Thursday October 17 2019
This month’s book display features the work of two men whose extraordinarily expressive art represented stories taken from Renaissance verse and Antiquity in contrasting but striking ways. Just right for the month that promises a weird Halloween.
But for the intervention of time, the demands of other projects and the encroachment of ill health Britten may well have written the soundtrack for a film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He was approached initially by John Gielgud in the early ‘60s about the idea of collaborating together on a film, one which would have an eastern background. No doubt this appealed to the composer who had been famously influenced in the past by the music of the Indonesian gamelan. Toward the end of the decade Richard Attenborough had been brought into discussions and his correspondence with Britten is held in the Archive. Alas, the commission was never realised and the potential for creating an opening storm scene (two and a half decades after Peter Grimes) joins the list of might-have-beens on Britten’s list.
It seems fitting to accompany this edition of The Tempest illustrated by Eric Gill with a volume of drawings by Henry Fuseli (also a gifted interpreter of scenes from Shakespeare). Indeed, the book we’re displaying features designs for a series of Shakespearian frescoes. Well known for his interpretations of the spirit world, his work was championed by William Blake. He also influenced writers—famous creators of characters from the supernatural—such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and E.F. Benson.
Since 1931 London’s Broadcasting House has featured Gill’s depiction of Prospero and Ariel. Britten and Pears’ collection also includes a 1929 Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Canterbury Tales illustrated by Gill (1882–1940). The Library features two wooden Gospel Letters, also designed by Gill. The title of this pocket Shakespeare depicts the two lovers Miranda and Ferdinand looking somewhat wary of the surprises they might encounter on the enchanted isle.
The Drawings of Henry Fuseli
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a Swiss-born artist who for many years resided in England. As John Piper points out in his Foreword to the book, Fuseli emphasised that “One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” The drawing on the left is a design for one of his best known works, The Nightmare—the Incubus who visits a cursed dreamer at night. The drawing on the left (also the design for a painting, of 1780) is drawn from folklore—the tale of the child taken at midnight. The child’s elderly nurse has fallen asleep and his mother is aghast to find her baby has been replaced by a monstrous double. As Britten and Pears’ friend Piper observes, and these drawings prove, “the overflow of [Fuseli’s] form can interest and excite.”