I well remember when I were a lad, that there were still homes that afforded shelf space to Cassell's History of England. These ponderous and heavy volumes were historical shelf mates to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and were published in an age where Britain still had an empire and a concomitant patrician sense of ease with itself. Cassell's History of Britain as the title implies, took an unashamedly Anglo centric view of world events, many of which it's namesake had helped shape. The books published in 1871 were aimed directly at a middle class, who had seen their prospects improve on the back of the British Empire and it's ability via an industrialized and increasingly educated work force to exploit the fruits of it's territorial dominions.
Looking at these books nearly a century later, they seemed like the product of another world, created by minds with an entirely different take on the world around them and nowhere was this contrast more acute than in the depiction of the staple element of all good history books - warfare and the depiction of men in action.
Here as an example is the source of one of the engravings that was reproduced in fine black densely crosshatched line on the yellowing pages of Cassell's History of England. I wish that I could show you the actual page, but not having the books themselves and not having any immediate desire to remedy this situation, I present instead the template for the engraving; Sir John Gilbert's painting of the English army on the morning of Agincourt.
Now even allowing for the fact that they've been on the march for weeks and their personal hygiene, let alone depilatory arrangements will have become somewhat compromised even by medieval standards, the men, in Gilbert's painting all look incredibly ancient with those full beards, some of which have turned white on the campaign. They look more like Victorian gentlemen dressed for the part rather than men of action. The symbolism of the ravens rising up en masse as the priest conducts his sermon was of course entirely lost on my nine year old mind.
When it came to action scenes, Cassell's History of Britain sucked on ice.
More of Ron Embleton's sublime artistry is on show at The Look and Learn website
and his brilliant comic strip Wulf the Briton has been collected together and published in a huge and sumptuous volume (with yours truly editing it - therefore shameless plug) by Book Palace Books.
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