Monday, December 28, 2009

The Flying Islands of the Night

A few weeks before Christmas, I was reading up online regarding Franklin Booth, one of my hero illustrators. Almost as an afterthought, I decided to check ebay to see if anything associated with Booth might be available. Boy, was I ever not disappointed! It turned out that there were a couple of copies of this rare gem about to go for what seemed to be really bargain prices. I immediately jumped into the bidding for one of them (the better of the two) and actually won it—and for considerably less than I was willing to offer as a final bid! So of course, what did I do? When it came in the mail, I gave the package to my wife unopened and told her that she could save herself any further trouble: just wrap this and put it under the tree for me, thank you very much. Christmas Day having come and gone, I’ve certainly been enjoying my newly acquired jewel of a book for the past few days, which indeed arrived in remarkable condition for its near one-hundred-year-old age. (It even has an intact dust jacket!)

The Flying Islands of the Night is a fantastical three-act play in verse by James Whitcomb Riley, an American writer and poet whose mostly humorous and sentimental verse received notable attention and acclaim in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two or three editions of the book had already been published when, in 1913, The Bobbs-Merrill Company put out an exquisite new edition with illustrations by Franklin Booth, a rising luminary in what would prove to be illustration’s Golden Age, and a fellow native, along with Riley, of Indiana. This edition solidified Booth’s reputation as a first-rate illustrator and also, in all probability, rescued this work of Riley’s from complete obscurity. For as far as literary merits go, the work itself is perhaps only slightly better than mediocre. The story indeed contains some imaginative embellishments, but manages to be rather undramatic and predictable on the whole. Riley’s verse, for all to which it aspires, meanders in realms of obscure tediousness for much of the time, with lurching outbursts of real brilliance here and there. (The better portions achieve an almost Chestertonian caliber.)

But again, it is Booth’s illustrations which really make this book. Booth is known primarily for his richly detailed and masterfully composed pen and ink drawings. These were featured in some books, but even more notably as spot illustrations for stories and as full-page advertisements in magazines such as Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping and National Geographic in the early twentieth century. His pen is in evidence here (albeit in comparatively subdued presentation) on the end sheets and title pages, but The Flying Islands of the Night is the most celebrated example of his work in color, executed with what appears to be a combined technique of pen and watercolor. Sixteen such color plates, tipped in on heavier, off-color stock and covered with a sheet of vellum (onto which one or two lines of the appertaining verse are printed in brown ink), embellish the story throughout. Booth’s rich imagination, his penchant for soaring compositions, his sumptuous use of “negative” space, and his love of pattern—all typical features of his work in both black-and-white and color, are on full display in each of these. Just a few more representative examples:

1 comment:

  1. He is worthy of your worship! Amazing. I will have to share online about a book I received for Christmas too.