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Edwin Noble and William Plane Pycraft


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Artist-illustrator Edwin Noble collaborated on at least two books with W. P. Pycraft, whose on-line bios assign him a number of scientific titles: ornithologist, osteologist, zoölogist, comparative anatomist, among others. What I find noteworthy in these books — The Animal Why Book and Pads, Paws & Claws — is Pycraft’s ability to put complex, even difficult scientific ideas into language children could understand. At least I presume they were comprehensible to eight- to twelve-year-olds, though I wonder how they would be received today.

I found my first copy (the Why Book) at a massive flea market in Rochester, Minnesota, and flipped my companion for the “right” to buy the book; it was $75, as I recall, at least fifteen years ago. The illustrations had attracted our attention, but later, in the car on the way home, it was the text that equally impressed. I wondered if these two collaborators knew each another? Their pairing seems ideal. Seeking information on Edwin Noble, I learned of the second Pycraft volume and a third later book authored by Gladys Davidson (these were published in 1910, 1911, and 1919, I believe) which was also lavished with Noble illustrations. Noble himself appears to have been a recognized authority on animal anatomy, both teaching and publishing on the subject. My attraction, however, is their general Edwardian character, similar to the graphics of William Nicholson and the Beggarstaff Brothers.


The Edwardians

Is it even necessary for me to confess a fetish for the Edwardians and almost everything associated with that too brief period (1901-1910)?

  • Edwardian architecture has much in common with the Mannerist period of the Renaissance: exaggeration, overt emphasis, and disproportion of ornament; tongue-in-cheek historicism; pastel relief from the deep, moody Victorian palette. It includes architects like Sir Edwin Lutyens, Richard Norman Shaw, C. R. Mackintosh, C. F. A. Voysey, Edgar Wood, and other lesser lights. Recognize a few of those names? Even Wright’s “Prairie School” work of the decade 1900-1910 might be understood in Edwardian terms, if for no other reason than the ways it represents shifting social norms. But if ye seek concentrations of this stuff, London is merely O.K.; larger concentrations are to be found in gritty Midland industrial cities like Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool, even Glasgow — some of my favorite places — and in Chicago, their American counterpart.
  • Edwardian composers like Ralph (pronounced “rāfe”) Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar, and Frederick Delius (I think) wrote music with a wistful, melancholic sound that practically foretells the Great War to come, too soon.
  • Representative (and popular!) Edwardian writers are Barrie, Forster (Howard’s End), Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga), Kipling, Shaw, and Wells. [I note two of my favorite novels of that period.] Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972) seems in keeping.
  • Fashion offers better examples that might be labelled Edwardian, rather than the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Perhaps I’m in error. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I mention all of this because it may well be the Agincourt Project is over-saturated with my Edwardian perspective. The Social Gospel, for example is (in the United States, at least) a theological point of view riddled with Progressive socio-economic notions that contrast the previous Victorian hypocrisy.— de facto Edwardian? It’s good to identify one’s sources, to acknowledge influence both overt and subliminal, and to explain (without apology, I hope) the matrix I and others have invented.

I mention this for another reason: This smörgåsbord of interests and influences also seems entirely out of step with the 21st century; with culture in general and with architectural education in particular. I seem to be making a case for becoming disengaged from one, certainly, and possibly from both.

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