Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Blunders of One Weird Tales Artist: Curtis Charles Senf by Todd B. Vick

Curtis Charles Senf
The September 1931 Weird Tales had, perhaps, one of the most farcical blunders ever committed by a magazine illustrator, and it happened to one of Robert E. Howard’s most popular and prized characters, Solomon Kane. The artist was Curtis Charles Senf (C.C. Senf), who at the time, lived in Chicago and began drawing covers and interior illustrations for Weird Tales. His debut cover was the March 1927 issue. In fact, Senf did 8 of the 12 covers for Weird Tales in 1927, and 11 of the 12 covers for 1928. His numbers tapered off a little after these two years, but over-all, Senf was the artist for 45 covers at Weird Tales. In addition to this, he drew hundreds of interior illustrations for The Unique Magazine. To say he was a seasoned magazine artist and illustrator is a slight understatement. However, and this is a pretty big however, he eventually stopped reading the stories he illustrated, and the results were laughable, and even angered some of the writers for Weird Tales.

Curtis Charles Senf was born on July 30, 1873, in Rosslau, Prussia. In 1881, when he was a boy of eight, the Senf family emigrated to America on the S.S. Wieland. They landed in New York City on June 28 and then ultimately settled in Chicago, Illinois. His father's occupation was listed only as "workman."[1] C.C. Senf attended public school and upon graduating high school, he enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Art. Following his art studies at the Chicago Institute of Art, Senf became a commercial artist and lithographer. Eventually Senf opened an art agency called Senf & Company with Fred S. Gould. This venture failed and eventually was forced to file bankruptcy in 1903. There are no other details about employment for Senf until he becomes a regular artist for Weird Tales. By the time he landed the job of cover and interior artist for Weird Tales, Senf was almost 54 years of age. 

"The Bride of Dewer"
Given the fact that the cover art for Weird Tales prior to 1927 was average to downright terrible, Senf was a welcomed edition to the magazine. Even H. P. Lovecraft, who was often picky about weird art (and weird fiction), expressed hope that this new artist might create better cover art than previous artists had for the magazine. In a January 1927 letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft declared, “I shall welcome the new cover artist, & can feel sure at least that he can’t be any worse than those who have hitherto messed up the magazine.”[2] His hope would be short lived, by June of that same year, Lovecraft told Derleth, “. . .the present ‘artist’ Senf has no sense of the fantastic whatever.”[3] While Lovecraft is not necessarily incorrect in his over-all opinion about Senf’s work, Senf “could do a truly weird cover, one of his best being for ‘The Bride of Dewer,”[4] and there were a few others. In fact, a little later in this article, we will look at another truly weird cover Senf did (and perhaps one of his best works) toward the end of his career at Weird Tales.  Moreover, in 1927 Senf was reading the stories and illustrating them according to their content, so this last sentiment by Lovecraft was merely a stylistic complaint on his part. Senf’s artwork, for the most part, was “better” than the work of previous artists for the magazine, his style was that of late 19th century artists, with nice detail, color, and vivid scope, and he excelled when the story was a period piece. Even so, in many ways, Lovecraft was correct, Senf’s sense of the fantastic and/or weird was not the greatest. 

            About Senf, Robert Weinberg, in his book The Weird Tales Story, expressed, “The man was a reasonably good cover artist, though rarely did he do a weird scene. He was much more at home with normal humans than unearthly monsters. At least his covers were better than his often dreadful interiors.”[5] Senf’s early covers were quite nice, and even though he was, as Lovecraft and Weinberg point out, not that good at illustrating weird scenes, creatures, and the like, he was capable of creating nice illustrations for typical scenes from the various stories. Until, that is, he stopped reading the stories. There is no single pin-pointed time when Senf began skimming the stories to merely get an idea of what was going on in them. One could probably examine all the interior illustrations and covers Senf drew and determine an exact time (or perhaps find out if it was gradual), but the scope and detail of such a task is unnecessary for this article. It is enough to know that at some point, Senf did, in fact, begin to do this. And, by doing so he began to alienate and anger the writers whose stories he illustrated.

WT Oct 1928,
Senf Cover
          Once Lovecraft discovered Senf’s inability to create actual weird artwork, from then on his opinion of Senf declined. Even so, at one point Lovecraft did manage to compliment Senf on one project, “I think that Senf has nobly redeemed himself in the splendid border he has given Belknap’s ‘Kinarth.’ This once he has outranked Rankin—for surely that glamorous cliff with the malignly populous sky is the realist of the real stuff!”[6] That was the only nice thing Lovecraft ever said about Senf and his work, and he retracted it to Derleth just a few months later, “I hereby retract all the kindly things I said of Senf after his one tour de force—the design for ‘Icy Kinarth.’”[7] By 1930 Senf managed to anger Clark Ashton Smith, not regarding one of his own stories, but with respect to a story that Senf illustrated for Frank Belknap Long. Lovecraft first mentioned this blunder to Smith in a December 25, 1930 letter, “. . . what a mess Senf has made in trying to draw the nameless hybrid monstrosity Chaugnar Faugn as a conventional living elephant. He can’t have read the text—for It is very clearly described.”[8] 

          Even before Lovecraft’s letter, Smith, already disgusted by Senf’s blunderous artwork of Long’s story, contacted Farnsworth Wright about the problem. Smith explained this to Lovecraft in his response letter, “Yes, I noticed the absurd inaccuracy of Senf’s drawing for ‘The Horror from the Hills,’ and commented on it in my last letter to Wright.”[9] Smith goes on to state, “Senf’s illustrations for the medieval tale by Eadie didn’t jibe with the text either—he depicted modern Italian costumes!”[10] However, Smith does recognize that Senf has ability. In this same letter he admits as much to Lovecraft, “Senf can draw, and draw well when he takes the trouble.”[11] (italics is Smith’s) Lovecraft, in his follow up letter to Smith expressed happiness that Smith took the time to send a letter to Wright about the blunders. Moreover, he told Smith, “. . . on the Senfian discrepancy—Wright certainly ought to get after these birds who pretend to illustrate a story without having read anything more than the title.”[12] It is around this time that several other writers began to complain about Senf’s illustrations.

            By August of 1931, Seabury Quinn had contacted Wright about one of Senf’s illustrations. Quinn apparently wrote Lovecraft and detailed his frustration with Senf and his artwork, then Lovecraft turned around and wrote Smith a letter explaining Quinn’s plight. Lovecraft’s letter to Smith about Quinn’s issues with Senf was sent shortly after Senf had quite egregiously butchered Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane story, “The Footfalls Within.” In the letter to Smith, Lovecraft explains, “Just had a pleasant letter from Seabury Quinn, who is in a boiling rage about the wretched & irrelevant ‘art’ work in W.T.” Lovecraft continues, “I suppose you noticed the up-to-date tropical costume on Howard’s 17th century Solomon Kane.”[13] Lovecraft further explained to Smith that Quinn told him that unless Wright can guarantee that Senf will correctly illustrate his stories, he will demand that they go unillustrated. About Quinn's letter to Wright, Lovecraft humorously declared, “This may bring results—for Brother Seabury is certainly the pet child in Doc Farnsworth’s academy.”[14]

Senf's Solomon Kane for
"The Footfalls Within."

            Weird Tales bought Robert E. Howard’s story, “The Footfalls Within” sometime in either November or December of 1930. It would not be published until almost a year later in the September 1931 issue. About this story, Howard tells his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, “It’s about the poorest story I’ve ever sold.”[15] When Weird Tales published the story, Senf created the interior illustrations. It is likely that Senf, since he was illustrating that whole issue and was busy trying to meet Weird Tales’ deadline, merely scanned Howard’s story just long enough to see that Solomon Kane was a “tall Englishman” and that the story contained Arabs. As for the setting, as Senf was skimming the story, he probably also noticed the story’s byline mentioning African slave trading, leading Senf to assume the story was set in Africa. Senf, as Lovecraft mentioned in his letter to Smith, drew Solomon Kane as a modern (or late 19th century) tropical explorer in the standard cotton canvas safari garb, with knee-high dark boots and a kind of pith helmet. Moreover, instead of a flintlock musket pistol, Kane is sporting a late 19th century long barrel revolver. Senf's Solomon Kane is an odd looking early 17th century Puritan to say the least, and looked nothing like Howard’s Solomon Kane.

            As far as I have been able to determine, Howard did not mention this blunder in any of his letters. However, shortly after “The Footfalls Within” published in the September 1931 issue, Howard did tell Lovecraft, “I like Doolin [another Weird Tales artist], especially like his ability to depict the muscular development of his subjects—a department of the game at which Senf is deplorably weak.”[16] At this point (December 1931) “The Footfalls Within” had already been published for two months, so why Howard did not mention Senf’s illustration to Lovecraft in this letter is anybody’s guess. He certainly had an opportunity to criticize Senf for his ludicrous illustration. Instead, Howard focused on Joseph Doolin, who illustrated “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” published a month after “The Footfalls Within,” in the October 1931 issue of Weird Tales. And while several readers mentioned Howard’s Kane story as a good tale, readers raved for several months about “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.” Moreover, given the fact that Howard himself was unimpressed with “The Footfalls Within,” he may have avoided mentioning it based on a desire to simply put it in the past and move on. Whatever the case, Senf’s illustration of “The Footfalls Within” rendered Solomon Kane completely unrecognizable.

Senf's art for CAS'
"The Monsters . . ."
            Around October 1931, Clark Ashton Smith received notice from Farnsworth Wright that his story “The Monsters of the Prophecy” was to be the cover story for the January 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Smith wrote Lovecraft telling him the good news and declared, “I wonder what it will look like. You may recall that the earth-hero was stark naked in the tale; and that the heroine, as well as the other Antareans, was equipped with five arms, three legs, three eyes, and a superabundance of other anatomical features.”[17] That description alone would be a challenge for any artist. Smith then realized which artist may be assigned to the cover and declared, “However, Senf (if he does the picture) probably won’t read that far.”[18] Surprisingly, Senf did a good job on the cover, and it is, in my opinion, his weirdest cover art during his tenure at Weird Tales. Moreover, neither Smith nor Lovecraft commented—positively or negatively—about that cover.

            In 1932 Weird Tales began to slowly phase out Senf as an artist. This was perhaps due to the many complaints from the writers for the magazine, and it is possible some of the readers wrote in to the editorial staff as well. Whatever the case, the July 1932 issue of Weird Tales was Senf’s final issue, and perhaps one of his worst. The cover illustration was for Victor Rousseau’s story, “The Phantom Hand,” and it looked vastly different than anything else Senf had drawn for previous covers. In fact, it almost looked like a throwback to those early years (1920s) of Weird Tales covers that were so poorly illustrated. Perhaps by this point, knowing he would no longer be illustrating for the magazine, Senf merely threw something together. After C.C. Senf left Weird Tales, he stayed in Chicago and spent the rest of his days in commercial artwork. He died in Chicago on April 24, 1949 at the age of seventy-five.

July 1932 WT
Senf's Final Cover Art


[1] See: Most of the data about Senf’s life are gleaned from this website unless otherwise noted.
[2]  Lovecraft, H. P., and August Derleth. "1927." In Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 63. Vol. 1. 1926-1931. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2013.
[3] Ibid. 96.
[4] Weinberg, Robert. "Cover Art." In The Weird Tales Story, 65. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Wildside Press, 1999.
[5]  Ibid. 64.
[6] Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, vol. 1. 1926-1931, 253.
[7] Ibid. 299.
[8] Lovecraft, H. P., and Clark Ashton Smith. "1930." In Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 284. New York, NY: Hippocampus Press, 2017.
[9] Ibid. “1931,” 290.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid. 294.
[13] Ibid. 318.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Howard, Robert E. "1930." In The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, edited by Rob Roehm, 117. Vol. 2. 1930-1932. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007.
[16] Ibid. “1931.” 278.
[17] Lovecraft, H. P., and Clark Ashton Smith. "1931." In Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, 328.
[18] Ibid.


greyirish said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention C. C. Senf's role in Wright & co. settling on "Unaussprechlichen Kulten" as the German title of Howard's Nameless Cults - another little blunder, although far from his worst!

Angeline said...

I wonder whether Senf's enthusiasm for properly reading the stories before illustrating them went hand in hand with Farnsworth Wright's enthusiasm for opening his wallet...
His move into commercial art does suggest as much. There are other factors too - how much time did he get to do the illustrations? Did he get the manuscripts well before, or did he make the choice between "skimming and do it in office hours" and "reading the stories carefully and making it late"? Senf wasn't a young man anymore, at this time, so might have decided to treat it as 'just another job'.
...Which leads me to the thought whether we owe all those glorious Weird Tales covers by Margaret Brundage to her accepting circumstances (=tardy payments) which her male contemporaries would balk at.

Todd B. Vick said...

Bobby, I did run into that in all my research for this article. My original idea for this article was to focus solely on Senf's interior art for Howard's "The Footfalls Within." As I was reading the HPL/CAS letters about Senf, there was some pretty interesting and funny exchanges about their frustration so I began adding that as well. Overall, I narrowed the focus down to these elements, lest I end up with a 3 or 4 part article, and right now, due to my current book project, time crunches and deadlines are eating a bunch of my spare time, as you well know. However, if you would like to do a follow up article on that issue, I would more than welcome it. Or perhaps I can earmark it for a future article.

To cloudsinvenice, I think you hit on several key things - Senf's age - and especially WT's deadlines - they were always tight. Also, if Senf was illustrating an entire issue, especially if he was a slow reader, getting "enough" info to throw something on the page in time became a key factor, I think anyway. However, Wright should have known better than to allow Senf to continue for as long as he did with the shoddy reading/work. So as long as Wright paid, Senf kept doing what he was doing. But Wright was an enigma himself, so go figure.

Scott369 said...

How ironic that as a weird artist Senf just could not cut the mustard!

JBL said...

A fine article! At last an explanation for the terrible illustration Senf did for Long's HORROR FROM THE HILLS -- no doubt he scanned the story, read the phrase "The elephant god of Tsang" and got out his pen and ink.

Michael Liam Murphy said...

Senf's art style was more suited to the late 1890s and the first decade of the 20th Century when the influence of the penny dreadfuls and boy's own papers were preponderant. By the teens, his stiff archaic style was already outdated by far more naturalistic and evocative artists like J. Allen St. John. Even artists of his own generation like Frank Pape and Willie Pogany can be said to have outstripped him by leagues in talent.