Monday, January 13, 2014 by


The Musicians of Bremen has all the elements you need in a tale – pathos, humour, cruelty and kindness, camaraderie, heroes with inventive minds and villains who are swiftly outwitted; plus a bad start and a happy ending.

The Brothers Grimm collected folk and fairy tales and the re-telling of this story has been aimed at children – often very young children, first readers, although this development came principally after the 2nd World War when storybooks, (as opposed to educational or instructional stories), became increasingly popular. Their tales are often dark and savage, it has always been queried as to whether they are really suitable for children at all. As scholarly collectors the Grimm brothers would not have been overly concerned with that and, in any case, they belonged to a more robust age. As with most children who devoured the book in translation in the 1950s, I recall being totally unaffected by images of murder, rape, cannibalism, torture and kidnap.

The Grimm brothers initially rejected illustrations to their anthology and I have been unable to discover, precisely, the first illustrator of the book although few can have been earlier than those by the famous caricaturist and satirist George Cruikshank, who produced illustrations for an English edition in 1823.

It shows the company of four crashing in through the window and terrifying the robbers. The dog is portrayed as a mongrel. Philipp Grot Johann is the best known German illustrator of the book, and was quite possibly the first; he died in 1892 and produced steel engravings which are meticulous, but rather stilted.

Arthur Rackham is amongst the finest and best known of all English book illustrators; his style has been highly influential, to this day. This illustration is from his 1900 collection of Grimm tales;

the silhouette of the four Musicians, in profile and balanced on each others’ backs has become the archetypal image from the story. Rackham’s dog is not easy to identify – some hound elements, but probably a mixed breed.

Whilst the dog in question is normally translated into English as a “hound” in fact the German original speaks of a “hund” – dog - rather than “jagdhund” which is “hunting dog”. Therefore the dog in question could be any kind of dog that could be trained to hunt, although it is important to remember that three of the four animals are rejected as useless by their owners because they can no longer work, not simply because they are old. So properly, the Bremen Musician should at least be some type of working dog.

Another important English illustrator of the period was Walter Crane, who illustrated a Grimm collection in 1882. Crane was a fine engraver and a member of the Arts & Crafts movement.

This busy, but entirely clear, little woodcut shows the final attack of the company from the frightened robber’s perspective. The Donkey wields a Club, the Cat appears in the guise of a Witch and grabs at his clothing, the Cockerel sits in judgement and a werewolf-ish Dog stabs him in the leg with a knife. A nightmarish vision. My knowledge of interpretations of this tale is by no means comprehensive, but I do not know of any illustrator other than Crane who has done this.

Leonard Leslie Brooke was a highly talented, though rather less well known, English illustrator of the same vintage. He worked principally in pen and ink and watercolour.

This illustration is from The House in the Wood and Other Fairy Stories of 1909. Note that all four animals are visibly thin and do not look well cared for. This aspect of the story is often neglected by illustrators.

There is a generally accepted trilogy of great late 19th century/early 20th century children’s book illustrators - Rackham, the French artist Edmund Dulac and the Danish artist Kay Nielsen. Dulac never illustrated a Grimm, but Nielsen did although I have not been able to find an image from the Bremen Musicians tale to show to you. It was published in 1925. However there is a link between Nielsen and the Swedish-American artist Gustaf Tenggren who illustrated a Grimm edition in 1923. Sadly, I have been unable to find a Bremen Musician image from that book either. But all four artists belong to the same school of imagination: their phantasmagorical worlds hover between feverish nightmare and beguiling enchantment.

Kay Nielsen went to California in 1926 and joined the Disney studio, but the only substantial work he did was on the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sequences of Fantasia. He was 50 by then, and his meticulous method of working did not suit the fast-paced Disney studio. In 1940 he was dismissed. For one of the greatest illustrators of children’s books ever known, Nielsen had a sad end for he died in poverty in 1957. His work is world famous now, reproduced on cards and in poster form, and his original illustrated books fetch high prices. Nielsen’s work is highly distinctive and strongly influenced by Japanese woodcuts.

Gustaf Tenggren left Sweden for the USA in 1920 and was hired by Disney in 1936. His career there was much more prolific; he did the backgrounds in Snow White and the wonderful backgrounds for Pinocchio; he also worked on Bambi. Tenggren left Disney in 1939, dissatisfied by his treatment there and in particular by the fact that he was restricted to background designs only, there were also conflicts with the studio over his concepts for Bambi. Tenggren always maintained that his efforts for Disney went unappreciated but in fact the studio has always honoured him.

After leaving Disney Tenggren continued to work on children’s books but his style changed markedly – it became much flatter and more Central European. His “Little Golden Books” are typical of his later style and they are widely, cheaply, available but the best of his 1940s/50s work can be found in the Tell-It-Again series – which will cost more to buy, but still reasonable.

The Good Dog Book, 1924, an anthology of dog hero stories with beautiful illustrations, is well worth seeking out.=

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