The fine art of illustration

A new exhibition explores the golden age of illustration, from dark worlds of the occult and paranormal, to twisted fairy-tales. Tom Lubbock falls under its spell

Some people get started with Edvard Munch and some with Gustav Klimt. For others it's Salvador Dali that launches them on a life of art-loving, or Hieronymus Bosch, or even MC Escher. But the pictures that did it for me were not really art at all. They were the illustrations on a pack of Tarot cards.

The pack in question was originally printed in 1909, designed by Arthur Edward Waite and drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith, both members of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The Rider pack (as it's known, after its publishing house) has been called the first modern Tarot, because as well as illustrating the 22 major cards with variants of their traditional images - The Fool, The Lovers, The Hanged Man - it also put pictures on the minor cards, all the Cups, Wands, Swords and Coins.

What drew me, mid-teens, to these cards wasn't only their visuals. They had a fascinating symbolic scheme. They claimed to enshrine an ancient secret wisdom. They promised to predict the future. They held power. I went half-believing through the whole rigmarole, sleeping with the pack under my pillow, not allowing anyone else to touch it, and trying to memorise the complex meanings of the 78 cards, and to cultivate an intuitive understanding of them which (the books all said) was essential to becoming a true Tarot interpreter.

The visuals were a big part of it, though. And those boldly coloured woodcut-style drawings are so ingrained in my psyche that even now, when I look at them, I'm incapable of making any artistic assessment. Just as it's hard to see the faces of your close family as either beautiful or ugly, so with these cards, I can distantly sense that Coleman Smith was a bland and plodding artist, but I can't see it. Visually, the images retain their magic.

But I can now see that they had an artistic history. Stylistically, they drew on William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, with a bit of Albrecht Dürer, and maybe some Japanese prints too. In other words, they were a typical manifestation of Edwardian graphic art. So I was hoping these Tarot cards would turn up in the new show at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It would have been good to see them set among more reputable examples of magic-minded image-making from the "golden age of illustration".

For several years, the Dulwich Gallery has been devoting its end-of-the-year exhibition to a classic British illustrator. Previous shows have featured Arthur Rackham, Heath Robinson, Beatrix Potter and EH Shepard. (Christmas, children, picture books, you get the idea.)

This year there is a more general survey. The Age of Enchantment features two generations of fantasy book illustration, from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Fantasy can cover a multitude of sins and perfectly innocent pleasures. It certainly does here. The first generation in this show is dominated by Aubrey Beardsley and his imitators, working strictly in black and white. The second falls under the spell of Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen with their richly decorative, gem-like visions. But the change is more than from sharp monochrome into intense colour. The show presents a very abrupt transition. We move from a lewd, kinky, witty, provocative and highly self-conscious art, where Salome kisses the severed head of John the Baptist, to a more child-centred (though occasionally scary) dream world of fairies, goblins, forests, palaces, galleons, and deep blue nights.

Beardsley is another of those starter artists, the kind whose work it's easy for a teenager to become intoxicated by - a great genius, to be sure, but thoroughly familiar from books and posters and calendars. It's always good to see his original artwork, and see how those fine white lines are made entirely with black ink. But the show doesn't throw much new light.

His Beardsley-ite followers are more of a revelation. Their work is little seen. They include the coal miner-turned-artist Sidney Sime, a truly weird imaginer. His The Wily Grasser is a fantasy beast, a giant quasi-chicken (with lips, not beak), who stands looking miserable deep in a Symbolist forest, with a Botticelli meadow at his feet. Meanwhile, Harry Clarke illustrates Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" with a sleek naked man, his whole body bound in criss-cross black ribbons, with rats crawling all over him.

They may lack Beardsley's own graphic finesse, but they inherit his knowing weirdness. And this isn't really fantasy art at all. Explicit artifice triumphs over make-believe, which puts it a long way from the Dulac/ Nielsen tendency, those specialists in unironic wonder. But there are some borderline cases, and Arthur Rackham is the big one. It can be hard to catch his tone. His spiky fairylands often have an edge of something not quite nice. You meet a blend of sweet prettiness and comic grotesquery and sexiness in the same figure, and you can't be sure if Rackham knows he's doing it.

But as for Edmund Dulac... Well, I find it hard to be objective. Rackham is almost as deep in me as those Tarot cards are, while Dulac I've always been strongly against - as everything that Rackham is not. In fact, Rackham vs Dulac seems to me one of those basic artistic dichotomies, like Asterix vs Tintin, that sort out the goats from the sheep. I can see that Dulac is in some ways more artistic than Rackham (just as Herge is certainly more artistic than Albert Uderzo). He can do mood-in-colour. He knows about composition. On the other hand, he is a lifeless drip.

When it comes to fantasy art, something that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said about a very early poem by Yeats is always relevant. "It was a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock on the sea - how did they get there? What did they eat? And so on. People think such criticisms very prosaic; but common sense is never out of place anywhere..." How did they get there? What did they eat? It comes to down whether these artists have really imagined their imaginary worlds, or just put them together from assorted attractive and outlandish elements. Dulac's exotic creations, atmospheric as they are, are assembled from strange and beautiful props (and that includes the human figures). Everything in Circe - dark pine tree, lady, leopards, balustrade - is an ingredient in an arrangement, designed to conjure up an enchanted world. He hasn't for a moment considered what it might be like to live there.

And Rackham does consider these practical points. He's interested in how a mermaid's long hair would move underwater. He's interested in how a bunch of miniature ghostly sprites would cluster around the booted legs of a fisherman. As Baudelaire said of Goya, "His monsters are born viable". The creatures of his imagination work. Rackham will never do you beautiful, half-abstract designs like Nielsen's illustrations to "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", but looks aren't everything. He has thought through his creations from the inside.

A small show needs to have a tightish focus. Yet book illustration was not a sealed world, and the work here is rich in cultural ramifications of which some mention should be made. For example, you can't help noticing that Dulac and Rackham were creating their very different dream-worlds in the decades during which Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was exerting its influence - did it have any influence on them? Again, it's curious that while HG Wells was capturing the public imagination, in this fantasy art there isn't a tincture of sci-fi. There seems to be an absolute quarantine between proper magic magic and futuristic science magic.

Above all, there is the question of how these make-believe worlds relate to actual supernatural belief. The Edwardian era was not only a great age of illustration, but also a great age of paranormal interest. There was the seance craze. There were thriving occultist movements, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn. There was the start of quasi-scientific psychical research, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a leading exponent.

The crunch comes with the affair of the Cottingley Fairies, faked photographs produced in 1917 by two young girls. The cut-out models of fairies and gnomes, which they showed dancing on their fingers, were derived from the kind of picture book illustrations that appear in this show. Conan Doyle, whose uncle had been a noted Victorian fairy painter, certified the fakes as genuine. True fantasy art always brinks on real superstition, and I think those photos, like those Tarot cards, should be part of The Age of Enchantment.

The Age of Enchantment, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254), to 17 February

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