Monday, July 23, 2012

Lost Artists: Alan Odle

Alan Odle is one of the last of the black-and-white artists of the early 20th century to receive proper attention. A friend of Harry Clarke and John Austen, his work was particularly admired by H.G. Wells, Claude Houghton, John Cowper Powys and James Hanley, all of whom were fervent in praise of it. He is perhaps most known for his copious grotesques for The Gypsy, the short-lived journal (two issues, 1915 and 1916) edited by Henry Savage (which also published work by Arthur Machen): but he also made designs for a few books and journals, including illustrations to Blackwood, Le Fanu and Poe for the short story magazine The Argosy.

His master work was to have been an illustrated Rabelais, but this was never completed and the designs he had done have been dispersed at auction. In recollections of friends, Odle appears as a highly unworldly man, more spirit than mortal, devoted to his art, and often described as "luminous". He was sustained for many years by his marriage to the novelist Dorothy Richardson, who looked after him and often diverted her own work to earn enough to keep them - Odle's art was too strange ever to sell well.

These and other insights come from a most welcome new study, The Life And Work of Alan Odle by Martin Steenson (Books & Things, Stroud, 2012, 126pp). This includes a biographical essay, an excellent bibliography, letters from Odle (these were rare, but long and characterful) and about him, and a generous selection of plates of his work. It is a highly fitting tribute to an artist of high originality.

At first under the influence of Beardsley, he soon found a unique intricate style to express his bizarre visions, which led one critic to exclaim: "His extravaganzas are so steeped in grotesque coarseness that they would be intolerable were it not for the entrancing beauty of his pen-broidery with its easy flowing, swinging rhythm and sensuous richness."

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