Alexander King - illustrator, raconteur, iconoclast.
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Many of you were not alive when Alexander King paraded his acerbic wit on the small, black and white tv screen of the old Jack Paar Tonight show in the early 60s. At this time, I didn't know what the LEC was all about. But I did know about King's raconteur and iconoclastic skills on late night tv. When King was Paar's guest, I tried not to miss a program because King was an interesting guest.
Later on, I discovered that King illustrated three LEC's: Gulliver's Travels, Tom Jones, and The Brother's Karamazov (Django's favorite). But King's cartoonish style, does lend an interesting oevre to the LEC. King's one illustration of Gulliver urinating on a fire in Lilliput took the Travels forever outside of children's literature. I long ago rebound my copy, the first book of the LEC in 1929. Now I have taken Tom Jones into the rebound classics of the LEC with a beautiful copy of Tom Jones bound in 1/2 black Nigerian goat with boards in a bright red linen-appearing book cloth. The book is finished off in black and red hand-marbled end pages.
Now I can concentrate on rebinding of the three-volume Karamazovs. I listened intently when Paar announced that King had passed away. In what was to be King's last illness, he had married his nurse some thirty years his junior. After the ceremony, the Kings left on a world cruise from which King did not return. He evidently died of an onboard heart attack. So when perusing King's illustrations, think not so much that you enjoy them, but think more about this extremely witty man who I hope died happily close to his new found wife.
I have only one Alexander King book, his 1930 Rams Head Press At the Sign of the Queen Pedauque, printed in 1000 numbered copies.
What is the history of The Rams Head Press?
I believe that some years ago Django wrote that RHP books had the illustrations printed on a rather unpleasant glossy paper. Not so with Queen Pedauque, where the illustrations are printed on the same rather high quality paper as the text. Quite a pleasing production, with an extra spine label inserted at the rear endpages just like The Nonesuch Press used to do.
>2 parchment.redux:"I believe that some years ago Django wrote that RHP books had the illustrations printed on a rather unpleasant glossy paper"
'Twasn't me--though I am definitely not a fan of illustrations printed on glossy paper. I don't know the Ram's Head Press books.
Don, Paar was a genius for engaging great raconteurs--Oscar Levant, Robert Morley, Jonathan Winters and Dick Gregory as well as King. Although most don't remember, it was Paar and not Ed Sullivan who first introduced the Beatles on American TV. I remember only Judy Garland as being a disappointment and she seemed caught between hysteria and catatonia (although I was still in adolescence and only knew her from reruns of her MGM movies with Mickey Rooney--if I were to see her appearances today, I might have an entirely different impression).
>3 Django6924: Mea culpa. I did a search now and observed that the discussion that I remembered was about Three Sirens Press. Obviously Rams Head Press published Pedauque in 1930 and Three Sirens Press in 1931 - both with King's illustrations.
What is the history of The Rams Head Press?
Obscure, I'd say; possibly lost. From a site attempting to compile a complete King bibliography:
"But for several years, approximately 1928-1935, King was one of the more prolific American book illustrators -- some 60 or more books. Unfortunately, many were published by obscure and short-lived publishers aiming for a share of the "limited editions" market. Information is unavailable for many of the publishers themselves much less the titles."
Queen Pedauque seems to have been the press's only publication. so it may well have been set up by King himself as a "subscribers only" one-off, marketed as erotica. I doubt if any royalties were paid to Anatole France, or The Bodley Head which I think owned the Mrs Wilfred Jackson translation - if that's the one used.
An earlier work of his contains one of my absolute favourite book illustrations:
"Venus Castina : famous female impersonators, celestial and human. New York: Covici, Friede (1928)
Further to 5 above, I've been flicking through King's first book of reminiscences, Mine Enemy Grows Older, to see if he has anything to say about the Ram's Head Press. Very entertaining book when read for pleasure, but trying to speed-read it this time round to find a specific reference was more like being a rear-facing pillion passenger struggling to map-read for Hunter S. Thompson. King is not wedded to chronology. He deals briskly with the late 1920s/early1930s, when almost any book he illustrated was guaranteed to sell well. He sums them up as a time in which
"a lot of very strange people looking for an easy buck had suddenly launched themselves into the schmootzig waters of the limited-editions business, since in a limited edition you could print a lot of unprintable stuff that the suckers were paying heavy money for."So perhaps after all Ram's Head was not set up by him but by one of the strange folk, who commissioned the Pedauque illustrations, made their easy buck and returned to their day job poisoning the middle classes with bootleg liquor.
This was also, of course, the time when King was producing his Gulliver Travels illustrations for the LEC. At the time George Macy was probably best known for Macy-Masius, whose eclectic output included such standard erotica as The Songs of Bilitis, but King would have been aware that GM was not going to be one of the easy buck merchants. Macy not only commissioned King for Gulliver, he made him the USP of his 1930 venture, The Brown House:
(lousy reproduction, I'm afraid)
In the event, of course, Salammbo was only The Brown House volume issued; the other two became (with modifications) LECs.
It certainly sounds impressive, Robert. And not just in the prose of the advert, which is Macy in typically exuberant salesman mode shrewdly giving above-the-title billing (and six other name-checks) to King, the current star of illustration, and mentioning the author (surname only) just once. (And I love the sudden Macy-swoop into the demotic in "the political and martial bigwigs of Carthage, their concubines and wives".)
Designed by GM himself, it is a very large book, 12¼ x 9½ inches, with nearly 350 pages and weighing in at over 5lbs; slip-cased; all page edges silvered; bound according to the advert in full natural sheepskin (although some sellers say pigskin and some call it calf; whichever, it doesn't seem to have weathered very well - which will probably come as no surprise to Don).
The Southworth Press, where it was printed, was founded in 1875 by the Rev. Francis Southworth as a means to publish religious material to distribute to sailors. I guess he was no longer in charge by 1930! (In fact, it was already in the hands of Fred Anthoensen and on the way to becoming the Anthoensen Press, printers of several LECs.)
This is the finished version of the small illustration at the foot of the advert:
A different Carthage to the LEC's! (different, not necessarily superior: I'm a fan of Edward Bawden's work).
The sailors would have enjoyed it!
Not having seen many full-colour illustrations by Alexander King, I was pleased to find the following, published by Simon and Schuster in 1960 (so a work of King's latter years - he died in 1965). It was issued in a fairly sturdy slip-case with a pasted on colour painting on one face:
and on other the title, price and a line drawing printed in gilt:
The binding is simple:
and the colour of the backstrip becomes the background colour of the endpapers:
and then the line colour of King's numerous swift and delicate in-text sketches (there are also some full page drawings. These two of the author, Peter Altenberg, bookend the text:
Also of the note is the title spread:
It was published as a trade edition, so not a limited or fine press item. But it was King's tribute to a writer he admired and S&S responded with an attractive volume, printed on good quality paper (its creamy colour a better setting than white for the terracotta drawings), with generous margins surrounding a well laid out text. It cost $6.50 in 1960, and although some sellers are listing it at several hundred dollars there are plenty of much cheaper copies on offer that are as good or nearly so. Mine cost me £11 (circa. $16.50), post free from Ireland to England.
Very iconoclastic illustrations, Jack. Don't know the works so I can't know how appropriate they may be. I think I would prefer his Salambo illustrations, if the sample you posted were representative, but I still wouldn't like them as much as my favorite--Robert Gibbings' for the Golden Cockerel edition .
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