Gustave Doré
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Gustave Doré

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in London by the Doré Gallery and Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1876. 12 pages, plus 39 illustrations by Gustave Doré. Wood engraving by Bellenger, Brunier, Deschamps, Gillot, Gusman, Jonnard, Laplante, Pannemaker, Pisan and Quesnel. 49 × 37 cm.

The wood engravings designed by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) for the Ancient Mariner have become the best-known illustrations of the poem. When they were first published in 1876 they were immediately judged against the earlier work of Scott and Paton. ‘Fresh attraction may be lent to the Ancient Mariner by the new series of illustrations executed by Gustave Doré’, wrote one critic, ‘but to many of us there had been true enjoyment afforded by Sir Noel Paton’s elegant outlines, and the still earlier and most masterly studies both drawn and engraved by David Scott, R.S.A., twenty-five folio outline-plates, bearing date 1837, a work, not easily equalled’ (Notes & Queries 1876, v, p. 212; quoted in Klesse 2001, p. 61n).

Doré was the most prolific illustrator of his time, and his books were popular all over Europe, as well as in America and Russia. John Harthorn is willing to summarise his work as ‘transitional’ and ‘ambivalent’: ‘Realism and satire, grandiloquence and a sense of awe, cruelty and compassion, fought ineffectively to integrate a temperament which remained immature and vital into lonely middle age (Doré had a dominating mother and died aged fifty-one)’ (Harthorn 1997, pp. 194–5). While his temperament was particularly attracted to works with fantastic, even grotesque elements, the books he illustrated included the Bible, Dante, Ariosto, Cervantes, Milton, Balzac, and Poe, many of which demanded an alienating strangeness. Born in Alsace, and for many years a resident of Paris, his connection with England and with English literature began when he illustrated Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1866. The following year he had established a permanent presence in London with the foundation of the Doré Gallery in New Bond Street, which gave him an additional openness to English subject matter. In 1872 he published, with his journalist friend Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage, with illustrations which, though more matter-of-fact, had that strong blend of realism with the world of fantasy which characterise the Mariner designs.

The Mariner illustrations were among Doré’s last works. The project seems to have had a special significance for him, for, contrary to his usual practice, he made the designs before the arrangements for their publication had been completed, and invested a considerable amount of time and money in the large woodblocks. One can appreciate what attracted him. Like Dante’s Hell, or Milton’s cosmos, the Antarctic setting of the poem enabled him to indulge his fascination with vast spaces and awesome scenery, and the fortunes of the ship’s crew are expressed in the kind of claustrophobic, virtuoso crowd scenes that characterised his vision of London. In Doré’s vision of the poem, the Mariner’s journey takes place within both a gigantic elemental landscape and a grotesque human drama.

Supporting Doré’s vivid imagination was a group of superb craftsmen. The artist sketched his designs directly onto the woodblock, and left the actual engraving to others. He was therefore dependent upon the skill of his collaborators, and over the years built up a trusted team of engravers. Their names are to be found next to the artist’s on the finished prints – Bellenger, Brunier, Deschamps, Gillot, Gusman, Jonnard, Laplante, Pannemaker, Pisan and Quesnel – and they all give their unique textures to the designs. So expert were these engravers, and so close did their professional relationship with Doré become, that the artist had only to draw the briefest sketch on the block and the engraver could turn that into a finished print.

Significantly, new techniques were developing, and an astonishing range of effects was obtained by Doré and his team. Since we know that the earlier Tennyson editions used electrotype, it is probable that this was the method of use for the Ancient Mariner rather than zincography, a technique discovered in the mid 1850s involving photographing the image which is then used to harden the appropriate places on a plate of zinc treated with sensitised emulsion. The plate, after treatment with an acid resist, is washed and then etched in acid, leaving the design in relief. Whatever the technique, it could reproduce solid black, that is, lines, dots or masses of black very well, but it could not represent tone.

Doré’s Ancient Mariner was published first in London, a superbly printed elephant folio edition, and then by Harper in the United States. Editions were also published in Paris (1877), Leipzig (1877), Milan (1889) and St. Petersburg (1893). It is only the earliest editions, however, those supervised by Doré himself, that do full justice to the illustrations. By the time of the third American edition, 1884, the whiteness of the paper, so necessary to the brilliant sense of contrast in the designs, and the generous physical dimensions of the page, have been lost.