Victor Hugo and Guernsey: Victor Hugo the artist

22nd March 2019

From Charles Hugo's Chez Victor Hugo par un passant, [Victor Hugo at home, by a passer-by], Cadart & Luquet, Paris: 1864, published anonymously and decorated with 12 etchings by Maxime Lalanne. By Dinah Bott.

I have seen Victor Hugo draw.

First he sends people to find for him, somewhere in the house, some paper, a pen, and some ink; they rush around everywhere, go up into the bedrooms, they ferret around, they rummage, and finally after a quarter of an hour they bring him a dried up bottle of ink, a pen with a split nib, and a scrappy bit of paper, excavated with great difficulty somewhere about the place.

I have to admit this: what Hauteville-House most lacks is writing materials.

Once the paper, pen and ink are brought to the table, Victor Hugo sits down and, with no preliminary sketching, without any obvious idea of what he is going to do, sets about drawing with an extraordinary sureness of hand not the whole, but rather a detail of his landscape.

He begins his forest with a branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weather-vane, and little by little the whole design leaps out of the white paper with the detail and sharpness of a photographic negative, when you apply a chemical solution to it and the image appears. Then, when that is completed, the artist will ask for a cup, and he will finish off his landscape with a shower of black coffee. The result is a drawing which is unexpected, powerful, often strange, always personal, which brings to mind the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

[From the French. DAB]