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VERNON HILL

 

THE ARCADIAN CALENDAR FOR 1910
THE NEW INFERNO 1911
BALLADS WEIRD AND WONDERFUL 1912

 

Winged Figures, etching, 6" x 8" from Etching Today 1932
A Sleeper , etching, c1923
Solitude, etching, c1925
Sweeping Flame, etching, 1929

 

Collected Poems W.K.Seymour, titlepage and binding 1946

 

My Original screen

 

 

 

Vernon Hill’s career as a book illustrator is curiously compressed. Although there is mention of a commission in 1908, his first known published work is  The Arcadian Calendar of 1909 (when he was 22) , followed by The New Inferno of 1910, and Ballads Weird and Wonderful of 1912. Apart from scattered exercises in printmaking after the first world war, in which he served from 1916 as a private in the Essex Regiment, his subsequent career was as a sculptor, designing and carving monuments and reliefs for architecture.

The trajectory of his stylistic development before 1914 is unlike anything else I know. Perhaps the example of Edy Le Grand might be offered, whose Macao and Cosmage (1919) reached heights of invention and originality unsurpassed in his maturity.

Hill was born in Halifax in 1887 and at the age of 13 was apprenticed to a trade lithographer. In 1908 he came down to London where there are accounts of him as a pupil/teacher in some capacity. Some writers then cast him as an apprentice of John Hassall, but it is more likely Hill attended Hassall’s commercially orientated School of Art. He was unsuccessful as a commercial artist, some say. But it is equally possible that the achievement of the Arcadian Calendar lithographs (see beneath) gave him larger ambitions and the tide of critical approval when published in 1909 confirmed him in loftier aims. The Bodley Head encouraged him, and he seemed to have found a mentor in the Devon antiquary R. Pearse Chope who contributed an introduction and a testimonial to the Ballads. The Ricker copy is given by Chope to Maggie  Ellis Evans with verse by the Belgian poet Leon Louis Moreau Constant Corneille van Montenaeken. There may have been a link here, apart from later the stylistic affinities to Ferdinand Khnopff in post Arcadian work, because Bodley Head’s Belgian Poems of 1915 had a portrait of Cammaerts by Vernon Hill as a frontispiece.

The Calendar is of a high originality in terms of figure drawing, subject matter and pattern making. It presents a consistent graphic narrative structure for each page. Each month is inhabited by a couple in a landscape (shades of Adam and Eve, Baucis and Philemon)  who respond to the presence of a particular deity associated with that month which generates sound, often fury and music. This is glimpsed through a frame with the months days and weeks with decorative features that teeter on the facial. A text is attached to the volume as an introduction perhaps by R.Pearse Chope, the donor of the Ricker copy. Chope also produced an introduction to Ballads.  The Arcadian action is largely comic Pantheism with a cod rural context of humanity’s bare survival , being  twelve Virgilian perambulations  set against the play of the elements.

One central question is whether the images were illustrating the Chope (?) text. Or vice versa. I subscribe to the latter view. There are just far too many specifics in each text which an illustrator would have found irksome  to catalogue. I suspect  the young artist took his portfolio to  John Lane/Bodley Head (a specialist published of avant-garde illustrated books)  who commissioned an explanatory text from a literary gent such as  R. Pearse Chope who rounded up the monthly narratives and drew the reader’s attention to certain characteristics. Not that the fundamental concept of the illustrated calendar is obscure a commission. It might well have been a project set at Hassall’s school which a supportive teacher had encouraged the young artist to take to a publisher. Hill uses the conventional personifications for each month, beginning with the Babe in January and the Dotard in December, the very stuff of Punch Almanacs. Perhaps in the comic style of the figures, the racy comic-cut style, there is a hint of commercial illustration. But there is more.

What is original is the edge of threat in the drawings, veering from sharp toothed grimace to broad smile, from semi-opaque forces to pantalooned buffoonery.  Where later Hill illustrations achieve an odd fusion of Blake and Michelangelo, the drawings for The Arcadian Calendar, with their graphic painterliness in the lithographic surfaces, look like the productions of a gifted amateur who has made a breakthrough without the direct interventions of an art school. 

Subsequent work adopted an increasingly stylised attitude to the human body, as if he had been struck by an over indulgence in life drawing, had been indecently praised by a mentor, or had glimpsed the possibilities of a more candid sexuality previously suppressed. The comic creepiness of Calendar became the earnest exaggerations of Inferno and Ballads.

The copies have been made available through the kindness of Michael T.Ricker whose own copy of The Arcadian Ballads is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

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