01 06 doreToday is the birthday of Gustave Doré, who was born in 1832 in Strasbourg, which was then a part of France. Gustave took to drawing at a very young age His earliest dated drawings were made when he was just five and he could make highly elaborate and detailed drawings from memory. He would later turn out to be great at painting and sculpture too. Also he was a pretty good mountain climber, singer, violin player and acrobat. But, just so I don’t make him too annoying, I’ll stick with his illustrations today.

When Doré was fifteen, he visited Paris with his family and he absolutely loved it. During their visit they happened to pass a publishing company, called La Maison Aubert, with some comic drawings displayed in their windows. Gustave hatched a plan. The next day he feigned illness. His family had to go out without him. As soon as they had gone, he made a few sketches, headed straight back to Aubert and into the office of its head publisher, Charles Philipon. He put his drawings on the desk and told Philipon: “This is how that set of illustrations should be done.” Philipon was amused by the boy’s approach, but delighted by the drawings. He called several other people in to look at them. No one could believe they had been done by young Gustave. They asked him to draw more. He quickly dashed off a few sketches. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Philipon would not let the boy leave the office, but tracked down his father and talked him into signing a lucrative contract for his son.

trials of herculesGustave published his first book at age fifteen, his own version of the ‘Trials of Hercules’. Then he began illustrating a magazine published by Aubert called ‘Le Petit Journal Pour Rire’, the little magazine for laughs, which, incidentally, was edited by Félix Nadar who took the above photograph of him. By the time Gustave was seventeen, he was the highest paid comic illustrator in France. He made over 2,000 caricatures whilst he was still in his teens. By the 1850s he wanted to be taken more seriously and moved on to illustration. He produced engravings for works by Rabelais, Balzac and many more for a publisher called Louis Hachette. But still he was searching for something more satisfying. His books were selling well, but none of them sold for more that fifteen Francs. But over the course of five years, he had been working on a much grander project. He was making a series of large illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. dante's infernoIt was a massive undertaking and couldn’t be sold for less than a hundred Francs. Hatchette thought it was a stupid idea, no one would pay that much for a book. But Gustave really wanted to do it. He offered to pay for the printing himself and eventually Hatchette agreed. A thousand copies were printed, but the publisher was so sure they wouldn’t sell that he only bound a hundred of them. A couple of weeks later Gustave received a telegram from Hatchette: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!”. The book would eventually run to 200 editions.

Gustave’s illustrations for the Inferno really proved his worth as a serious illustrator. He went on to produce a set of drawings for Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ and ‘The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen’. He also did a set of now definitive illustrations for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for which he travelled to Spain to really get a feel for the places that the story was set.don quixote Almost all subsequent images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both in books and on film, have been influenced by his work. It was also among his first works to be published in Britain. We took to him immediately here, and in the UK he received a level of recognition in his lifetime that he never really achieved in France. Gustave Doré did not really suit the French art world, he had never trained as an artist and didn’t fit into any particular genre. In his teens he had published a book called ‘Three Artists, Misunderstood Malcontents’ poking fun at serious artists and art critics. It hadn’t really gone down very well, particularly as he was, at the time, more highly paid than the people he was lampooning. Even though he later produced some really beautiful paintings, they still thought of him as little more than an illustrator.

rime of the ancient marinerIn London, however, a gallery was opened specifically to show the works of Gustave Doré in 1867. Initially, it was a five month long exhibition. It ran for twenty-three years. He continued to produce illustrations right through the 1860s, including a set for the Bible which was hugely popular. Also he produced work for the other two parts of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’. He began to get commissions to illustrate works by British authors, among them Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ and Coleridge’s ‘ Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ which is beautiful. His last work was his only American commission, a set of prints for Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which he was working on at the time of his death in 1883.

His images have wonderfully dramatic quality and have been a massive resource for film makers from the very beginning. Almost every film made about the Bible has referred to his illustrations. We know that Cecil B DeMille had a copy of his Bible prints when he was a child and that it was one of his favourites. Before that, Georges Méliès drew inspiration from his work. So did Jean Cocteau, Ray Harrihausen, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and many others. I have sought out a few images that remind me of film sets and characters and, with over 100,000 drawings to choose from, there must be hundreds more. Can you guess what these are?



09 29 cervantesToday is the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, which is a remarkable piece of seventeenth century meta-fiction. He was born (probably) on this day in 1547 possibly in Alcalá de Henares, a little north east of Madrid. We can’t know for sure, it was a very long time ago. Nor do we know much about his early life. His family seem to have been fairly nomadic and he once fell in love with a barmaid who he was deemed not to be good enough for. At some point he left Spain and travelled to Italy, we don’t know why. Perhaps he was a student, perhaps he was on the run. In any case he steeped himself in the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1570, he joined the Spanish navy and was involved in a battle in which he was shot three times, twice in the chest. As a result of his wounds, he lost the use of his left hand. In 1575 his ship was attacked by pirates, the captain was killed and he and other crew members were kidnapped and sold into slavery in Algiers. Cervantes was enslaved for five years and during that time he led four unsuccessful escape attempts. He was eventually freed and returned to Spain where he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and later as a tax collector. During this time he was imprisoned at least twice for irregularities in his accounts. In 1584, at the age of 37, he married an eighteen year old called Catalina. It seems not to have been a particularly happy marriage. They didn’t spend much time together. But her uncle may have been the inspiration for the character of Don Quixote.

09 29 don quixoteStories of chivalry were quite popular in Spain in the early seventeenth century. Their themes of adventure and romance were large but didn’t really ever tell us what the people in the stories were really like. Cervantes wanted to write a his chivalric story in a contemporary setting with real people, not just idealised versions of a knight or a lady. What he did was shrink the whole world of medieval chivalry so that it fitted inside the head of a single mad man. His hero has become mad through reading too many stories about chivalry and imagines himself to be a knight errant. He declares a neighbouring farm girl to be his lady love and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso. She has no idea of this fact and never makes a personal appearance in the story. Don Quixote sets off on a series of adventures with his decrepit horse Rocinante and later his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza, a local farm labourer. He imagines himself to be battling all sorts of imaginary foes. What actually happens is that he leaves chaos, or at the very least, bemusement, in his wake and usually gets beaten up. A fact that he generally puts down to the fact that he was fighting an ‘enchanted Moor’. Cervantes presents his story as a retelling of a tale from a much earlier manuscript. He even breaks off half way through a battle to declare that the source of his stories end here. He then continues to describe how he came across a second manuscript at a market which was written in Arabic and which he has had translated. He continues his story, adding that if it is wrong we must blame the translator.

Don Quixote was published in 1605 and became very popular. it was quickly translated into several languages. In 1614 another author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, wrote a sequel to the novel. Cervantes was probably already working on his own sequel at the time, which was published the following year. In it he has Don Quixote meet with Avellaneda and is outraged because the spurious author has declared him to be no longer in love with Dulcinea. He also decides not to go to joust in Zaragosa because it was something that happened in Avellaneda’s novel. He also meets with one of Avellaneda’s characters and has him swear that they never met before.

Throughout the second part, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet with people who know who they are because they have all read Don Quixote part one. This makes them vulnerable and the other characters use what they know about the pair to play a series of tricks of them. Cervantes ends his second novel in a way that makes it absolutely clear that Don Quixote’s adventures are at an end and that any further published stories about him would be a lie.

These two massive novels are far from being the only things that Cervantes wrote. His first book, La Galatea, is a pastoral romance which is mentioned in Don Quixote as one of the books in his library. He also wrote several plays and a series of twelve novellas, some of which seem to draw on his own life experiences. There is one about a man who marries a woman much younger than himself. Worried he will lose her, he keeps her imprisoned in a house that has no windows facing the street. Despite his efforts, she meets a young man and one day he comes home to find his wife in the arms of her lover. Literary tradition at the time would demand the death of the adulterers, but her husband forgives them because he realizes that he was also at fault for trying to isolate her. He dies of grief.

In another story he has his hero travel all over Italy enjoying the art and culture as Cervantes himself had done. But then the young man is given a love potion which poisons him and afterwards he believes he is made of glass. We mentioned this story in an earlier post when we wrote about the glass delusion. The man in quite sane in all other respects but fear that he will break leads him to wrap himself in thick clothing and to travel in a pannier packed with straw. Rather in the same way that Don Quixote can appear perfectly sane – until anyone mentions chivalry.