Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. To mark this moment 210 years ago, I took to the collections to explore some of the most iconic illustrations of his stories, and of the man himself.
For some time Iâve been rather taken by Aubrey Beardsleyâs illustrations of Poeâs mysterious and startling tales; his style seemingly a perfect fit for some of Poeâs most grotesque and alarming scenes. Privately printed in 1926 in Indianapolis, Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe (British Library shelfmark 7852.t.19.) features a striking golden cover and contains an array of Beardsleyâs interpretations of Poeâs work including images for âThe Black Catâ, 'The Mask of the Red Death', and âThe Murder in the Rue Morgueâ.
Beardsley, born in Brighton in 1872, was said by poet, critic and friend Arthur Symons, to have had âa more personal originality of mannerâ and âso wise an influence on contemporary artâ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898, page 13) than any other artist of his day (âcertainly whose work has been in black and whiteâ Symons states).
Maybe itâs the darkness of Poeâs twisted tales that suit Beardsleyâs bold black ink drawings. One of my favourites from the book pictured above is of the unnamed narrator in âThe Fall of the House of Usherâ, possibly of the scene at the beginning of the tale as he approaches the doomed house by the lake. The darkness from above encroaching into the frame (a sign of the impending tragedy perhaps) while his composed demeanour and regal dress are a stark contrast to the dishevelled character we see fleeing the scene by the end of the story.
As a certified cat lover (demonstrated in my previous cat blog), I tend to gravitate towards anything moggy. Despite the gruesome events of âThe Black Catâ, Poeâs Pluto is no exception. In Beardsleyâs interpretation, the feline protagonist sits atop a female â the murdered wife of the troubled narrator maybe â brazenly displaying his one-eyed face which was the result of the furious hand of his master. And, in what some would see as true cat fashion, wearing a distinctly unimpressed expression.
The evil eyebrows probably provide invaluable evidence for the âwhy cats canât be trustedâ argument of dog people all over the globe. (Can cats be trusted? Make up your own mind with a visit to our Cats on the Page exhibition.)
While carefully leafing through the pages of this precious item (which is one of only 107 printed for Members of the Aubrey Beardsley Club), itâs impossible not to pause on Beardsleyâs portrait of Poe. Through dark and solemn eyes, to me Beardsley certainly manages to convey something of the troubles and torments Poe experienced in his lifetime.
Perhaps the most arresting of the illustrations in this book is a self-portrait of Beardsley (spelled Bearsley in the caption) with Poeâs Raven in the backdrop.
Both author and illustrator had untimely deaths (Poe died aged 40), with Beardsleyâs talents lasting only until he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis. Symons recalls meeting with Beardsley during his sickness and seeing him âlying out on a coach, horribly whiteâ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7). A description hauntingly similar to the figure of Roderick Usher in the opening of Poeâs tale, who weâre told is âlying at full lengthâ and has âa cadaverousness of complexionâ (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings edited by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 ELD.DS.195031, pages 259.1-260.5). Even the setting here has a likeness to the House of Usher where âDark draperies hung upon the wallsâ and âMany booksâŠlay scattered aboutâ. (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings, page 259.1).
Although Symons goes on; despite his illness Beardsley was still âfull of ideas, full of enthusiasmâ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7) something perhaps illustrated in this self-portrait â the wine on the table a sign of lifeâs little indulgences and the scattering of books on the floor and Raven appearing at the back of Beardsleyâs mind implying that his lust for art, reading and writing was far from dying even as his physical health deteriorated.
Our friends over in the European Collections have more on some of the flights of Poeâs Raven and Beardsley, âthe British master of Art Nouveauâ.
Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley, Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926 (7852.t.19.)
Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis, Pallas Athene, 2011 (YK.2018.a.1551)
Aubrey Beardsley by Stephen Calloway, V & A Publications, 1998 (YC.1999.b.3863)
Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, Baker, 1966 (X.429/1677.)
Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Readers Library Publishing Co, 1940 (012206.ee.1/87.)
The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings: poems, tales, essays, and reviews by Edgar Allan Poe edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 (BL Online Resource DRT ELD.DS.195031)
Written by Rachael, Americas Curatorial Placement