We return to our look at some of the illustrations created by Charles Robinson for Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888).
Robinson (1870-1937) was born into a family of artists, and both of his brothers became illustrators, as well. Robinson had a particular facility for illustrating children’s books – both with pen and ink drawings and watercolor pictures of delightful delicacy.
Though we’re looking at his illustrations for Wilde’s fairy tales, I cannot help but include a page from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson (see below). Look at how Robinson creates his page layout -- the long illustration with the reaching minarets, all pointing upward to the moon. The child in the lower foreground is a stand-in for ourselves, and one cannot help but look on in wonder. He then balances this delicious drawing with the child and clock to the right, the chains of the clock pointing downward at the tyke, a perfect counterpoint to the adjourning illustration. Masterful.
The story of the Happy Prince is tragic, indeed. The Prince is a statue in the town square. “He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword hilt … He was very much admired indeed.”
But the Prince is not only beautiful of form and figure, but of soul, as well. He entreats a swallow, en route to make merry with friends in Egypt, to take various jeweled parts of his body to the hungry and suffering poor. Before long, there is little outward beauty left to the Prince and the swallow, exhausted, dies at his feet. Now shabby, the statue is taken down and burned in the furnace. However, Wilde ends his tale on a redemptive note:
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” sad God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden on Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”
Robinson made two color illustrations for this story; here is the Palace of Sans-Souci, the home of the Prince when he was alive, and a place where sorrow is not allowed to enter. This watercolor is a wonderful example of Art Nouveaux, and highlights all of Robinson’s strengths of composition. If Sans-Souci is, indeed, a place where sorrow is not allowed to enter, how best to design paradise than as a place of great beauty … of marked stillness? There are birds here, but they rest upon the grass (or on a maiden’s fingertip), at peace. The women, beautifully dressed, are in conversation with one another, or listening to the lute played by one of their numbers. The plants around them are in blossom, and a garland of flowers hangs overhead. The highly idealized trees accentuate the heavenward thrust of the picture, and the curvilinear architecture that surrounds them is a perfect encapsulation of the Art Nouveaux aesthetic.
All of the women look alike. Are they sisters? Perhaps muses to some unseen artist? The text tells us nothing more than Sans-Souci is a paradise, and to Robinson that seems to mean conversation, music, nature and beauty. He may have a point.