Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Dan Dare Meets the Man in the Moon

I recently had occasion to rummage in the in-laws attic, where many of the relics of my wife's childhood keep each other company. Amongst the irretrievably entangled Pelham puppets and the oddball menagerie of tattered and worn toys were a small stash of Ladybird books. Like all such well-loved artefacts from our early years, they bear the marks of enthusiastic and involved use; a crayon re-interpretation here, a fragment of curly-wurly lodged in the binding there. The artwork in these books, full-page reproductions of paintings, were illustrations that you could lose yourself in, imagining yourself into the detailed scenarios depicted. The two books which particularly caught my eye were the Second and Third Ladybird Books of Nursery Rhymes. Checking to see who the artist was, I discovered it was none other than Frank Hampson. Yes, the co-founder of The Eagle and creator of Dan Dare. Hampson had left the comics business at the end of the 50s, feeling bitter at having lost creative control over his spacefaring characters after The Eagle was taken over by new owners. His illustrations for the Ladybird Nursery Rhymes series in the 60s show the same meticulous attention to detail and delight in the disconcertingly strange which were characteristic of Dan Dare, even though he is now creating fantasies of the past rather than the future. Nursery rhymes tend to be an odd and on the surface unconnected series of nonsensical images. In their appeal to a level of pre-rational intuitive imagination, which creates its own connections, they are ideal for an artist with a love of the bizarre, the grotesque and the surreal. Mervyn Peake both wrote and illustrated his own nonsense rhymes, giving vent to his love of linguistic play and of creating strange creatures freshly minted from the unmediated forge of the subconscious. Hampson is very successful here in conveying the odd images conjured up by words which hover on the edge of sense, but are always on the verge of flying off into further worlds of freeform fancy.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
A great use of almost cinematic perspective. The miniscule nature of the pint-sized Generals is conveyed by the crow, which we see from above as it is about to sweep across the frame.

The Man in the Moon
The coldness of the night and the hotness of the cold plum porridge is vividly conveyed by the breath steaming out of the lunar traveller's mouth. His head is disconcertingly large in proportion to the rest of his body, giving him a slightly otherwordly mien. A nusery rhyme Mekon. The curve of the winter tree, as with the crow above, provides an effective framing element at the edge of the picture.

An old woman tossed up in a basket
Hampson back in outer space. Look at the expression of fear on the boy's face as he clings to the edge of the basket. He knows that if he tumbles out of the basket, he's got a long, long way to fall.

Goosey, goosey gander
A really rather terrifying depiction of an assault by a giant swan. This is the stuff of which nighmares are made. The sinuous curve of the staircase gives it a sense of a world turned upside down. Given the origins of the rhyme in Cromwellian nighttime house searches (as any viewer of Sapphire and Steel will know) this is rather appropriate.

Jack and Jill
Another dreamlike image in which there seems to have been a localised failure of gravity. This is the kind of dream hill down which your headlong descent accelerates unstoppably. Jack and Jill will end up in the bay.

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
A prescient rhyme and a very Mack Sennett-like puddle. I like the look of startlement on the face of the Victorian gentleman in the middle distance. Gloucester Cathedral looms as a truncated ghost in the background, the edge of a rainbow's arc glimpsed rising above it in the top left hand corner. A steam engine is emerging from under the bridge. The wheels of the horse carriage have just splashed through a puddle, sending spray to either side. These are the sorts of detail which prolonged perusal would bring to light, and which would give you the sense of entering into an entirely realised world.

The North Wind doth blow
Another elevated perspective, the cold whiteness of the outside world framed by the warmth of the barn's wooden beams. Notice how the depth and severity of the snow is conveyed by the fact that the coach's passengers have had to get out and push. What a perfect Christmas card this would make (note to self...)

1 comment:

Jesus Christ Superstore said...

I had these books and actually remember the illustrations. The Man In the Moon used to particularly frighten me.