Not for the first time, a chance encounter with an item from our stock sparked the idea for this post.
A colleague approached, carrying a large, battered, evidently fairly elderly book. “What d’you think about this?” A hint of excitement in her voice warned me everything wasn’t quite as it appeared. It didn’t take me long to find out why. Join us in discovering Lucille Corcos, her art, and her love for the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Green Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan (published 1941, reprinted 1961)
You wouldn’t know from the title, but this book was Corcos’ idea. A solid, heavy volume, it contains complete librettos to the operas together with a substantial number of songs. Look more closely at the title page and her influence is there, a string of miniature vignettes hinting at decorative pleasures to come.
Corcos’ name is there in small type as the illustrator. She is further ignored on our catalogue entry. All the men involved have their names linked to further material in our collections; Corcos doesn’t. We’ll be sorting that error very soon.
Lucille Corcos, 1908-1973
If you’re interested, have a flick through this video discussion of Corcos’ art and illustrations which took place as part of the first solo exhibition of her work. One review of the exhibition describes her style succinctly:
Her small-scale, almost miniature, paintings in a semi-naïve style were lauded for their exactness in detail, multitude of figures, and unique aerial perspective. Corcos pioneered a distinctive cutaway technique that revealed the interiors of buildings, as if granting the observer the ability to see clear through solid walls.
Any Google image search will give you a representative sample of her work.
The illustrations in our book are related but quite distinct from her standalone paintings. I suspect they have more in common with the children’s book illustrations with which she started her artistic career. Here’s another quote, this time from the link given at the start of this post:
Corcos was widely praised for her lack of self-consciousness and complete freedom of expression, for knowing the ropes of academic illusionism, yet rejecting it in her quest for spontaneity and freedom. Her ability to combine simplicity, intelligence, and creative flair in her work earned her a place with her contemporaries John Kane and Horace Pippin as an exemplar of a buoyant and playful, robust, nativist, unacademic tradition of naïve art in America.
Let’s now have a look at our illustrations.
The Sorcerer was the third fruit of Sullivan’s collaboration with WS Gilbert. It’s not often performed nowadays. Even in the 1940s, only a few songs were selected for inclusion in our volume. If you’re expecting a tale of high drama, dark and gruesome, you’ll need to look elsewhere. A love potion is the highpoint of the ‘sorcery’, used by Gilbert for satirical purposes, and of course, everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s amusing to compare illustrations from Victorian programmes which attempt to inject some drama, with Corcos’ full page artwork. Despite arresting flames in the foreground, you get a much truer sense of the opera’s comic potential, with love conquering all.
Here’s a song from the sorcerer himself:
Ruddigore had the misfortune to follow on from the enormous success of The Mikado. Here’s a quote from our book concerning the opening night:
Gilbert and Sullivan had gone on stage to take their bows in response to the usual calls for “Author, Composer” when suddenly, through the applause, there came a sound of hissing and cries of “Boo! Give us back The Mikado! Take it away!”
The plot parodies Victorian melodrama, turning stock characters on their heads. It also uses the device of ancestral portraits coming to life. I love Corcos’ illustration. She takes such care with the all-important portraits and suits of armour. The colourfully humorous heraldic banners make me smile.
These full-colour title artworks aren’t Corcos’ only contribution to our book. Take a look at the two black and white examples below. For every song included, the artist produced a line drawing. Crafted expertly to fit the available space, each illustration comes directly from the song. They exude humour, deep affection for the music, and vibrancy. You can almost feel the second of the two illustrations here.
[clicking on the images will enlarge them]
Here’s a recording of When the night wind howls:
The Gondoliers was the last successful collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan. As a contemporary review put it:
A verdict of emphatic and unanimous approval was passed last night by a brilliant house upon Mr WS Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s new comic opera.
Little was right with their partnership though with continual disputes. Sullivan was tired of writing comic operas. However successful they were, the composer wanted to be known for more serious works. Here’s part of a reply from Gilbert to points Sullivan raised:
I have thought carefully over your letter, and while I quite understand and sympathize with your desire to write what, for want of a better term, I suppose we must call ‘grand opera,’ I cannot believe that it would succeed either at the Savoy or at Carte’s new theatre…. Moreover, to speak from my own selfish point of view, such an opera would afford me no chance of doing what I best do — the librettist of a grand opera is always swamped in the composer.
Gilbert also fell out with their manager, Richard D’Oyly Carte over suspicious accounting practices. Although things were eventually patched up, the final two operas, The Grand Duke and Utopia Limited, were comparative failures and tellingly, not included in our book.
With the Venetian location of The Gondoliers, Corcos allows herself even more colour in the title illustration. Though I very much doubt the famous canals have ever been that shade of blue. You have to love how movement and reflections on the water are indicated by a few well-placed squiggles. She seems to particularly enjoy sketching the gondolieri.
[clicking on the images will enlarge them]
Here to close is one final excerpt.