Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lost Artists - Ronald Balfour


At the website of that splendid publisher of the fantastic Side Real Press there is a feature on Decadent Illustrators which celebrates the fine Beardsleyesque illustrations by Ronald Balfour for an edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam issued by Constable in 1920. The languorous, intricate and erotic designs are remarkable for a young artist in his early twenties.

I chose a few of the designs to illustrate my essays on lost works of the Eighteen Nineties, presented in Wraiths and What Became of Dr Ludovicus (Zagava, 2014; new edition, 2015). However, as the Side Real commentary notes, very little seems to be known about Ronald Balfour.

As we have remarked before, lost artists of the fantastic are even harder to find out about than neglected authors. Indeed, in the absence of biographical information, the artist seems to be sometimes confused with Ronald Edmond Balfour (1904-1945), the historian. I am afraid I have forgotten now quite how I followed various leads to identifying a few basic facts about the artist, but this is what I found.

It seems reasonably certain that he is the Ronald Balfour who was the third and youngest son of Brigadier General Sir Alfred Granville Balfour, K.B.E., C.B., (1858- 1936) and Frances Elizabeth Simpson (d. 1936). An older brother, John, died in infancy and the second brother James was killed in World War 1 in 1917.

The artist, full name Ronald Egerton Balfour, was born in 1896 and died on 17 January 1941, apparently in a car accident. He had married Deirdre Phyllis Ulrica Hart-Davis on 24 April 1930, and they had two daughters, Susan Mary Balfour born 30 March 1931and Annabel Clare Balfour born 20 October 1935.

Balfour also provided “decorations” for Thin Air: A Himalayan Interlude by Constance Bridges (Brewer & Warren, New York, 1930). There is a suggestion that he may have accompanied the author to the Himalayas to make the illustrations. A copy of C.P. Skrine’s Chinese Central Asia (London: Methuen, 1926) has been catalogued with his signature, perhaps suggesting an interest in the region.

The Victoria & Albert Museum online catalogue includes the tantalising information that they hold a pencil drawing of a robot by Balfour, but it is not reproduced and they evidently have no further information about him. It would be interesting to know if this was intended for another illustrated edition. Capek’s R U R, which introduced the word ‘robot’ was published in Prague in 1920.

It seems unusual that Balfour apparently published no other illustrations than the Rubaiyat and the Himalayan book, and that so little seems to have survived about him. Perhaps there may still be fleeting allusions in unexpected memoirs, or designs in periodicals yet to be discovered.

Mark Valentine

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Dream English by Wilfred Rowland Childe - Centenary


This year marks the centenary of one of the most fey and delicate fantasies ever to be published, Dream English: A Fantastical Romance by Wilfred Rowland Childe. It describes an imaginary England where neither the Reformation nor the Industrial Revolution ever happened, and all is (perhaps somewhat optimistically) an arcadian idyll of old stone cottages, arts and crafts, and a fervid mysticism.

It might perhaps be best described as a mixture of William Morris, Arthur Machen of the Grail romances and the aesthetic Catholicism of the decadent poets and artists of the Eighteen Nineties (such as Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, Aubrey Beardsley). Childe’s prose is highly mannered and lyrical and draws upon figures and symbols from medieval romance.

I remember finding my copy, appropriately enough, at the gatehouse to Hay Castle, then in use to sell fantasy books, and at the same time another book which shares some of its qualities and tastes, The Symbolic Island (1925) by Kenneth Ingram. There is a sort of drifty dreaminess about Childe's book which makes it quite exquisite, but it also has a strong determination to exclude modernity and celebrate the author's clear vision of a might-have-been.

Childe was known in his time as a minor poet (using the term in its precise and not dismissive sense), and his volumes The Gothic Rose (1922), The Happy Garden (1928) and a Selected Poems (1936) received a certain amount of respect. They are the work of a singular, scholarly and spiritual individual seeking his own way to express wonderment.

Childe was a friend of J R R Tolkien, and the godfather to his son Christopher. Indeed, if you were looking for a book that has even a hint of a Tolkienish atmosphere, you might do worse than turn to Childe's romance. I seem to recall that Arthur Machen expressed approval of it too. But his books have never received very much attention, and I was delighted to publish (in Wormwood 15) the only significant study so far, ‘Wilfred Rowland Mary Childe, With a First Attempt at a Checklist of His Published Work’ by Jonathan Wood.

I cannot do better, to celebrate the centenary of Dream English, than to quote from Jonathan’s essay (though you really need to read his full evocation of the book):

“Childe’s created landscape is that of the mythic and spiritual Avalon, born of a dedicated reader and dreamer, surrounded by ‘the cream of books on mysticism’, as his brother remembered. It mirrors his deep appreciation of the English landscape, the Cotswolds being its touchstone . . . Dream English is a book of ecstatic visions, enriched by the frailty and humanity of the two central characters . . . To read Dream English is to enter a truly original, playful but complex religious experience.”

Mark Valentine

Picture: the title page of Dream English, with the cover of The Gothic Rose also shown.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RIP Carl T Ford, Editor of Dagon


We’re sorry to hear the sad news that Carl T Ford has died. He was the young editor of Dagon, an excellent journal of fantasy and horror literature which ran for 27 issues from 1983 to 1990. Always well-designed, and full of high quality content, this was one of the highlights of the small press in that period. Carl's enthusiasm and knowledge gave the magazine a great spirit.

Carl had started Dagon as a zine devoted to the role playing game The Call of Cthulhu, but from about issue 12 decided to develop it so that it covered Lovecraft, Machen and weird fiction generally. It published several early pieces by Thomas Ligotti, and issue 22/23 (1988) was a Thomas Ligotti special issue devoted to him.

There was also a special issue, 18-19 (1987), devoted to T E D Klein, one of the first places to offer studies of this author’s fine fiction influenced by Machen and Lovecraft. Other contributors included Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, S T Joshi, Mark Samuels, D F Lewis and Mark Morrison. Carl also published my own first essay on Park Barnitz’s The Book of Jade, among other pieces.

Carl was a friendly presence at the British Fantasy Society conventions in the Eighties, slightly fragile looking but often seen in vivid paisley shirts rivalling those of the late Joel Lane. After he gave up Dagon, because of the sheer amount of work involved alongside a day job, we stayed in touch for a while and I remember Carl telling me he was now involved in something quite different – greyhound racing, with his own greyhound.

I heard from Carl again after what must have been around 12-15 years because he was planning either to revive Dagon or to start a new magazine in the field, but unfortunately I think his ill-health prevented this from going any further.

The Yog Sothoth website has a thoughtful interview with Carl here.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Greenwood Faun - Nina Antonia


“shot through with decadence, poetry, opium and incense . . .this is a beautifully written proem: witty, crepuscular, enchanting, surprising”

On Wednesday 13 December, from 6.45pm to 7.45pm, author and Wormwood contributor Nina Antonia will be reading from her new book, The Greenwood Faun (Egaeus Press), "a beautiful, otherworldy novel which draws on the lost writings of Lucian Taylor and Lionel Johnson, the natural world and the preternatural; blurring facts and fictions.. ."

The free event, with mulled wine, is at Putney Library. It will be followed by a short discussion on how the author's writing about music led to her interest in fiction. To book, ask in the library, call 020 8780 3085, or email Charlene[dot]Coleman[at]gll.org.

“How thrilling it is to enter anew the world of the obscure curio shop, the clandestine printing press, the exquisite slim volume, the exotic cigarette and the pagan statuette, all graced by the aery tendrils of a rare incense!” –from the Foreword by Mark Valentine

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Scarlet Soul - Stories for Dorian Gray


The Swan River Press of Dublin have just announced The Scarlet Soul - Stories for Dorian Gray, edited and with an introduction by Mark Valentine, cover artwork by John Coulthart.

"These new stories, all especially written for this anthology, take us into some of the strangest and darkest places of the psyche. These ten boldly original portraits in the attic take many disturbing forms, revealing strong truths about the secrets of our selves, our society, and our very souls."

Original fiction by Reggie Oliver, Lynda Rucker, John Howard, Caitriona Lally, D P Watt, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Avalon Brantley, John Gale, Timothy J. Jarvis, Derek John, written in response to Oscar Wilde's great decadent romance.

"I had with me a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the edition issued by The Unicorn Press of 8 Charles Street, St James’s Square, in 1945, Martin Secker (Director), one of several imprints that discerning bookman ran in his time. The leaf before the title page read simply: OSCAR WILDE/Born 1856/Died 1900. And that stark statement was all the introductory matter there was, apart from the writer’s own Preface of elegant maxims, beginning, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” But not only beautiful things, surely? Grotesque things too, even ugly things, curious things and uncanny things, as the book itself showed." - from the introduction.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Guest Post - Robert Aickman's "Holiday Photographs" - R B Russell


Robert Aickman King at Doniert’s Stone, St Coleer, Oct 1979
(photo by Jean Richardson)


Adam Scovell recently posted on his “Celluloid Wicker Man” blog what he calls “Robert Aickman’s Holiday Photos”. He is entirely right to suggest that the photographs are atmospheric and open to interpretation. We are privileged to see Aickman relaxed, on outings for pleasure, but we can never quite know what he is thinking, or share anything really tangible of his experiences. It is tempting to project our own ideas onto the photographs, informed by our reading of the author’s strange tales. Scovell’s own interpretations are poetic, and he is clearly sympathetic to Robert Aickman and his strange fiction. But the photographs are not quite as mysterious as he would like to make out.


Robert Aickman, Gatehouse, Burton Agnes Hall, Oct 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)


All of the images have been ripped from Robert Aickman: Author of Strange Tales, a documentary made by myself and Rosalie Parker for Tartarus Press. (You can watch the whole thing here). Despite claims that nobody knows who took the photos, the film makes it obvious that they were all made by Aickman’s close friend, Jean Richardson (who owns the copyright on them.) They document a period from between 1975-1979 and were taken on a number of different “Trust House Forte Bargain Breaks” that Aickman took with Richardson. Jean gives a full account of her relationship with Robert, and context to the photos, in her essay in the Faber paperback reprint of Cold Hand in Mine.


Robert Aickman, Statsfield Saye House, April 1976
(photo by Jean Richardson)


Adam Scovell reproduces the image of Aickman at the Grave of Copenhagen, the Duke of Wellington’s charger, and he is quite right to suggest that “Even writing the phrase ‘the grave of the horse’ seems impossibly Aickman-esque.” As the Duke of Wellington’s charger apparently died of eating too much cake, the whole story becomes even more surreal.


Robert Aickman, Filey, East Yorkshire, October 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)


Unfortunately, the Copenhagen photograph is used to try and pin down the location of the other photos, and it is assumed that they were all taken on the same trip. Seeing Aickman at the coast, it is assumed that he was somewhere on the South Downs, and it is believed that the image of him relaxing on a menhir was also nearby. However, the seaside photo was taken at Filey in East Yorkshire, while the other was at St Coleer in Cornwall. They are 400 miles from each other, and the photos were taken four years apart. The blogger has been led astray by the hard-wearing nature of Aickman’s blue pullover. (Or am I making erroneous assumptions—did Aickman have more than one blue pullover?) It is just as misleading to use the frequent appearance of Aickman’s tartan thermos flask to link photographs.


Robert Aickman on the sea wall near Bradwell, Essex, September 1975
(photo by Jean Richardson)



Robert Aickman with his thermos flask.
(photo by Jean Richardson)


The suggestion is made that the photos are like Aickman’s stories—faded and impossible for us to understand, but this does an injustice (albeit a romantic one), to both the photographs and the stories. Jean Richardson’s snapshots were taken at very specific places at very identifiable times, in just the same way that Aickman’s stories were often inspired by very precise times and places. Take, for instance, the stories in Sub Rosa, for which Aickman supplied “Story Notes”:

"‘The Unsettled Dust’ is based upon a visit to Wimpole Hall . . . The dust in the story is authentic . . . ‘The Houses of the Russians’ . . . is based upon the Finnish town of Savonlinna. . . . The cathedral in ‘The Cicerones’ . . . was at Antwerp, but the events described in the story happened to me so precisely (almost) that I moved the whole thing, including all the detail, to the cathedral at Ghent . . . There are such establishments as are described in ‘Into the Wood’ . . . The town referred to in the story is Östersund, which, in my opinion, is much as I describe it, and the lake is Lake Storsjön, complete with monster (visit the local museum for further details). . . . Everything in ‘Ravissante’ is topographically correct, and all the Belgian painters named, exist; their works being every bit as remarkable as is implied . . . ‘The Inner Room’ . . . is based simply upon looking into the window of a toyshop in Hounslow . . . About ‘Never Visit Venice’ I can only remark that the ‘large inscriptions daubed by supporters of the previous Italian regime’ were still in the position described when I was there in about 1962. . . ."


Jean Richardson, Mulgrave Oct 1975
(photo by Robert Aickman)


My favourite line in the whole “Celluloid Wicker Man” blog has to be the one in which Aickman is described, in the snapshot taken at the grave of Copenhagen, as “unblinking”. How frightening would it be if, looking out of a photograph from the distance of nearly half a century, the author of such hauntingly strange tales did appear to blink at us?

R B Russell




Saturday, October 21, 2017

An American Bookman in England


R B Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press have produced An American Bookman in England, a short film of eminent author, book collector, and Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda talking about books on a recent visit to England, where he was introduced to second-hand bookshops in York and Carlisle.

With his characteristic lightly-held learning, gentle wit and deep interest in the byways of literature, Michael discusses why he might need more than one copy of certain books (“there’s something about English editions”), the byways of Sherlockiana, the delights of Ronald Firbank, the best humorous books in the language, and much else besides.