Edmund Spenser’s first published poem, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), was printed with a full set of integrated woodcut illustrations. Given their beneficial effect on book sales, it’s surprising that The Faerie Queene wasn’t published in an illustrated edition until 1715, and that only included nine engravings.
It was Brindley and Wright who published the first fully illustrated Faerie Queene in 1751. Drawings for its thirty-two engravings were made by the architect William Kent, who had died as he was completing them in 1748. Kent was a Spenser fan, who designed interiors and exteriors as well as buildings. He claimed that it was Spenser who inspired all his garden designs.
His drawings appear to have been conventional, as reflected in this scene in which Belphebe Kills the Salvage Man.
That remained the illustrated edition until after 1800, when other publishers rose to the challenge. Illustrators including Thomas Stothard and Richard Westfall were then engaged, but none produced any outstanding work until the end of that century, when illustrating The Faerie Queene seems to have become a more popular and more artistic endeavour. At about the same time, Louis Fairfax-Muckley and Walter Crane both produced fine sets of illustrations in Pre-Raphaelite style.
Walter Crane’s title page establishes the seriousness of his illustrated edition, completed in six volumes over the period 1895-97, and published in 1897 by George Allen.
Crane’s woodcuts are detailed and delicate, as shown in his opening image of The Patron of True Holinesse in Book 1, Canto 1. These reflect Crane’s longstanding involvement with William Morris and his Kelmscott Press, which published 53 books between its creation in 1891 and 1898. I will be relying on these for the main thread of images in my retelling of Spenser’s epic.
At the turn of the century, there was a vogue for condensed and illustrated retellings of The Faerie Queene, aimed primarily at children, but surely read by many adults too. Although in a different league from Crane’s beautiful and unexpurgated edition, these prove an interesting source for further images.
Mary MacLeod’s Stories from the Faerie Queene published by Gardner, Darton were illustrated by Arthur George Walker (1861-1939), a London-based sculptor mainly remembered for several war memorials, who also painted. He here appears to have been influenced by Art Nouveau in his page decoration and lettering. MacLeod was a successful author of children’s books, including a popular retelling of stories of King Arthur.
Despite his promising title page, Walker’s illustration for She Nigher Drew, and Saw That Joyous End is more conventional.
N G Royde-Smith’s retelling in Una and the Red Cross Knight and Other Tales from Spenser’s Faery Queene published by JM Dent in 1905, was illustrated in colour by Thomas Robinson (1869-1954), brother of one of the iconic draftsmen of the early twentieth century, W Heath Robinson. While the Heath Robinson is known still for his cartoons of elaborate mechanisms and contraptions, Thomas was a prolific illustrator of books for children.
Sadly, the colour reproduction of many of Robinson’s illustrations isn’t particularly good, as seen in his frontispiece.
I look forward to exploring the works of these illustrators together with over thirty paintings, set in the context of Spenser’s epic of The Faerie Queene. I hope that you will join me.