Middle-Earth Tapio when the Hobbits encounter Treebeard, mistaking him for a twisted tree.) The forest deity might also be female: an especially beautiful one, who would entice travellers and woodcutters out in the woods at night but who was perceived to be a rotted stump at dawn.

Cernunnos - Gundestrup Cauldronm

Relief of Cernunnos on the column dedicated by the boatmen of Paris to Emperor Tiberius and Jupiter. Two torcs hang from his antlers. Musée du Moyen-Âge at Cluny, Paris


Left: Cernunnos, from the Gundestrup Caldron. Center: Cernunnos. Right: Relief of Cernunnos on the column dedicated by the boatmen of Paris to Emperor Tiberius and Jupiter, unearthed beneath the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Two torcs hang from his antlers. This is the earliest discovered inscription of the name Cernunnos (the C is missing, but was formerly visible). Musée du Moyen-Âge at Cluny, Paris

The wood is other, the abode of beings foreign and incomprehensible to us. To venture in is to endanger body and soul. One of the most powerful modern descriptions of the arcane power of the primeval wooded landscape is to be found in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, in the pages of the Green Book, a secret diary kept by a young girl whose nurse has set her on the path to the secret world of ritual magic. Science fiction scholar and biographer E. F. Blieler has called the narrative in the Green Book “probably… finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.” Machen achieves a child’s-eye view of a magnified and potentially malevolent world kept at bay through childish rhyme and ritual; whether the presence of dark faerie is real or imagined is up to the reader.

When young Titus Groan briefly escapes the castle of Gormenghast, he forces his way into a forest through a wall of vegetation so dense his coat is left hanging, “the long thorns of the tree impaling it like the fingernails of a ghoul”. Inside, he is in the muffled world of an ancient wood. He sees ahead of him “spreading into the clear distances, the forest floor like a sea of golden moss. From its heaving expanses arose, as through the chimera of a daydream, a phantasmic gathering of ancient oaks. Like dappled gods they stood, each in his own preserve, the wide glades of moss flowing between them in swathes of gold and green and away into the clear, dwindling distances.” It is here he first encounters the Thing, an abandoned enfant sauvage that comes to symbolize – and galvanize – his desire for independence from the senseless and stultifying ritual of his ancestral home.

“He had been afraid of leaving the dark margin on his right, for it was his only hold upon his location; but now he felt it as part of some devilish plan, and that to cling to its tangled skirt would be to deliver himself to some ambushed horror; and so, he turned suddenly to his left and, although the vistas of the oak-land were now a sickening and phantom land, he bounded into its gold heart with all the speed he could.

Fear grew upon him as he careered. He had become more an antelope than a boy, but for all his speed he must have been a novice in the art of travel – through moss-leaping – for suddenly, while he was in mid-air, his arms held out on either side, for balance, he caught sight, for the merest fraction of an instant, of a living creature.

Like himself, it was in mid-air, but there was no other resemblance. Titus was heavily if sparsely built. This creature was exquisitely slender. It floated through the golden air like a feather, the slender arms along the side of the gracile body, the head turned slightly away and inclined a little as though on a pillow of air.

Titus was by now convinced that he was asleep: that he was running through the deep of a dream: that his fear was nightmare: that what he had just seen was no more than an apparition, and that though it haunted him he knew the hopeless absurdity of following so fleeting a wisp of the night.” [10]

While groves are equated with consecrated ground, and serve as the antechamber to the spirits and gods of nature, a place where human and divine may each approach from one side, ancient forests are the very body of the gods themselves, the sacred ground upon which rules only dimply perceived must, by prudence, be obeyed. Transgression may mean death, or worse, imprisonment.

Paul Woodroffe - 1905 - Ariel - Illustration for The Tempest, William Shakespeare.

Maud Tindal Atkinson - Ariel 1915

EDMUND-DULAC-Sycorax-and-ArielThe misfortunes of Ariel.

Left: Paul Woodroffe: Illustration for The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1905. Centre: Edmund Dulac: Ariel and Sycorax. Right: Maud Tindal Atkinson: Ariel, 1915.

  Ariel, in Shakespeare’s Tempest, is bound to serve the magician Prospero’s service, after being delivered from the tree in which he was imprisoned by the witch Sycorax.

The enchanter Merlin is himself enchanted by the sorceress Vivien, and imprisoned for eternity in the heart of a tree in the forest of Brocéliande. For Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), it is the mystic echo of ancient forest-lore and the seasonal battle between the Holly King and the Oak King of pagan mythology:

“…or ever dreamed on charm-bound Brocéliande? O that journey of the doting wizard and his secret nymph! – it is a continuous spell, and enchains the spirit long before the last utterance of magic completes the dark enchantment. But where was flown the enamoured mystic’s cunning, that the very names in that dim world of trees contained no warnings for him? …And when… he passed forever from men’s sight into the heart of a great holly tree, did he not know it was a restoration of his spirit to its original spring, and bless the guile that re-created him a pulse of nature?”[11]


Merlin in Brocéliande

Lewis Spence, however, in Legends & Romances of Brittany, recounts the tale of Merlin and Vivien as told by the local people. They say that the sage was passing through Brocéliande in the guise of a young student, when he decided to rest beside a fountain in the heart of the forest. Vivien appeared, the beautiful daughter of a lord who lived in a nearby manor. Her mother was a faerie, who had foretold that their child, in womanhood, would be beloved by “the wisest man in the world”. Merlin rather foolishly sought to impress this lovely maiden, by performing the most entrancing magic, which Vivien longed to learn and emulate. The ancient sorcerer arranged to meet with her again in a year hence, and, adopting the same youthful disguise, journeyed once more to the forest and that fatal tryst. There, consumed by his infatuation for the enchanting creature beside him, Merlin was completely beguiled by her irresistible charms. And all the while, as he, enamoured, revealed to her the secrets of most potent spells and other magical arts she sought to steal from him, “Vivien was calm as a lake circled by trees, where no breath of the passion of tempest can come.” But cold, heartless and calculating as she was, the subtle Vivien conceived a certain glimmer of love for the hopelessly besotted sage, and begged him to teach her a spell that would enthral his heart so completely that he could never leave her side. “Evening was shrouding the forest in soft shadows when Merlin sank to rest…” and there, as he slept, the bewitching damsel wove the charms that would hold the mighty wizard captive for eternity.

GUSTAVE DORE - idylls of the King - Merlin and Vivian enter the wood

GUSTAVE DORE - idylls-of-the-king Merlin & Vivian

© photo Louis HOUDUS

 Gustave Doré: Illustrations for The Idylls of the King, by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 

According to the thirteenth-century French author Huon de Méry, the waters of the magical Fountain of Brecelien, also known as “the Fountain of Baranton”, were said to possess a similar power to that which, much later, J. R. R. Tolkien would give to “The Mirror of Galadriel”, for when taken from “the golden basin that hung from the oak that shaded it”, and sprinkled upon a magical stone which lay behind the fountain, those with the gift of the seeing eye “beheld many marvels”:

Ah, how remote, forlorn
Sounded the sad, sweet horn
In forest gloom enchanted!
I saw the shadows of kings go riding by,
But cerements mingled and paled with their panoply,
And the moss-ways deadened the steps of steeds that never

A curious tale told by the Scottish writer William Sharp (1855-1905), penning works later in life under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod, “Cathal of the Woods”, subtitled “The Annir Choille” or “Wood-nymph”, recounts the strange story of Cathal mac Art. A comely young man of nineteen years old from Iona, Cathal had been sent by St Colum to live with a holy man residing on the Isle of Á-rinn [sic], in the hopes that he would so avoid the snares of sin. Cathal was discontented in his heart, for he had fairness of mind and body that would have taken him far in the world, but he was instead confined to the ascetic life of a cenobite, and taught above all to fear the evil temptations of women. Unfortunately, Cathal did not think women were evil, and he became deeply enamoured of Ardanna, the seductive daughter of Ecta, a local chieftain. And so Cathal fell willing victim to the wiles of woman that he had been so sombrely warned about and therefore was punished for breaking his vow of chastity, when Ecta and Molios the monk discovered the pair and doomed the young sinner to death. Cathal’s punishment was harsh as any pagan sacrifice (Ardanna escaped it), for he was imprisoned in the hollow heart of a huge oak tree, and left without food and drink, to die slowly. But in Cathal’s death throes he dreamed of the green people who inhabited that grove, and he awoke to behold one of them, Deòin (“Green Breath”), a woman of the woods. “Cathal looked about him. Everywhere he saw tall, fair pale-green lives moving to and fro: some passing out of trees, swift and silent as rain out of a cloud: some passing into trees, silent and swift as shadows. All were fair to look upon: tall, lithe, graceful, moving this way and that in the moonshine, pale green as the leaves of the lime, soft shining, with radiant eyes, and delicate earth-brown hair. And these fair forms were the trees, “the green life” of that forest. Cathal’s inherently untamed spirit, set free by physical death, then mingled with those ghostly green folk, and vanished into their world as “the green fire of life flamed in his veins.[12]

Eleanor Farjeon mentions this tale in her own writings, then muses on “that green fire”:

You cannot mingle long with trees and not become merged with them; you cannot pass among them without something having passed through you. Walking the woodland ways in a great stillness, you have the sense of being on the edge of some imminent life-form that was in action the instant before your coming, and will be resumed the instant you have departed. The elusive mystery seems to be hidden but by the next tree and the last, yet you can never steal upon it, for this life-form exists in your own bosom, and you carry it as you go; the trees have only awakened a deep slumberer to the pitch of dreaming, and realization still awaits its hour.

She adds:

I believe that trees are interpreters of a secret between man and God; I believe that their branches are hands reached out to you, and the wind in their leaves is speech to you; I believe that beneath their rind the sap makes mysterious response to his blood who leans upon them in his need; I believe that leaves spotted red and yellow, picked up by daylight for their lovely shapes and colours, were fairy treasure under last night’s moon; …I believe that he who holds cones and acorns in his hand, holds in his hand a forest of pine and oak…

Tree-magic is not inevitably for ill. There are jolly ghosts in Sherwood, I am certain, and in many a Forest of Adventure you are as like to meet with the Knight-Errant as with the Questing Beast. Yet who has not also shivered in haunted woodlands that ever drifted wraith-like near Melisande crouching above her pool? or trod the forbidden ways where the Beautiful and Merciless One keeps princes and pale kings in thrall? or stolen in the steps of Leoline’s daughter when, going forth in the midnight wood to pray for her distant lover, she came on evil moaning in the dark? or ever dreamed on charm-bound Broceliande? O that journey of the doting wizard and his secret nymph! – it is a continuous spell, and enchains the spirit long before the last utterance of magic completes the dark enchantment. But where was flown the enamoured mystic’s cunning, that the very names in that dim world of trees contained no warnings for him? … And when …he passed forever from men’s sight into the heart of a great holly tree, did he not know it was a restoration of his spirit to its original spring, and bless the guile that re-created him a pulse of nature?[13]


The lure of the wildwood. Cover illustration for Into the Green, by Charles de Lint.

Tolkien’s lifelong love of trees, so vividly symbolized by the ancient and ponderous Ents in The Lord of the Rings, is reflected in the last photograph ever taken of him, about a month before he died in September 1973, at the age of eighty-one. He is pictured next to “one of his favourite trees” – a towering Black Pine – in Oxford’s Botanic Garden. It is tempting to imagine Tolkien was aware that, according to Alexander Porteous, (Forest Folklore, Mythology & Romance, published by Macmillan Company, New York, 1928) a black Pine tree, regarded as a Tree of Life in Persian lore, grew in the heart of the fabled Grove of Eridhu, within the Sacred Forest of that name.

Tolkien’s fascination with trees is ever-present. Niggle “was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.

There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out….”

Alas, poor Niggle must make a long journey, and leave his painting behind, along with his dreams of ever finishing it, but at last, after protracted imprisonment in a “real” world, he is allowed his freedom, and discovers “his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind….”[14]

As an appropriate epitaph, several weeks after his death a memorial service was held by some of his American admirers, where Leaf by Niggle was apparently read aloud to the assembled mourners.[15]

The landscape of Middle Earth unfolded in evocatively-named forest and woodland – Taurfuin, the Forest of Night; Taur-im-Duinath, Forest between the Rivers; Taur-i-Melegyrn, Forest of the Great Trees; Taur-na-Chardhîn, Forest of the Southern Silence, and Taur-na-Danion, Forest of Pines, emerge in the history of that world alongside – for example – the more infamous Mirkwood [Greenwood the Great], which evidently translated as Taur-na-Fuin.[16] Nímismaldar, surrounding the city of Eldalondë on the western coasts of Numenor, meant “Fragrant trees”. Mallorn-trees, brought from Tol Eressëa, were planted there. (Mallorn is from the Sindarin malt “gold” and orn “tree”.) As for Mirkwood, it existed well before the adventures of Bilbo the hobbit: in Norse myth and legend, Myrkviðr (“mirky wood”, or “dark forest”) was dark and dangerous forest that separated various lands; heroes and even gods passed through it reluctantly.[17]

Tolkien remarks: “Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations. It was probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion. In some traditions it became used especially of the boundary between Goths and Huns. I speak now from memory: its ancientness seems indicated by its appearance in very early German (11th c.?) as mirkiwidu although the *merkw- stem ‘dark’ is not otherwise found in German at all (only in O[ld] E[nglish], O[ld] S[axon], and O[ld] N[orse]), and the stem *widu- > witu was in German (I think) limited to the sense of ‘timber,’ not very common, and did not survive into mod[ern] G[erman]. In O.E. mirce only survives in poetry, and in the sense ‘dark’, or rather ‘gloomy’, only in Beowulf [line] 1405 ofer myrcan mor: elsewhere only with the sense ‘murky’ > wicked, hellish. It was never, I think, a mere ‘colour’ word: ‘black’, and was from the beginning weighted with the sense of ‘gloom’…[18]

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Since Wistman’s Wood has been there forever, at least as human life spans go, accounts of the wood are many.

“Guarded by great hills that fold each upon the other and fade into distance; set in granite and briar, brake-fern and the nodding wood-rush, Wistman’s Wood lies basking under September sunshine to the song of Dart. Upon a south-facing slope the hoary dwarfs that go to make this forest grow, and each parent oak of the ancient throng was old before the Conquest. Time and fire have slain, yet the little forest plays its part in the spring splendour of every year, in the leafy and musical hours of high Summer, and in autumnal pageants as the centuries roll. Here, under the Dartmoor hills to-day, sunshine kisses the granite to silver, brightens each withered and distorted trunk, makes the leaf shine, and sets rowan berries glowing through the ambient green. These aged oaks lack not virility, for I see their ancient crowns besprinkled with bright leaflets of the second Spring, with tufts of ruddy foliage, like smiles on the face of frosty age…

Granite and oak are clothed with lichens of a colour exactly similar, and to the imagination, seen thus jagged and grey together, one appears as enduring as the other. The old trees, whose average height is scarcely fifteen feet, are distorted, cramped, twisted, and knotted by time. Their mossy limbs, low spread, make a home for the bilberry, whose purple fruit ripens beside the acorns; for the polypody that fringes each gnarled limb with foliage; for the rabbits, who leap from the stones to the flat boughs spread upon them; and for the red fox, who, sunning himself in some hollow of moss and touchwood, wakes, as a wanderer assails his ear or nose, and vanishes, like a streak of cinnamon light, into the depths of the wood. Here, too, the adder rears her brood; the crow, with intermittent croak, flies heavily; a little hawk, poised in the sky, seeks the lizard below, or the young plover in the marsh upon the hills.

A great hush and peace brood over Wistman’s Wood to-day. As yet, but one pinch of Autumn has transformed the leaf, reddened the briar, or powdered the fern with gold. In the hollows a diamond dew still sparkles though the hour is noon, and the sweet, sharp breath of September whispers along the wood. Still every ancient crown wears the deep green of Summer, and a stray honeysuckle blossoms, though its berries are turning scarlet; but the tender, white corydalis and other flowers of Summer have vanished; the wood-rush has its sharp leaves amber-pointed; the heather fades; and the wrinkled wood-sage likewise wanes away…

The wood of Wistman partakes of these many harmonies—adds its sudden green to the hillside— lies there a home of mystery, a cradle of legend, a thing of old time, unique and unexampled, save in Devon itself, all England over.”[19]

ARTHUR RACKHAM - Frontispiece - Illustration for Comus

ARTHUR RACKHAM - FRONTISPIECEARTHUR RACKHAM - Illustration for the Old Woman in the Wood - Brothers Grimm

 “Arthur Rackham trees” define a category of their own. Illustrations from the Brothers Grimm and Comus

A ‘wonder’ which has been associated with the Druids is the grove of oaks called Wistman’s Wood. It lies close to Two Bridges, on the slope above the West Dart, and at a little distance looks more like a furze-brake than a wood. All the oaks are dwarfs, stunted by the lack of soil and force of the winds. Mr Rowe quotes from a ‘botanical writer,’ who examined some of them: ‘The bole of this tree was about three feet high, and its total height to the topmost branches fifteen feet. The circumference of the trunk was six feet, and its prime must have been about the date of the Norman Conquest.’ Some of the boughs, like the trunks, are immensely thick for the height of the trees, and they are covered with very deep cushions of bright green moss and hangings of polypody, and whortleberries grow upon them. Every step between the trees is perilous, among the uneven crowded masses of rocks and half-concealed clefts. Many of the boulders are moss-covered, a kind of sedge and long, flag-like grass spring among the crevices and add to the pitfalls, and the whole wood really has the air of having been bewitched. Mrs Bray’s impressions of it are interesting. She found the slope ‘strewn’ all over with immense masses of granite…. In the midst of these gigantic blocks, growing among them, or starting, as it were, from their interstices, arises wildly, and here and there widely scattered, a grove of dwarf oak-trees…. They spread far and wide at their tops, and their branches twist and bend in the most tortuous manner; sometimes reminding one of those strange things called mandrakes, of which there is a superstition noticed by Shakespeare—

‘”Like shrieking mandrakes torn from out the earth.”‘[20]


WISTMAN'S WOOD - E W Haslehust - 1910





Approaching Wistman’s Wood. Left: Illustration by E W Haslehust – 1910

“Perceived from any distance by the uninformed, this ‘third wonder of the Moor’ might well be passed by with no more than the casual glance bent on a patch of scrub and undergrowth. Actually, it is a place of considerable strangeness – the more so as its charm is far more fickle than that of other Dartmoor spectacles. In a dull hour, you may light upon it when it presents neither character nor quality, and be merely annoyed by the curiosity which brought you out of your way. At a favourable time, the least sensitive cannot but be struck by its fantastic aloofness from things modern and unmysterious. Its exact age is very little to the point; let it be found contemptibly recent – the impression remains the same. Grown oaks little higher than man’s own stature, burdened with lichen to their topmost boles, tremulous with close-set ferns which cling to them, their gaunt arms wave sombrely in the trailing mist, or sun themselves in exhausted rest. There is something about this wood of decay made imperishable; in that which stood for its youth, the seal of old age and dishonour must have been on it, and it passes from century to century with no added increment of growth or of mortality.”[21]

“The ‘lonely Wood of Wistman’ is situated on the left bank of the West Dart, about a mile above Two Bridges. The ancient oak trees grow amid a clatter of rocks, and so stunted in their growth are they that many have their boughs resting on the blocks of granite that encumber the ground, and while this confused clatter has been the cause of the dwarfish growth of the oaks of Wistman, it has at the same time aided in their preservation. Had not the young saplings received the shelter which it has afforded, in all probability Wistman’s Wood long ere this would have disappeared. Today it forms one of the curiosities of Dartmoor, and it is to be hoped that it will long flourish amid the gray rocks of its silent valley.”[22]

WISTMAN'S WOOD - painting by J. Lay Fethybridge - My Devon Year by Eden PhillpottsWISTMAN'S WOOD - Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts, by Rosalind Northcote, Illustrated by Frederick J. Widgery






Left: Painting by J. Lay Fethybridge – My Devon Year by Eden Phillpotts. Right: From Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts, by Rosalind Northcote, Illustrated by Frederick J. Widgery.

“…that exceedingly curious place… Wistman’s Wood is sometimes incorrectly spoken of as being a remnant of a forest which once covered the whole, or the greatest part of the moor. That Dartmoor was never clothed in such a manner is certain. There may, it is true, have been timber similar to the oaks of Wistman, growing in some of the more sheltered spots, in fact more than one such collection of trees are still to be seen there, and trunks of trees have been found imbedded in the peat, which prove that such was the case… The term ‘forest’… was given to those large tracts of land where the beasts of the chase were hunted, and which were under the forest laws, as formerly the whole of Devonshire was, until the reign of King John…

Wistman’s Wood consists of a number of small oak trees growing in the midst of a clatter of rocks that stretches along the left bank of the West Dart, about a mile above Two Bridges. They are not of great height, averaging about ten or twelve feet, but are of very aged appearance. It is said that a Perambulation of the forest made in the time of the Conqueror, describes the old wood as presenting much the same appearance as it does today. There is no such thing as walking through it, — the passage of the wood must be made entirely by scrambling from rock to rock, and great care is necessary, for these are so overgrown with moss, that a false step would quickly precipitate the explorer into one of those crevices that everywhere abound. From amid those boulders the gnarled trunks of trees protrude, their lower limbs not infrequently resting on the surfaces of them. Trunks and limbs are all covered with a thick coating of moss, which causes them to appear much larger than they really are. The whole is of very interesting character, which is heightened by its wild surroundings.[23]

“… on the south side, we find a spring of the clearest and the purest water, which Hannaford, the farmer, tells us never fails. It bursts from beneath a rock, and, like most of the blessings of Providence (whether we avail ourselves of them or not) it still pours its limpid fountain in fruitful abundance, amidst the wildness and desolation of the spot, and nourishes a thousand beautiful mosses and flowers, that render the Moor, though a desert in one sense of the word, a rich wilderness for Flora, and her train. We now view with surprise the oaks before us: and such is their singular appearance, that, without stopping to reason upon the subject, we are all disposed to think that they are really no other than the last remnant of a Druid grove; or rather the last vestige of its posterity…The ascent to Wistman’s Wood is strewn all over with immense masses of granite, that lie scattered in every direction. The soil about these rocks is very scanty, and appears, the same as in many other parts of the Moor, to be composed of decayed vegetable matter. In the midst of these gigantic blocks, growing among them, or starting, as it were, from their interstices, arises wildly, and here and there widely scattered, a grove of dwarf oak trees. Their situation, exposed to the bleak winds, which rush past the side of the declivity on which they grow, and through the valley of the Dart at their base, (a valley that acts like a tunnel to assist the fury of the gust) the diminutive height of the trees, their singular and antiquated appearance, all combine to raise feelings of mingled curiosity and wonder. The oaks are not above ten or twelve feet high, thus stunted is their growth by the sweeping winds to which they stand exposed; but they spread far and wide at their tops, and their branches twist and wind in the most’ tortuous and fantastic manner… In some places these branches are literally festooned with ivy and creeping plants; and their trunks are so thickly embedded in a covering of fine velvet moss, that at first sight you would imagine them to be of enormous thickness in proportion to their height. But it is only their velvet coats that make them look so bulky; for on examination they are not found to be of any remarkable size. Their whole appearance conveys to you the idea of hoary age in the vegetable world; and on visiting Wistman’s Wood it is impossible to do other than think of those ‘groves in stony places,’ so often mentioned in Scripture as being dedicated to BaaI and Ashtaroth… Many of the immense masses of granite around and under the trees are covered with a cushion of the thickest and the softest moss; but to sit down upon them would be rather too hazardous; since such a seat might chance to disturb from their comfortable bed a nest of adders that are very apt to shelter in such a covert, and few persons, now-a-days, would feel quite so confident as honest Hannaford in the power and efficacy of the ashen wand to render them innocuous. The oaks, though stunted and turning from the west winds, to which they are most exposed, are by ‘no means destitute of foliage; and the good-natured farmer cuts me down a branch to carry home’ in triumph, after having achieved the adventure of a visit to Wistman’s Wood. This branch has upon it several acorns, the smallest I ever saw; but the leaves are of the usual size, and as vigorous as most other trees of the same kind”,[24]

 “From whichever side approached, rough boulders and soil more or less soft are almost inevitable. But having once reached it, the explorer will see a spectacle not easily forgotten, especially if the time be evening, or the sullen clouds lowering upon the waste, when the intense silence is only broken by the murmur of water in the valley beneath, where Dart ‘fleeteth through the moor with a long solitaire course’. As he stands there in the gray light, with no trace of life visible, he may be pardoned if a feeling of something very like awe take possession of the soul, for he will almost expect to see the wraith of some Druid priest gliding along the steep hillside“.[25]

 Topographer and antiquarian Samuel Rowe (1793 – 1853) describes the wood at length:

“Wistman’s, or Whistman’s, Wood is the third of Risdon’s ‘three remarkable things’ in the Forest of Dartmoor. By him it is described as consisting of ‘some acres of wood and trees that are a fathom about, and yet no taller than a man may touch the top with his hands.’ The general description of this third wonder of Dartmoor is in sufficient accordance with its present condition to warrant the conclusion that the lapse of more than two centuries and a half has not materially changed its aspect, and that probably for a much longer period it has presented the same singular appearance as now. The traditionary account that the wood was planted by Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon and Albemarle, in the thirteenth century, has been related by some authors; but there is no reason for supposing that this is a planted wood. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that here we behold the poor relics of those sylvan honours, which we may reasonably conclude once graced many of the moorland vales and acclivities, without contending that the entire district – the granite soil of which is unfavourable to the growth of trees — was at any period one continuous forest in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Risdon, Bray, and other writers, report a Perambulation made immediately after the Conquest, to prove that Wistman’s Wood was even at that remote period much the same as it now appears…” (The author here states that this is apparently unsubstantiated.)

“The whole world cannot boast, probably, a greater curiosity, in sylvan archæology, than this solitary grove in the Devonshire wilderness… the antient storm-stricken oaks of Wistman are without recorded parallel. Viewed from the opposite steep, when sullen clouds have lowered down on Longaford Tor, and shut out all surrounding objects – when mist-wreaths half shroud and half reveal their hoary branches and moss-covered trunks – there is something almost unearthly in their aspect.”[26]

He adds: “— surely this antient oaken grove, whose age outdates tradition and history …might have itself been a favourite resort of the hierophants of Druidism, and might have sheltered the last of the Danmonian priesthood, who, in these secluded wilds of the west might have found an asylum from the vengeance of the exasperated Romans. But it is not a little curious that among the aboriginal relics in the immediate neighbourhood, no sacred circle, no avenue, no logan, is to be observed. Nor among all the parasitical plants which crowd the branches of these venerable oaks – the most sacred tree of Druidism – has the far-famed mistletoe yet been discovered.”

Rowe also quotes from the Pharsalia [Book iii] of the Roman poet Lucan (39-65AD), suggesting Wistman’s Wood as the perfect “original of the grove, which he depicts as consecrated to the mystic ceremonies of Druidism”:

Not far away for ages past had stood
An old unviolated sacred wood;
Whose gloomy boughs, thick interwoven, made
A chilly, cheerless, everlasting shade;
There, not the rustick gods nor satyrs sport,
Nor Fauns and Sylvans with the Nymphs resort;
But barbarous priests some dreadful Power adore,
And lustrate every tree with human gore.’ —

Apparently Lucan also spoke of dracones that lurked amongst the oak trees, drawing further comment on this aspect from the author: “(The rocky labyrinth of) Wistman’s Wood has an evil reputation among the country people, as abounding in noxious reptiles.”

The “reptiles” remarked on appear to have been adders, which in a footnote the author refers to as ‘dragons’, as described above by the prudent poet. (As for the adders, they may well have had other preoccupations. Twelfth century Honorius d’Autun, writing in the 12th century, explains that … the lion …is antichrist, the dragon the devil, the adder is sin, the basilisk death. He has a good deal to say about the adder, “…a kind of dragon which may be charmed by songs, so to protect itself against the voice of the charmer it lays one ear against the ground and stops the other ear with its tail.”)[27]

Rowe also regarded the local standing stones of Dartmoor as Druidic monuments, in accordance with the fashion of the time. Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing (1847–1928) adds: “When the belief was held that the Druids once turned Dartmoor into one wide temple, Wistman’s Wood was regarded as being a spot they particularly patronised: indeed, it was said to have obtained its name from them, this meaning neither more nor less than the wood of the wise men. The valley, with its ruined hut dwellings, its oak groves, and the Dart perhaps as its oracle, it was probably regarded as another Dodona.” Dodona in Devon; a far more romantic and enticing origin than trees randomly spared by tin miners.

Not all authors find the wood appealing. A description by Reverend J. Swete  penned in 1797 perhaps tells us more about the writer than the wood itself:

“It is hardly possible to conceive any thing of the sort so grotesque as this Wood appears, with their branches just spreading themselves over the enormous blocks of granite among which they are intermingled; and their upper lateral roots twisted around their bases, and in the most fantastic wreathings insinuated, whereon a recess, or interstice offered themselves – from the visible decay of their branches, their having long ceased to produce acorns, and the encroachments of the Moss, their destiny seems to be near, and in the 4th part of a Century, they may be conceived to say “Actum est Nobis” – indeed this Moss, (in the common way so injurious to trees) must in the voluminous mass in which it is here found, have hastened on the ruin of the trees… Silence seemed to have taken up her abode in this sequestered wood – and to a superstitious mind some impression would have occurred approaching to dread, or sacred horror..”

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In the realms of fairy tale, forests are traditionally dark and forbidding places, full of shadowy pathways, frequently blocked by gnarled boles and branches, where lonely travellers find themselves in a twilight world, a gloomy, inhospitable region with the prospect of who knows what lurking behind each tree and every tangled thicket. In the most perilous journeys of folklore and legend, the hero or heroine must pass undaunted through such a domain in search of their heart’s desire, which often lies, tantalisingly, on the farthest edge of an enchanted forest. Alternatively, they may have become lost in the dusky and mysterious depths of a woodland wilderness.

GUSTAVE DORE - illustration for Hop 'o my Thumb

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Undine, 1909

Artur Grottger - Great Forest 1864

 The perilous forest. Left: Gustave Doré: illustration for Hop o’ my Thumb. Centre: Artur Grottger: The Great Forest 1864. Right: Arthur Rackham: illustration for Undine, 1909.

The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm feature numerous symbolic obstacles, normally disguised – beyond the sombre environment itself – as malign spirits, evil hags or mischievous goblins. Sometimes, however, the most malevolent creatures wear kindly faces – for a while. The benign old woman dwelling in her delicious-looking gingerbread house (built in the very heart of a dense forest), far from feeling true compassion for the starving and abandoned Hansel and Gretel, seeks to ensnare them through the guiles of witchcraft.[28] Little Brother and Little Sister, hoping to escape their wicked stepmother, enter a large forest, only to find that all the streams are polluted by evil enchantments, to drink from which would transform them into wild animals. Thickets of thorns and the most entangled of tree roots enclose the castle where the beautiful princess Rosebud lies in spellbound sleep. The Water of Life finds a handsome young prince wrongfully sent to certain death whilst hunting in a forest, a favourite spot for the doing of foul deeds. (He survives to wed a fair princess, so all is happy ever after, eventually!)[29]

The tragic tale of the water nixie, Undine, takes the reader beyond the friendly fisherman’s cottage to “…a fearsome forest right perilous to traverse. It was dark, solitary and pathless, and many a marvellous strange creature and many a wraith and spectral illusion haunted its glades, so that none might dare adventure unless a sheer necessity drave them.” The fisherman, however, had found a way of dealing with this, for “He was a man full of holy thoughts, and as he took his way through the gloomy shades peopled with forms of dread, he was wont to sing a pious chaunt with a clear voice, and an honest heart, and a conscience void of guile.” Clearly weapons as sound as a stout stick and a streak of knightly valour. It was in this very forest, at the height of a wild storm, that the ultimately faithless Huldbrand was to find the winsome and wayward water sprite. Once wedded, Undine travels back with her new husband through that same secret forest, to Huldbrand’s distant home. Further on, Undine’s love rival, Bertalda, steals away to the Black Valley, a place of great foreboding, overshadowed by tall and gloomy pines.[30]


Boisterous elemental beings, bringers of storm, flood and avalanche, live deep in the forest. John Bauer: Among Gnomes & Trolls, 1915

Hop O’ My Thumb, like Hansel before him, tries to find his way out of the dreary forest where he and his siblings have been left by their poverty-stricken parents, through the ploy of casting pebbles along the path by which they had come. Lost again, the little group stumbles upon an ogre’s stronghold rearing up amidst the ancient oaks and elms.[31]

In search of the castle that lies “east of the sun and west of the moon”, the young lass of that story sets out alone from the depths of a thick forest where she has lain after the beguiled prince, in the guise of a white bear who magically bore her there, vanishes when she accidentally looks upon him in defiance of his wishes. From those same old folk tales from the far north comes the account of another fair “lassie” (as they are called) cast adrift by her godmother for releasing the sun, moon and stars from their captivity. On her travels she wanders through “a great, great wood…but the farther she went, the farther off the end seemed to be.” She takes refuge in the very top of a large tree, and there, peering down into the waters of a forest pool, her reflection entrances a passing prince, who carries her home to be his bride.[32]

KAY NIELSEN - Illustration for East of the Sun and West of the Moon

John Bauer - Princess Tuvstarr gazing down into the dark waters of the forest tarn

John Bauer One summer's evening they went with Bianca Maria deep into the forest 1913

 The perilous forest, but Scandinavian, where the twisted trunks of more southerly woods are replaced by the vertical boles of pine and fir. Left: Kay Nielsen – Illustration for East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Centre & right: Two illustrations by Swedish artist John Bauer.

In southern climes, fairy tales continue to be told of further fantastical forests. The Italian story of The Talking Tree tells of a princess under enchantment, having bathed in a fountain whose bewitched waters transformed her into the eponymous tree. Sadly she awaits the man whose love will break the spells that enthral her. The king entrusted with this task travels in search of those spells, and makes the obligatory journey through an impenetrable forest, the province of a terrifying ogre, whom he has to outwit in order to escape (aided by the ogre’s daughter, who would have liked to marry the king too). Eventually he is able to return to his tree-bride, and by striking her in exactly the right place with a magical axe, he releases her from the enchantment. Alas, when he proudly carries her home, his courtiers point out that she is made of wood, a trick played by the owner of the axe, the ogre’s jealous daughter. A magic salve, stolen from that envious maiden, restored the princess to her mortal form, setting her free to marry the faithful king.

In the tale of The Cobbler’s Luck, the unlikely hero of the title must traverse “the hundred thousand mile forest” to gain the kingdom of The Three Golden Mountains, and his lost true love. [33]

Phantastes, A Faerie Romance, by the Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald (1824-1905), in which the bewitched hero Anodos discovers the fabled road to Fairy Land, reveals en route a mystical forest, wherein the beautiful spirit of a beech-tree emerges to rescue him from the clutches of a cruel and pursuing goblin, the ghostly embodiment of an aged ash.[34]

The Box of Delights, written for children by John Masefield (1878-1967), relates the adventures of a young boy, Kay Harker, who encounters a kindlier incarnation of Herne the Hunter, here portrayed as a benevolent forest being, and the dream-like Oak-Tree-Lady, who inhabits the hollowed trunk of a huge and ancient oak, filled with magical birds and beasts that materialise from the surrounding tapestries of leaves which hang on the living oakwood walls.[35]

In John Milton’s 17th-century metaphorical masque, Comus, a virtuous damsel is lost in a dark forest, where, separated from her brothers and captured by the debauched creature of the title, her noble nature is put to the test whilst chained to an enchanted chair.

 Even more dismal is the wood of the self-murderers, or suicides, into which Virgil leads Dante in the seventh circle of Purgatory.
ERE Nessus yet had reach’d the other bank,
We enter’d on a forest, where no track
Of steps had worn a way. Not verdant there
The foliage, but of dusky hue; not light
The boughs and tapering, but with knares deform’d
And matted thick: fruits there were none, but thorns
Instead, with venom fill’d. Less sharp than these,
Less intricate the brakes, wherein abide
Those animals, that hate the cultured fields,
Betwixt Corneto and Cecina’s stream. 
Here the brute harpies make their nest…
One of the unfortunates explains that upon death “…When departs
The fierce soul from the body, by itself
Thence torn asunder, to the seventh gulf
By Minos doom’d, into the wood it falls,
No place assign’d, but wheresoever chance
Hurls it; there sprouting, as a grain of spelt,
It rises to a sapling, growing thence
A savage plant.” [36]


GUSTAVE DORE - Harpies in the Forest of Suicides, an 1861
GUSTAVE DORE They wear no longer the shape of trees, and yet they live, and cannot be conquered by winter, by their slope, nor by time, but boldly put forth into their native air their whitish shoots.
GUSTAVE DORE - the-inferno-canto-13
 Left & centre: Two illustrations by Gustave Doré for Dante’s Inferno, Canto XIII, the Suicide’s Wood.
Right: Another fantastical wood by the same artist: “They wear no longer the shape of trees, and yet they live, and cannot be conquered by winter, by their slope, nor by time, but boldly put forth into their native air their whitish shoots.”


  By contrast, the woodland setting of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fairy forest, Oberon and Titania’s realm, in which several convoluted plots unfold.

ARTHUR RACKHAM - midsummer night's dream

John Gilbert The Enchanted Forest 1886

Noel Patton The Fairy Raid

Left: Arthur Rackham: Illustration for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Centre: Noel Patton: The Fairy Raid. Right: John Gilbert: The Enchanted Forest, 1886.

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But, back to the wood at hand. There is little consensus about the actual age of the wood, though the twisted trees are estimated to be several centuries old for the most ancient. If the botanical origins of Wistman’s Wood are far beyond our grasp, the toponymy may be within our reach. The name may find its origins with the “Wish Hounds” of Dartmoor.

Variously known as Yell Hounds, Gabriel Hounds, Gabriel Ratchets or Gobble-ratches, this spectral pack of hunting dogs may have been the source of Conan Doyle’s eerie moorland mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which the intrepid Sherlock Holmes encounters an enormous and deadly black dog, uncannily similar to that of local folklore. These dogs are comparable, amongst others, to the Cwn Annwn, or “Dogs of the Abyss”, of Cymric legend.

In Tales of the Cymry (by James Motley, published in London by Longmans, 1848), the Cwn Annwn are compared to the ancient stories prevalent in the wilder parts of Dartmoor in Devonshire. ‘The wish, or wisked hounds, as they are called, a name probably connected with the Anglo-Saxon wicca, or witch, are under the immediate guidance of that mysterious being, whose nature ‘well may I guess, but dare not tell.’ In the pauses of the storm, and mingling with the hoarse voices of the rapidly-swelling mountain waters, the broken cry of dogs, the shouting of the hunters, the loud blast of their horns, and the sounds of ‘hoofs thick beating on the hollow hill,’ are borne onward upon the winds of the forest, and when the dark curtain of mist rolls slowly up over the hill side, they may sometimes be seen to sweep across the moors, rough, swarthy, and of huge size, with fiery sparks shooting from their eyes and nostrils …certain spots on Dartmoor are more commonly haunted by the wish hounds than others …and on certain nights …they are supposed to go in procession through the long deep shady lanes which abound in this district.”

Small wonder then that Sherlock Holmes should find himself facing such a spine-chillingly formidable foe when he set foot on the moors himself. The term wish is apparently connected with the West Country word whist, which signifies a deep and mysterious melancholy. There is even the possibility that the word may connect with Woden’s appellation, wyse, and inevitably links these creatures with the legendary Wild Hunt. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wistman’s Wood has been regarded as “the very home of the Wish hounds, which hunt so fiercely over the Moor; and this Wistman appears to have been some demon creature, whose name alone remains.” The same author states: “Wusc, or Wisc [is given as] one of the names of Odin. Here we have a similar name given to a strange wood in Devonshire, associated with wild superstitions; and whish, or whisht, is a common term for that weird sorrow which is associated with mysterious causes.”[37]

Eliza Bray favoured an etymology of Druidic origin: “Wist is the preterit and participle of wis, from pissan, Saxon, wissen, German, to know; and is not at present altogether obsolete, as it is still used in Scripture in this sense. From the same etymon comes also wise: ‘sapient; judging rightly; having much knowledge ‘ — (Johnson’s Dict.) Thus Wissman’s or Wistman’s Wood signifies Silva Sapientium, ‘the wood of wisemen.’ The Druids and bards were unquestionably the philosophers or wise men of the Britons. We may naturally conjecture, therefore, that this was their principal or their last place of assembly; and the many stone circles on Bair-down immediately opposite the wood confirm the opinion

According to Frederick John Snell (b. 1862), “Wistman’s Wood comes, not from wissen, but is more probably uisg-maen-coed or “stony wood by the water” disguised in modern garb.”[38] The sentiment is echoed by Eden Phillpott in The River (1902): “Here, at least, these two immortals ” the stream and the forest ” continue to survey each other through the centuries, and, still flourishing in the proper polity of green wood and living water, preserve a melodious and eternal tryst with time.”

Wist is possibly a corruption of Welsh – according to historian E. Hemery, an early Duchy document dating to 1621 states: “One place called Welshman Wood where the Tallest Tree is not above the Height of a Man”. William Crossing adds: “In the will of King Alfred, the people of the Westcountry are called Weal-cynne, that is Welsh kind. It is significant that the older among the Moor people called the Ancient grove Welshman’s Wood, and that this name was in use a hundred years ago is on record… The idea that the name is derived from the Druids, or wise men, is merely a fancilful one…”[39]

˜ ˜ ˜

We’re not out of the woods quite yet. (I seem to have wandered unwittingly off on all manner of paths and detours.) If there is one author who evokes the essence of Wistman’s Wood, it is Robert Holdstock.

Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) and the tales he wrote after – some about Ryhope Wood, others faring farther afield, though all comprising events from the same mythos – define a genre of their own: the sentient landscape, born of thought as much as earth, shaped by fear and desire as much as the sun and snow, a world of the limitless dimensions of the mind and the imagination. The essence of Mythago Wood is the glimpse from the corner of the eye, the true Landscape of Myth, where elements of legend and story are seen when the glimmering shapes of rock and tree and stone are slightly skewed in passing. The unbridled thought made bole, root and branch. Or, in the words of W. B. Yeats: “I have read in a fabulous book that Adam had but to imagine a bird, and it was born into life, and that he created all things out of himself by nothing more important than an unflagging fancy….”[40]

JOHN-HOWE-The-Perilous-WoodThe Perilous Wood

While Mythago Wood preceded the first of Robert’s handful of trips to Wistman’s Wood, and while he wrote nothing specifically about the place, it might well have sprung, like a mythago, from his mind.

“Out of our deepest memories come the forgotten forms of the past, given new life by the living sentience of an ancient and eternal forest.”[41]

All of legend is in Ryhope Wood, though often as fragments, briefly glimpsed in a glade, by a river, across a valley; most often from the corner of the eye, something half seen, which vanishes when it is gazed upon fully. All of legend: that which we remember, and most importantly: the vast amount that has been forgotten during time, because the tales faded from the oral tradition, the events, which had once burned in the story-tellers memory, have crumbled to ash.

But they are not forgotten. The wood itself remembers, and these ancient images of myth, these ‘myth-imagoes’, rise whenever a human mind becomes engaged with this oldest of woodlands.”

I get the shadow of the time, and make my own tale from it.”[42]

Holdstock evokes the folding of the landscape, the compression and juxtaposition of myth on the land. He describes the wilderland, or land of bewilderment, where geography is a translation of myth and personal faiths and fears, with the stretching of time inherent in the realm of faerie.

Mythago Wood

Cover illustration for Mythago Wood

On a personal note, and if you’ll pardon me for wandering back into a tale as discursive and meandering as being lost in a wood, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert only once, when my agent said, one November evening in London around 10 p.m. “Would you like to meet Robert?” I hardly dared reply yes, but did, and we spent a truly magical evening in company of Robert and his wife Sarah, finally tearing ourselves away around 1 a.m.[43]

Robert died unexpectedly five years ago, in late November 2009. In late November 2013, I found myself in a forest he could well have imagined, so strong was the feeling of ur-wood there.

As I said, it was a short pilgrimage in pleasant company, and now two walks in the woods will forever be in the November of my mind. So thank you Robert, for showing me the way into the wood.



Wistman's Wood 8




A small gallery from Wistman’s Wood.

˜ ˜ ˜

A very very special thanks to Ann Carling, as always, for her precious help, without which this newsletter would never have taken shape. Thanks as well to Nicolas Mezzalira and William Todd-Jones and family, for the pilgrimage.


[1] John Gower (1330-1408). Confessio Amantis. Book IV.

[2] The Elder or Poetic Edda, commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray (1776-1823). Illustrated by W. G. Collingwood (1854-1932). Part I. The Mythological Poems. Printed in London for The Viking Club, 1908.

[3] Ibid

[4] The Forest in Folklore & Mythology, Chapter IV, Groves

[5] The Natural History, Volume III, Book XVI, The Natural History of Forest Trees, chapter 95

[6] The Veil of Isis; or, Mysteries of the Druids, by W. Winwood Reade (1838-1875). Published in New York by Peter Eckler, date unknown.

[7] British goblins: Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions, by Wirt Sikes (1836-1883). Published in London by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1880.

[8] From The Tree, by John Fowles, first published in Great Britain by Aurum Press Limited, 1979. This long excerpt is reproduced here without the publisher’s permission; they have not replied to my permission requests. I will happily remove most of it if necessary, but for the time being have not resisted the temptation to quote the passage in full.

[9] His other names are Metsähine or Hiisi

[10] From Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake. Published by Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950

[11] Trees, by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). Published in London by Batsford Books Ltd., 1914

[12] From the Writings of “Fiona Macleod” [William Sharp], Volume 2, published in New York by Duffield & Company, 1911

[13] Trees, by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). Published in London by B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1914.

[14] Leaf by Niggle, first published in Tree and Leaf (1964).

[15] J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. First published in Great Britain by George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

[16] The History of Middle-Earth, Index (Volume XIII).

[17] Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy by L. Sprague de Camp, Arkham House, 1976

[18] From The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Letter 289 to Michael George Tolkien [his grandson], 29 July 1966

[19] From My Devon Year, by Eden Philpots, with thirty-eight illustrations by J. Ley Fethybridge. Published by Methuen & Co., London, 1904

[20] Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts, by Rosalind Northcote, Illustrated by Frederick J. Widgery. Published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1908

[21] Dartmoor Illustrated; a series of one hundred full page plates of its scenery and antiquities with some short topographical notes. By T. A. Falcon. Published in Exeter by J. G. Commin, 1900.

[22] The Land of Stream and Tor, by William Crossing (1847-1928). Published in Plymouth by Doidge & Co., 1891.

[23] Amid Devonia’s Alps; Wanderings & Adventures on Dartmoor, by William Crossing (1847-1928). Published by Simpkin, Marshall & Co., London, in 1888.

[24] A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy, by Eliza Bray. John Murray, London, 1836. Anna Eliza Bray (25 December 1790 – 21 January 1883) was a British novelist who wrote extensively about Cornwall and Devon.

[25] An Exploration of Dartmoor and Its Antiquities: With Some Account of Its Borders, by John Lloyd Warden Page. Seeley & Co., London, 1892

[26] A Perambulation of the Antient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor and the Venville Precincts, by Samuel Rowe (1793-1853). This edition published in Exeter by J. G. Commin, 1896.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hansel & Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). Published in New York by Doran & Company, c. 1921.

[29] Snowdrop and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Published in New York by E. P. Dutton, 1920.

[30] Undine, by Freiherr De La Motte-Fouqué (1777-1843). Adapted from the German by W. L. Courtney and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Published by William Heinemann, London. 1909.

[31] Fairy Realm. A Collection of the Favourite Old Tales. Illustrated by the pencil of Gustave Doré. By Tom Hood (1835-1874). Published in London by Ward, Lock and Tyler. 1866.

[32] East of the Sun & West of the Moon; Old Tales from the North, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-1885). Illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). Published by Doran & Company, New York, 19–.

[33] The Italian Fairy Book, by Anne MacDonell. With illustrations by Morris Meredith Williams. Published by T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London. 1911.

[34] Phantastes, A Faerie Romance, by George MacDonald (1824-1905). Published in London by Chatto & Windus. 1894.

[35] The Box of Delights, by John Masefield (1878-1967). First published by William Heinemann, London, in 1935.

[36] From The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). Canto XIII

[37] Popular Romances of the West of England, or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, collected and edited by Robert Hunt (1807-1887). With illustrations by George Cruikshank. Published in London by Chatto & Windus, 1881.)

[38] Memorials of Old Devonshire, Frederick John Snell (b. 1862). Published in London by Bemrose & Sons Ltd., 1904.

[39] From Gems in a Granite Setting: Beauties of the Lone Lands of Dartmoor, by William Crossing. Published by the Plymouth Western Morning New Company, 1905

[40] From Part V of his Preface to Lady Augusta Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men: the story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, published in 1904 by J. Murray, London.

[41] AFTERWORD: WAKING TO THE DREAM, from an omnibus edition of Mythago Wood & Lavondyss.

[42] AFTERWORD: IMAGING THE WORLD OF MYTH, from the second volume of The Mythago Cycle: The Hollowing, & Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn.

[43] I had idly picked Mythago Wood off a paperback rack in a shop in Zermatt, in November 1985, and immediately became lost in the story. I illustrated the cover of the novel in 1996.

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THE MEMORY OF TREES Sat, 29 Mar 2014 19:38:11 +0000 THE MEMORY OF TREES

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination Nature is Imagination itself.”

– William Blake, in The Letters of William Blake (1906). Letter to the Reverend John Trusler (23 August 1799)


The other day, as I was making my way to my office (at the day job at that place down the road) I noticed something I usually walk right past. You see, our office is tucked away behind a sizeable office full of coders. Now, I find the people who do the work everyone takes for granted to be the most fascinating people of all. They are the ones who allow us to push buttons and expect things to happen instantaneously – the IT crowd, the coders – and the ones who do the invisible jobs, like the roto artists1, whose work is only noticed when it’s not perfect (when it is, well, you don’t even know it’s been done).

I chat with the coders quite often; talking with them is like talking with alchemists or musicians; I can vaguely grasp what they are explaining, and then five minutes later, I realize I haven’t understood at all. Code does seem to be very similar to music, though, and possesses symmetry and a logic that is almost poetic (or at least it seems so – I don’t really grasp poetry either, any more than I can music.) And, they love white boards. There is a vast white board that I walk past every day, which until recently has seen a succession of impromptu scribblings and notes, but has now been commandeered and filled with a list of tasks to tackle, problems to solve, codes to create. Most of it I don’t understand at all, the remainder is cryptic, with the likes of “flashing coins”,  “popping goblets” or “grid merging artifacts”. One, though, caught my eye.

Trees taking too much memory

“Trees taking too much memory”

That makes sense, I thought. All those leaves, twigs, branches… potentially a whole lot of pixels. A lot to code, compute and manage.

I guess that’s why I spend so much time looking at trees. It’s all about coding, computing and managing.

Trees. We all know what they are, but for something so ubiquitous, there is no satisfactory definition of “tree”. The difference between “tree” and “shrub” is ill-defined. We generally think of trees as having woody stems, but seen that way, banana trees wouldn’t be trees, and bamboo would… There are a hundred thousand species of tree. Even the etymology is as complicated as counting tree rings: Old English treotreow “tree” (also “wood”), from Proto-Germanic *trewan (cf. Old Frisian tre, Old Saxon trio, Old Norse tre, Gothic triu “tree”), from PIE *deru- “oak” (cf. Sanskrit dru “tree, wood,” daru “wood, log;” Greek drys “oak,” doru “beam, shaft of a spear;” Old Church Slavonic drievo “tree, wood;” Serbian drvo “tree,” drva “wood;” Russian drevo “tree, wood;” Czech drva; Polish drwa “wood;” Lithuanian derva “pine wood;” Old Irish daur, Welsh derwen “oak,” Albanian drusk “oak”).

But, etymology and taxonomy are fruitless pursuits, except to show that the words we use for trees are among the oldest of words. I’d like to think our memory of trees is older still.

I often find myself in forests, quizzically peering at layers of branches, chiaroscuro juxtapositions of leaves and bark, wondering how on earth it would be possible to draw all that. Well, as it turns out, artists have been pondering that as well for some time.

I recently purchased a first edition of Rex Vicat Cole’s The Artistic Anatomy of Trees. I already had the excellent Dover re-edition, but somehow it’s one of those books where you want to see a copy like the one Cole must have received from the publisher when it was first printed.

Rex Vicat Cole, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees, Seeley, Service & Co., Ltd. London, 1915Rex Vicat Cole, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees, Seeley, Service & Co., Ltd. London, 1915

Reginald Rex Vicat Cole is someone I’ve met before, principally because of his wonderful Perpective For Artists, also republished by Dover Books, which has long been in my library. Vicat Cole was born in 1870 into a family of painters and died in 1940, from a heart attack brought on by helping a family whose motorcar was trapped by flooding in Sussex. Member of the Royal Society of British Artists from 1900, he taught art at King’s College in London, before founding, with fellow artist John Byam Liston Shaw, the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art, in Camden Street, Kensington in 1910. Vicat Cole and Shaw both served with the Artist’s Rifles during the First World War.

At nearly 350 pages, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees: Their Structure & Treatment in Painting is an ambitious book. Published in 1915 by Seeley, Service & Co in London, it followed British Trees, published in 1907. (There are two volumes, 500 drawings and paintings, over 700 pages of detailed descriptions of more than a hundred species of tree present in the British Isles). Vicat Cole also published Perspective: The Practice & Theory of Perspective as Applied to Pictures with Section Dealing with Application to Architecture in 1921, possibly the best book of its kind ever done, and had prepared the text and illustrations of The Streets of London, which remained unpublished upon his death in 1940. But, back to the anatomy of trees.

Here is his introduction:2

“It is with considerable diffidence that I undertake the task of attempting a description of Trees from the artist’s point of view. A loving acquaintance with them each year brings home to me my shortcomings in rendering them as they should be rendered in the branch of art I follow—Painting. To this is added a new terror in having to use words; and the temptation is to relinquish the effort and say instead that only those who can feel the beauty of Trees may attempt to paint them, and that to others their significance must for ever remain a closed door. If my statements appear dogmatic or dictatorial it is not because I think I can draw trees really well; but only because I know that a large number of people draw them worse.”

A first chapter details trees depicted by painters, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, always a difficult exercise, and not the most satisfying, but the rest of the book is devoted to a thorough study in understanding trees from the roots to the tips of their branches. Naturally Vicat Cole is really talking about composition and balance, about light and shade, perspective and volumes in space. He is, however, exclusively employing trees to illustrate his philosophy. In short, the book is a philosophy of trees, a meditation on the very nature of trees, with a solid sense of simply looking. The intricate drawings of twigs and leaves are little short of exquisite, given that they are such a difficult subject to render convincingly; I can’t help but admire the deft delicacy of the drawings, which conceal none of the energy and strength of line inherent in every branch.

Illustration 119. Example of Hanging Catkins.

Frontispiece from The Artistic Anatomy of TreesIllustration 32. The Stems of Thorn Trees

Illustrations by Rex Vicat Cole from The Artistic Anatomy of Trees

Vicat Cole’s book may not provide you with an easy one-two-three-tree technique, but, and more importantly, it instructs the reader to look at trees, to squint and see the volumes and masses of foliage, to poke one’s nose up against the trunk and study the bark, or choose a twig with a dozen leaves to draw painstakingly.

Nevertheless, he does not expect us to memorize trees. He is, however, entreating us to look at them, and all of this needs substance to support it. I’m not sure the reader will recognize tree types effortlessly after reading the book, nor will the meticulously detailed drawings of branches and leaves add much to his or her own palette. Observation of detail is not hard. Translating it to the page is work, but only work, aided by practice and dexterity.

The enduring value of Vicat Cole’s book is simply that it exists. Here is the testament of a thoughtful artist, who has exchanged pencil and brush for quill pen, who had bartered his profession for the opportunity to transmit a passion for all things by using the example of one. His book is an ode to the persistence of Nature, to the extraordinary things that are trees, and is inviting us to share in this in a curiously companionable way.

Trees. How long they’ve stood where they are, where a chance seed fallen has taken root. All they have witnessed over the years, over the centuries. What do they remember? The memory of trees is the essence of the trees themselves, memories of winds and rains and seasons. Time compressed in branch and trunk, each tree a book we can’t read, or only imperfectly. Trees don’t go anywhere, they travel in time, while we travel in space, or at least entertain the illusion that we do. (We are busy creatures; that which does not move or visibly change is quickly consigned to our passive index of things.) They oblige us to walk around them, or they oblige us with shade, which we gratefully accept, or shelter from rain. They get in the way, they are living, breathing creatures that do not understand progress, but they have memories of life none of us can match. Ours the brevity and motion, theirs the patience of immobility.

All of that is in Vicat Cole’s book, though of course it’s between the lines. The memory of trees… No wonder trees take up so much RAM.

As for me, I am one of the brief creatures that they must sense rushing past, pausing an instant, and then skittering off to some other destination. As for them they appear to me to be Nature’s  logos, hieroglyphs for which we possess no handy Rosetta Stone: the undecipherable beauty of form and substance. Tolkien hinted such a language with his Ents; with their thrumming speech and distaste for hastiness, their reluctance to act rashly.3 So, I spend my time in the company of trees. Trees belong to myth and nature in equal part, to treat them as pure botany or art is insufficient, the very reason why Vicat Cole’s book cannot please all, as indeed it did not at the time. The Spectator chides the author for omitting the Symbolists in favour of the Academicians, but noting that “ The part devoted to the scientific aspect of the subject is minute and precise, and the author’s illustrations, not only of whole trees but of boughs, leaves, and flowers, are exact, and drawn with infinite labour and skill, and the keenest sense of the character and botanical aspect of the different trees he illustrates.” 4 The Studio opines thatan excess of merely botanical knowledge may react unfavourably on his work” 5 while conceding that many artists might benefit from a little more knowledge of their subjects.

Vicat Cole’s book, whose centenary is upon us next year, is an intensely modern reflection on the subject and our relationship to Nature, disguised as a drawing manual. Our failing is that we need words (they are imperfect things, but the best we have) to define our position and place. Vicat Cole is encouraging us to go out and simply look, and by the inarticulate but eloquent act of drawing, of which he encompasses, without the reader noticing, every aspect of that contemplative and non-articulate exercise, from broad strokes of composition to the finely sharpened sight required to draw detail, he escapes the pitfalls of rationalizing his views. It is a book both practical and philosophical, not really about drawing at all (although that was of course his professed intent), bent upon applying as it does the particular to the universal. He is saying go look at trees, by understanding them artistically, thus holistically, you will finally realize where you stand on issues concerning Nature in a wider sense. It is a geomantic manual as well, although dedicated to the placing of oneself in the landscape – instead of the auspicious ordering of elements about us: we can’t ask the trees to move – in order to achieve a sense of harmony.

That’s why I don’t object to trees taking up so much memory. We have such a terrible tendency to forget.

Fox River
Waipapa Point
West of Ocean Beach
Paekakariki Hill Rd
South of Pukerua Bay
North of Plimmerton
Fort Ballance
North of Glendhu
Paekakariki Hill Rd
Mount McKerrow
South of Titahi Bay
North-east of Cape Palliser
North-east of Cape Palliser
Scorching Bay

A gallery of trees encountered in New Zealand


Next newsletter: More trees, but this time it’s about ætiology, entelechy, and the logic in myth. And a pilgrimage.



1. In the vfx industry, the term rotoscoping refers to the technique of manually creating a matte for an element on a live-action plate so it may be composited over another background. (Thank you Wikipedia)

2. I do smile every time I read it.

3 The attack by the Ents and the Huorns on Isengard in The Two Towers is often erroneously compared to the episode of Birnam Wood in Macbeth and left at that, without exploring Shakespeare’s purpose or Tolkien’s true intent. More plausibly, his is the imagining of a forest that could and would strike back, rather than silently submitting to the inexorable progression of industry and “progress”. Robert Holdstock’s daurog is closer to the heart of the wood, so to speak, but of that, more next time.

4. The Spectator, 6 November 1915, Page 31

5. The Studio Magazine, “Reviews & Notices,” Volume LXVI, Number 272, November 1915


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VERY BEST WISHES FOR 2014 Wed, 01 Jan 2014 17:12:44 +0000 Well, it would be an understatement to say it’s been a busy year.

It seems each project is barely done when the next is clamouring to be undertaken. Everyone involved in the Hobbit worked very long hours to get it finished. There is still another one to go, and that will be it for the extended wanderings in Middle-Earth. After that, it will be back to more illustrative pursuits – in an ideal world, I hope to lock myself away in the studio and just write and paint.

Apologies as well for not being more present on the site forum over the last year. Special thanks, as always, to Dom for troubleshooting, and to Graeme for moderating. Months seemed to speed by at an unprecedented cadence, and long days at Weta Digital left little time to contribute and participate. (Most evenings, my brain had turned to mush anyway.) As well, I’ve been writing a good deal, and preparing projects for next year. That, plus a freelance commission here and there, have contributed to making a very busy 2013. (You may have noticed there has been precious little added to the portfolio as well, but I’ll do my best to update it seriously in the coming year.) As well, I’ve been involved in a little documentary shoot, which effectively consumed much of what I had initially counted on as time off. Of that, more to come later this year.

The coming year promises to be of a similar rhythm, with a few exciting things in store, and of course, a good deal of Hobbiting until we are finally Back Again.

So, taking advantage of this brief pause, I’d like to wish you all much happiness and success in 2014.

See you very soon,


PS: Oh, and I will try to get newsletters going again on a regular basis. Promise.



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PAINT YOUR DRAGON Wed, 23 Oct 2013 07:56:47 +0000 Well, it’s out!

DRACONIS, from Templar Publishing, has arrived. I spent a busy few hours signing several boxes of them (thanks to the very kind person who did the unwrapping and re-wrapping, otherwise I’d still be at it) and they are all ready to go.

The Weta Cave has gotten a special order in directly from Templar, and to celebrate that (and hopefully sell ALL of them), we’ll be having a signing session at the Weta Cave on Saturday, November 2nd, at 12 noon. I apologize for not being able to offer to colour them in for customers (or we’d still be there next year) but it will be wonderful fun as it always is at the Cave, and if you wish to bring your coloured pencils, I’m sure they won’t search people at the door….











Here’s a few links:

Book Launch – Draconis
Signed copies
A bit about the book

In passing, that last link is to my last newsletter to date, which, with some dismay and a measure of contriteness, I see is dated August 15th. I’ve not been able to manage another since, but am hoping that once this film with the dragon is delivered, I’ll have a little more time for other projects – and newsletters. Right now, though, everyone is working VERY hard, and I must say that I think you’ll like the dragon.

More news soon. I promise.

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There are times when you blithely take on a job thinking that it’s just a matter of doing it, forgetting that with the day job, any extra work is, well, really a whole lot more than you planned. However, when it’s done, and when the 5 or 6 months have passed between handing in the work and seeing the book announced, you’ve had time to forget how hard it seemed, and you’re ready to do it again.DRACONIS

Pictura is a brand-new series of books from the wonderful publisher Templar (you know, the ones who brought you Dragonology and all the -ology books). Pictura is a colouring book, but the kind of colouring book of which you’ve never seen the like. I believe it truly explores the whys and wherefores of children’s desire to fill huge quantities of colouring books with wax crayon masterpieces and makes that available to us as adults. Have you really ever wondered why colouring books are so popular? Why it is that children spend hours and hours hunched over them, or on their tummies surrounded by crayolas, why paint-by-number kits remain eternal best-sellers in craft shops?

Well, don’t mind me, I spend all my time wondering about these things, as they contain the interrogations we have about the interpretations of the world, how we acquire our vision of the world, how that same world can become a largely flat backdrop to our lives, or an intensely rich dimension which we are continually entering and emerging from.


I believe that it also concerns our visual literacy. We live in a literate society (non deplaise à those who bemoan the decline of literacy in general, the Ancients were complaining about it already, and those moderns who cite the heights of the 19th century as a shining beacon of literary excellence conveniently forget that only a quarter of the population could actually read at all) that requires that we be literate on so many levels, and it’s easy to neglect visual literacy. As ever, much is made now of image overload, we are bombarded by images, there are too many images (you can hear about every variation on the refrain) etc., etc.

There cannot be “too many images”, that’s like saying there are too many books in libraries, but we can feel that way simply because we don’t know how to read them, to understand and analyze them, to make sense of them. Now, it’s easy enough to write wonderfully savant articles on all that, but they are still words. Understanding imagery is about participating in some way. It’s why children colour inside the lines (or not). It’s why teens make slavish copies of the artists they admire (all the while fending off, if they can, well-meaning but painfully under-informed professors who berate them for not expressing themselves in some “original” way). You can understand a lot by doing something. Get a package of coloured pencils. Try it out. I think you’ll be very surprised at what you’ll learn. It’s available on pre-order with amazon.

Or, if you prefer, there are a number of places where you’ll be able to follow the collection:
A Pictura website, (currently under construction). A Twitter  page, also just setting up: or Twitter: @picturaline
As well, Pictura creator Nghiem Ta is on Twitter: or Twitter: @nghiemta
No, you won’t find me on Twitter, or at least for now. I can barely keep up with things like putting stamps on envelopes… so my leap into the 21st century isn’t slated to happen quite yet.

The Pictura Collection








In case you were still puzzling over the acronym in the title, the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will be coming out in November. Alan Lee and I did the illustrations for the Gift Box, which occupied a few weekends a couple of months ago. I’m not entirely sure exactly what’s inside, though the Behind the Scenes people have been working incredibly hard on putting together DVD extras to match and even surpass what they did for the Lord of the Rings. You can’t see a lot of the box artwork in these images, but they were all I could find for the time being. More as the release date approaches. You can find it already on amazon, though.

The Hobbit Extended Edition

The Hobbit Extended Edition







I’m including a little text written by an illustrator. I have taken to collecting the words of those whose profession is making pictures, and find these to be particularly lovely, intuitive and even revolutionary for the time. They could almost have been written today. They were written nearly a century ago, by Edmund Dulac, as an introduction for Christmas: Pictures by Children, published in 1922, by J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

Christmas Pictures, Introduction by Edmund DulacChristmas Pictures, Introduction by Edmund Dulac







Otherwise, we still have a movie to deliver, and the next few months promise to be intensely busy. Perhaps even busier. Newsletters may have to be put on hold for a bit, but hopefully not for too long.


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