13.5. John Farleigh: Late Work
In line with the trend towards
abstraction and surrealism amongst British artists in the mid-1930s,88
John Farleigh began to develop a more subjective, metaphysical
approach—one which, in some respects, was allied to Leon Underwood’s
philosophy. Yet, unlike the Brook Green artists, he stressed the value of
wood-engraving for book illustration, combining creative imagery and
modernist styles with a sound knowledge of typography and a sensitivity
towards the authors’ intentions. This can clearly be traced in his later
book illustrations which are among the more unorthodox of the period.
As mentioned in an earlier chapter,89
Farleigh was fortunate to work with some of the most distinguished
typographers and printers, in particular Maxwell and Mason, to whom he
frequently acknowledged his debt.90 Both men were concerned for
a sense of unity between type and illustration and, according to Farleigh,
worked in a similar way, using word pictures to evolve their final
designs.91 Mason took a new typographic direction with his
remarkable title-page for D. H. Lawrence’s The
Man Who Died (Heinemann, 1935) displaying a narrow column of red
capitals broken up with lines of black Gothic titling inspired by early
psalters. Farleigh’s illustrations were designed to enliven Mason’s
solid page of even grey type without paragraphs or quotation marks.
Of the ten illustrations, seven of them full page, nine have a
second block overprinting the black with red.92 Farleigh
describes how the ‘story is of the struggle from death to life—a
breaking free from restrictions. As an illustrator, what better use could
I make of Mason’s static
format than by breaking free into the generous margins, allowing each
design to create its own flowing vignette’.93 The red block
symbolizes the surge of returning life.
imagery is in keeping with the intense and sensual nature of Lawrence’s
text. There is a monumental quality about the figures which become progressively
more futuristic and faceless, foreshadowing his illustrations for Back
to Methuselah. A sense of movement is achieved in the curvaceous outline
shapes as exemplified in Farleigh’s depiction of the lovers, arms encircled,
their torsos joined as one. Mason wanted light blocks with plenty of white
and grey and the minimum of black. In the preliminary drawings94
Farleigh experimented in simple wash with broad sweeps of the brush, hence
the lack of texture in the engravings, with plain blacks and grey areas
contrasting with open parallel-line shading. The illustrations, together
with Mason’s unconventional typesetting, were impeccably printed by Lewis
at the Cambridge University Press. These elements combine to create one
of the more visually startling books of the period. Farleigh was right
to consider it one of his ‘best jobs’, the publication of which he was
entirely responsible for arranging with Frere Reeves of Heinemann.
In the same vein but less original were
his illustrations the following year for Margaret Goldsmith’s St John the Baptist—a more mundane commission from the publisher
Arthur Barker. The figure style is handled in a similar manner to that in The
Man Who Died but the rectangular format and crowded picture space lack
subtlety. Farleigh progressively altered his style and technique depending
on the nature of the commission, his urge to experiment, and his growing
introspection. For him technique was ‘not a thing separate from
feeling’.95 Two further books in 1936 required different
treatments. Scenes for A Country
Garden, published by Country
Life and discussed earlier, he depicted naturalistically.96
For W.J. Brown’s The Gods Had
Wings, a Constable publication, he produced fifteen full-page
illustrations as openings to each chapter. He used the textual symbolism
as a basis for his abstracted images of birds which, in turn, grew out of
natural forms. He discovered ‘how important a part texture will play in
the significance of motive. A vulture is a loathsome animal and I had to
find a loathsome texture’97—in this instance wiry,
scratched lines. Some prints are more loosely engraved, others hard-lined.
No blocks are uniform in shape: beaks, wings, and claws appear to break
through the frames. A boldly surreal frontispiece faces an abstract
title-page design. These curious compositions disclose Farleigh’s
sardonic humour and assured decorative sense.
In 1937 his illustrative style changes
yet again. Two headpieces and six small rectangular engravings adorn
Herbert Marks’s Pax Obbligato
(Cresset Press). Grimacing mask-like heads and seething figures are freely
sketched in white line, with prominent scorper marks, and signs of the vélo
and a rocked tool for certain finer textures. Figures in the three
full-page illustrations to William Lamb’s The
World’s End (Dent) are more modelled and monumental, the background
details yet more scrawled.
In October 1936 Farleigh had accepted
George Macy’s invitation to illustrate Shaw’s Back
to Methuselah for the Limited Editions Club with Mason as
typographical adviser. He became seriously involved in this ponderous
‘Bible for Creative Evolution’ in which, according to the preface,
Shaw exploits ‘the eternal interest of the philosopher’s stone which
enables men to live for ever’. Farleigh felt that the deep underlying
motive of the play could not be represented on the stage and hoped that
his compositions might help to illuminate it. He was prompted, having read
the play and made notes for the illustrations, to engrave a large
allegorical single print of Lilith.
It evolved over a period of time from a vaguely scribbled drawing to a
complex and, in his words, ‘elusive’, print completed in 1937.
Farleigh’s conception of Lilith is an entirely Shavian one. He saw her
‘as the beginning and the end, and there emerged in my mind a vague
image of this effort to live’.98 More abstracted than the
earlier print of Melancholia
(1935), the vast body of Lilith is fragmented in a Cubist manner, a web of
symbolistic patterning overall. This strange engraving forms the basis for
his numerous illustrations to the book which moves from the mythological
past, through the twentieth century, to 31,920 ad.
Style and technique vary according to the mood of each scene; although
most are representational, they are generally distorted in some way or
Farleigh took two years over this
commission. He made a day to day diary of the first year’s work which,
regrettably, he tore up. He refers to the book in Graven
Image only briefly.99 A series of pen-and-wash drawings
were sent to Shaw for his comments.100 The following letter
accompanying some of them gives an insight into Farleigh’s conscious
change of direction:
Lilith is not intended to have a face. I
am aware that my work is very different now from the time when I did the
Black Girl but apart from my own difference I find the play is such a very
different problem. The imaginative range in your play needs all the
imagination I can muster to do it as I feel it should be done. The
drawings are a little bigger than the engravings will be; and I have made
no attempt to imitate engravings as I did in the past. I can only ask you
to criticize them as such. It might be easier for you to make your
comments on the drawings themselves.101
Correspondence between the two men was
scarce since, as Farleigh noted, Shaw ‘expressed himself always on the
drawings—and very adequately’.102 The fact that he felt
able to ignore some of the author’s advice, as the following
observations reveal, shows the extent to which he had grown in confidence
since his tentative suggestions for The
to Poole, the semi-abstract scene, Lilith
Gives Birth to Adam and Eve, for the frontispiece to In
the Beginning represents the struggle ‘to produce the parents of the
human race at one birth’.103 Apart from the surface texture,
Farleigh’s engraving is almost identical to his drawing, notwithstanding
Shaw’s wry comments:
ends, being all cut, suggest the stone axe: rather a late date for Lilith.
What is this?
like a huge bass viol.
enormity is a key subject, and ought to make a magnificent frontispiece.
To a suggestion from Macy that he should
do an engraving for the title-page, Farleigh replied: ‘The 1st big block
of “Lilith” is to face it as a frontispiece & a small block
opposite would look impertinent.’104 On a drawing dated
‘37’ of Eve Brooding Shaw draws a little elephant and comments: ‘This is a
lively design; but the unlucky suggestion of an elephant’s trunk on the
left should be quite definitely and unmistakeably the serpent whispering
to Eve.’ Farleigh heeds his advice in a further drawing dated ‘38’
to which Shaw adds: ‘Make the figure masculine and you have a perfect
Adam brooding on the horror of immortality.’ The faceless female figure
in the second drawing remains unaltered in the final print.
For Act I of In
the Beginning Farleigh submitted two drawings for the little
rectangular headpiece of The Garden
of Eden. Despite the fact that Shaw preferred the figures in the
second and though the receding hills in the first reminded Shaw of grave
mounds in the Chinese fields, or molehills, Farleigh kept to his original
idea. The disjointed snake and unearthly landscape possess a dream-like
quality: one which recurs in his work at this time, as one of the few
wood-engravers to attempt Surrealism in book illustration. His style
alters again in his designs for Part II, The
Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas. These consist mainly of figures
depicted representationally but fractured by geometric lines. His
scribbled-line technique recurs in the blank, oral faces of the two
automatons. The heads of Mrs Lutestring and the Archbishop in Part III are
severer and more angular with tones more finely textured. On the
caricatured drawing of Falstaff and Napoleon, Shaw remarks that
Napoleon’s littleness should be suggested, that his whistle should be
removed because it looks like a cigarette, and that Falstaff ‘should be
laughing uproariously’, all of which Farleigh corrects in the final
image. Part V takes place in 31,920 ad
which accounts for the timeless figure of the Ancient.
to Methuselah was published in 1939. Macy
was not entirely satisfied with the modernity of these illustrations
feeling that some of them ‘seem to require a deal of explanation for
even the most sympathetic of readers’.105 In defence Farleigh
sent him Shaw’s delighted response to the engravings: ‘Nothing more
exactly right for a unique edition could be imagined. The 1500 copies will
sell like Blake’s some day. G.B.S.’106 Farleigh felt he had
‘never put so much into one book… it means a lot to me and has a lot
of personal development in it’.107 For British audiences,
however, such complex and subjective interpretations had a limited appeal.
Farleigh did not illustrate a book with wood-engravings again until 1944.
By this time his innovative ideas in this field were spent. Yet through
teaching, writing, broadcasting, and campaigning for crafts, he did much
to keep the interest in wood-engraving alive.108
by David Brown in introduction to exhibition catalogue, Gertrude Hermes, RA (London: Royal Academy of Art, 1981). In New
York she did a series of line drawings to illustrate P.L. Travers’s I
Go by Sea I Go by Land (Harper Bros., 1941).
black key block with two colours added which she contributed to one of
Faber’s Ariel Poem Series, T.S. Eliot’s Animula
(1929), was a rare incursion into colour wood-engraved illustration.
First entirely non-representational exhibition held in England organized
by Ben Nicholson for the Seven and Five Society. Feb.–June 1936:
‘Abstract and Concrete’ exhibition held in Oxford, Liverpool, London,
and Cambridge, including works by Hepworthi, Nicholson, Moore, John Piper,
and leading European artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Miró, Mondrian, Gabo,
Calder, and Giacometti. June 1936: ‘International Surrealist
Exhibition’ held at the New Burlington Galleries, London, to which Paul
Nash and Moore were the foremost British contributors.
for instance, John Farleigh, Graven
Image (London, 1940), 361, and Leslie Thomas Owens, J .H. Mason, 1875–1951,Scholar-Printer (London, 1976), 138–40.
J. H. Mason, 139.
proofs to some of the illustrations are held in the VAM.
in The Wood Engravings of John
Farleigh, with text by Monica Poole (Henley-on-Thames, 1985), 10–11.
unknown by the author. See Farleigh, Graven
Graven Image, 371.
examples held in the Rare Books Department of New York Public Library (Arents
Farleigh to George Bernard Shaw, 9 Jan. 1938. Shaw Papers, BLMC.
Farleigh to George Macy, 25 Feb. 1939. LECA. A small undated [? 1940]
booklet published by the Limited Editions Club entitled With the Advice of G. B. S. contains reproductions of the drawings
and Shaw’s handwritten comments.
The Wood Engravings of John Farleigh,
Farleigh to George Macy, 25 Feb. 1939. LECA.
Macy to John Farleigh, 15 Aug. 1938. LECA.
Farleigh to George Macy, 27 Aug. 1938. LECA.
Farleigh to George Macy, 10 Aug. 1938. LECA.
official positions held see Ch. 9 nn. 1 and 2. A selected list of his
publications appears in The Wood
Engravings of John Farleigh, 119.