E. McKnight Kauffer’s Gift of the Magi

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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“The Ariel” poems were a series of pamphlets published by Faber and Gwyer (later, Faber and Faber) illustrated by leading English artists. Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot was illustrated in a cubistic style by E. McKnight Kauffer in 1927. Kauffer and Eliot were good friends, and worked together on several occasions. Kauffer was known for many styles and an affiliation with the English Vorticists. His cubist approach was not his most successful, but it was his most adventuresome commercial approach.

During his first year in England Kauffer became a member of the London Group, a society of adventuresome painters who embraced Cubism. He refused to abandon painting for his new advertising career; rather, he questioned the growing schism between fine and applied art. “He could see no reason for conflict between good art work and good salesmanship,” wrote Zachary. In fact, he was dismayed by the inferior quality of English advertising compared to work being done on the continent. During the 1890s there was a period in which the “art poster” flourished in England, exemplified by the Beggarstaff Brothers, yet this brief flicker of progressivism was soon snuffed out by nostalgic fashions. Although Kauffer’s earliest posters were picturesque, they were hardly sentimental; he intuitively found the right balance between narrative and symbolic depiction in stark prefigurations of his later abstract images.

For his illustrations, Kauffer conflates modernism and the story of the Three Wise Men at the manger. Can you see them through the woodcut? More bibliographic info here. And here is Eliot’s poem:

A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a long journey:The ways deep and the weather sharp,The very dead of winter.And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,Lying down in the melting snow.There were times when we regrettedThe summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,And the silken girls bringing sherbet.Then the camel men cursing and grumblingAnd running away, and wanting their liquor and women,And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendlyAnd the villages dirty and charging high prices:A hard time we had of it.At the end we preferred to travel all night,Sleeping in snatches,With the voices singing in our ears, sayingThat this was all folly.Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,And three trees on the low sky,And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,And feet kicking the empty wineskins.But there was no information, and so we continuedAnd arrived at evening, not a moment too soonFinding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.All this was a long time ago, I remember,And I would do it again, but set downThis set downThis: were we led all that way forBirth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,But had thought they were different; this Birth wasHard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,With an alien people clutching their gods.I should be glad of another death.

And a very merry August Christmas to you all.

Journey of the Magi Spread