The Master at Work
It is difficult to conceive of an artistic medium more naturally suited to the Victorian Gothic than the woodcut, or a graver whose style so powerfully evokes the sinister and tempestuous spirit of the genre so well as Fritz Eichenberg. Distinctive for their dramatic composition and stagecraft, wild, curvilinear textures and darkly-hewn, agonizing characters, Eichenberg’s illustrations are featured in the work of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and a laundry list of other classic writers distinguished for exploring themes of social injustice, spiritual conflict and emotional turmoil.
Born in Cologne in 1901, his Jewish descent and outspoken opposition to the rising Nazi movement obliged him to emigrate to America in 1933, where he went on to work with such publishers as the Limited Editions and Heritage Club. While German and British aircraft were dueling over the skies of London, he was illustrating what may be the definitive editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre: an elegant, two-volume set designed by Richard Ellis and issued by Random House in 1943.
In the novels of Emily and Charlotte, he found characters that seemed to “come straight out of Dostoevsky—with a British accent.” The authoresses own tragic stories, he moreover remarked, endowed the novels with “dramatic impact and shocking authenticity.” He took particular inspiration in the “somber,” “haunted” landscape of Brontë country, which Emily featured to greatest effect in Wuthering Heights, with its two lonely manor houses set upon her beloved moors.
In the introduction to Eichenberg’s retrospective, The Wood and the Graver, Alan Fern wrote:
It is given to only a few illustrators to create images that so exactly suit the text with which they are working that their pictures fuse with the author’s words. Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland is one of these rare cases. Eichenberg’s Wuthering Heights may possibly be another. Having seen his Heathcliff, I, at least, cannot imagine him any other way.