John Austen

John Archibald Austen (1886–1948) was an English illustrator who illustrated a number of books for George Macy’s The Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press. Here’s a list of the titles that he worked on for the LEC (thanks to the The Limited Editions Club & Heritage Press Imagery website for some additional details):

  • Vanity Fair (1930)
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1933)
  • The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (1935)
  • The Frogs by Aristophanes (1937)
  • A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare (1937)
  • The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane by Alain Rene Le Sage (1938)
  • The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (1941)
  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, also featured woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker (1953)

He also contributed to Heritage Press exclusive titles:

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1937)
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1939)
  • Lorna Doone by R.K. Blackmore (1943)

I was reading through the monthly newsletter for Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a part of the LEC Shakespeare, and I came across a short autobiography and I thought would be interesting to share. I’ve published photos of The Comedy of Errors here, but I thought this little autobiography deserved its own space on the website:

I was born so long ago that I only just remember 1886 on January 5th at Dover, about which I remember very little except the sea and the white cliffs. At nine I came to London and until fourteen went to an elementary school; but I don’t remember learning anything. At fourteen I got my first job as a builder’s boy, pushing a builder’s barrow, handing nails to the carpenter and being generally cold, miserable and useful. At seventeen, there being a slump in building, I drifted into an asphalt factory, and from there into more or less permanent unemployment for two years; during which time I spasmodically played at drawing, being much enthralled by some reproductions of [Aubrey] Beardsley which I picked up from a rubbish shop. At twenty-one, I managed to get smuggled into an American draughtsman’s office, where for two years I was very happy and daresay very incompetent. That job over, I tried my hand as a freelance black-and-white artist, very unsuccessfully.

In 1913, I applied for, and was accepted for, a job in a Fleet Street newspaper office as a temporary artist! The job was to last two weeks, while another artist was on holiday. I stayed there three years, being sacked so that I could join the army. But the army didn’t want me, soI spent the war years as a freelance. My spare time I devoted to making illustrations after the manner of my beloved Beardsley and in experimenting in tempera painting. In 1919 I was married and made a home in St. John’s Wood in London.

In 1921 Hendersons of the famous “Bomb Shop” in Charing Cross Road published R. Keens’ Little Ape with my illustrations. About this time I was elected as a member of the R.B.A. and soon after became a foundation member of The Society of Graphic Arts.

In 1922 Selwyn and Blount accepted my drawings for Hamlet and afterwards commissioned many more books.

I also produced an anthology for Chapman and Hall, with illustrations, entitled Rogues in Porcelain. In 1924, I began to grow tired of London and, feeling a very rich man, decided to go back to country life, and so went to Dover once more.

Back in the country I found myself unable to proceed with my work. Beardsley seemed out of place among the fields and trees, and every crow that looked at me from over the hedge seemed to be laughing at my conception of life. So I decided to begin again, a painful process, until I discovered Greek vases.

The results of my new efforts were shown at St. Georges Gallery, through the kind intercession of Haldane Macfall who, during the brief time that I knew him, gave me much encouragement and help. Among the exhibits were some designs illustrating Daphnis and Chloe which Geoffrey Bles purchased, and became the nucleus of my illustrations to that story.

John Lane then commissioned Don Juan and for a good many years I regularly produced one or two books for them, Tristram Shandy being my favourite. OTher books followed for various publishing houses. Then, in 1930, began the connection The Limited Editions Club, and the happiest period of my life as an illustrator, with Vanity Fair.

It is not often that an illustrator is given the opportunity to participate in such a cooperative venture as this complete editions of Shakespeare; and I felt greatly honoured when I was invited by The Limited Editions Club to join with others in making the illustrations. When my choice eventually fell on The Comedy of Errors I set about thinking how I could make my designs a real contribution not only to the text of Shakespeare’s play but to the beautiful format which Mr. Rogers had designed for it.

I wished to present my illustrations without the intervention of any process engraver; so that nothing should stand between me and the reader but the printer: and I also wanted to make my designs agree with, and be subservient to, the printed page which they were to face, since no illustrator should dare, or could hope, to turn the reader’s attention from the magic of Shakespeare’s poetry.

There was only one way by which I could accomplish these ends and that was by using the medium of wood engraving: drawing my designs on wood and cutting them myself, and giving the printer hand-pulled proofs which he could follow faithfully in finally printing the complete editions.

The subject was to me a delightful one, and every cut made with the burin a real pleasure. I imagined these puppets of mine as living in the unreal world of the stage; and I decided for them settings which would not, I hoped, distract attention from their lively antics: using simple architectural devices to suggest the various changes of scene from one act to the other.

Then there was the problem of distinguishing those almost indistinguishable characters. The Brothers Antipholus and their droll servants the two Dromios, whose encounters, so inextricably mixed, are the very essence of the comedy. A problem which I attempted to solve by making slight differences in costume; leaving to the reader as Shakespeare has done the puzzling task of finally deciding just who is who: and I must confess that as I worked on my wood blocks I was often as much puzzled as any audience in the theatre, as as much amused at my own uncertainty as they.

I hope my illustrations will convey something of the interest and pleasure which I have experienced in the making of them; something of the delight which I have derived from the reading of this comedy; and something of the spirit of this, one of the most intriguing and witty of all Shakespeare’s plays.

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