Harry Clarke’s Hallucinatory Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories (1923)


As you’ve prob­a­bly noticed if you’re a reg­u­lar read­er of this site, we’re big fans of book illus­tra­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly that from the form’s gold­en age—the late 18th and 19th century—before pho­tog­ra­phy took over as the dom­i­nant visu­al medi­um. But while pho­tographs large­ly sup­plant­ed illus­tra­tions in text­books, mag­a­zines, and news­pa­pers over the course of the 20th cen­tu­ry, works of fic­tion, which had been rou­tine­ly pub­lished in lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed edi­tions, sud­den­ly became the fea­ture­less banks of words we know today. Though image-heavy graph­ic nov­els and com­ic books have thrived in recent decades, the illus­trat­ed lit­er­ary text is a rar­i­ty indeed.


Why did this change come about? “I real­ly don’t know,” writes Christo­pher Howse at The Tele­graph, but he points out that the era of illus­trat­ed fic­tion for grown-ups end­ed “after the death of the big Vic­to­ri­an nov­el­ists,” like Dick­ens and Trol­lope. Before adult pic­ture-books went out of style, sev­er­al now-famous artists made careers as book illus­tra­tors. When we think of the big names from the peri­od, we think of Aubrey Beard­s­ley and Gus­tave Doré, both of whom we’ve cov­ered heav­i­ly here. We tend not to think of Irish artist Har­ry Clarke—a rel­a­tive latecomer—but we should. Of the many incred­i­ble illus­tra­tions from famous works of lit­er­a­ture we’ve fea­tured here, my favorite might be Clarke’s 1926 illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust.


So out-there are some of his illus­tra­tions, so delight­ful­ly night­mar­ish and weird, one is tempt­ed to fall back on that rather sopho­moric expla­na­tion for art we find dis­turb­ing: maybe he was on drugs! Not that he’d need them to con­jure up many of the images he did. His source mate­r­i­al is bizarre enough (maybe Goethe was on drugs!). In any case, we can def­i­nite­ly call Clarke’s work hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, and that goes for his ear­li­er, 1923 illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mys­tery and Imag­i­na­tion as well, of which you can see a few choice exam­ples here.


Dublin-born Clarke worked as a stained-glass artist as well as an illus­tra­tor, and drew his inspi­ra­tion from the ear­li­er art nou­veau aes­thet­ic of Beard­s­ley and oth­ers, adding his own roco­co flour­ish­es to the elon­gat­ed forms and dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns favored by those artists. His glow­er­ing figures—including one who looks quite a bit like Poe him­self, at the top—suit the fever­ish inten­si­ty of Poe’s world to per­fec­tion. And like Poe, Clarke’s art gen­er­al­ly thrived in a seduc­tive­ly dark under­world filled with ghouls and fiends. Both of these pro­to-goths died young, Poe under mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances at age 40, Clarke of tuber­cu­los­es at 42.


Clarke’s illus­trat­ed edi­tion of Poe con­tained 8 full-col­or plates and 24 black and white illus­tra­tions. The Irish artist also notably illus­trat­ed edi­tions of the fairy tales of Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen and Charles Per­rault, with images that—as you might imagine—are like­ly to ter­ri­fy some sen­si­tive chil­dren. (See a few of them here.) You can pur­chase your own edi­tion of the Clarke-illus­trat­ed Poe here, re-released in 2008 by Calla Press. And to see all 24 of Clarke’s black and white plates, head over to 50 Watts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Har­ry Clarke’s 1926 Illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic 60s

Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illus­trat­ed by Aubrey Beard­s­ley in a Strik­ing Mod­ern Aes­thet­ic (1894)

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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