Clark Ashton Smith - Artist

Dennis Rickard

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was a versatile man. As a poet, author, and sculptor, he has long since been established as one of the leading figures in the fantasy field. Most of his writings have been published by Arkham House of Sauk City, Wis., and in more recent days by Neville Spearman in London. Ballantine has issued many of his fantasy stories in paperback form in recent years.

His first volume of verse was published in 1912. That his mother paid for the publication of "The Star-Treader and Other Poems", does not detract from the ability of the teen-age poet. There followed a series of small poetry volumes, culminating in 1971 with "Selected Poems" from Arkham House, a book containing virtually every available Smith poem.

But Clark Ashton Smith was also an artist. This fact has been mentioned on occasion, but until recently examples of his artwork have rarely been seen. The bulk of his artistic efforts have been "lost" for more than 50 years.

One lot of 119 drawings, once the property of H.P. Lovecraft and later owned by Robert H. Barlow, was sold a few years ago by California dealer Roy Squires to Richard Grose of Detroit, Mich.

Lovecraft and Smith had conducted a 15-year correspondence that was initiated in 1922 when HPL first saw some of Smith's artwork while visiting Samuel Loveman in Cleveland, Ohio. Loveman had been corresponding with Smith since 1913 and during this span the Californian had sent Loveman literally hundreds of his poems and drawings.

In June, 1971, I purchased from Loveman his entire CAS collection of some 350 letters, more than 200 signed poems, and more than 400 examples of Smith's artwork. This was the same art collection that had so enthused Lovecraft 50 years earlier.

Thus, the two largest collections of CAS drawings had been unearthed. Did Smith himself perhaps have a large cache of his own artwork?

George F. Haas, a friend of Smith's, writing in 1963 for "In Memoriam CAS", dispels this possibility: "I have no idea how many paintings and drawings he produced over the years, nor do I think anyone else does. Certainly the figure may well run into the hundreds. I saw perhaps fifty in the portfolio when I visited them (Clark Ashton and Carol) that day."

Donald Fryer, a student of Smith's work, also saw the artist's personal collection: "It was during my first visit that Smith showed me his portfolio of drawings and paintings. I must confess myself somewhat taken aback by their deliberately primitive technique, having been somewhat spoiled by the technical excellence of Smith's verse and prose," he recalled in 1963 for his article in "In Memoriam CAS".

Smith, who spent the better part of his life in a small cabin in the mountains outside Auburn, Cal., was a self-taught writer. He also had no practical instruction in art. He worked with whatever was available in the way of materials: pencil, pen, ink, crayon, and watercolor; he drew on anything that was handy notebook paper, coarse drawing paper, the backs of envelopes or circulars. You name it, and CAS probably used it.

His drawings ranged from excellent grotesques to colorful alien scenes. They were, at times, like the scribblings of a child. But on other occasions, his imaginative mind seemed to overcome his lack of experience and technique, and the result would be a finely drawn piece of fantasy.

Smith's letters to Loveman in the 1915-22 period dealt mainly with his work as a poet, but his efforts as an artist were frequently mentioned and a steady stream of drawings and paintings continued to flow from Auburn to Cleveland.

Smith tried in vain to find a market for his drawings. His poetry was not producing an income, but as it turned out neither did his artwork.

Like Lovecraft, Smith found little market for his work until "Weird Tales" magazine was published in the mid-1920s. It was then that he turned to the writing of prose which was to bring him some financial return and a limited fame during his remaining years.

In 1934, Smith actually sold to "Weird Tales" drawings to accompany seven of his stories: "The Weaver in the Vault" (Jan., 1934), "The Charnel God" (Mar., 1934), "The Death of Malygris" (Apr., 1934), "The Colossus Ylourgne" (June, 1934), "The Seven Geases" (Oct., 1934), "Xeethra" (Dec., 1934), and "The Dark Eidolon" (Jan., 1935). While no worse than most of the art then appearing in the magazine, none were outstanding or truly representative of Smith's peak artistic efforts.

Smith's letters to Loveman in 1913 and 1914 gave no indication that he had any artistic aspirations. Then, on July 21, 1915, came the first mention of his attempts in this new field of endeavor:

"I've no poems to send, and am wondering if the little drawings I enclose will interest you at all. I really don't know anything about drawing, and these are the first attempts I've made since my childhood. The one of George (Sterling) looks rather like him, I think. That of myself, copied from a rather shadowy photograph, is probably not so good, except for the brow and eyes. The other drawings are phantasies of my own invention."

On Aug. 9, 1915, Smith continued commenting on his new-found hobby:

"Outside of a little drawing, my days have been quite idle of late. I don't feel in the least like writing poetry, and have amused myself by drawing devils, grotesques, animals of the nightmare breed and pretty girls. My drawings include a head of Satan, an alchemist, a witch, a ghost, etc."

Sept. 6, 1915: "I can draw even when I can't do anything else and have gotten some rather weird results ... I enclose a purple devil (devils are my specialty, and I do them in all colours, from black to vermillion)."

Sept. 16, 1915: "Many of my new ones are grotesque enough, especially the red priestess with green hair and eyes, and the devil-headed bat with vermillion wings. Also, there's a scarlet creature with the beak of a parrot, the face of a demon, and the body of a serpent. I seem to draw mostly in red - an appropriate colour for the conceptions dipicted."

Sept. 25, 1915: "I'm glad you like my pictures. I think I shall keep on with the practice, with the ultimate object of illustrating my own poems. All I need is a little more technique, and that I can pick up for myself in time. I care very little for the elaborate realism of Western art, anyway, and shall base my manner more on that of the Japanese...l confess that I care more for the drawings of Beardsley and Dore than for anything else in Occidental art. Paintings bore me unless they're unusual. To me, the strangeness of conception, whether in art or literature is half the charm."

Oct. 15, 1915: "I've sent you a number of my drawings under separate cover and am wondering if you will take care of them. I may be mistaken in thinking I've any artistic talent. Hardly anyone seems very enthusiastic over my drawings. However, I'm inclined to think that some of my conceptions are at least original, however faulty the workmanship. Originality, as you know, counts against one with most people since the human mind is naturally fearful and suspicious of the new and strange."

Nov. 2, 1915: "Will send you more pictures presently. There's one you will probably like -`The Idol with the Diamond Eyes' - a detail for Poe's `City in the Sea'."

Oct. 6, 1916: "I'll send you a new batch of drawings in a few days. You'll probably like some of them - they're far more fiendish and monstrous than anything I've sent you before."

June 6, 1917: "I enclose a few more drawings - nearly all I've made these latter days. I'm glad they amuse you; I've gotten considerable diversion from drawing them."

Feb. 27, 1918: "Thanks for what you say about my drawings. I fear, tho, that they would be a sad waste of time if time were of any value. Bad as they are, I can't always do them - I have to be in a certain mood even for drawing - else the result is likely to prove a total botch."

Feb. 27, 1919: "I enclose a grotesque or two in pencil. I want to make you some drawings in coloured ink before long, on the yellow paper that you sent me last year. I feel in the mood to draw, and shall delineate for you certain of the flora and fauna that exists in the equatorial jungles of Saturn."

Mar. 18, 1919: "Am sending you nearly all the new drawings that I've made. I hope they amuse you. You'll notice that I've given titles to many. The unnamed ones are all Saturnian - seascapes and fringes of tall blind flowers in vague fields beneath grey and hoary skies. Do you think anything could be done with them in a commercial way? Some of my acquaintances here seem to think they might be used for decorative purposes - screens, wallpaper, etc."

Aug. 26, 1919: "Glad you liked the assortment of grotesques - should hardly make them if it were not for you. No one else seems to care much for them. I sent you some more in my last letter - a Chinese pirate, a priest from Atlantis, and some others."

Jan. 14, 1920: "I've blocked out fifty lines of a new poem in blank verse, entitled `The Hashish Eater'. It's to be a tour-de-force of monstrous imagery - `continents of serpent-shapes, trees with slimy trunks that lengthen league upon league', is a fair example. Some of the images will remind you of `Wine of Wizardry'. I'm putting all the delirium into it that I can; but it's damned hard writing."

Mar. 20, 1920: "Here's a bunch of drawings, in lieu of anything better. Maybe these are some of the demons and monsters in the `Hashish-Eater'."

Mar. 24, 1920: "Here's another batch of my grotesques. I'm afraid there's rather a sameness about most of them - and my knowledge of drawing is rudimentary."

May 10, 1920: "Hope you got the drawings for `The Sphinx'. I enclose another attempt at Athor, this time a wash drawing. I'm coming to fancy the medium - it gives a sort of Japanese-print effect that one can't get with a pencil. I've made a number of drawings lately, some of them in colour and will send you a batch before long."

May 1 7, 1920: "I've made twenty-three designs for the `Hashish-Eater', all but two of them in colour. Some are really good, I think, though others are pretty poor. Many are not really illustrative since I've taken liberties with the text in certain instances. I'll send you the whole bunch in a week or so."

June 15, 1920: "I`ve been at work on a new set of drawings - fantastic scenes of hunting and warfare, landscapes of stone and coloured metals, and castles of unknown architecture. The colour-schemes are all strange; one picture is done in cobalt, copper and bronze-green. I've worked out some unholy mixtures of colour - crayon, ink, and pencil superimposed in a weird chatoyance."

At this point, after some five years of dabbling with pen and brush, the first stage of Smith's artistic career was nearing a close. Until this time the majority of his work had been seen only by his family and presumably a few friends in the Auburn area, and the bulk of the work had then been shipped on to Loveman, whose enthusiastic comments apparently kept CAS going. Perhaps the Loveman comments led Smith to believe he was ready for a public display of his work; possibly he thought it was time he attempted to make a few dollars from his efforts. In any event, the next letter set the stage for the virtual end of phase one of Smith's art career.

Aug. 6, 1920: "I have just submitted 16 of my drawings to be put on display next week in San Francisco. They are mostly heads - a buccaneer, an Oriental beggar, The Old Man of the Mountains, the Pirates' Daughter, Medusa, A Priestess of Lemuria, etc. Also a green devil with copper-coloured hair. I have set a variety of prices on these drawings - ranging from five to thirty dollars. They go on exhibition at George Hargens' Old Book Shop."

Aug. 29, 1920: "There is nothing but bad news about the drawings, though I`ve not learned the details as yet. The dealer to whom I sent them called in half the artists in S.F. (there are none but fifth and seventh-raters on the Coast) to get their opinions, and those gentlemen proceeded to turn down their thumbs, with the result that no one in the city will ever put my stuff on exhibition! They `decline to handle it'. Rather a raw deal, don't you think? I suppose it's really a compliment that all these artistic termites and pismires should have thought it necessary to `blackball' me. You shall have the rejected drawings as soon as I get them back."

Jan. 28, 1922: "I'm still in a state of demoralization following a week's visit in S.F. I'm glad I went, however - I received some fresh encouragement on the score of drawings (several artists praised them highly!) and was given a clean bill of health by my doctor."

It was while visiting Loveman in Cleveland later that year that H.P. Lovecraft, himself a virtual unknown in the writing world, penned his first letter to Smith. Dated Aug. 12, it was a short note praising the examples of Smith's poetry and artwork shown him by Loveman. "Of the drawings & water colours, I lack a vocabulary adequate to express my admiration. What a world of opiate phantasy and horror is here unveiled, and whan an unique power and perspective must lie beneath it. I speak with especial sincerity & enthusiasm, because my own especial tastes center almost wholly around the grotesque & the arabesque. I have tried to write short stories & sketches affording glimpses into the unknown abysses of terror which leer beyond the boundaries of the known, but have never succeeded in envoking even a fraction of the stark hideousness conveyed by any one of your ghoulishly potent designs."

On Sept. 11, 1922, CAS wrote Loveman: "I was greatly pleased at what your friend Sommer said about my drawings. Both your guests - (Alfred) Galpin and (H.P.) Lovecraft - have written me letters in a most laudatory vein. The latter seemed particularly impressed by my drawings. He has just sent me a short story, which like the one you showed me, indicates a weird and fantastic genius. The stuff is strangely like, and unlike, Poe. It is worth tons of the usual magazine fiction."

In Dec. 2, 1922, Lovecraft again praised Smith's art: "You are a genius in conceiving & rendering noxious, baleful, poisonous vegetation, & I veritably believe my descriptions were excited by some of your drawings which Loveman sent me."

This would tend to indicate that at least some of the CAS drawings eventually considered to be part of the HPL collection were indeed originally in Loveman's collection.

With the start of the CAS-HPL correspondence, the letters from Smith to Loveman gradually dwindled and finally stopped. But there was one more worth mentioning:

July 25, 1923: "I have not done any drawings for a long time. My paintings seem more hopeless of an audience than my poetry. Anyway, I have suffered a great deal from eyestrain - so much so that I have had to limit my reading."

Three years later, however, Smith was still trying to sell some of his artwork. There is nothing to indicate to this point that after at least eleven years of drawing he had ever sold anything. On June 12, 1926, he wrote to Benjamin DeCasseres of New York City: "Enclosed is an attempt at pricing the drawings separately, but you can knock off something, if necessary. The important thing is to sell them - if anyone will buy." Enclosed was a three-page handwritten list pricing 47 drawings and paintings from $10 to $25.

A Dec. 4, 1926 letter to Loveman: "Ben and Bio (De Casseres) are very good to go on bothering about my pictures, and I hope their faith will be justified before we are all dead. But picture-dealers, like the rest of the world, are not looking for original genius. They want stuff that is obviously safe and saleable."

Except for the few drawings he sold to "Weird Tales" in 1934, these 1926 letters are the last I can find of any serious efforts by Smith to sell his artwork. His transfer of fancy to stone carving was mentioned in a Mar. 5, 1936 letter to Loveman:

"If it weren't for the money angle, I'd paint and carve for a few months. I haven't made any paintings in years (only small grotesque drawings) but during the past year have experimented considerably with carvings done in local minerals, and have found a vast fascination in an art which, heretofore, I never thought of attempting."


The Samuel Loveman collection of Clark Ashton Smith's artwork is still largely in my hands, although in late 1971 I did sell approximately 100 pieces to 37 collectors. The largest purchasers were Forrest J. Ackerman (18 pieces), John Howard (16 pieces), Stuart D. Schiff (7).

A few of the drawings have appeared in "CAS-Nyctalops" - a magazine published by Harry Morris. Those used in this book have not previously been published.

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