English Graphic is a book of essays on the subject of illustration, with the focus entirely on English artists using graphic media; drawings, prints and watercolours. The pieces are largely drawn from Tom Lubbock’s weekly Great Works column for the Independent, with some longer pieces originally published as reviews or catalogue essays. The historical span of the book is broad – from the Uffington White Horse to the Winchester Psalter Hellmouth to Harry Beck’s London Underground Map and beyond. The high point of English Graphic art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century makes up the heart of the book, with Fuseli, Blake, Bewick and Palmer all the subject of extended essays. The fifty or so images range from the visionary to the empirical, from folk art to caricature. Connecting and overlapping ideas on line and shape run through the book; maps, islands, clouds, swarms, wombs, skins, dots, contours and boundaries. Energetic, coherent and strange, English Graphic presents an electrical storm of ideas and illuminations provocatively argued by one of our most brilliant writers on art.
'Lubbock’s prose style is also, in its own way, quintessentially English … it makes a refreshing change from those critics who seek to obfuscate with sesquipedalian logorrhoea … a remarkable thematic focus [is] on display - all the more so given that Lubbock was sadly unable to oversee this book to its completion … A fitting tribute.'
- The World of Interiors
'Lubbock writes insightful mini-essays that reflect a fine eye, literate sensibility, and voracious curiosity. Recommended.'
- Choice (Current reviews for Academic Libraries)
‘An endlessly lively and surprising book … a virtuoso display of variety in essay technique’ - Julian Bell in the Guardian
This is the perfect bed- or bog-sized book. Forty pungent, witty and erudite bites-size illustrated essays, each of two or three pages, range broadly over all aspects of British graphic art.
- Country Life
TOM LUBBOCK, critic and illustrator, was the chief art critic of the Independent from 1997 until his death in 2011. He is the author of Great Works and Until Further Notice, I Am Alive. as well as major catalogue essays on Goya, Thomas Bewick and Ian Hamilton Finlay. His illustrations, mainly done in collage, appeared every Saturday on the editorial page of the Independent between 1999 and 2004. His weekly Great Works column, from which some of these essays are taken, ran between 2005 and 2010.
JAMIE McKENDRICK is the author of five collections of poetry including The Marble Fly (1997), winner of the Forward Poetry Prize; Ink Stone (2003), which was shortlisted for the 2003 T. S. Eliot Prize and the 2003 Whitbread Poetry Award; and Crocodiles & Obelisks (2007), shortlisted for the Forward Prize. He is editor of 20th-Century Italian Poems (2004) and his translations of the poetry of Valerio Magrelli, The Embrace (2009), was awarded the Weidenfeld Translation prize for 2010.
West Bromwich Sweep
There's nothing to beat seeing a man being beaten to a pulp. Before boxing-gloves were introduced by the Queensbury Rules of 1867, bare-knuckle fighting could cause extreme facial damage. And it is clear from images and written accounts that the mess was part of the fun. For instance, there's Thomas Rowlandson's Six Stages of Marring a Face (1792) - a cartoon-strip, depicting step-by-step the wreckage of a boxer's features. No opponent is shown. All attention is on the spectacle of progressive and bloody rearrangement.
William Hazlitt wrote a horrible little essay called The Fight (1822), in which he describes how he and other lovers of “The FANCY” take an excursion out of London to watch a big match between William Neate and The Gas-man (as he's nick-named). Hazlitt coos and twitters at the prospect, and then at the sight, of two fellows smashing each other to bits. He tosses in literary quotations and classical allusions. He thrills self-consciously at the crudely violent but yet magnificent manliness of it all. He relishes the chance to exercise his powers of description, as the Gas-man gets the worst of it.
The Gas-man aimed “a mortal blow at his adversary's neck.” But Neate “returned it with his left at full swing, planted a tremendous blow on his cheek-bone and eyebrow, and made a red ruin of that side of his face. The Gas-man went down… all one side of his face was perfect scarlet, and his right eye was closed in dingy blackness.” The fight continues. And “to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies; and then, before you recover from the shock, to see them rise up with new strength and courage… - this is the high and heroic state of man!”
But at last the Gas-man falls. “I never saw anything more terrific than his aspect just before he fell. All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him. His face was like a human skull, a death's head, spouting blood. The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed with blood, the mouth gaped blood. He was not like an actual man, but like a preternatural, spectral appearance, or like one of the figures in Dante's Inferno.” Blood, blood, blood, blood, Dante. It is not this great English writer's finest hour.
Sometimes one piece of work can repair, make up for, the damage done by another. And if there is a work that makes up for the frivolous sadism of The Fight, it's a picture by an anonymous English folk artist entitled West Bromwich Sweep. Hazlitt's writing is fixated on the spectacle of violence. The picture imagines what it feels like. Its overall technique is pretty rough. Its evocation of pain is overwhelming.
“WESTBROMWICH SWEEP As he appeared at george Holdens after his fight with fred higgit being waited on by Jem Parker through wose superior Generalship he won his Battle in 1 hour and 26 mineets on the 7 January 1850”, reads the semi-literate caption. This is a detail, and if you look in the original at the pictures hanging on the wall of the pub, either side of the strangely beautiful candle-holder, you can see how the Fancy was normally portrayed: the man posed, ready before the fight, dukes up, showing his brisket. But here we see the aftermath, the tending of wounds. And it's in the depiction of the boxer's head that this image shocks, and exceeds all expectation.
It's not the Sweep's heavy bruising and swelling as such that the picture stresses - it's his searing pain, extreme tenderness, sensory confusion and general pitifulness. His head is inflated, too big for his body (the other figures' heads are all in scale). Its sensations become larger than anyone else's in the room. It also becomes babylike, helpless. And the head-body joint is not properly articulated at the jaw. The head simply grows out of the neck, it is itself a swelling, a ballooning lump of flesh without self-control; helpless again.
Or look at the features. There's the right eye, “closed in dingy darkness”, formed like a black butterfly. The shape represents its contusion, but this symmetrical graphic sign also feels like it's stamped onto the face. The eye has been simply obliterated, turned into this blind and meaningless mark. And there's the left eye, bruised and blackened, and depicted as a negative shape, cut into the edge of the face like a slot.
The bruising of the cheek is made of pure blackness that stains or corrodes into the side of the face from the edge. And the extreme tenderness of this cheek is conveyed by the extreme gentleness of the flannel that is dabbing against it. It only barely touches it. The bounding contours of cheek and flannel just meet, tangentially. The image winces at their point of contact.
Most of all, there is the man's mouth. Its contusion curves it upwards into a pathetic involuntary smile (more pitiful helplessness). And as it curves up, the arc of the upper-lip becomes not quite readable. If you try to follow it along, you can't tell where this lip-line is meant to stop, or what path it takes. It could end smartly at the edge of the face. It could seamlessly curve into and become one with the contour of the blackened cheek (the swollen mouth losing all identity). Or it could curve back more sharply, becoming the edge of the pink area round the nose (making an especially fat lip).
Now a viewer doesn't need to have these specific alternatives in mind. All you need register is that you can't grasp what the boxer's face is doing at this point - and nor can the boxer himself. The uncertainty of the image mimes his sensory disorientation, the thickening and blurring of the sensation in severely ruined flesh. This is picturing as empathy, the image fully inward with the agony it shows. There's nothing like it outside Picasso.
Naïve art, or folk art, or vernacular art - increasingly polite words for the same thing - is usually anonymous. Some more modern artists, like Douanier Rousseau, Grandma Moses, Alfred Wallis and James Dixon, became famous by name. But the provincial amateurs who painted prize porkers and ships in full rigging during the 18th and 19th centuries largely remain among the great unknowns. The best collection of English Folk Art is at Compton Verney house in the heart of Warwickshire.