Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Detmold Twins: Life and death

Although I live in Wales, I come from Sussex from an area where many great artists and writers lived.

Charleston is just down the road from my childhood home, Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the river Ouse and Rudyard Kipling lived nearby in Burwash.

I recently visited Batemans, the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling, now a National Trust property.


There were loads of interesting things on display at the house but I wanted to mention the works of the Detmold Twins in particular because their artwork is as strange and fascinating as their life story.

I was already aware of their work and saw some at the Age of Enchantment exhibition in 2008 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery but, in a tiny wood paneled room, my eye was caught by their beautiful illustrations for the Jungle Book. I had no idea these were kept at Batemans.
The twins, Edwards and Maurice, were treated as one individual in their early creative life, producing brilliantly observed wildlife paintings, but this ended when Maurice suddenly killed himself aged 25.

Edward worked alone until the age of 74 when he too committed suicide.

Here are some of the sublime Jungle Book illustrations:

This painting is my favourite - up close the black outlines are quite thick, giving a beautiful defined feel to both the elephant and the man which contrasts with the faded background
Richard Dalby in The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration tells their story better than I could:

"The Detmold twins were a unique phenomenon in British art, recognized by their contemporaries as a single creative personality divided between two bodies'. Their remarkable etchings and watercolours of plants and animals, minutely detailed in the Japanese manner, are all prized collector's items.

Charles Frederick and Edward Barton Detmold were born in Putney, south London, on 21 November 1883. Their middle names were later replaced by Maurice' and Julius', but the two boys were generally called Maurice and Edward.

Edward Detmold
At the age of 5 the twins developed a dual passion for drawing and observing animals, and made regular sketching expeditions to Regent's Park Zoo and the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where they drew detailed sketches of shells, crayfish, monkey skulls, and hundreds of other animal subjects. Their first book, Pictures from Birdland, comprising 24 colour plates, was published by J.M. Dent for the Christmas market in 1899. The Detmolds' most celebrated joint achievement, and among the finest book illustrations ever produced, was the set of 16 watercolours depicting scenes from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Macmillan first issued these in November 1903 Maurice suddenly committed suicide in April 1908.
Maurice Detmold
Edward was devastated but was determined to carry on with all the various ideas and projects they had originally planned in unison. He joined the ranks of Hodder & Stoughton's immortal band of gift book illustrators with the superb 1909 edition of Aesop's Fables.

His final two opulent gift books for Hodder & Stoughton were Fabre's Book of Insects (1921), with 12 remarkable colour studies of the beautiful and bizarre denizens of the insect world a seen through Detmold's microscope' eye; and The Arabian Nights (1924), a very successful change of direction into the realms of exotic fantasy. On the strength of The Arabian Nights, Detmold could have become one of the greatest illustrators of fantasy and fairy stories. During the 1920s Detmold continued to draw, paint, and hold exhibitions of etchings and drypoints, but it was not long before he retired completely from public life. "

[next quote taken from Poul Webb Art Blog]:

To quote from Keith Nicholson's introductory essay in The Fantastic Creatures of Edward Julius Detmold:

"A decade of intense activity was drawing to a close. Detmold could look back upon some fine achievements, but he was disillusioned with many of the uninspiring commissions for children's books he had undertaken. A pointless and destructive world war emphasized his worst forebodings of man's direction in the new century. The happiness of his childhood and the loss of his twin brother, now recollected in an uneasy tranquillity, combined to produce an existential crisis in the artist.

In the wake of feeling that life for him had become meaningless and intolerable, he produced a literary work which testifies to his readings in Schopenhauerian pessimism and the Buddhist philosophy of the Upanishadr and the Bhagavad-Gita. Life, his only un-illustrated work, a book of aphorisms, was published by J. M. Dent in 1921. A key book to an understanding of Detmold's mind, Life is an inauspicious-looking small volume printed on one side of the leaf only. In his preface the author writes: `The following words have come to the writer, over a period of many years, as the fruits of self-overcoming.'

From the curious, mystical text we learn that there are two ways of attainment: `The direct positive way - through progressive liberation - passing from the lesser realisation of the body, to the greater realisation of the mind, and therefrom to the realisation of the infinite through the soul; and the direct negative way -through disillusionment - which comes of infatuation with things in themselves, and the inevitable passing thereof.'

In the event, Life was Detmold's farewell to the public world of books, and his testament."


On 1 July 1957 he committed suicide, nearly half a century after the death of his twin brother.

There are some lovely images of Edward Detmold's later work in two parts (one and two) on the Poul Webb Art Blog.

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