Monthly Archives: June 2014

The mystery of Walter de la Mare’s Bold

It is hard to believe that the identity of a significant illustrator could vanish into the ether. Welcome to the puzzle of Bold.

Bold is probably a pseudonym. No one knows whether he or she was a he or she. All anyone knows is that he (or she) provided beautiful and imaginative wood engravings for two books by author Walter de la Mare in the 1920s: Stuff and Nonsense and Broomsticks and Other Tales.

I take such mysteries as a personal challenge, and have spent months trying to crack this nut. It doesn’t help that “Bold” is an impossible name to pursue with Google, since all one gets are paeans to “bold illustrators.” One site suggests that Bold is an illustrator named Alan Bold, but there is no demonstrable connection. Another speculates that Bold was a German artist (Boldt), but goes no further.

The hunt shouldn’t be this hard. De la Mare was a famous writer in his day, and the subject of several biographies. You’d think that one of those books would reveal Bold’s identity. You would be wrong. I devoured a few of them at the local library, and came away with zilch. Was the artist de la Mare himself, or the writer’s close friend, or an established illustrator who chose to remain anonymous, or a promising artist who died too soon or chose a different career path – guarding state secrets, perhaps? The biographies were of no help.

In pressing the case, I was inspired by a thin book I picked up four decades ago in London, where it was gasping for breath on a crowded shelf in the musty basement of a bookstore near the British Library. The book itself, published in 1930, was nothing extraordinary: Ghosts Grave and Gay, a series of reflections on London’s past by E.P. Leigh-Bennett. But tucked inside the front cover were several letters from and to a fellow named Stanley Scott, who owned the book in 1950 and sought to decipher a Bold-like puzzle.

The book was deftly illustrated in pen and ink, but the artist was given no credit. So Scott wrote to the author’s widow, Dorothy Leigh-Bennett, who replied that she didn’t know who had illustrated the book but that Scott should contact Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press, which had published the book. Trouble was, Harold Curwen had died a year earlier.

Scott sent off letters to a couple of leading illustrators in the hope one of them might have been the mystery artist. Douglas Percy Bliss said he wasn’t responsible, but “I am glad to find someone who cares deeply enough about illustration to go to such trouble.” Albert Rutherston similarly replied that he wasn’t the guy, but suggested that “you write my nephew Oliver Simon at the Curwen Press. He is certain to know.”

Simon responded that he would love to help, but there was a hitch. “We lost a number of our file copies when we were blitzed [during the Second World War] and, as a result, have no copy of Ghosts Grave and Gay.” Scott accordingly sent Simon his copy, and Simon came up with the answer. “The illustrations are by Miss Celia Fiennes, who is now Mrs. Noel Rooke.” (Noel Rooke, an artist himself, had been Celia’s instructor.)

Inspired by Scott’s resolve, I have consulted innumerable friends with a deep interest in illustration and deeper shelves of books about illustrators. No one knew about Bold. I wrote a letter to Constable & Robinson Ltd., the successor to Constable & Company, which published the original books in which Bold’s work appeared. A representative wrote back that “unfortunately we do not have any information regarding these titles,” and that any company archives that might shed light on the situation were packed away and would not permit easy access.

Okay, I said. Let’s try closer to the source. Walter de la Mare’s grandson Giles has his own publishing firm in England. In fact, Giles de la Mare Publishers has published Short Stories for Children, an impressive volume of his grandfather’s work that includes many of Bold’s illustrations. Surely he would know.

Giles de la Mare was kind enough to answer my letter, but he too was stumped. “Very mysterious. I too have tried to find out who he/she was, but I have also drawn a blank, even in the correspondence and in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s database for illustrators.”

That even Walter de la Mare’s correspondence doesn’t illuminate the puzzle of Bold is dispiriting. After all, Stephen Leacock was blessed with an illustrator named Fish, another un-Googleable name, and he didn’t hesitate to mention her in his letters. (I refuse to let the fact that Anne Harriet Fish was rather well known sully my point.)

The clock is running out on the chance that someone is still alive who might have known Bold in the 1920s, but hope springs, if not eternal, then at least for another year or two. If the identity of Deep Throat – the secret source used by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to bring down U.S. president Richard Nixon – could be revealed as Mark Felt by Felt himself decades after the Watergate scandal, there may be hope that someone, somewhere, will tell the world about Bold.

Posterity demands it. Well, I do, anyway. Please. I have other work to do.