john austen

︎Artist, Illustration, Graphic Design, Art Nouveau   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

“Give thy thoughts no tongue.”
- Hamlet.

John Archibald Austen (1886 - 1948) was an english illustrator greatly influenced by the styles of Art Nouveau. He utilised several techniques in his illustrations and also produced graphic design, advertisments, several posters & numerous dust wrapper designs, often being able to adapt his otherwise heavily stylised works to suit the commercial or literary contents of the era.
Austen also moved in similar circles to that of occultists such as the Irish stained glass maker and illustrator Harry Clarke, Alan Odle and Austin Osman Spare, sharing interest in Arabic, Persian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Jewish and Egyptian folkloric mysticism, most commonly associated with Spare and his Zos Kia Cultus.

The classical and esoteric literary world seemed to be a consistent domain for Austen’s visual experssions to reside. His works included illustrations for a 1922 edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, can also be found in 'Daphnis and Chloe', a coming of age romance written by Longus, and 'The Frogs', a satirical Greek comedy about Dionysus. 
Austen’s style had somewhat moved away from Art Nouveau aethetics and towards a more geometric Art Deco impulse. It attested to Austen's ability as a clear conveyor of visual narratives to maintain the central essence of these stories.

One of his most stunning illustrations is that of 'Scheherazade', the female polymath of the arabain literary classic, 1001 Nights.
As the story goes, Scheherazade volunteered to marry the king in an attempt to stop him from beheading a new bride everyday until he was sure that he could never be dishonoured by another woman. Scheherazade began to captivate the King by telling him a story. As the day passed and the story had not yet finished, the king spared her life. She did this every day, for a total of one thousand and one nights, until the King eventually fell in love with her.
The significance of Scheherazade’s decision to risk her life by recounting a story in order to save the lives of others, can be considered a poignant reminder of dispelling dominator values through story-telling.

Although an obvious proponent of the book and the story form, Austen also expressed some contempt for it, recognising (like Scheherazade) that the context in which the story presides, both preserves and alienates the storyteller...

“And it is no less a matter for regret, that we illustrators in this machine civilization have lost their freedom from control; no longer do we, in our cells, have full sovereignty over our craft, but we must submit to this and that power. No longer do we weave our letters and our drawings and our bindings into one masterly pattern. We are happy, having made our drawings in record time, to be allowed to hand them over to a mysterious potentate who puts them into a machine with type and paper and plenty of ink, round go the wheels, and glory be... For this business of book-making is, after all, a visual art, depending on the eye alone for the just appreciation of its niceties, and no amount of typographical learning will supply that which only the artist can supply, right judgment—form. It is not the machine that is at fault, for our mechanical methods can and do produce real books, masterpieces of great beauty, it is the mind in control that makes or mars the result.”


“These self-portraits, while amusing us, bring if not a pang of envy, certainly a feeling of regret that their calm unhurried lot is denied to us, for while these old monks could and did spend their lives wandering from gilded initial to prayer, and from prayer to bed - we rush the completion of our nth volume over our breakfast.“ - John Austen.

Further Reading ︎
The Frogs, by Aristophanes
1001 Nights :
John Austen & The Inseperables, Dorothy Richardson, 1930.
Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women, 1911-1950
Zos Kia Cultus, Osman Austin Spare