September 7, 2022

Dragons by Doyle

         Today I have for you a selection of dragons from the mind of Richard Doyle (UK, 1824-1883).  Doyle became an acclaimed illustrator of fairy tales, working on several of the most  popular fairy tale books of the Victorian era.  Despite this success, he was held back in his career by unreliability, both in meeting deadlines and in the quality of his work.  I myself looking at a wide array of his work can see that much of it is just simply not very good.  But what he does consistently have is a wonderful sense of fantasy, portraying all manner of sprites, pixies, fairies, and goblins, as well as monsters and dragons including those I have for you today.
        A word on Victorian-era illustration: most were printed from engravings, which were carved based on pencil drawings by the named artist.  In the case of these pieces, they are wood engravings, which usually means relief printing, but based on the line work I’m guessing these were printed intaglio instead.  For a full explanation of the process of how one of Winslow Homer’s illustrations was turned into a printing block in this 
era, you can read this prior post.  In any case, sometimes the engraver signed his or her name, and sometimes not.  We know, for example, that the first piece above was cut by Isabel Thompson and the last by “Swain S.C.”
        But we’re really here for the dragons.  The first one was labelled a “griffin” by some curator at the British Museum, although its scales and reptilian tail certainly make it a strange one.  But I read the fairy tale which it illustrates, and I assure you that it is, in fact, a young dragon.  I love that it’s wearing a belt with a few utility items, and holding its hat in its claw as it approaches the young man most deferentially.  I love its puppy-dog expression, as if it’s apologizing for devouring the cattle again.
        Next we have two dragons who have a distinct familial resemblance, despite the fact that one is Polish and the other Italian.  One has one head and the other has two - is there a three-headed sibling living somewhere else in Europe, as well?  The one on top depicts the classic scenario of the knight galloping in to rescue the princess, but the one on the bottom shows another method of conquering a dragon: offering it food and wine to put it to sleep.  In any case, both these dragons are less reptilian than you might expect, with un-forked tongues, and stubby, ogre-like faces.
        Finally we have a whole flock of little wyverns, being herded beside a lake - or possibly up out of the water - by a witch.  I can’t check on what story this might be illustrating because I don’t know what book it’s from, but I can imagine all sorts of fun scenarios involving these little dragons.
        I have actually featured one of Doyle’s watercolors once before, illustrating Fairyland, and here’s another to round out today’s dragons.  This shows yet another would-be dragon-slayer, but I like the change of perspective where we see him in the distance more from the dragon’s point of view.  This is a much more classic dragon, as well, and a particularly fine one - but it does have the special trait of a marvelously long tail.

[Pictures: The young dragon offers to serve Pista, wood engraving by Richard Doyle (cut by I. Thompson) from Fairy Tales from All Nations, 1849;

Bogoris attacks the Sylant, wood engraving by Doyle from Fairy Tales from All Nations, 1849;
Pista encounters the first dragon, wood engraving by Doyle from Fairy Tales from All Nations, 1849;
A witch sending a group of small dragons, wood engraving by Doyle;
The Dragon of Wantley, watercolor by Doyle (All images from The British Museum).]

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