Letter to Virgil Finlay

From Clark Ashton Smith

Auburn, California
June 13th, 1937

My Dear Virgil:

Your letter of last month was extremely welcome and interesting, and I appreciated seeing the enclosures. I should have answered far more promptly, but seem afflicted with a sort of nerve-fatigue or exhaustion which makes me defer even the pleasantest tasks. In fact, this condition has become such a problem that I am being forced to take such therapeutic measures as are practicable under the circumstances.

I anticipate seeing your designs for Psychopompos and The Death of Ilalotha, and feel sure that you will do ample justice to both the poem and the story. It is too bad - too damned bad - that at least a few of your illustrations can't be used in the Lovecraft memorial volumes. However, since Derleth may have to bear a considerable portion of the expense of publication, I suppose we'll have to forgive him for not wanting to increase the cost. It would seem that illustrations are seldom used in first editions of fiction anyway. Personally, I think that this is regrettable. When one considers the high prices at which novels and books of short stories are sold, there seems to be no good reason why a few pictures shouldn't be added to enhance and illuminate the text ... As to my stuff being put out in book form - well, the chances seem more than meager at present. There is a bare possibility that a selection of my poems (carefully chosen so as to omit stuff that might shock the well-known Mrs. Grundy) may find placement with some British firm: at least, an attempt will be made before long. But if anything of the sort materializes, I fear it will come out minus illustrations. However, if I can place work with some of the smooth paper magazines (I am trying hard for Esquire) there might well be an opening for your drawings. I'll blow your horn good and hard when I get the chance!

I am returning your photos and prints herewith. These came out with surprising clarity under a good glass. The still-life "Africa" seems very beautiful in design; and the landscapes are eloquent of sylvan loveliness. The colour prints fascinated me especially. It seems to me that such work should command a ready sale if there are any art-lovers and collectors in your locality. (However, perhaps your Art Lovers and Collectors are like the ones here in California, who, as a San Francisco art-dealer once said, are interested mainly "in buying Big Names at bargain-counter prices.") The two sculptures are interesting too, the half-figure "Aspiration" being especially pleasing.

I have seen quite a number of A. Beardsley's drawings at one time and other. A good selection from his different periods (small-size reproductions, of course) is available in the Modern Library volume, The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, with preface and essay by Arthur Symons. I'll be glad to loan you my copy. Beardsley was a great illustrator and original decorative artist - easily the greatest ever born in England. Much of the modern decorative black-and-white is more or less derived from, or influenced by him, Harry Clarke, for the most part, seems to pattern after his most ornate and detailed style of workmanship. Clarke is sometimes very fine - at others, as you justly say, ridiculous. I have recently been studying his designs for Poe (Tales of Mystery and Imagination) and note, together with many excellent illustrations, others that are marred with meaningless and inappropriate detail or repetitions of decorative motifs used in his designs for Andersen. In short, there is too much Harry Clarke and too little Poe in the pictures. One of the worst is the design for the Red Death, where the cerements -of the Death, disappearing into the tall clock, recall irresistibly the unwinding of ticker-tape! The second design for The Pit and the Pendulum is extremely bad, too, since the bonds of the prisoner suggest velvet bands, and the terrific possibilities of the scene are reduced to trivial patterns.

Jean de Bosschere is one black-and-white artist who seems, as far as I can tell, unaffected by Beardsley. I rather like some of his pictures for The Golden Ass of Apuleius: they certainly convey something of the atmosphere of Hellenic decadence. In a more realistic vein, Norman Lindsay is admirably spirited and effective. But I confess that I have really seen no great amount of illustrative or other pictorial art. Felicien Rops, the Belgian, and the French symbolist painter, Odilon Redon, are among a few to whom I feel instinctively drawn without ever having seen more than two or three specimens of their work. My own paintings and drawings have been compared to those of Redon; though I cannot judge the aptness or justice of the comparison.

I am sorry to learn of your father's death. Truly, the circumstances under which you labour are not of the most encouraging kind; but I hope that you will "stay with it." Talent so remarkable as yours will surely find some sort of recognition. I think it is a good idea to keep on submitting your work to publishers and editors: perserverance may "ring the bell" and secure a good opening somewhere. Incidentally, have you exhibited any of your oil paintings? One can always get something shown at the Independent blow-out in N.Y.; though I am not altogether sure as to the worthwhileness of the Independent shows ... As to isolation - I guess that is more or less inevitable for anyone whose tastes and ideas run counter to the conventional grooves. No doubt I shouldn't complain of mine; but, on the other hand, should congratulate myself on keeping out of the hoosegow! I'm sure that I wouldn't last long in Germany or Russia: someone would be sure to get the idea that I was against the status quo!

I was greatly interested to learn that you have made models in plasticene (a material with which I am not familiar) for the figures in some of your pictures. When you get to doing outre and bizarre sculptures, you will probably put mine in the shade! Glad you found the photos of "Dagon" and "St. Anthony" impressive. My carvings are mostly very small, and the tallest one to date (a 12-inch figurine of Lovecraftian grotesquery entitled "Cthulhu's Child") dwarfs most of the others. "St. Anthony" is barely 2 inches in height, and no doubt should be done on a larger scale for exhibition purposes. As to art-training or other education, I have had none at all - unless a somewhat broken and irregular attendance at grammar-school can be accounted as such.

Like Lovecraft, I began to write at an early age. In my middle twenties, during a period of unusually poor health, I began to dabble with drawing and painting and have kept it up at intervals ever since. Not, however, till April, 1935, did it ever even occur to me that I might experiment with three-dimensional art. The inception of my sculptures really seems to have been an accident: I had brought home, from a mine belonging to my uncle, some specimens of a soft talcose mineral, and found that the stuff was easy and pleasant to cut with a knife. Hence, almost without premeditation, I carved my first grotesque, a head half-reptile and half-animal, which still remains far from being the worst that I have made. These carvings exhibit, I think, considerable variety, and range from pieces of rough primordial type to others which, though still non-realistic, are not wholly lacking in refinement of technique. I have even done a few feminine heads to vary the array of monsters and demons and primal gods. Out of the 130 or more carvings that I have done, there are few that suggest the medieval horror spirit of the Notre Dame gargoyles; and though people have found resemblances to Mayan, East Indian and even African art, I believe that such resemblances are more a matter of coincidence than influence. No doubt the two or three drawings that I sent you may have suggested the gargoyles; but the creatures of my pictorial art as well as sculpture are more often unearthly - or, at least, too elaborately synthetic to bear much resemblance to anything else.

As to mechanics, most of this work is done with a knife and then finished with sandpaper. I have, however, sometimes used chisels (or, better still, a strong sharp blade driven chiselwise with a hammer) for blocking out some of the larger pieces. The minerals used vary in hardness; and one which I have discovered - a fibrous species of soapstone - can be burnt almost to the hardness of jade after carving. After being kept at a red heat for a long time (eight or ten hours, not necessarily continuous) the stuff loses its soapy character and has more the look of agate or petrified wood.

Your sonnet-sequence, if appropriately illustrated, might prove eligible for the pages of Esquire! Sonnets of Seduction is a catchy title, and I confess to being curious anent the outcome of the cycle.

As to books, I've been too poor recently to buy any and can't advise you on anything really new in the way of weird or grotesque literature. There is an abundance of old stuff, however. Have you read the early books of Lafcadio Hearn, the horror tales of Ambrose Bierce, the ghost stories of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood? These should be part of the neucleus of any weird collection. There are some good anthologies, particularly Everett -.- Harre's Beware After Dark. Aside from fiction, I recommend the books of Montague Summers, such as The Geography of Witchcraft, The History of Demonology and Witchcraft, etc. Grillot de Givry's Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy would interest you greatly, since it contains more than 350 illustrations, many of which are taken from rare prints and cuts; but the book is rather expensive, costing at least 5 or 6 dollars.

The pictures of yourself suggest a Goya-like robustness. This is all to the good - an artist certainly needs a strong physique.



Printed from: www.eldritchdark.com/writings/correspondence/72
Printed on: December 12, 2018