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James Thomson, City of Dreadful Night, with drawings by Clifford Harper,
London: Agraphia, 2003, 96pp

Jane Desmarais

A dark, pessimistic and deeply questioning work, James Thomson’s epic poem first appeared in 1874 and describes the poet’s journey through one night of the ‘doleful City’ of London. The pilgrimage through the metropolis is presented allegorically and metaphorically as a series of disjointed movements through hopelessness and despair, which only the oblivion of death can end. It is a hymn to urban dystopia, a bleak critique of the finite human value of Victorian expansionism, and the antithesis of the redemptive pattern of Christian eschatology. In its relentless rhythms and claustrophobic imagery, Thomson’s poem is one of the darkest visions of urban existence of the late-nineteenth century. City of Dreadful Night is a modern reworking of the Inferno by Dante (cited in the epigraph), but visually it recalls the apocalyptic canvases of John Martin (1789-1854), and later, the illustrations by Gustave Doré (1832-83) for London, A Pilgrimage published in 1872.

England had been developing generally since the eighteenth century, with the building of cities, seaports, and regional centres, but London’s growth was phenomenal. It had been growing since the Middle Ages, and there had always been areas of poverty, but the population growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced a reconceptualisation of the poor, as diseased, dangerous, and in need of containment. In his ‘Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population’ of 1842, Edwin Chadwick described the ‘various forms of epidemic, endemic and other disease’ ‘aggravated, or propagated’ by the industrial working class. Thirty-two years later, Thomson was to extend the analogy between life and disease, writing of ‘Infections of unutterable sadness,/ Infections of incalculable madness,/ Infections of incurable despair.’ The massive migration of the rural population to urban centres revitalised the concept of the city, and as living conditions worsened and multiplied, the modern city and its characteristics inspired a whole literature. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the conception of the modern city as a waste land finds its most powerful expression in the work of T.S. Eliot, Patrick Hamilton, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, and more recently, Will Self.

Thomson’s poem, accompanied here by the black-and-white drawings of Clifford Harper, achieves an effect reminiscent of the 1872 collaboration between Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré. London, A Pilgrimage was a social commentary on the poor, or what Jerrold, called ‘that long disease, their life’. It was the product of a three-month stay in London, during which time Doré explored the city ‘from cellars to attics’. His famous image, Over London by Rail, for example, represents what we don’t usually see unless we travel by train. The backs of houses, compartmentalised, claustrophobic, and inescapable convey something of the routine entrapment of the working classes at the time. It is impossible to tell the time of day in this picture, and there is a sense of day merging into night, into day. It is a powerful image of the Victorian humdrum.

Clifford Harper’s illustrations for Thomson’s work convey the same sense of monotony and inescapability, but his repeated depiction of anonymous human figures, isolated and caught in spaces which go nowhere and offer no release to a better place, intensify the ideas of hopelessness and despair. The bold contrasts, the dense, purposeful line, and the heavy, architectural sense of form are distinctive. They show evidence of Harper’s debt to nineteenth-century French illustration, particularly the work of revolutionary Félix Vallotton, and to the English tradition of woodcuts and wood-engravings that includes Walter Crane, William Morris and Eric Gill, and that, indeed, goes back to the great Thomas Bewick himself. Vallotton’s woodcuts and their narrative style, further developed by the Belgian artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972), are a particularly powerful inspiration for Harper, who has produced a powerful little book in the genre of Vallotton/Masereel about a First World War deserter shot for cowardice (The Unknown Deserter, Working Press, 1990). In addition, there have been numerous other publications, but most of his work has appeared in fairly obscure underground publications with tiny circulations. Over the past few years, however, Harper’s work has been reaching a much wider audience, mainly due to his drawings for The Guardian, and his drawings for The Guardian’s Country Diary in particular (Agraphia Press, 2003).

The debt to the anarchist revolutionaries, Vallotton and Thomson, is not coincidental for Harper. In 1997, he produced his own designs for a set of postage stamps, which bore the heads of anarchists and sort-of anarchists, such as the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, William Godwin, Shelley, Proudhon (‘property is theft’), Bakunin, Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman and Emiliano Zapata. Earlier this year, in April and May, an exhibition of Harper’s drawings, entitled ‘Graphic Anarchy’, was held at the Newsroom Gallery, 60 Farringdon Road, EC1.

In a recent article in The Guardian (Saturday, 19 April 2003), Richard Boston has commented on the unusual graphic technique of Harper that simulates the processes and practice of wood-cuts and wood-engravings. Artists making woodcuts traditionally use the side grain, often of apple wood, while wood-engravers use the end grain of an extremely hard wood, usually box wood or yew. Boston reveals that Harper does not use wood at all and nor does he make prints:

He is self-taught and, anarchist that he is, has come up with something of his very own. He draws on CS1O Line Board with black ink and a Rotring Rapidograph pen with either a .01 or .03 nib. Lines and cross-hatching are scratched into the black with an Edding scalpel. The result is finer than scraper-board (a most unsympathetic medium, in my view) and is made finer still by being reduced in reproduction; Harper usually works about one-third up on what will be the finished work. So, in the end, it is a printed work after all. It’s just that in this case the printing is not done by the artist but by the newspaper or magazine for which it has been executed.

What Harper does, in effect therefore, is to produce images which look like wood-engravings but which are not. As Boston argues, ‘nobody who has done any wood-engraving would be mistaken for long. The cross-hatching is one give-away. When he cuts the wood the engraver makes a white line. The illusion of tone is made by cross-hatching white lines on a black background. Harper’s cross-hatching is often black on white; therefore it’s been done with a pen.’ Since the nineteenth century black-and-white artists, including most notably and notoriously, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), have been manipulating the print process to extraordinary effect. In drawings made in 1894 for the Yellow Book and in1896 for the Savoy magazine, for example, Beardsley reproduced the effects of woodcut and eighteenth-century line engraving to create a kind of artistic gravitas for himself. Harper does not have to go to these lengths, but his illustrations to Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night are a homage to line and to the power of line, from Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)onwards.

Dürer is an important connection between the word and the image in this illustrated edition of City of Dreadful Night. In Canto XXI, Dürer’s Melencolia (1514) provides the inspiration for the image encountered of desolation and depression.

Anear the centre of that northern crest
Stands out a level upland bleak and bare,
From which the city east and south and west
Sinks gently in long waves: and thronèd there
An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,
The bronzed colossus of a wingèd Woman,
Upon a graded granite base foursquare.

Low-seated she leans forward massively,
With cheek on clenched left hand the forearm’s might
Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;
Across a clasped book in her lap the right
Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes
With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes
Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight.

Words cannot picture her; but all men know
That solemn sketch the pure sad artist wrought
Three centuries and threescore years ago,
With phantasies of his peculiar thought.

Harper’s eight illustrations are an extremely fine accompaniment to Thomson’s poetic vision. Both in their sculptural form and use of simulated wood-cut style, they convey the idea that repeats itself in the poem of life being an unbearable burden, unassisted by the shallow Victorian ideals of progress, and the Christian values of Hope, Faith and Love. In the first illustration, for example, a man with downcast eyes heavily inscribes a page with wavy abstract lines, which are repeated in the lines of his face as wrinkles , shadows of exhaustion and the traces of tears running down his cheeks. The image could be a design for one of Naum Gabo’s sculpted constructivist heads from the early twentieth century. The suggestion that he is made of the same material as the drawing itself – wood or stone – reinforces the notion of soul-crushing desolation in Thomson’s text, and which forms the title of the image: ‘It must be someone desolate, Fate-smitten, / Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.’ In other drawings, such as the one of the church congregation accompanying Canto XIV and the one of the ‘River of Suicides’ accompanying Canto XIX, it is the sense of imprisonment that dominates. Incarceration in life is suggested by the identical bowed heads ranged along the pews, and their concrete counterparts in the church masonry and window panes, behind which a Palmeresque moon appears. In the illustration to Canto XIX, the influence of Doré’s image of the Thames Docks is evident. Using the diagonals and verticals of the ships’ masts, Harper, like Doré, creates a tangle of dark structures that suggest the impossibility of redemption. The tragedy of suicidal introspection is a theme expressed in the illustrations to the text, and one that Philip Tew, in the closing essay, describes as belonging to the life story of the poet himself. Thomson — radical, alcoholic, melancholic — endured a ‘set of circumstances that parallel those very factors that he observes symbolically in his major poem’ (p.65).

To Cite This Article:

Jane Desmarais, ‘Review – James Thomson, City of Dreadful Night, with drawings by Clifford Harper, London: Agraphia, 2003, 96pp’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].