The Ship That Sailed To Mars – November 2014

Image of a silhouetted ship sailing across an orange blue background
Image from The Ship That Sailed To Mars (London: George G. Harrap, 1923) (20th Century Collection, 20th C. Coll 823.912 TIM)

To mark the 50th anniversary this month of NASA’s first successful mission to Mars, Special Collections brings you its very own Mars mission in the fantasy and vintage Science Fiction work, The Ship That Sailed To Mars.

The book is the work of William Mitcheson Timlin (1892 – 1943). Timlin was born in Ashington, Northumberland, the son of a colliery foreman. He attended Morpeth Grammar School where he showed talent for drawing, and received a scholarship to the School of Art at Armstrong College in Newcastle (later to form part of Newcastle University). In 1912, he moved to South Africa where he completed his training in Art and Architecture and remained for the rest of his life, forging a successful career for himself as an architect, illustrator and author.

The Ship That Sailed To Mars was published in England in 1923 in an edition of only two-thousand copies. Originally conceived by Timlin as a work to entertain his young son, it carries forty-eight striking watercolour plates, alternating with forty-eight pages of Timlin’s own handsome calligraphic text; when Timlin sent the book to the London-based publishers, George Harrap, they were sufficiently impressed that they decided to print the book just as it appeared, without any typesetting.

Page titled 'The Meteor' from 'The Ship that Sailed to Mars'
Page from The Ship that Sailed to Mars (20th Century Collection,
20th C. Coll 823.912 TIM

The book’s fantastical, whimsical and stylised illustrations display strong influences of fellow Twentieth Century illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and William Heath Robinson. The Dictionary of Twentieth Century British Book Illustrators describes it as a masterpiece and “the most original and beautiful children’s book of the 1920s”.

The story is that of an Old Man who dreams of sailing to Mars “by way of the Moon and the more friendly planets.” He designs and builds a ship with the help of elves and fairies, and journeys to “the tiny Orb that was the Wonder World of Mars”, encountering all manner of creatures and adventures along the way.