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EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Hans Christian Andersen and Harry Clarke

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN (1805-1875) was born in Odense, Denmark. Fantasy was something he appears to have discovered early in life. His shoemaker father often claimed descent from royalty. The sensitive and artistic young Hans had little education. On leaving school at 14 he set off for Copenhagen, hoping his soprano voice would secure a future in opera. This dream failed. Instead, he became a dance pupil at the Royal Theatre.

Through the largesse of King Frederick VI, he was offered a grammar-school place, which he accepted, although he never enjoyed school. At 17, he published his first book and, on returning to writing in his early 20s, impressed with a travel book. His first novel, The Improvisatore, appeared successfully in 1835 while, in the same year, Thumbelina was published. This was followed by other stories such as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Suit of Clothes, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes and so on.

He met Dickens and their friendship endured until Andersen, anxious and needy by nature and prone to obsessive love, extended a brief stay at Gad’s Hill Place, the Dickens family home in Kent, from days to five weeks, outraging the author’s family. Dickens ceased all contact.

The Little Mermaid is an Andersen alter ego: desperate to win the love of the human prince, she exchanges her singing voice and mermaid’s tail for legs, which cause her immense pain – “every delicate step she took was like treading on knife-points” – yet enable her to dance like no one else. The dim prince does not realise that the mystery girl who had previously saved him from a shipwreck has had her tongue cut out in a deal with the sea witch. The prince weds another and our tragic heroine joins the floating spirits in the air, her future determined by the behaviour of mortal children.

His use of Danish folklore motifs aside, Freudians would conclude that Andersen’s disastrous emotional and sexual rejections influence his treatment of love. As death beckoned, he planned his funeral with his young mourners in mind, asking that the music selected suit small steps.

Irish artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931) completed his illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in 1916. Clarke’s opulent use of deep blues, reds, greens and golds conferred both medieval splendour and a Wildean orientalism on the stories. His original illustrations were displayed in a major New York bookstore, Brentano’s, in 1925.

Clarke was a singular artist, creating flamboyantly haunting, elegant and sophisticated images, invariably for literary works. Formerly owned by an American collector, 10 of the Andersen colour illustrations were acquired by the National Gallery of Ireland in 2008, while The Little Mermaid was subsequently purchased. Clarke died young, of tuberculosis, aged 41. Alone in Copenhagen harbour sits the famous Little Mermaid statue, contemplating life since 1913. A stainless male counterpart was unveiled last week in Helsingør, Shakespeare’s Elsinore. This new figure also looks despondent, perhaps anticipating vandals who frequently deface the little Mermaid – as if she didn’t suffer enough in Andersen’s story.

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