World Book Day at The Keep: Brighton by Moonlight

3 March 2016

By Shona Milton

Every day is Book Day at The Keep! Our Reference Room contains the combined libraries of the former East Sussex Record Office, Brighton History Centre and the University of Sussex’s Special Collections and Mass Observation reference books.

Stella Langdale frontispiece

All the books are on open access on the shelves, organised by theme, (Archaeology, Architecture, Beliefs, Education, War, for example) and every day we recommend relevant books to customers, students, family historians and visitors to The Keep to give them more information on their particular interest or enquiry and to support their research.

Inspired by World Book Day, this is the first of a series of occasional posts in which Keep staff write about their favourite publications. The book I love the most is one that I first came across ten years ago when I was working at Brighton History Centre. First published in 1926, Unknown Brighton was written by George Aitchison, a Brighton journalist.

Although it’s in our Brighton History section at The Keep, the style of writing is definitely journalistic rather than academic, with very few historical references that would be useful for future researchers. The author focuses on the lesser known stories of Brighton, and mainly on the history of the town from before the arrival of Dr Richard Russell and the Prince Regent, later George IV. Each chapter reads more like a work of fiction, with romanticised stories of Neolithic tribes, Romans, Vikings and Saxons, smugglers, underground tunnels, houses hidden beneath the sea, a lost river and mysterious hauntings.

Stella Langdale statueTo complete the story book experience, it is beautifully illustrated with line drawings and aquatint reproductions. To be completely honest, the pictures are the reason why I love this book so much. They are also the reason, the author claims, the book was written in the first place. In his preface, George Aitchison writes, ‘The origin of this book is to be found in the pictures by Miss Stella Langdale. The pictures, haunted with a mystery not commonly attributed to Brighton, suggested the title “Unknown Brighton’.

Along with many line drawings illustrating the text, there are over twenty reproductions from aquatints in the book, each one showing Brighton in a new and original light. They are mainly dark, full of shadows and moonlight, slightly sinister and Dickensian in some, incredibly beautiful in others. Stella Langdale has managed to capture the effect of light escaping from windows in the narrow streets of the Lanes; of the moon on the sea and the silhouettes of boats; of the Downs at dusk, and the parks and gardens of Brighton looking more mysterious and beautiful than they might during the daytime or if not seen through the eyes of an artist.

Unknown Brighton was published by The Bodley Head, which had a reputation for producing beautifully illustrated books and publications, including Brighton-born Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book periodical. Stella Langdale wasn’t born in Brighton. The youngest of four daughters of successful landscape artist Marmaduke Langdale and Emma Jane Rolph, she was christened Irene Stella Rolph Langdale in Staines in December 1880. The family moved to Brighton at the end of the 19th century, living in Queen’s Park Villa, originally called Pennant Lodge, and Stella studied at Brighton School of Art. By the time that Unknown Brighton was published, she was already an established and respected illustrator.

A friend bought me my own copy of Unknown Brighton and I have since bought other books that Langdale has illustrated to add to my collection. Despite being slightly obsessed with her, and being in the best job possible for doing more research, I haven’t really been able to find out very much more about her. I know that she travelled a great deal in Europe and North Africa; she moved to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada in about 1940 and became part of the artistic community there and I know that she later settled in California, where she died in 1976. She will probably continue to be an obsession for me until there is the time to investigate further: perhaps to explore the archives in Canada or to look in other contemporary periodicals where illustrations might have been published. Many nice obsessions start with a good book, and on World Book Day, I recommend Unknown Brighton.