- Illustrating Camelot
Illustrating Camelot is a well-researched, engagingly written, and substantial contribution to our understanding of the ways a visual tradition shaped and reinterpreted the Arthurian legends, from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Barbara Lupack’s enthusiasm for her subject matter is amply conveyed, and the book benefits from [End Page 482] forty black and white illustrations and thirty-two colour plates (helpfully grouped together in a separate inset colour section). Arthuriana in book illustration (which flowered late in the Arthurian Revival and had a significant role to play in popularising the legends) has been critically overlooked, and Illustrating Camelot thus makes a distinctive addition to a relatively small corpus of critical work on the Arthurian visual tradition.
Lupack’s primary aim is “to examine the special collaboration between writers and artists and to explore the ways that the best Arthurian illustrators move beyond mere reproduction to become interpretative readers of the texts they embellish” (9). She does so through careful consideration of literary and visual contexts and influences, as well as with close readings of individual images. Focusing on thirteen “representative artists” (10), Lupack is also concerned with how these visual representations reflected the contemporary values of the time. Print illustrators reproduced their images from previous ones, expanded upon or challenged the text they were illustrating, or created their own imaginary medievalised worlds. In each case, as the author points out, “representation is always a form of revision or rewriting of the text” (2). Whether the illustrations are photographs, engravings, or watercolours, they interpret the narrative text faithfully, obliquely, subversively, or satirically.
The introduction gives a concise history of illustrated Arthurian material, highlighting editions of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (first illustrated in Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 edition), the main inspiration for the majority of Arthurian book illustration and a source for Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859–85). The first four chapters—on Gustave Doré, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dan Beard, and Aubrey Beardsley—focus on visual responses to, and reinterpretations of, Malory and Tennyson in a Victorian context.
Lupack argues that the French artist and engraver Doré reinvented Tennyson’s vision by shifting the emphasis from relationships between characters to “the relationship between the characters and the landscape that they inhabit” (17). Indeed, Doré’s gothic vision—which highlighted the Romantic aspects of the legends—was his main contribution to the Arthurian Revival. In focusing on the four Arthurian folios based on the Idylls (“Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere”) and commissioned by the publisher Edward Moxon (1867), the author helpfully discusses them with Moxon’s earlier 1857 edition of Tennyson in mind, making interesting points about the ways Doré revised Tennyson’s representation of gender: in “Guinevere,” for instance, Doré’s queen is prostrate at Arthur’s feet, much more penitent and passive than she is in the poem.
By contrast, Cameron introduced a “feminist consciousness” (42) to the legends with her photographic illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Other Poems (1874). Lupack shows how Cameron’s portrait photographs, particularly those of Arthurian women, moved beyond representation to comment “directly on the Victorian woman’s experience” (36). In highlighting women as active participants in the legends, Cameron influenced later visual renderings of the Arthurian stories by female illustrators. Cameron also departed from her contemporaries in her images’ narrative dimension (evidence of the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites) and her characters’ almost mythic identity (emphasised by the use of dark/light contrasts).
Beard’s illustrations of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) attempted to represent the clash of cultures between the sixth and nineteenth centuries. The central text in American Arthuriana, A Connecticut Yankee satirises Malory and Tennyson and, by extension, British society. Beard used contemporary [End Page 483] personalities to critique society, and many of his illustrations amplified ideas that were only implied in the text.
Beardsley, whose illustrations for Le Morte Darthur (1893–94), commissioned by J. M. Dent...