Artists for an Antiquary: M.R. James and his Illustrators


‘The little boy… looked around him with keenest curiosity.’

The effectiveness of M.R. James’ghost stories owes much to the author’s ability to create sensations of physical unease in the reader, particularly through the sense of touch. He never relies on merely visual effects, such as the sight of a grisly spectre or the shock of recognising a dead ancestor. Many of his stories were, of course, written in order to be read aloud rather on the printed page. One might therefore question the purpose of illustrations for his stories; can they enhance the reading experience, or might they prevent the text from guiding the reader’s imagination in the way that James intended?

Whatever the reader might feel, illustrations were seen as desirable by most publishers during the period in which Monty was writing, particularly for popular periodicals.  In this blogpost I’m going to look at some of the illustrations that accompanied his earlier works, beginning with ‘Lost Hearts’ which appeared in the December 1895 issue of  Pall Mall magazine.

The artist commissioned to illustrate James’ story was Simon Harmon Vedder (1866-1937), a young American artist whose reputation was on the rise following recent exhibitions at the Paris Salon. Vedder went to provide illustrations for authors such as Elizabeth von Arnim, G.A. Henty, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sir Walter Scott, but his watercolour style does not indicate a strong sympathy with the tone of ‘Lost Hearts’ and the pairing is not entirely successful.


‘Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?’


‘He went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dreams were really there.’


‘Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom.’


‘Mr Abney was found in his chair, his head thrown back.’

Both ‘Lost Hearts’ and ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ were read by James at the 601st meeting of the Chitchat Society at Cambridge on 28 October 1893, just around the time that a young artist named James McBryde came up to the university from Shrewsbury.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men became close friends, cycling along the Danube together in September 1895, travelling through Denmark and Sweden in the summers of 1899, 1900 and 1901 – these Scandinavian trips inspired the stories ‘Number 13’ and ‘Count Magnus’ – as well as visiting Aldeburgh together in 1902.

McBryde had originally intended to follow a medical career, but after completing his training at St Bartholomew’s in 1902 he decided to pursue a career in art instead, and began studying at the Slade School of Art in the autumn. Despite his marriage to Gwendolen Grotrian the following summer, and the fact that he lived in London while James remained in Cambridge, the two men remained close friends. The idea of combining McBryde’s artwork with Monty’s stories seems to have originated with L.F. Giblin, a friend of the artist who had also entered King’s at the same time. When McBryde fell ill with appendix trouble in March 1904, the project seemed an ideal way to distract him during his convalescence.

Monty responded positively to the suggestion, and six of his supernatural tales were chosen for the anthology – ‘Canon Alberic’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘The Ash Tree’, ‘Number 13’, ‘Count Magnus’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’

The drawing below is an illustration for ‘Canon Alberic’ and was used as the frontispiece for the collection. It was based on a photograph of the interior of St Bertrand de Comminges, which M.R. James had visited in April 1892.


The Englishman was too deep in his note-book to give more than an occasional glance to the sacristan
The figures of the English scholar Dennistoun with his notebook (above) and seated at his desk (below) were both modelled on Monty himself.


A hand like the hand in that picture
The next two illustrations are for ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’:


Looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety


It leapt towards him upon the instant
McBryde wrote to Monty on 6 May: ‘I have finished the Whistle ghost…I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…’
Sadly, these were to be his last drawings. On 31 May McBryde underwent surgery on his appendix, and despite early signs that all had gone well, he died at 9.30 am on the 5th June. His widow Gwen, who was then expecting their first child, returned the drawings to Monty. Despite his publisher’s recommendation that another artist be found to complete McBryde’s work – Arnold recommended H.J. Ford –  Monty insisted that the collection be published with just the four drawings as a tribute to his friend. In the meantime he wrote to Gwen and offered to publish The Story of a Troll Hunt, which McBryde had written and illustrated following their trip to Denmark in 1899. Gwen agreed, and the volume was published by Cambridge University Press with a preface by Monty. 


An illustration from ‘The Story of a Troll Hunt’ showing the three friends – Monty, McBryde and William Johnson Stone – who travel to Jutland in search of trolls for the Fitzwilliam Museum.

As mentioned above, publisher Edward Arnold had originally suggested that Ghost Stories of an Antiquary be illustrated by Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941.)   Monty’s refusal of this had nothing to with Ford’s qualities as an artist, and within a few years he was again invited to illustrate a book by M.R. James.

Old Testament Legends; being stories out of some of the less-known apocryphal books of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1913) is a collection of eight tales adapted by James for children, drawn from stories in the non-canonical Biblical literature known as the ‘Apocrypha’. James had a profound knowledge of the subject – he had edited a collection of Apocrypha Anecdota for Cambridge University Press in 1893 and would later write The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: their Titles and Fragments Collected, Translated and Discussed (London: SPCK, 1920) while his Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924) remained for several decades the standard reference work for Scripture scholars. Prefaced with a clear explanation of the subject for younger readers, the collection includes the following stories:

1.  Adam
2.  The Death of Adam and Eve
3.  Abraham
4.  The Story of Aseneth, Joseph’s Wife
5.  Job
6.  Solomon and the Demons
7.  The Story of Ebedmelech the Ethiopian and of the Death of Jeremiah
8.  Ahikar

Ford’s bold black and white drawings accompanied all the stories except No.7, and there were no less than three illustrations for the legend of Aseneth. This uneven distribution suggests to me that Ford submitted a portfolio of pictures, from which the editor may have struggled to make a selection. It seems unlikely that the quality of the illustrations was uneven, given Ford’s evident skill as a draughtsman, so if there were any shortcomings these were probably to do with his treatment of the subjects. The style of the illustrations fits well with the text. There is none of McBryde’s whimsy here, as readers would expect Biblical topics (even from the Apocrypha) to be handled with respect. Nor is there anything resembling the sentimental pastel tones of Vedder. Some of the drawings are in fact remarkably powerful.


From ‘Adam’ – How Satan deceived Eve in the River. The figure of Eve reminds me very much of one of the temptresses in ‘Hylas and the Water Nymphs’ (1896) by J W Waterhouse


Then Came One of the Seraphim and Bare the Soul of Adam to the Lake of Pure Water in the Garden


Abraham and the Broken Idols


Aseneth Doing Homage to her gods


“Aseneth, rise up”


Aseneth Flies in her Chariot from the Men in Ambush by the River


Satan Departs, Vanquished by Job at Last


Job’s Happy Death


Ephippas and the Demon of the Red Sea bring the Great Pillar to Solomon
The apocryphal encounter between Solomon and various demons does, of course, feature in ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.’


How Ahikar Outwitted the King of Egypt
Old Testament Legends was dedicated to ‘Jane and My Godchildren.’ Jane McBryde was now about nine years old and grew up with some artistic talent of her own – she drew a portrait of M.R. James when she was in her early teens, and it was good enough to appear in Letters to a Friend (London: Edward Arnold, 1953), a collection of 300 letters from Monty to Gwendolen and Jane McBryde, that the artist’s widow had edited for publication. His fondness for the McBrydes is clear fro the fact that his only novel, The Five Jars (London: Edward Arnold, 1922) was written for Jane. A children’s fantasy, it is written in the form of a letter to a young girl named Jane, in which the narrator recounts his strange sensory experiences involving five jars containing mysterious scripts. It included seven black and white pictures by Gilbert James (fl. 1886-1926), who is now better known for the illustrations he did for Leonard Smithers’ 1898 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His style is less cartoonish than that of McBryde and may perhaps remind contemporary readers of the work of Edmund Gorey (1925-2000.)


Frontispiece: The Bat Ball


A Former Owner of the Jars


The Pillars of Mist


The Cat Takes Action


Life Going on Much as Usual


Wag Introduces the Party
Since the death of M.R. James in June 1936 numerous editions of his works have been issued by different publishers, illustrated by artists including Francis Mosley, Charles Keeping, Rosalind Caldecott and Jonathan Barry. A blogpost about the will have to keep until another evening, as it is now time to curl up in the armchair with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary…, where is that candle?

Carte-De-Visite of the Week #5 Friese-Greene

This attractive portrait was the work of William Friese-Greene (7 September 1855 – 5 May 1921), whose business as a portrait photographer has largely been eclipsed by of his fame as a pioneer cinematographer.

He was born plain William Green in Bristol on 7 September 1855 and became an apprentice to photographer Maurice Guttenberg at the age of fourteen.


Plaque commemorating Friese-Greene’s birthplace, erected in 1955.
He spent six years at Guttenberg’s premises at 67 Queens Road before branching out on his own, opening his own studios in Bristol, Bath, Plymouth, London and Brighton.  In 1874 he married Swiss girl Helena Friese and added her maiden name to his own to give it a more distinctive ring. Between 1875 and the mid 1880s he produced a number of elegant designs for the back of his CDVs:

In Bath he met John Roebuck Rudge, a manufacturer of magic lanterns who had been experimenting with ‘animated photography’ since the early 1870s. He and Rudge began collaborating on a ‘biophantic lantern’ that produced the illusion of moving pictures by projecting a series of glass slides in rapid succession.  In 1885 he moved to London and opened two photographic studios with Alfred Esmé Collings. Here he continued his work on motion pictures, trying out his ideas with oiled paper and celluloid film. His growing obsession with the work led him to neglect his photographic businesses, and he was declared bankrupt in 1891. Undeterred, he pressed on with devising further prototypes including a twin-lens projector and a two-colour process that was later developed as Biocolour by his son Claude Friese-Greene (1898-1943) a successful cinematographer.

Ray Allister (Muriel Forth) wrote a rather romantic biography Friese-Greene: Close-up of an inventor (1948) which was adapted for the screen in 1951 with Robert Donat playing the photographer. The release of The Magic Box coincided with the 1951 Festival of Britain and the movie is full of patriotic fervour, portraying Friese-Greene as the inventor of moving-pictures (as distinct from any French pretenders such as the Lumieres or Auguste Le Prince) and showcasing an amazing cast of British stars including Richard Attemborough, Laurence Olivier, Dennis Price, Margaret Rutherford, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Peter Ustinov…etc etc.  It’s sentimental and uncritical, but an enjoyable watch for all of that – and no doubt Friese-Greene himself would have savoured the lush Technicolor tones of Jack Cardiff’s cinematography.

By way of contrast (the sepia tones of all three images are rather faded with time) , here are a few more of my Friese-Greene cartes-des-visites as a final reminder of his earlier career:

Giphantia: an 18th century Photographic Dream?

The title page of Giphantia; or a view of what has passed, what is now passing, and, During the present century, what will pass in the world, translated from the French Original, with explanatory notes , 1761.

Recently I came across this intriguing passage in an 18th century French novel, Giphantia, which tells the tale of a man whirled up in a sandstorm and taken to a distant land where he meets the Elementary Spirits who guard the human race. The Prefect of the island shows him a series of wonders, including a globe-like mechanism by which ‘everything that passes in all parts of the world is seen and heard’ (Chap.VII) – the man is able to eavesdrop anywhere in the world by placing a rod against the globe, and by adding a mirror to the rod (Chap.XI) he is able to observe happenings across the earth. Unsurprisingly, his observations provide material for a series of wry Voltairean comments on human behaviour.

This is all what one might expect from 18th century France – the concept is not unlike that found in Zadig or Candide – but things take an intriguing turn in Chapter XVII, ‘The Storm’, when the author is shown a great storm through what he thinks is a window. But when he runs over to look out, his head strikes the wall and he realises that the images is projected onto a flat surface. As he relates the process by which this image was created, he seems almost to anticipate the invention of photography:

The Elementary Spirits (continued the Prefect) are not so able painters as naturalists; thou shalt judge by their way of working. Thou knowest that the rays of light, reflected from different bodies, make a picture and paint the bodies upon all polished surfaces, on the retina of the eye for instance, on water, on glass. The Elementary Spirits have studied to fix these transient images: they have composed a most subtle matter, very viscous, and proper to harden and dry, by the help of which a picture is made in a twinkle of an eye. They do over with this matter a piece of canvas, and hold it before the objects they have in mind to paint; The first effect of the canvas is that of a mirrour; there are seen upon it all the bodies far and near, whose image the light can transmit. But what the glass cannot do, the canvas, by means of the viscous matter, retains the images. The mirrour shows the objects exactly, but keeps none; our canvas shows them with the same exactness, and retains them all. This impression of the images is made the first instant they are received on the canvas, which is immediately carried away into some dark place; an hour after, the subtle matter dries, and you have a picture, so much the more valuable, as it cannot be imitated by art nor damaged by time.

The title page of a later edition.

So who was the author of this extraordinary work? Well, there’s a hint in the title – ‘Giphantie’ is an anagram of ‘Tiphaigne’ and the writer, Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche, was born at Montebourg, Cotentin, on 19 February 1722. After studying medicine at the University of Caen he began practising as a physician in 1744, with his first writings appearing soon after. His medical training may have had some influence on his work, for his anonymous novels are a blend of science, rationalism, alchemy and magic:

L’Amour dévoilé; Ou, le système des sympathistes (1749) proposes a physical cause for human affection – namely, a form of sweat. It was later translated into English as Love Unveiled; Or, the Theory of Sympathism. The theory might seem far-fetched, but it represented a materialistic approach to human behaviour that was typical of the time, deliberately breaking away from conventional explanations of mutual attraction that drew on Christian theology and classical mythology. His next novel,  Amilec, ou la graine d’hommes (Paris: Michel Lambert, 1753), uses the same dream/vision device as Giphantia, this time in order to explore the notion of inhabited planets while satirizing contemporary society. It was translated into English as Amilec, or the Seeds of Mankind (London : printed for W. Needham; and sold by M. Cooper, 1753.)  Bigarrures philosophiques (1759), or ‘Philosophical Streaks’, comprises three sections – Visions of Ibrahim, Voyage to Limbo, and An Essay on the Human Soul, and was followed by the more conventional Essai sur l’histoire œconomique des mers occidentales de France (Paris : Chez Claude-Jean-Baptiste Bauche, 1760.) Returning to the fantastic, L’empire des Zaziris sur les humains, ou La zazirocratie (Pekin [i.e. Paris]:  1761) introduces the Zasiris, mysterious sylph-like beings who live among us on earth and influence human destiny. His final work, L’Histoire des Galligènes ou mémoire de Duncan (Amsterdam, Chez Arkstée & Merkus,  Paris: La Veuve Durand, 1765) sees a Frenchman named Duncan shipwrecked on a distant island inhabited by the Galligènes, whose utopian society is founded on principles of common ownership, sexual promiscuity, free speech and religious tolerance.

Given the provocative nature of some of these ideas in pre-Revolutionary France, it is no surprise that Tiphaigne published these works anonymously. Giphantie was published in 1760 with the place of publication given as ‘Babylon.’

The visionary passage above might be dismissed as pure fancy, and its similarities to photographic methods pure coincidence – but this was almost eighty years before Talbot and Daguerre announced their discoveries, at least fifty years before Joseph Nicéphore Niépce began his experiments in what he called héliographie, and some thirty to forty years prior to Thomas Wedgwood’s success in capturing images on paper with silver nitrate. Sadly, Tiphaigne de la Roche did not live to see any of these – he died on 11 August 1774.

Those interested in reading more about this unusual author should consult Jacques Marx, Tiphaigne de la Roche: Modèles de l’imaginaire au XVIIIe siècle. (Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1981.)

Dr Beeching and Thorverton Railway Station

Fifty years ago today, on 16 February 1965, Dr Richard Beeching delivered his second report on the state of British railways.

His reform programme had begun in 1963 with the publication of The Reshaping of British Railways (above), while this second report, a 100-page document entitled Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, developed his initial argument that the future of rail lay with high-volume traffic on core routes – thus sealing the fate of hundreds of lightly-used passenger services. Although the former chairman of British Rail insisted that ‘This report is not a prelude to closures on a grand scale’, the Beeching Plan eventually led to the loss of  a quarter of the rail network and the closure of over 2,000 stations.

Thorverton was one of the stations that was closed, although Beeching was not entirely to blame for this. According to a note on p.133 of The Reshaping of British Railways (1963), its closure – and that of the entire Exeter-Dulverton line (p.129) – was already ‘under Consideration….before the Formulation of the Report.’ Beeching had been commissioned to draw up the report in response to increasing financial losses on the railway network – a sign that the 1955 Modernisation Plan was not working.

By that time, trains had been steaming through Thorverton for seventy years. The Exe Valley branch line, running from Exeter St Davids to Tiverton – through Stoke Canon, Brampford Speke, Thorverton, Up Exe and Cadeleigh – had opened in 1885 and formed part of the Great Western Railway.

Thorverton was a passing place and therefore the station had two platforms, with a siding connected to Thorverton Mill. The northbound platform had a wooden shelter – the station was heavily used by passengers due to the village being over a mile from the main road – while the southbound side was the location for the main buildings and goods yard. The station master had a house to the north of the station.


An Exeter bound train at Thorverton Station on 8 June 1963. I have a copy of this print, but no photographer to credit. Does anyone have more details?
Passenger trains stopped running on the Exe Valley line on 7 October 1963, and freight traffic ceased on 4 May 1964. The line was formally closed on 30 November 1966 and the station building converted into a private house – renamed ‘Beeching’s Way’ – which was  extended using stone from the demolished goods shed.

The negative effects of ‘Beeching’s Axe’ are easy to see – the loss of rail services meant that many rural communities became isolated, forcing the closure of shops and other businesses, as well as the migration of villagers who found it impossible to commute to work. Replacement bus services were inadequate from the outset, and were often withdrawn shortly afterwards. Many small town and villages went into terminal decline from which they never recovered.

Some of his opinions were valid – the financial losses were unsustainable, and the duplication of routes inefficient – but more careful consideration might have reduced some of the long-term damage to rural communities. As it turns out, the rising costs (financial and ecological) of a massive increase in car usage have shattered 1960s optimism about the rosy future of British motoring. The expense of keeping and running a car, along with the appalling congestion of major routes, are tending to reverse Beeching’s predictions as commuters abandon their cars and take to the trains again. The Exe Valley Line may have gone for good, but in the near future entirely new rail stations will  be opening at Marsh Barton and Cranbrook. Will they still be operating in 85 years time? Or will the 21st century raise up another Dr Beeching to reassess their economic viability? Time will tell.

Carte-de-visite of the week #4                      Walter Mudford’s Modern Girl

A familiarity with different periods of Victorian costume is a skill that collectors of CDVs rapidly acquire. In the absence of dates or other identifying data, dress and hair styles provide valuable clues about when a photograph was taken, and may even help indicate the location. Anyone who takes a serious interest in these images soon learns to recognise features such as bustles and bodices, chignons and chemisettes, mutton-chop sleeves and polonaise skirts.

Occasionally one comes across a portrait, however, in which the sitter appears to inhabit a different time period from the one in which they lived. An apparent anachronism of dress, a startlingly novel hairstyle, or perhaps an informal pose or facial expression that feels more akin to a modern ‘selfie’ – any little feature like this can jolt the reader into looking more carefully at the carte and questioning what they know.

This was the case for me with this particular portrait, which was taken in a studio about nine miles from where I am writing this. At first glance, the young woman’s hairstyle and neckline looked remarkably modern: it is possible that her hair is long at the back – bobbed hair would have been extremely rare before the 1920s – but I remain struck by the unusual cut, the metal necklet and plain, smooth outfit.

What clues can be used to date the portrait? A little digging through the Tiverton census records was enough to provide a rough outline of the photographer’s life.

Walter Mudford (1851-1936) was one of six children belonging to William and Mary Mudford, who lived at 50 Fore Street, Tiverton. William is described in the 1861 census as a basket-maker and dealer in china, glass and fishing tackle; his eldest son William was also selling fishing tackle in 1861, but ten years later Walter – now aged 19 – gave his occupation as basket maker.

Walter Henry Mudford first appears as a photographer in the 1878 Harrod’s Directory for Devon. The 1881 census reveals that, although still living with his parents, he employed two other men in his photographic business.  Thirty years later it had become very much a family business. Working at the photographic studio at 10 Fore Street in 1911 were Walter, now 59, assisted by his wife Emily, 23-year old daughter Kathleen and 19-year old niece Gladys.

Employment in a photographic studio provided reasonable opportunities for women in the 19th century, and not always at a junior level: the wife of Disdéri, the great populariser of the carte-de-visite, was one of the earliest women to run her own professional studio, while some of the finest art photographers in both Britain and America were women – one thinks of names such as Lady Clementina Hawarden, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier and Anne Brigman. Theirs was a very different line of work from that undertaken by Kathleen and Gladys Mudford, who would have obliged to work long hours for a wage of only a few pounds a week. I suspect the young lady who sat for this portrait led a rather different life.

It was easier for men to progress up the career ladder, and in the same census (1911) we find Walter’s 19-year old son Harry giving his occupation as a factory dyer. When his father died on 2 August 1936, he was a chemist. The family business is long gone now, and the site of the Mudford studio is now occupied by a branch of Oxfam.