My love affair with monsters began ridiculously young. Left untamed and to my own devices, I became entranced by monster movies and enchanted by a thousand books whose sole subject matter was the battle between a modest but brave human being intent on ‘doing the right thing’ and mythical creatures of the night who didn’t always play by the rules. Sometimes these creatures were of the small woodland variety (which I could relate to as a small Welsh boy who lived in a place where there is a mountain under which two dragons were buried) but this other world soon expanded to include desert landscapes, fantastical cities from Vary Far Away and even places that didn’t exist at all.
If there was a creature that shouldn’t exist involved in the story, you could count me in.
Not a whole lot has changed since then, apart from having had the time and inclination to educate myself about artists like Henry Justice Ford.
I suspect not too many are familiar with the name but his influence certainly leaked into the work of Ernest Shepherd and Arthur Rackham right up to the present day illustrations for the Spiderwick series from Tony DiTerlizzi and yet Ford himself comes from a pre-Raphaelite background. It’s not such a huge leap for the imagination if you follow the timeline, but if you’re going to wander around the internet looking for references that go back and forth in time, all that’s going to happen is you’ll miss the magic. Sometimes, you need to abandon time and let your eyes simply hook up with your brain to create the chemistry that’s needed to create that magic
Born in London in 1860 to a family with six other sons (which sounds like damn hard work to me) Ford went on to gain himself a degree in classics before moving on to London’s Slade School for Fine Arts. By the time he was in his early thirties, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy of Art but there was little glory (or anything else) in this for him and it was only when he began to collaborate with Andrew Lang on Lang’s perfectly wonderful ‘Colour Fairy Books’ (as they have come to be collectively known) that his name began to stick.
Between them, they created twelve children’s books of fairy tales, the first being The Blue Fairy Book (published in 1889) and the last, The Lilac Fairy Book (1910) - all of which are easily found online (though possibly not in a monster-sized hardback collected edition that could lay waste to giants all by itself) and contain something like 100 illustrations in each book. (If you happen to be one of those who knows this stuff inside out and wishes to point out that the first two of these books he illustrated alongside another artist… your work is now done). Art aside, Andrew Lang really pulled all the stops out on this collection featuring as it does stories from across the world in a true multi-cultural experience. Possibly the first of its kind.
Where Ford wins out in his work is by bringing together his pre-Raphaelite grounding and mixing it with nothing more than some simple fine ideas from his own imagination. These fairy books are unarguably his best known works but he also found time to illustrate The Arabian Nights Entertainments (1898) which for my money, allows him to take off the gloves and really move into doing something special. If you were ever looking for a template for Ray Harryhausen’s body of work, Ford is a good place to begin - from there, it’s easy steps to move from Ray Harryhausen to del Toro and Peter Jackson.
At which point, this seems as good a time as any to throw stones at computer generated imagery - known to all as CGI. It’s very, very boring. You have been sold a damp firework on this front. It has no part in the creation of monsters and I can’t recall a CGI creature that has ever been of value to the world. Ford would roll in his grave. I can hear him from here. It’s too realistic for its own good and leaves nothing - absolutely zero - to the imagination. I shall never mention this again - but if you have children who love monsters (or indeed are an adult I guess), this is important. The world is geared and primed for something new, but I digress…
To put his work in a nutshell, take a look at Ford’s depiction of Grendell’s mother and Beowulf (below) - there is nothing more that needs to be discussed about the piece. It may take you a minute or two to read that part of the story, but every word of it is captured in that one image, and so it continues with everything Ford touched.
Henry Justice Ford died in 1941, but if I were to suggest that he was one of the forerunners of all we know in modern ‘monster works’, I don’t think I would be a million miles away from the truth.
I am no expert and would never profess to be. I’m just a man in love with the impossible.
Maybe that’s all you ever need to create things of wonder.