THE taste for luxurious books shows no sign of decline, and, although we do not bring before our readers this year any great work of art married to immortal verse, here are two volumes of a workmanship and design to attract every practiced eye. The Book of the Tile Club 1 is so purely artistic as almost to make one forget that it is a book at all; but to fail to peruse the pleasantly worded text would be to miss some delightful quarter-hours of light literature. The Tile Club, it is said at the end of the volume, by way of preface we suppose, has “ no rooms,” and this publication has been devised as a kind of reception for the entertainment of its friends. The first chapter tells how impossible it would be for guests to find the sanctum ; and therefore, excusing us from that useless search, forthwith introduces us to the habitat of the brotherhood, and presents them at their carnival under the tag-names of Briareus, Polyphemus, the Bulgarian, the Chestnut, Cadmium, and the rest of the score of strange appellatives ; then we are left to sit quietly by, observe the culinary incidents, listen to the talk and the stories, and enjoy the evening as agreeably as if in the disguise of the caliph. It is a frank sketch of artist life that we read, with its cosmopolitanism, its bonhomie, its dialect of Bohemia; and every climate contributes something of local color, some picturesqueness of landscape, or romantic adventure, or vivid custom, to our pleasure as to the Club’s conversation. There is a tang of life in it all; and in the illustrations, too, which are the reality of the book in fact, the spirit of contemporaneity is rife and brimming with vital energy, experimental, various, unwearied, so that the volume represents fairly American art at the present moment as well by the character of its work as by the signature of eminent names.
It is this variety and catholicity that make the collection so noticeable as well as interesting. There is no monotony ; there is a great deal of individuality, both in choice of subject and in treatment; and in the minor parts there are the verve, the spontaneity, and sometimes the freakishness of the sketchbook. But the place of honor is held by serious and highly finished work, reproduced from the originals by the method of phototype, and this first deserves attention. Most of the better, or at least the more prominent, designs are full-page illustrations, and the success of the process used is in nearly all cases admirable. The diversity of taste among the members of the Club and the manysided effort of contemporary art are forced on the observer at the first glance. There is no marked type of recent years that is absent; and as the contributors are themselves the very ones who have set the mode among us, the examples are well defined and of a good order. The frontispiece, A Woman in White, for instance, is in that style of figurestudy which Mr. Chase has made his own. In At the Inn Mr. Frank Millet contributes a finely disposed English interior. with which Mr. Abbey’s The Old Song should be mentioned as a companion piece in the same kind, though charged with a sentiment for which the simpler picture offered no opportunity; but both illustrate the best spirit of a ruling mode of taste. Mr. Vedder is to be seen both in his own work and in his influence, —the mystery of the landscape, which is a kind of aura to his powerful Sibyl, and the lines of movement being admirably given : and in a wholly different key is Mr. Reinhart’s Gossips, full of nicely marked character-expression, and rendered with complete effect; nor should we pass over Mr. Gifford’s SandDunes at Naushon, with its poetic feeling for wildly desolate nature, or the amiable rusticity of Mr. Parsons’s Sunday Morning, or Mr. Quartley’s Irish Channel and Mr. Bunce’s Sunrise at Venice, both noticeable for peculiarities of effect. These are some of the chief pieces, and they exhibit the scope of the volume ; they are enough to justify the remark that, for range of subject and breadth of personality and varied and full expression of the living art spirit of the time, it possesses a unique value in which no other work can approach it. It is so truly a book of the artists’ guild, free alike from the fetters of a text and from any tongue-tying authority of the pencil, its plan affords such complete liberty as of a mere portfolio of unbound plates, that it has a natural right to this precedence ; the series of large phototypes alone determines this, by its representative quality. It becomes still more apparent that the Tile Club’s exhibition in these pages is of the art in all its width of interest, when one examines the numerous minor illustrations inserted in the text. They have the heterogeneity of a bundle of drawings, impressions and studies, notes and reminiscences and fancies, such as one may find tumbled together in a studio ; they lighten the volume and give it a touch of intimacy, and convey a feeling of nearness to the craft quite in the spirit in which the work is conceived ; and it is not to be concealed that many of these unambitious productions display no less skill, susceptibility, and inventiveness, and are not less attractive to the eye in their own way, than those which are set in the more prominent group. It is by means of these that the Club is directly made known to us, with its stairways and courts, its clock-tower, its fireplace and corners and “club comforts; ” and even the faces of some of the “Tilers ” themselves look out on us, several of them being very good portraits on the small scale. This last is a pleasant feature toward the end of the book. Not to linger on these artistic belongings, however, nor on the frequent and lightly varied head and tail pieces, nor the bits from Augustus St. Gaudens, nor many other things that tempt the pen to forget it is not the brush, we should scarcely discharge our function properly without mention of Frederick Dielman’s spirited sketching, of Arthur Quartley’s sea-views and F. Hopkinson Smith’s landscapes, and of the drawings of Abbey and Reinhart, each in his own vein happy in expressing the sentiment that attaches itself to character, old fashioned or countrified. The Book of the Tile Club, taken altogether, is, from the artist’s point of view, an extremely well-made volume, and to the general public it must prove a very agreeable one ; but apart from its other excellent qualities, which have been briefly indicated, as a book of contemporary American art it stands entirely alone.
Well-Worn Roads 2 is a book of a single artist. Its plan is not unlike that of the volume just noticed, in which the same hand had a considerable share both in the text and the illustrations. It is characterized by the same loose connection between the letterpress and the phototype plates ; so that neither need be sacrificed to the other, nor in any way constrained. The dozen light sketches in which the author narrates the anecdotes of his painter-life in Spain, Holland, and Italy are full of entertainment, and have no dull passages ; they are the story of selected moments, told in the fewest words, and each has a spice of adventure ; and they convey the atmosphere of the Spanish arches, the Dutch canals, and the landing-places of Venice, which they interleave, with a literary effectiveness that helps the work. One lingers upon them because they are true pictures of travel: the group of the Spanish lady in the arms of her mother and the attendant, wildly sorrowing before the Virgin, in the closed and empty church ; the dance of the gypsy in the posada at Granada, with its after-piece in the stiletto manner, under the darkness of the Alhambra ; the street crowd at the gate of Cordova, with the military arrest of the artist in its midst; the harangue at Amsterdam ; the professor of English, and the Knickerbocker doctor at Dordrecht; the gondolier ; the gray nun of the Pieta, and that poor Bavarian friar who wished America to have the old Italian-wrought altar-screen, because it would be more religiously honored among us, — all these are figure-pieces in the flesh that give a human element, a movement of life, and a tone of sentiment, which complete the artistic record of the journey in the quiet landscape pictures. Yet here, too, it is these last that make the volume. The subjects are about equally divided among Spain, Holland, and Venice, with a few added at the close from Bavaria. The painter seems to have been most in love with Spain, and has given us roofs and balconies and streets from Cordova, Seville, and Granada, with a somewhat finer sense of enjoyment in them, one thinks, though it may be only a fancy. In the book he is more happy with effects that involve less light, where the elements are more varied and contrasted, both in color and mass, and make up better in the materials of the phototype ; and he himself confesses this by putting the finely managed view of the Heerengraacht foremost as the frontispiece, though the qualities which make this plate conspicuous are also to be observed in others of the Dutch series, and very noticeably in the admirable one, Near Neighbors in a Bavarian Town. The point is not to be pressed too far. Within the limitations of the mode of reproduction there is no defect. Both in the Spanish and in the Venetian series such effects as can be indicated are given with success. In the former the architectural element counts for more, and this is a gain ; in the latter the sea takes its place with less charm. El Puerta del Vino is, perhaps, in both its sentiment and its features, most fully expressive of the spirit that broods over Spain when the traveler sees or recalls to memory its plazas ; and the Alcazaria at Seville is a markedly characteristic old-city view. Of the Venetian studies, one singles out Along the Riva, for the reason that it successfully illustrates that difficult task of reproducing broad Southern light, to which we have referred, and by comparing it with another of the best, Lighters off the Dogana, one sees again how much the shadow adds, not in truthfulness so much as in spirit. We would willingly have a word to say of the smaller illustrations that are sown in the text, as in the case of the former volume, for several of them must afford pleasure, which is not lessened because it is simple ; and Mr. Smith is to be especially congratulated not only upon the light, vivacious prose and the beauty of these selections from his studies as a painter, but also upon the artistic arrangement of the volume, the taste with which the illustrations have been laid down upon the page, for which he has been indebted to some skillful hand that made the most of the materials submitted, and has wrought them into an extraordinarily beautiful book. The work, taken as a whole, gives a rare sense of perfectness in its varied composition.
The third volume which the season brings to us is of the old orthodox order of illustrated books, in which the designs supplement the text and presuppose that it has been read. It would be foolish to find fault with the choice of the work when its difficulties have been so well met; but it goes without saying that in the Sonnets from the Portuguese 3 the artist had a most unpromising subject, since the poetic machinery in them is one of sentiment, and not of imagery. Here and there is a simile or a metaphor, it is true, and they seem to have been seized as a treasure-trove wherever found ; the sonnets, however, are without any mlse-en-scène, and proceed almost wholly by moods of feeling. This necessitates either a very strict subordination of the illustration to the thought, or else a wide departure from it under the impulse of an imagination quickened by the poems, but free from their constraint. The former method has been adopted by Mr. Ipsen, and with good reason. He has confined his pencil to the adornment of each sonnet with a marginal border, and to a circular design on the alternate pages, which bears the number of each one in the series. This interleavingmakes the volume thick, and as each sonnet is spread out in antique but plain type upon a broad page the originally thin poetic work makes a large book, quite beyond any one’s expectation. The artist has expended his invention upon the marginal borders, whose characteristics the slighter numeral disks merely repeat ; and in the composition of fifty of these, with so slight aid from the poetess, he has naturally used almost every good style in this mode of decoration. Some are combinations of world-old patterns, or, in the fashion of the Renaissance, flamboyant or arabesque, or set with delightful little cherubic figures; but antique conventionality does not have it all its own way. The designs of which the base is some flower, or vine, or evergreen, and those which are broken by small vignettes, are more frequent; and in a few cases a true picture has been well disposed to serve as a frame-work. This persistent variety is the best trait of the artist’s work, and compensates for the impression of barrenness of image which was inherent in the subject itself. The most is made, as has been intimated, of the chance mention of an owl at a casement, or a prison-wall, or of Electra’s urn ; and at rare intervals the artist does attempt to develop some suggestion of the text, but in these cases it would, as often as not, have been as well if he had observed the strictness which is usual with him. In the ninth sonnet, for instance, was it a misconception of the text, or the fancy of expanding the image, which led him to illustrate the lines,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice glass,”
by an ugly snake coiled about a beaker, and breathing into it above the brim ? Surely Mrs. Browning never thought of herself in relation to her lover under such a horrid vision, nor can any poetic reader without a shudder. It was infelicitous, too, to adorn that sonnet which begins,
with one of those Vedder heads with a tempestuous abundance of flowing locks, to whose artistic effect the thought of the shears is at once fatal. These, however, are exceptional lapses of taste, which do not mean a deficiency impairing the value of the whole. The designs fulfill their decorative purpose generally with delight to the eye, and are a welcome addition to the library of illustrated standard works of poetry.
- A Book of the Tile Club. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1886.↩
- Well-Worn Roads of Spain, Holland, and Italy. Traveled by a painter in search of the picturesque. By F. HOPKINSON SMITH. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1887.↩
- Sonnets from the Portuguese. By ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING. Illustrated by Ludvig Sandöe Ipsen. Boston: Ticknor & Co.↩