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Speed lines are part of our modern visual vocabulary. You know, the lines drawn to one side of a moving object to show that it is moving really fast in the other direction. We use speed lines all the time in illustration, comics, and animation. As with wavy lines above something to show that it is smelly, speed lines are cross-cultural. (Thank you, Scott McCloud, for teaching me this in a great book that everyone should read.)

But where did speed lines come from, and when?

Insert received wisdom of speed lines here

If you look it up on Wikipedia, the font of all wisdom, speed lines are credited to French illustrator Ernest Montaut. And certainly Montaut does serve up a multitude of lines flying all over the place, some of which show trajectory, and some of which imply motion.

The truth is revealed

However, while researching some Celtic mythology around the Fisher King motif I came across this illustration by Earnest Wallcousins, done in 1905 at the latest. The image shows Gwydion bringing down the axe on Pryderi. For those not up on the Mabinogion, Pryderi pops up through many parts of the text, but the last part covers Gwydion, an evil magician who cause a lot of heartache to many other characters.

There is a lot not to like about the Wallcousins illustration. Pryderi gets a ‘Celtic’ bearskin dress, while Gwydion is oh, so Greco-Roman in his helmet and armor. One of Pryderi’s hands is barely sketched in, while one of Gwydion’s is covered by his cape, as if the artist had to cover up a mistake.

Be that as it may be, I was immediately struck by Wallcousins’ use of speed lines trailing the axehead. These appear to be part of the original artwork, and function as we would expect, strengthening the impact of the axe on Pryderi’s helm.

Since this was published in 1905, and Montaut’s work came in 1913 or after, it would seem to me that Wallcousins has a good claim to priority in inventing speed lines. If anyone has an earlier example, Wikipedia’s article needs updating.

Gwydion kills Pryderi, in a 1905 illustration by Earnest Wallcousins

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