Friday, 11 November 2011

Felix Kelly: Visions of Haunted Houses

One of the joys of book-collecting is that new categories emerge within the collection without any initial intent to create that category. Surreptitiously, a new group of related books appears and initiates a new interest.

So it was with Felix Kelly, at first just a name identifying him as the illustrator of the dust jacket of Faber and Faber's "Best Horror Stories" (1957). I first encountered this volume in its year of publication and, with its suitably ghostly picture of a wraith-like figure with a skeleton in its arms outside a deserted house, it immediately puts you in the world of M R James.
Some time later two more Felix Kelly dust jackets turned up, again in Faber and Faber's series of "Best of ..." collections. These were "Best Tales of Terror" (1962) and "Best Detective Stories" (1959), both edited by Edmund Crispin and again both suitably menacing with threatening figures appearing out of the dark.
Perhaps, though, the definitive Felix Kelly ghostly image is that making up the wrap-around dust jacket of Joseph Braddock's "Haunted Houses", (Batsford 1956). Here, trade-mark wraiths glide between gothic mansions in a landscape of tombstones and bare trees. Particularly effective is how the title of the book is placed on a white shroud (?) hanging over the scene.
Two more dust jackets complete this collection, both published by Home and Van Thal. That of Rhoda Broughton's "Twilight Stories" (1947) is set within an architectural drawing of a decaying window and has the usual leafless tree and gravestones as backdrop to the solitary figure.
"A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay" (J Sheridan Le Fanu, 1947) again features gravestones, towards which a female figure is falling as ominous black birds approach out of a lurid sky.
Felix Kelly (1914-1994) was a New Zealander, born in Auckland, who came to live permanently in England from 1935, serving as a fighter pilot in World War II. He is often compared with Rex Whistler and, like Whistler, made something of a speciality of decorating country houses with murals, often depicting imagined romantic landscapes replete with ruins in the manor of Claude. In pursuit of this career he was friendly with many aristocratic families, in the eighties working for Prince Charles at Highgrove.

Perhaps his most famous murals are those in the Garden Hall at Castle Howard, which he painted for Granada TV, under the patronage of the Howard family, for "Brideshead Revisited". It is these murals, depicting imagined Vanbrugh buildings, with features from Castle Howard, that Jeremy Irons, in the character of Charles Ryder, is seen painting in the series. Indeed there are so many parallels between the career of Kelly and the fictional Ryder, that the former's character may well have been used by Evelyn Waugh as the model for Charles Ryder.

The actors Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews are seen in the Garden Hall below:
A Kelly painting of the station at Castle Howard, painted for the Howard family:
As an artist, Kelly incorporates surrealist elements, but is chiefly associated with the Neo-Romantics. Some other typical works:

Kelly's childhood remembered in this surreal image of Takapuna Beach, near Auckland:
Mural for the Banqueting Hall, the Royal Palace, Kathmundu, Nepal:
Disturbing image with Kelly-esque woman in a black cloak:
A monograph on Kelly (known to friends as "Fix")was published in 2007 by Donald Bassett, an art historian at the University of Auckland, accompanying an exhibition (A Kiwi at Brideshead) of his work.
Felix Kelly illustrated many books, some with superb dust jacket designs, but, for me, it will always be his haunted houses decorating the dust jackets of some of my favourite books that retain their hold on my imagination.

1 comment:

  1. Great covers, very atmospheric, I would love to have copies of these books!


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