Many artists have been drawn to the macabre, dolorous work of Edgar Allen Poe — Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré.
James Carling, evidently, felt he drew more closely to Poe than anyone before, certainly more than the famous Doré, his self-selected rival: “Doré’s are beautiful; there is a tranquil loveliness in them unusual to Doré. Mine are stormier, wilder and more weird; they are horrible; I have reproduced mentality and phantasm. Not one of the ideas were ever drawn before … for I have followed his meaning so close as to be merged into his individuality.”
James Carling was prone to self-promotion. Born in Liverpool in 1857, he started out in poverty, before returning right back, buried, at 29, in a pauper’s grave. In between he strove and boasted. A vaudeville performer and sidewalk painter/proto-street artist — for a price Carling would draw your portrait on the sidewalk — the gumptious hopeful cut a spectacular persona, branding himself the “fastest drawer in the world” and the “lightning caricaturist.” (In his brief life Carling became a noted sidewalk artist, and to this day he remains the oldest recorded such practitioner in history. Liverpool honors its native son with the James Carling Competition, an annual sidewalk art contest.)
Sadly, Carling died in 1887, just a few years after his fantastic creation and boast. His illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” went unpublished, essentially never known to history. There it remained, kept in the family for years until the 1930s, when the collection was purchased by the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, and the works took on a new life. “Imagine you are in a blood red room with dark Raven illustrations all around the walls,” Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum, told Hyperallergic.
Misty and dark, Carling’s drawings mirror Poe’s terrific dream-logic, where the mind (or the psyche) is often the greatest enemy, not ravens, no matter their malevolence. Fancying himself “merged into [Poe's] individuality,” Carling often adapted individual lines for their own illustration. From horrific to weird, powerful and grotesque, they veer from one extreme state to the next.
Since 1975, however, the illustrations have been rarely seen, replaced by black and white photographs. Time and decay has been catching up to them. Glued to acidic cardboard, the 43 wash drawings are beginning to darken and degrade. But Richmonders keep asking after them; a 2012 show, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the museum, brought the originals out of storage for the first time in years—having the effect of only adding to the clamor. Responding to all the interest, the Museum explored ways to conserve their exclusive collection, the largest such in the world of Carling’s work, but kept coming up short.
Finding the task of raising the necessary money for conservation too steep, the small museum turned to crowdsourcing. On September 23rd the Poe Museum launched a $60,000 Kickstarter effort to conserve each illustration and then photograph it, the goal being to put together a book of the collection and mount a traveling exhibition. “For such a small museum it’s really hard. With Kickstarter, it’s easier to reach an international audience, Semtner said, adding, “It shows Poe has friends all around the world.”
The Kickstarter campaign undertaken by the Edgar Allen Poe Museum (1914 E Main St, Richmond, Virginia) for James Carling’s work runs September 23–November 15. If funded, the museum plans to publish a coffee table book of the illustrations and a traveling exhibition.
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