David Scott
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David Scott

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in Edinburgh by Alexander Hill and in London by Ackermann & Co., 1837. 28 pages, plus 25 illustrations drawn and etched by David Scott, on inlaid India paper. 52 × 36 cm.

‘Since the long nights set in, have drawn a series of designs for Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”’, wrote David Scott (1806–1849) in his diary in January 1832, and as has been seen, when he showed his twenty-five illustrations to Coleridge at Highgate later that year, the poet ‘expressed satisfaction in them, and confessed that he had not thought it possible to illustrate such a piece’. He then proceeded to give a short lecture on the problems of book illustration, which the artist’s brother William Bell Scott summarised as follows:

Dividing poetry as Descriptive, or dealing with outward nature, and Imaginative, or dealing with the forms of things in the mind, he thought the first of these classes was to be illustrated directly by the painter, and that the one and the other should be coincident in their impressions. But in the latter class – that of the purely Imaginative – illustration by the painter was infinitely more difficult – that exact circumstantial illustration of such works was none at all, and that the only way in which the artist could work with them was by an adequate expression of the same imaginative sentiment, different in form or mode, according to the differing nature of his art. This, perhaps, is the true theory of the matter. The designs in question he thought a successful example in point. (Ibid.)

Coleridge had one reservation; on a separate occasion he complained: ‘It is an enormous blunder in these engravings of David Scott, to represent the Ancient Mariner as an old man on board ship. He was in my mind the everlasting wandering Jew – had told this story ten thousand times since the voyage which was in early youth and fifty years before’ (Woodring 1990, i, p. 274). In 1834 the complaint was echoed by H.N. Coleridge, who wrote in his review of Coleridge’s Poetical Works:

It was a sad mistake in the able artist – Mr Scott we believe – who in his engravings has made the ancient mariner an old decrepit man. That is not the true image; no! he should have been a growthless, decayless being, impassive to time or season, a silent cloud – the wandering Jew. The curse of the dead men’s eyes should not have passed away. But this was, perhaps, too much for any pencil, even if the artist had fully entered into the poet’s idea. Indeed, it is no subject for painting. (Ibid)

Notwithstanding this ‘sad mistake’, Scott’s large etchings, which were eventually published in folio in 1837, have always been admired for their intensity and psychological power. As an artist Scott was preoccupied with terror and the supernatural, and the urgency of his imagination can be seen at once in his frontispiece (illustrated opposite), which shows the mariner violently clanging a bell like a prophet of impending doom above a line adapted from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘All who saw would cry, Beware’. It is hardly a beautiful image, but Scott’s mind tended naturally towards the abstract and the allegorical, not the realistic. ‘To analyse my own endeavours,’ he wrote later, ‘I may say, that I have attempted to unite [the] relation of man to the infinite with his historical appearances. Hence my style is a purified realism, and ought to exhibit physical strength, which is also abstract and general’ (Scott 1850, p. 238). Seen in this light, the seemingly crude draughtmanship and clumsy anatomy of his Ancient Mariner designs becomes highly effective. The heavy figure of the mariner as he shoots the albatross, for example (illustrated opposite), suggests rugged, even brutal force. Elsewhere his intense facial expressions and crouched, twisted postures are expressive and moving (see ‘He blesses the creatures of the Deep’ and ‘The curse mitigated, he sleeps’, illustrated on pp. 43–4). The spectral forms representing the poem’s numerous spirits, as found for instance in ‘The wicked Whisper’ (illustrated on p.42), are all the more effective, not to say threatening, for being so sketchily drawn, and the liberties Scott takes with perspective can be striking: in the twenty-first design (illustrated on p.45) the huge swimming shape of the spirit of the south, and the gigantic figures leaping athletically from the sky against a low horizon, dwarf the helpless ship.

The most obvious influence on Scott’s Ancient Mariner illustrations is William Blake. The artist’s father was an admirer of Blake, and in his copy of Blair’s The Grave, Scott wrote: ‘These of any series of designs which art has produced ... reach the ... infinite, in an abstract significance more entirely unmixed with inferior elements ... than any others ..., produced through a bright generalising and transcendental mind’ (Campbell 1990, p. 5). The set of designs on which Scott worked at the same time as on the Mariner series, The Monograms of Man, show even more strongly the influence of the earlier artist.