Drawn on the first sheet of a small album, as a gift to its (unrecorded) owner, this extraordinarily fine illustration seems to be Clarke's first depiction of the devilish tormentor, Mephistopheles, whose initial appearance in the Tauchnitz edition of Dr. John Anster's translation of Goethe's Faust (1867) (which the artist used) is "in the dress of a travelling scholar". Thus, we see the dangerously charismatic figure swathed in a loosely painted, watery green cloak, his monkish cowl thrown back to reveal his unearthly black, frowning brow, a wispish dagger of a beard and an antenna'd helmet of ebony hair. From beneath his billowing cloak, he enticingly proffers a long-stemmed champagne glass of absinthe, balanced in the impossibly slender fingers of a bony claw of a hand. The figure's fixed stare, which is the focus of this effectively spare composition, emanates from huge eyes, emphasized by emaciated features outlined with unerring dots, elfin ears and a long, aquiline nose. This fiendish yet alluringly dissolute self-portrait parody of Clarke's own tall, dark figure, even including the distinctive quiff which stood up from his mop of smooth, dark hair (here transformed into a lightning prong), is the "son of hell", "Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light", whose "proper element is what you name/Sin, Dissolution - in a word, the Bad".
Given Harry Clarke's lifelong predilection for the decadent literature of French and English Symbolism, it is hardly surprising that he should have turned at this early stage in his career as a book illustrator, aged 27, to Goethe's 19th century drama in which the evil spirit, Mephistopheles, obtains permission in Heaven to try to effect the ruin of the soul of the disillusioned Faust, a wandering conjuror. At the beginning of 1914, while staying outside London with the family of the English Arts and Crafts stained glass artist Karl Parsons, he had begun illustrating Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales after being given a welcome first commission by the firm of G.G. Harrap. In May of that year, he went to Paris on a Government scholarship to study mediaeval stained glass (his principal medium) and join his Glasgow friends Jessie M. King and E.A. Taylor, but continued to work on the Hans Andersen illustrations. By September 1914, he had produced twenty three coloured and black and white illustrations out of an eventual forty full page illustrations and sixteen title and endpiece illustrations - which featured in a lavishly produced book published for the Christmas market in 1916. While he worked on the Harrap commission, he also visited other publishers and illustrated other books, some of which he would subsequently illustrate for finely bound, limited editions. These included Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which Harraps would publish in 1919 and 1923. He also made notes of books he would like to illustrate, such as Goethe's Faust, Dante's Inferno, the poems of Ronsard and Villon, Flaubert's Salammb and Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci, and a reminder to complete his series of six black and white illustrations to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, intended for publication by the Dublin firm of Maunsel & Company. It is these, and Clarke's unpublished pen and ink and watercolour illustration for Hans Andersen's The Little Mermaid (signed and dated 1914 identically) which provide the closest comparisons with 'Mephisto': in the placement and styling of his signature, in the dramatic focus of a haunted, pale, three-quarter-view face with huge mesmerized eyes, framed by black curlicues of raven-black hair. The fourth Coleridge illustration, dated 1913, is the closest to this image, in which the cursed Mariner's guilt-stricken face is framed by the single radiating line of his beret (like the copious hood of 'Mephisto') and his features are drawn almost identically to his devilish counterpart here. It is interesting to speculate whether Clarke intended to specifically illustrate Goethe's book, where Mephistopheles is indicated as the anti-hero's name, or one of Franz Liszt's four haunting 'Mephisto' Waltzes or Polka, where the shortened form of the name is used. Nine years later, Clarke would illustrate Liszt's 'Impromptu in A Flat' for a pianist friend.
Although obviously influenced by Beardsley in technique and restrained, asymmetrical Japonnist composition, Clarke's inspired use of the viridian green ink and watercolour which would become hallmarks of his graphic work, is here evident. He not only featured this distinctive colour in published ephemera, but also used it later extensively, and similarly loosely, in the preparatory sketches for his profusely illustrated volume of Goethe's Faust, published by Harrap in a limited edition in 1925. Here there is none of the profuse decoration to be found in his Hans Andersen and several of his Coleridge illustrations. He has responded to the small size of the page and the exigencies of a swiftly created, if undeniably powerful, pen and ink study - perhaps for one of the discerning patrons who had started to commission bookplates and other ephemera from him as his exceptional graphic talents were clearly beginning to emerge.
Christie's would like to thank Nicola Gordon Bowe for her assistance in preparing this catalogue note.