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Discovering the Jolly Nightmare

When I was a kid in the late ’70s, Linnea, a dear friend of the family, loaned me a peculiar book entitled The Doyle Diary. It reprinted the 1889 sketchbook-journal that Charles Altamont Doyle (father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) kept during his lengthy stay in a Scottish lunatic asylum. If Linnea ever hopes to get the book back, she’ll have to kill me first.

Individual pages of The Doyle Diary can be dazzling, but you have to spend some time with the book to realize what a masterpiece it truly is. The Doyle Diary grants you free access inside Charles Doyle’s busy brain. There are cheeky fairy women and giant polecats, humorously unflattering self-portraits, meticulous studies of the local flora and fauna, political rants and melancholy familial reminiscences, affectionate doodles of the asylum’s cleaning staff and lots of agonizing puns. Overall, one gets the impression of a gentle, highly imaginative Victorian gentleman who somehow ended up in a madhouse but was too polite to inconvenience anybody by making a big fuss about it.

While Doyle’s flights of fancy are entrancing in their own right, one of my favorite drawings in the book features a seemingly unremarkable scene the artist witnessed between two crows. One crow stands with a worm in its mouth, offering it to the other. The caption: “I have just seen this out of the window. Could unselfishness go further?”

In Doyle’s eyes, a simple transaction between two cawing, homely scavengers has been transformed into a touchingly noble act. How could anyone not love this man?

Charles Doyle was born into a family of successful artists. His father, John Doyle, was an acclaimed caricaturist of the Regency period, while his brothers all went on to fame, and his older brother, Richard “Dickie” Doyle, was one of the better-known illustrators of the Victorian age. But while Charles Altamont Doyle showed early promise as an artist, at 17 he was sent off to Edinburgh for a job as a surveyor in the Scottish Office of Works. It was mostly a routine clerk’s position, although he did some impressive architectural design, including a mighty fountain in the courtyard of Holyrood Palace, the queen’s Scottish residence.

At 22, he wed his landlady’s daughter; they had 10 kids, seven of whom lived. For years Doyle struggled to make it as an artist (he illustrated 17 published books we know of) while continuing at his day job, but the pressures of supporting a large family gradually wore him down, and he took to the bottle. Another man might have been proud to have designed Scottish monuments while illustrating books in his spare time, but Doyle knew that by the lofty standards set by his brothers, he was just an anonymous civil servant and Sunday painter with a house full of kids he could scarcely afford to feed.

In 1876, after decades of toiling without promotion for the Office of Works, Doyle was dismissed and put on a pension. Later that year he was sent to Fordoun House, a nursing home for alcoholics. His stay at Fordoun lasted years, and it was apparently during this time that he developed epilepsy, a condition poorly understood then. Perhaps addled by his illness or perhaps desperate after years of confinement, Doyle made a violent attempt to escape Fordoun in 1885. He failed, and was sent to the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the next seven years and illustrated The Doyle Diary. Following a final relocation, Doyle died a lonesome death at the Crighton Royal Institution in 1893. He had spent 17 years in confinement. By any measure, Doyle lived a tragic life, but nobody who has experienced the wonders of The Doyle Diary would say it was a wasted one.

 

Unfortunately, Doyle’s rotten luck hasn’t improved much in the decades since his death. While his work inspired a passionate cult following and he’s been cited as a kindred spirit by such modern cartooning geniuses as Dame Darcy (Fantagraphics Books’ Meat Cake) and L.A. Weekly’s own Tony Millionaire, Doyle’s not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be. The Doyle Diary is long out of print (private dealers often sell used copies on Amazon for under 10 bucks) and his surviving art is scattered in collections around the world and rarely seen by the public.

Although I’ve probably read The Doyle Diary a hundred times, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I discovered a note at the book’s end stating that one of the largest American collections of Doyle’s work was at the Huntington Library in San Marino. I called the Huntington and was told that while they did indeed possess a collection of Doyle’s work, it was in fragile condition and only scholars were permitted to view it. They bent the rules and agreed to let me into their archives so I could write this article, although frankly they didn’t sound too thrilled about it. Had they denied me access, I think I would have executed a daring midnight raid, breaking into the Huntington under cover of darkness to explore the archives with a flashlight. Fellow Doyle fans would understand.

My excitement was tinged with melancholy as I sat in the Huntington’s Scott Curatorial Office’s Art Division Print and Drawing Study Room and perused a crumbling album of Charles Doyle’s drawings — an album that once belonged to Doyle’s son, Sir Arthur himself. There was easily enough material here for a whole new book, but this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thrill; I had exactly three hours to take it all in, and then I’d probably never see this work again.

While his usual playfulness was on ample display, overall the Huntington collection showed a darker side of Doyle than I was used to. There was a sometimes unsettling battle-of-the-sexes theme on display, although you couldn’t always tell which side Doyle was on. One drawing depicting a woman riding sidesaddle on a man’s back was captioned, “To be useful as well as ornamental”; in another, the smartly dressed “Mister Present Times” offered a girl for sale: “Who wants a Bride — now is your chance — going — cheap — but nice!” Elsewhere, Cupid held a hoop through which a man and woman jumped onto the backs of running horses in the eternal circus of love. There were many hapless males trying to catch the attention of unimpressed dames, a dynamic that repeated across the human, animal and fairy kingdoms. Given how so much of Doyle’s life played out in confinement, I suppose a little sexual frustration is understandable.

One simple drawing in the Huntington archives stopped me cold: Beneath a full moon, a fat, leering drunk tipped his glass to the viewer as he tottered atop a horse with a frenzied, mirthless grin. The caption was, “Hurrah! For the jolly night mare!” It was a phrase that aptly described Doyle’s work, perhaps his entire life: the jolly nightmare.

While the public isn’t permitted to see Doyle’s work at the Huntington, representatives from both the library and Doyle’s family have told me that they’d be amenable if a publisher approached them about printing Doyle’s work, although so far there haven’t been any offers. Until that blessed day comes, I plead with you to do whatever you must to experience Doyle’s jolly nightmare for yourself, whether that means scouring Amazon for a used copy of The Doyle Diary or just stealing one from a dear friend of the family. Doyle’s work can be achingly lovely, achingly funny or achingly sad, and sometimes it is all of these things at once.

The art of Charles Altamont Doyle hurts, but it’s a hurt you’ll never get enough of.