H.M. Brock’s “Beauty and the Beast”

In 2012, Laughing Elephant Press republished H.M. Brock’s illustrated edition of “Beauty and the Beast.” Here is my Introduction to this curious & spectacular volume.

If a committee were to consider one story to be sent on a spaceship to outer space, one tale to represent our human activity of story-making, “Beauty and the Beast” would likely be on any short list. Found in cultures all over the globe, a story as old as India’s “Panchatantra” and the Greek myth of “Cupid and Psyche,” the enduring account of the animal husband seems ageless and immortal. At the same time, it is still a vital and living story–seen in our own time, for example, by changes rung upon the narrative by contemporary writers like Angela Carter and Tanith Lee and in movies like “Shrek” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Both classic and au courant, “Beauty and the Beast” is like a melody in jazz composition: It inspired countless variations and still does. In most versions, a father inadvertently puts his daughter in a compromising position; to honor a promise he makes, she travels to a luxurious home and encounters a beast; after a period of acquaintance, she departs and breaks a taboo that puts the beast in jeopardy; but, finally, she returns and agrees to marry him, upon which he is transformed into a handsome man. That is the core story but it has been retold in a thousand different ways. To mention just one variable, depending upon the locale, the beast has been a snake (India, China), a pig (Turkey, Italy), a bear (Norway, Appalachia), a monkey (Japan, Philippines), a dog (England), a bull (Scotland, Jamaica), and a lizard (Indonesia).

In the version you have in this volume, the Beast is a lion. This is a variant that seems to combine the outlines of “Beauty and the Beast” with a folk tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm and known as “The Singing, Springing Lark.” In the latter story, the maiden asks for a lark instead of a rose, and the Beast is a lion who is promised the first thing the father encounters upon his return home which, alas, is his youngest daughter.

This version is illustrated by H. [Henry] M. [Matthew] Brock (1875–1960), a popular British artist who worked for magazines (e.g., “Punch”), illustrated books (e.g., Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”), fashioned posters (notably for opera companies), and created colored cards included in cigarette packs (of these, the most relevant is one of a curly-haired Little Lord Fauntleroy who seems to reappear in the conclusion of this book as the curly-haired chevalier who takes Beauty by the hand). Brock’s illustrated edition of this story was published in 1914. And in terms of the long history of pictorial versions of “Beauty and the Beast,”[1] that date would place Brock’s version about halfway between Walter Crane’s colorful Toy Book edition of the fairy tale (1875) and Jean Cocteau’s classic black-and-white film “La Belle et la Bête” (1946).

Brock’s “Beauty and the Beast” presents a kind of homage to Crane and his illustrations. Many of Brock’s scenes are staged in the same way Crane staged his; as with Crane, Brock pictures Beauty’s servants in a peculiar fashion (viz., as monkeys); even Brock’s furniture, with its curlicues and animal figures, seems borrowed from Crane’s warehouse. Throughout, however, Block plays his variations by substituting his own Beast (a regal and upright lion) for Crane’s protagonist (a noble but bristling boar).

But besides looking back to Crane, Brock’s illustrations also point forward.

Though Cocteau acknowledged how much the illustrations of Gustave Doré influenced the look of his film “La Belle et la Bête,” what has gone unacknowledged is the influence of Brock’s pictures on that cinematic classic. Take Brock’s first illustration as an example: the foregrounding of the horse, the peculiar caps of the women and the clothes of the father presage the importance of the horse Magnifique in Cocteau’s film as well as its Breton setting and costumes. Among the well remembered special effects in the film is one where arms, apparently unattached to bodies, hold candelabras or pour drinks for Beauty’s father as he sits down to dine; compare this with the disembodied hands ministering to Brock’s father when he sits at the table.

Indeed, as we look at the history of picturing “Beauty and the Beast”–not only in work by Crane and Cocteau, but by Eleanor Vere Boyle, Edmund Dulac, Gordon Browne, Jesse Wilcox Smith, Margaret Evans Price, Mercer Mayer, and others–it becomes clear that each illustrated edition is, itself, an interpretation of the tale. One artist sees the story in terms of Oriental erotics, another as a spirited defense of “difference,” another as an exploration of doubleness, and so forth. In that regard, Brock’s peculiar emphases — on enchanted servants (from monkey minions to disembodied hands to the numerous courtiers at the wedding) as well as the luxurious locks of his lion (in an uncanny anticipation of the permed hair of the Cowardly Lion in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz”) — invite special consideration.

As for the text, like its varied pictorial forms, “Beauty and the Beast” has been interpreted in multiple ways.[2] Psychologists see it as a daughter’s struggle with oedipal issues and a maiden’s gradual accommodation to otherness. Marxists find a confrontation between the impoverished merchant class and the landed gentry. Feminists note empowerment when the Beast concedes that everything depends upon Beauty’s decisions. As Pamela Travers said, “Fairy tales are like prisms in the window. They reflect many meanings.”

At this moment, then, you have in your hands such a gem-like prism. Here is a pictorial interpretation and story that offer the thoughtful reader not only pleasure but an occasion for extended discovery.

1. See Stephen Canham, “What Manner of Beast? Illustrations of ‘Beauty and the Beast’” in Image and Maker: An Annual Dedicated to the Consideration of Book Illustration, ed. Harold Darling and Peter Neumeyer (Green Tiger Press, 1984).

2. See Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty & the Beast” (Broadview Press, 2004).

From “Beauty and the Beast,” illustrated by H.M. Brock. Introduction by Jerry Griswold. (Laughing Elephant, 2012). The whole book is interesting.

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15. December 2016 by
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