A Frightful Collaboration

mcbryde whistle illustration

When M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary appeared in 1904, readers were puzzled to find that it contained only four illustrations, an odd number for a book of eight stories. In the preface, James explained that he’d assembled the collection at the suggestion of a friend who had offered to illustrate it but was “taken away” unexpectedly after completing only four pictures.

The friend was James McBryde, a student whom James had met in 1893 at King’s College, Cambridge, where James was dean. The two quickly became close, and McBryde was one of the select few to whom James would read a new ghost story each Christmas by the light of a single candle. They remained close after McBryde left Cambridge, traveling together each year to Denmark and Sweden, and eventually they appointed to work together to publish the ghost stories, which now numbered enough for a collection.

In May 1904 McBryde wrote, “I don’t think I have ever done anything I liked better than illustrating your stories. To begin with I sat down and learned advanced perspective and the laws of shadows …” Regarding the collection’s crowning horror, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” he wrote, “I have finished the Whistle ghost … I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn.”

Alas, McBryde died only a month later of complications following an appendix operation. James was adamant that no replacement be found, and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published with only four illustrations as a tribute to his friend. “Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work,” he wrote. “Others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred.”

Of the true depth of their friendship, the full story will never be known. James picked roses, lilac, and honeysuckle from the Fellows Garden at King’s College and carried them with him on the train to McBryde’s funeral in Lancashire, where he dropped them into the grave after the other mourners had left. He remained friends with McBryde’s wife and legal guardian of his daughter, and he arranged for the posthumous publication of McBryde’s children’s book The Story of a Troll Hunt. In the introduction he wrote, “The intercourse of eleven years, — of late, minutely recalled, — has left no single act or word of his which I could choose to forget.”

Creative Security

alan fletcher alphabet gates

These metal gates, installed at designer Alan Fletcher’s West London studio in 1990, invite a double-take: The railings are formed from the letters of the alphabet, adapted from a condensed wood typeface of the late 19th century. The letters are mounted on two pairs of extended hinges, with the base of the Q forming the gate stop.

Reportedly local police used the gates as a landmark in orienting new recruits to the area.

alan fletcher alphabet gates


the man who came to dinner

You never laugh at anything nice. A comedy that ends with a laugh is a comedy that ends not with a solution but with a fresh disaster. At the end of Gogol’s The Government Inspector the real government inspector arrives; the trouble is just beginning. At the end of George F. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Broadway comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, the eccentric Sheridan Whiteside, who has wrought havoc in the lives of the Middle American family in whose home he is stranded by a broken ankle, walks out the door to universal relief, slips on the front step, and breaks his ankle again. According to Arthur Koestler, laughter does not truly release tension because it does not solve the problem; it fritters away energy in purposeless physical reflexes that make action impossible. Laughter is not a solution, it is a sign of the problem. As a number of writers have observed, there is a built-in contradiction between comedy’s two purposes, laughter and the happy ending. In its normal operation [the reaching of a happy ending] the function of comedy is to make the audience stop laughing.

— Alexander Leggatt, English Stage Comedy 1490-1990, 2002

You Are What You Eat,_Reversible_Head_with_Basket_of_Fruit,_c._1590,_oil_on_panel.jpg

Invertible Head as Basket of Fruit, c. 1590, by the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

He also personified the elements and the seasons.

Podcast Episode 67: Composing Beyond the Grave

In 1933, violinist Jelly d’Aranyi declared that the spirit of Robert Schumann was urging her to find a concerto that he’d written shortly before his death in 1856. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the discovery of Schumann’s lost violin concerto, as well as a similar case in which a London widow claimed to receive new compositions from 12 dead composers.

We’ll also puzzle over how a man earns $250,000 for going on two cruises.

Sources for our feature on Jelly d’Aranyi and Rosemary Brown:

Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 1969.

Erik Palmstierna and Adila Fachiri, Horizons of Immortality, 1938.

Rosemary Brown, Unfinished Symphonies, 1971.

Douglas Martin, “Rosemary Brown, a Friend of Dead Composers, Dies at 85,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2001.

Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, 1998.

Nicolas Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.

Here’s the Schumann violin concerto played by Frank Peter Zimmermann, and here’s a rather blurry interview with Rosemary Brown, in which she transcribes a composition for Beethoven.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Whose Who’s

What’s the difference between forgery and plagiarism?

“This has been answered clearly by Monroe C. Beardsley: In the case of plagiarism one concerns oneself in ‘passing off another’s work as one’s own’; in the case of forgery, in ‘passing off one’s own work as another’s.'”

— Sándor Radnóti, The Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, 1999

The Weight of the World

kinmont 8 natural handstands

In 1969 artist Robert Kinmont produced 8 Natural Handstands, a series of photographs of himself standing on his hands in various locations.

Each, he said, depicted an upside-down view of Atlas holding up the earth.

“This world,” wrote Thoreau, “is but canvas to our imaginations.”


Image: Flickr

James Mason’s topiary park in downtown Columbus, Ohio, was inspired by Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, below.

So the image above is a photograph of a sculpture of a painting of a landscape.

Summing Up

Artist Thomas Cole took up a grand theme in 1833 — The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings that depict the rise and fall of a civilization. The Savage State shows a prehistoric wilderness in which the only artificial note is a circle of teepees:

The Arcadian or Pastoral State shows the beginning of agriculture, with a primitive temple, farmers, and shepherds:

The Consummation of Empire shows a thriving city, with an imperial procession crossing a triumphal bridge:

Destruction shows barbarians sacking the city and nature herself punishing human presumption:

And Desolation shows the return of nature, with trees growing up through the ruins of the city:

Interestingly, all five paintings depict the same scene: In the foreground is a natural port, and in the background is a distinctive mountain precipice. The time of day passes from dawn to dusk.

In 1836 more than 2,000 people attended the paintings’ exhibition at the National Academy of Design, an audience unprecedented in the United States. “The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the savage state to that of power and glory, and then fallen, and become extinct,” Cole had written to his patron Luman Reed. “You will perceive what an arduous task I have set myself; but your approbation will stimulate me to conquer difficulties.”

(Thanks, Cody.)


vivant, green and yellow

Artist Pierre Vivant performed a sort of typographical sleight of hand in an Oxfordshire field in 1990. In early summer oilseed rape changes from green to yellow as its flowers open. Vivant cut the words GREEN and YELLOW into the flowering field so that each word bore the color it named. Over the ensuing month, the flowers faded and the field reverted to green while the plants in the areas that Vivant had cut grew and flowered. The end result was the reverse of what you see here: a green field in which the word GREEN is yellow and the word YELLOW is green.