Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Mad Tea Party

Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice books remain familiar even today. Over the years many other fine illustrators and artists have been inspired to take on this masterpiece of children's literature. Below are a few examples of different illustrative approaches to A Mad Tea Party.

Here we have a color plate of Sir John Tenniel's famous original illustration for the Lewis Carroll classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). This well-established image is clearly the one to beat. But even if an illustrator could surpass this, is it possible for any image to replace this one in the public's imagination?

Arthur Rackham, A Mad Tea Party, 1907
Arthur Rackham's book illustrations generally occupy a full page and are therefore usually more vertical compositions, or what we in the digital age call the portrait orientation. This is more beautiful than Tenniel's woodcut rendering and more ornate, but it may be a little too sedate for a truly Mad Tea Party. Alice's unease is palpable. Tenniel's Alice was downright cross.

J. MacFarlane, The Mad Tea-Party
22. Dodgson (Charles Lutwidge)], "Lewis Carroll." Macmillan's Coloured Wall Illustrations, Alice in Wonderland, wall-hanging, 6 large colour illustrations by J.MacFarlane, linen backed, original wooden wall hanger, slightly dusty, 730 x 500mm., [c.1920].
est. £200 – £300  
Sold for £2000

Sale 35824, 7th July 2011

The above illustration by J. MacFarlane is little more than an appealing reworking of the Tenniel original, circa 1920. MacFarlane changes the composition from horizontal to vertical, presumably to accommodate the orientation of the wall-hanging.

Ralph Steadman, A Mad Tea Party, 1967
Ralph Steadman's skill as a draftsman is uncanny. Here his rendition from 1967 is the rudest Mad Tea Party I have found, hardly your typical children's book fare. Note the very original and appropriate use of upside-down typesetting. Steadman often brings a stunning savagery to his illustrations--this one, believe it or not, is relatively tame--and yet his compositions frequently are just brilliant. I don't think there's anything he can't draw. Like Alice, though, I think I might like to slink under the table here.

Salvador Dali, A Mad Tea Party, lithograph, 1969
Dali places his characters in the background, where Alice is the figure jumping rope. Consequently, this seems to be more of an artistic composition based on the story rather than a true illustration of Alice's adventure. Like Steadman, Dali has a tree growing through the middle of the table, here rendered as a pocket watch with a key. We've all seen Dali's bent timepieces before, but was there ever a more appropriate use than here at the Mad Tea Party with the perennially late White Rabbit in attendance?

Sir John Tenniel, A Mad Tea Party, 1865

Image added June 23, 2012

J. MacFarlane at Bloomsbury Auctions:
Salvador Dali:

Note:  My previous post on Arthur Rackham, "How Sir Lancelot Was Shot," can be found here.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Francis Bacon's "Study for a Portrait"

"Study for a Portrait" with doorman (AFP)

Francis Bacon's "Study for a Portrait" sold at Christie's London last month for a phenomenal £17,961,250, about £7,000,000 more than the unpublished presale estimate.  I should point out that Bacon's studies on this scale are finished compositions and not studies in the ordinary, preliminary sense of the term.  This painting from 1953 has been extensively exhibited and clearly is seen as an iconic work for the artist.

I really don't want to appear to be disrespectful of any art, but I'm going to pose a practical question to those who seriously collect postwar and contemporary art.  I've seen many Bacon works such as this in museums, but I don't personally know anyone who collects his artwork and lives with it in the home.  My question for the anonymous buyer is actually rather mundane:  where in the house do you hang such a painting?  Living room, dining room, and bedroom would seem to be unlikely choices, but still possible.  I think I would opt for the study or library if I were going to contemplate such serious fare as this.  

That still begs the question of where to display the nude by Lucian Freud.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Study for a Portrait


Price Realized 

  • £17,961,250
  • ($28,666,155)
  • Price includes buyer's premium
    Estimate on request

Sale Information

Special Features

Lot Description

Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
Study for a Portrait
oil on canvas
78 x 54in. (198 x 137.5cm.)
Painted in 1953 

Special Notice

VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.


Rodrigo Moynihan, London.
Louis Le Brocquy, Carros (Alpes Maritimes).
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1984. 
Pre-Lot Text
W. Lewis, The Demon of Progress in the Arts, London 1954, no. 4 (illustrated, titled Man in a Chair).
J. Rothenstein and R. Alley, Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné, London 1964, no. 78 (illustrated, unpaged).
D. Ades and A. Forge, Francis Bacon, London 1985, no. 23 (illustrated in colour, unpaged). 
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Francis Bacon, 1955, no. 10.
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Francis Bacon, 1966. This exhibition later travelled to Rome, Marlborough Galleria d'Arte; London, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd. and Siegen, Oberes Schloss.
Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, Francis Bacon: Paintings 1945-1982, 1983. This exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art and Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Francis Bacon, Retrospektive, 1987, no. 6 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, 2003-04, no. 89 (illustrated in colour, p. 237). This exhibition later travelled to Basel, Fondation Beyeler.
London, Tate Britain, Francis Bacon, 2008-09 (illustrated in colour, p. 131). This exhibition later travelled to Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Houdini Suspended

This vintage photograph of Harry Houdini was sold at Swann Galleries in 2008. The photo is undated and uncredited; it is accompanied by almost no information, but clearly it is Houdini's Suspended Straightjacket Escape. This is just one image from what must have been a stunning public performance by the master showman. I've included a link to a YouTube video below to demonstrate the dynamic nature of the stunt.

Sale 2159 Lot 116
HOUDINI, HARRYVintage photograph showing Houdini hanging upside down in a straight jacket. Silver print in 11x14 inch format; chipping along left and top edges. Nd
Estimate $1,500-2,500.  Sold for $800.

Rare video from Getty Images of Harry Houdini's Suspended Straitjacket Escape:

Here's the famous trick adorning his book cover.

He performed this many times in many different cities.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: The Coffee Trader (2003) by David Liss

The Coffee Trader (2003)
David Liss

David Liss is a very gifted writer of historical fiction. His novels offer financial intrigue as well as a taste of Jewish community life in times gone by, in this case in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition. The Coffee Trader takes place two generations prior to A Conspiracy of Paper, his first novel.  The story is set among the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam at the time coffee is being introduced to Europeans. With regard to this community, to me it feels delightfully familiar. You see, I read the nonfiction work Rembrandt's Jews (Chicago, 2003) by a noted philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison not all that long ago. I chose this latter book, I confess, on the basis of its scholarly author's excellent name, and I am delighted now to be able to return so soon to this very interesting time and place. As the two books were published in the same year, I doubt whether Liss could have used anything in Rembrandt's Jews for his own research.

As with Liss's other books, there is a convoluted underlying conspiracy that the hero has to unravel before it is too late. The novel's machinations are complex and can't really be anticipated by the reader, at least not by this reader.

The story is told mostly in the third person, but recurring parts of it are related through the memoirs of another character. (This dual approach works well enough here, although in a later book I feel it didn't go quite so smoothly. To wit, in The Whiskey Rebels, I find the dual narration very unsettling. Ambitious, yes, but unsettling.)

The Coffee Trader starts out promisingly enough and allows the reader to relive the experience of that first exquisite cup of coffee. I found myself wishing for some old-fashioned coffee as enticing as the brew described in these pages. The book's ending, though,  I found disheartening and disturbing, a reminder of how one can be betrayed with unintended and even brutal consequences. Ultimately, I think Liss, by mostly avoiding happy endings in his novels, is being true to his somewhat bleak vision of human nature. The question remains, what's a nice Jewish boy like David Liss doing creating such unsavory and sordid characters in the first place? The answer just might be that he's being honest.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Sir Lancelot was Shot

This large-scale work by Arthur Rackham from The Romance of King Arthur (1917) was offered for sale at Bonhams New York on June 22, where it failed to find a buyer. The image is poetic and atmospheric, and it does a superb job of telling the story of the Arthurian legend. Sir Lancelot, during his affair with Queen Guinevere, goes into hiding near St. Leonard's well. He falls asleep when a lady with a hunting party happens by in pursuit of a hind. She shoots Lancelot in the buttocks. Lancelot recovers in the nearby Clewer Hermitage.

The price estimate is certainly robust, but not unheard of for this artist. Sold or unsold, this is a fine example of the illustrator's art.

Lot No: 90
Arthur Rackham (British, 1867-1939)
"How Sir Lancelot was Shot by a Gentlewoman Hunting," published in The Romance of King Arthur (1917).
Signed lower right.
Ink and watercolor on paper.
35.6 x 26.7cm (14 x 10 1/2in).

Estimate: US$15,000 - 25,000, Unsold
Footnote:  A fine, large image from one of Rackham's most famous works.

Update August 23, 2011:  This piece was previously sold at Heritage Auctions on October 27, 2009 for $11,950 including the buyer's premium.  This sale price suggests that the auction estimate at Bonham's may have been a little too steep.

Sale 19514 - 20th Century Illustration Art, 22 Jun 2011
New York

Arthur Rackham (British, 1867-1939)
"How Sir Lancelot was Shot by a Gentlewoman Hunting"
The Romance of King Arthur, 1917

My previous post on Rackham's Rhinemaidens can be found here.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Coming up at auction on August 3rd at Swann Galleries in New York is this gorgeous, atmospheric travel poster by Pierre Comba.  Nice never looked better.

PIERRE COMBA (1859-1934) NICE.
Sale 2252 Lot 258
PIERRE COMBA (1859-1934) NICE.
39x24 inches, 99x61 cm. Agence Française de Propagande, Paris.
Condition B+: repaired tears and restoration in margins and image.
Riviera 436 (var).
Estimate $1,000-1,500
August 3, 2011:  Unsold

Here's a variation from Christie's South Kensington:
COMBA, PIERRE (1859-1934)

Price Realized
  • £576
  • ($1,153)
  • Price includes buyer's premium
    £500 - £700
  • ($1,001 - $1,401)
Sale InformationSale 5239 Lot 268Shipping and Vintage Posters 28 June 2007 London, South Kensington
Lot Description
COMBA, PIERRE (1859-1934)
offset lithograph in colours, printed by ADIA, Nice, condition B+; backed on linen
39½ x 24in. (100 x 61cm.) 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) by David Liss

A Conspiracy of Paper (2000)
David Liss

This enthralling first novel by David Liss is remarkably good, and its early promise has been borne out in his subsequent fiction. Set in London in 1719, the book introduces Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish former pugilist turned thieftaker. Weaver is alienated from both his family and his religion, making this novel set in the early 18th century feel remarkably contemporary.

A Conspiracy of Paper takes place just before the South Sea Bubble financial crisis. Liss is drawn to the history of finance and of its disruptions. At this period of history, people were just coming to terms with the idea that paper bills could represent the same kind of monetary value as gold or silver specie. The idea of paper stock certificates was revolutionary at the time too, akin perhaps in some way to the revolution we have seen with complex finance in the digital age.

Liss is a thoughtful and an entertaining writer, and I think readers who seek out his books will be well-rewarded. After reading all of his novels, though, I've come to wonder whether he has any faith in the capitalist system itself. I hope he does.  He seems to understand all the things that have gone wrong and that can go wrong. He knows how financial disasters have hurt a great many people who trusted their earnings to the market. In 1719, when modern finance was in its infancy and abuse rampant, I have to concede that Liss's implied criticism of the very flawed financial system is more or less appropriate.

Warner Brothers optioned the rights to this book in 2010 and we could soon be seeing it on the big screen. It has the potential to be a thrilling, suspenseful movie, if they get it right. Granted, that's a big if.

David Liss's latest book The Twelfth Enchantment is coming out on August 9. I'm going to post a few more reviews of his books here before that date.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucian Freud, 1922-2011

Lucien Freud passed away Thursday in London.  Here is an atypical drawing of a cat sold at Christie's London last month.  Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, is better known for his severe nudes and portraits.

Lucian Freud (b. 1922)

The Sleeping Cat



Price Realized

  • £193,250
  • ($308,427)
  • Price includes buyer's premium
    £100,000 - £150,000
  • ($160,000 - $230,000)

Sale Information

Lot Description

Lucian Freud (b. 1922)
The Sleeping Cat
signed 'Lucian Freud' (lower left)
ink and pencil on paper laid down on card
10¾ x 7in. (27.2 x 17.8cm.)
Executed circa 1944 

Special Notice

Artist's Resale Right ("droit de Suite"). If the Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer also agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.


Private Collection, London (acquired directly from the artist).
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 22 October 1997, lot 24.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Pre-Lot Text
View Lot Notes ›
Lucian Freud, The Sleeping Cat

Reflection, a self-portrait (1985)

Queen Elizabeth II (2001)


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Paging Doctor Mouse

These photos were taken during my most recent trip to Walt Disney World in March of 2008. Here in Crystal Arts on Main Street, USA, we see Mickey and Minnie Mouse assuming responsible roles in health care. All well and good, right?

Is it my imagination, or is the lesson here that boy mice should become doctors and girl mice should become nurses? Am I reading too much into this? I don't think so. Welcome back to the 1950's!

Notes:  My previous post on Disney animation art is here.

My last post on Crystal Arts regarding the Swarovski Cinderella Castle is here.

Blog Update:  My Happy Birthday, George Booth post has been updated again here to follow up on James Gurney's contest to "finish" The New Yorker cover.