Friday, February 29, 2008

My Nineties: Ernest Dowson, Leonard Smithers, Beardsley and Wilde

In 1923, Walter T. Spenser published his memoirs of bookselling in London, Forty Years in My Bookshop. One chapter in particular deals with his experiences in the 1890s, indeed, the very fact that there was a separate chapter called 'My Nineties' gives a good indication of how, even this early on, the Ninties were being viewed as a distinct, almost anomolous period. Spencer's memoirs are not always gripping but sometimes fascinating, he comes across as, by turns, irritating and pompous, gracious and interesting. It is often memoirs like these which provide some of the best anecdotes about the other characters of the period. In this extract we hear about Ernest Dowson, Leonard Smithers, Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. The chap in the photo above is Leonard Smithers.

...Only a bus ride away from my shop we come to the scene of one of the saddest happenings in modern literature, the downfall of Oscar Wilde at the Old Bailey on May 25th 1895. But we hardly need go so far if we wish to tread the London that was familiar to that ill-fated figure and to those strange-witted contemporaries and associates of him whom we instinctively recall at the mere mention of the eighteen-nineties - though most disproportionately, as we realise when we think of the other men who were writing during the same period.

We hardly need to go so far as the Old Bailey, I say, because several of them lived (and died) in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. There was hardly a week that passed for many years when one or other of the group could not have been found entering my shop. Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, Sir Richard Burton, Leonard Smithers - often have I talked with them all. When Dowson was not spending his afternoons among my books he was wasting them at a public-house a little lower down New Oxford Street. Sometimes he would persuade a crony to come across to me with the manuscript of one of his poems and beg me to give a few shillings for it. He was too ashamed to come himself. Back the messenger would go with the capital that within a very short time would have liquidated itself in further supplies of alcohol. This reluctance of Dowson’s to sell his own manuscripts is, I find, shared generally among authors. They prefer other folk to do the sad work in their behalf.

Ernest Dowson was a handsome though rather weak-faced man. He was disinclined to write although he must have done a fair amount. He made several translations of French authors for Leonard Smithers, a publisher of Wilde’s, and he brought to me a translation of the “Memoirs of Richelieu,” which I purchased, as I myself was publishing at that time, or at any rate, contemplated doing so. But Dowson’s manuscript still remains in my strongbox unpublished.

I only knew Leonard Smithers in any personal way during the last few years of his life. The letters written by Oscar Wilde, which I possess and to which I shall presently refer, occasionally throw some light in this rather sordid publisher’s general character. When I met Smithers he had already fallen on evil days, and during those final years I purchased practically everything he had to sell, including his Wilde letters, written from France after the release of Wilde from prison and imploring Smithers to send various outstanding moneys. In one of these, written shortly before Wilde’s death, the poet exclaims; “For God’s sake send me at least five pounds by return. I am face to face with starvation and death.”

In my shop is a volume by Lord Alfred Douglas, which Smithers published, probably in 1899: “The Duke of Berwick, a Nonsense Rhyme by the Belgian Hare. Author of Tales with a Twist. Illustrated by Tony Ludovici.” On the picture-board cover is a coloured illustration of a duke with a dog, coronets on the ducal head and on the dog’s coat. Along with this volume I have the manuscript of the verses in pencil by Lord Alfred Douglas elsewhere, “this book never had a life as a real book at all.”

Smithers fell so low before he died - a Marlowesque kind of death it was, in the Seven Dials district - that he resorted to desperate methods for the few pounds he needed to keep himself alive. Once he came to me and said: “Mr Spencer, I have some epigrams by Oscar Wilde that have never been published. If I print an edition de luxe of a hundred and twenty-five copies illustrated with woodcuts by Aubrey Beardsley, also belonging to me, will you take the whole edition at ten shillings each?”

I agreed to this, and he promised to deliver them to me as soon as they were printed. They came in several different lots, and I began to think that here was an important new Wilde publication, when I was amazed to find half-a-dozen callers in my shop offering me copies of the little book I was about to issue myself! Smithers had printed far more than he supplied to me, and made similar arrangements with other booksellers!

I have seen copies of this pamphlet of epigrams sold at a guinea each. The yellow cover reads: “Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, London, MCMIII.” The Beardsley illustrations came at the beginning and at the end of the thirty-six sayings: and the sayings themselves are entirely characteristic of the man who wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “The first duty of life,” says Wilde, “ is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.” “Avoid arguments of any kind,” he says again, “they are always vulgar, and often convincing.” Relations, we are told, are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live not the smallest instinct about when to die. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.” And, finally, “to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”...

PS. John C., I'm glad you enjoyed the skyscrapers, they are quite magical I think: sometimes, particularly the really Deco looking ones, almost seem like 'fantastic architechture' like some of the stuff that you've had on Feuilleton from time to time. Jim D., thank you for the note about the Hospital and, yes, I thought it was amazing that there's a hospital anywhere in the world which can be classified as a skyscraper. I was just being lazy I'm afraid, I could have given the names and details of the all the buildings featured but, in a way, that's not what's important - it's all about the way they look I guess.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Romance of The Skyscraper

As historians most commonly answer any question, "it's not my period" so too, this is quite a way from my normal Victoriana but I promised in the New Year to be little more eclectic and I couldn't resist sharing these photos from Building to the Skies. The Romance of the Skyscraper by Alfred C. Bossom, publised in 1934.

The photography is just wonderful but I particularly like the nighttime photos and the sketches which have a real feel of Philip K Dick come Ghostbuster's noir about them. You can just imagine the Fifth Element style aircars careening around those fabulous deco lines.

PS. Many thanks Wristle for pointing out that The Library of Congress data in the front of a book is written in the same way; I wondered if it was a style adopted to avoid confusion by various different conventions of capitalising titles, particularly with regard to particles and conjunctions and so on.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bibliographical Question

Why is it, that when the colophon page of a book contains the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data, that the title of the work is written with only the first letter of the first word in upper case, in other words, the title is written as if it was a sentence not a title?

If you have even the first idea what I'm talking about then welcome but you should be worried what your life has come to. If you know the answer, please let me know and I promise not to tell anyone your secret.

Victorian Cemetery

I do love domestic urban architecture. I love the hundreds of rows of Victorian terraced houses in Portsmouth, the details of their construction; decorative brickwork, stained glass panels, wrought iron porticos, white tiled walls... all these things are endlessly fascinating. I have this kind of half-baked idea that I would love to be one of those people who spends a lifetime on a particular project and mine would be to photograph every building in Portsmouth to be known in years to come as 'the man who photographed an entire city'... anyway, fanciful daydreams aside, it is in this spirit that R and I like to roam the streets. Most people take their evening constitutional or Sunday afternoon walk in a park, we tend to walk along road after road of terraced housing. Today was one such Sunday afternoon but we found ourselves taking a detour through Kingston Cemetery which, although not in the league of Highgate or Nunhead in London, nonetheless has its fair share of wonderful Victorian stonework now suitably draped in foliage or worn at the edges. The whole set of photos is HERE if you want to see the overly friendly squirrels too.

Stephen Phillips

A little while ago now I blogged about a book called 'Christ in Hades' illustrated by Stella Langdale.

Today I found, already sold sadly, a Raphael Tuck postcard in what they somewhat gaspingly call their 'literary celebrities' series, showing the author. I'd not come across this series of Tuck cards before and it does make me wonder who else might have been depicted.

A day in the life...

A day in the life...

Today I have done some work adding new information to my master file about the Uranian poet and priest, E E Bradford, and I updated my Willard Price bibliography with the details of the articles I found referenced on ebay listings.

This week appears to have been something of a Gollancz week as I spent about an hour in a bookshop I don't usually use here in Portsmouth and came away with three new Gollancz Yellows: The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper, Chekhov's Journey by Ian Watson, and Charisma by Michael Coney - today I wrote up bibliographical descriptions of these and a few other Gollancz books I have which I hadn't yet described.

I walked round the corner and bought a seafood mix baguette for lunch.

Some time was spent working at my 'Reading Greek' course and now I know how to talk about looking at the Parthenon and the Acropolis from the deck of a boat!

I convinced a dealer-friend from nearby Emsworth to come over on Monday and take a look at my stock to see if there's anything she wants to buy.

Some other length of time was spent reading a really very good essay on Homosexuality and Anglo-Catholicism by David Hilliard - available as a pdf here. And well worth it. I began to feel more than a little nostalgic for those heady days in my late teens when I was first introduced to Owen Chadwick's two volume history of the Victorian church - yes I know!

I took a pile of stuff to the tip in the car...

I discovered a couple of interesting new (to me) websites. There's the BookScans Database which hopes, in time, to have a copy of the front cover of every vintage paperback ever published. It's a noble aim and certainly the format is good and the number of book covers is pretty enormous already but it does suffer somewhat from the curse of Flickr - i.e. archiving images at a size well below what would normally be considered 'archival'. They make a great visual resource and I can imagine a numer of designers of my acquaintance enjoying a long browse but the images on the site would be fairly useless if it every came to print reproduction and, indeed, would need to be larger and at higher resolution for almost any other use! Also Ebay Morons Galore and Bitch with Books both of which are very amusing blogs with self-explanitory titles. I check out the Blogflux stats for this blog (see very bottom of the page) which tell me, among other things that people in Kuala Lumpur and Korea have acessed the blog in the last few days, and that the lovely Ms d'Arbeloff has mentioned my ravings about her illustration of The Book of Revelation - I know this because apparantly her rather fun blog has referred four people this way :-)

A little more time was spent reading a couple more of the short prose pieces in Horatio F Brown's In and Around Venice (Rivingtons, London, 1905)...

All of this is by way of trying to convince myself, much more than you, dear reader, that in a day which has felt like an utterly non-day, I may have actually achieved something.

Friday, February 22, 2008

More Yellow Gollancz Excitement

Well, I do realise how odd it makes me sound that I am excited by Yellow-covered SF books, but still... I recently bought five more on ebay to add to the ever growing collection of Gollancz SF. They haven't arrived yet, but in anticipation I have updated my Flickr set of covers with a couple which are already on my shelf but which I never quite got around to scanning last time...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's All Greek to Me

What feels like many years ago, I had the occasion to learn koine, a dialect of Classical Greek, used mainly in The New Testament. As part of a program of relentless self-improvment currently underweigh - well, as part of an attempt to make good use of my brain again, I decided to teach myself proper bona fide classical Greek. I have acquired the Joint Association of Classical Teachers' Greek Course, jauntily titled, Reading Greek! and am starting back at the beginning again. In a misplaced attempt to make the three very dull text-books seem appealing, the editors thought it would be a scream to add black and white pictures - yes, that's pictures! - to just the one book. Still, I managed to find some blog interest even there! Remarkably, the editors also thought that the way to draw people into reading Greek was to have a fascinating first text to translate, the interest level of which could perhaps be gauged from the title, 'The Insurance Fraud' which, as far as I have been able to translate so far seems to have a lot to do with the same people getting on a boat over and over again. I'm sure it will all become wonderfully clear in time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Helen Jacobs: Pandora's Box

As Helen Jacobs' work seemed well appreciated the last time, here is a follow up in the shape of her drawings for the story of Pandora's Box from the same collection of Greek Myths

PS. Jim D. Yes, I hadn't really thought of Alfie Allen as a Greek statue but now you mention it I can see what you mean about his build. It has to be said that I think the publicity photos and 'rehearsal' shots were taken some time before the opening night as, by the time we saw him, he'd lost some of the fleshiness!
John C. I'm glad you found the enneagram. It's been pointed out to me that I slipped up over the keyboard and wrote that I was a five when I should have written four, being the tragic/romantic type. Also, I shouldn't really represent the enneagram quite as simplistically as I did since it has a depth of symbolic references within it which remind me more than a little of the correspondances of sympathetic magic in occult lore. The names given to the various types also vary considerably. Thank you also for the link to the 'Beardsley Gargoyle', I realised as soon as I saw it that I once had a rather grand vintage postcard of said gargoyle.
Spycoops, welcome, and thank you for the reference for the Oscar Wilde letter. It's one of the things I have enjoyed in the course of some of my other studies in 1890s figures, 'watching' the movement of material (letters, books, etc.) through various hands as one reads memoirs and biographies and then finally finding that something utterly ephemeral perhaps has ended up in a public or institutional library.
Artything, I'm really very sorry I wasn't able to pop in to your exhibition in the end. I don't want to get started on the trouble I've been having with my ISP recently but it was, for a while last week, all-consuming and so getting out and about was something of a secondary consideration. I do hope it all went well.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Horatio and the Gondolier

No, not some new naval fiction about Horatio Hornblower, or worse, Horatio Nelson engaged in some nefarious Venetian goings on... rather, another of my research interests, Horatio F. Brown. Unlike a great many other of the gay Victorian/Edwardian, literary figures that I look into from time to time, HFB very much had a life outside his poetic musings about pretty young men. In fact, there was only one book of such poetry and, although it's not easy to be clear exactly how much, he disassociated himself from it. To the public at large HFB was much better known at the time as 'our man in Venice' and wrote a number of very popular books about Venetian people, history and customs. In his historical writing he can be as dry as the rest of them, but when he sets his mind to describing the wonders of Venice for a more popular audience, he writes some quite beautiful prose.

His best friend John Addington Symonds always hoped - and nudged, nagged and encouraged HFB to this end - that HFB would one day write a serious piece of Venetian history, something solid and massive which could become a standard work. But although he wrote a large number of books on Venice in his lifetime, and although he would have been more than capable of such a magnum opus, HFB prefered to write in the shorter format of essays, or to translate the work of others or to work as an editor of archives. This is, I think, to our benefit. There is no doubt that if HFB had given in to the pressure we might have been richer by a large and insightful scholarly book but we would have lost a great deal of quite beautiful and much more accesible prose about Venice.
Given just how cagey HFB was about his sexuality, it seems odd, perhaps just a symptom of the times, that he felt he could dedicate his first book Life on the Lagoons:

"To my Gondolier, Antonio Salin, my constant companion in Venice and Venetia"

So constant in fact that HFB eventually moved Salin and his family into a mezzanine level of his own house in Venice. And just in case the 'sensitive' reader should be in any doubt whatever how HFB felt about Salin, there is a wondeful passage in the book where HFB describes being invited to dine chez Salin.

"I found the door, and at the top of the little staircase there was Antonio, his head fresh from a basin of water, all his masses of hair tossed back and dripping, like Bacchus stepped from Tintoret's loveliest picture, or Saint George with never a dragon left to conquer; a black and white flannel shirt, a blue sash round his waist, a towel in both hands, and his eyes laughing out as he gives the last scrub to his face"

Who knew eh?

What is particularly intriguing of the photo which appears alongside this portion of the text which is captioned simply 'bathing'. It looks very like the kind of photo that might have been taken by Frederick Rolfe, who did know HFB a little during Rolfe's time in Venice, but sadly for Corvine photo hunters, the first edition of Life on the Lagoons was published too early for this to be a lost Rolfe photo.

HFB's relationship with Salin was a long one and the drawing at the head of this post, although I have yet to identify the artist, was used as the frontispiece to HFB's In and Around Venice.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Frederick Evans and Vincent O'Sullivan

These two images are perhaps the most famous of those taken by the late Victorian and early Edwardian photographer Frederick Henry Evans: the 'sea of steps' at Wells Cathedral and the Aubrey Beardsley photo. I am put in mind of him particularly because of the 'Modern Works on Paper' exhibition at the RA that I was blogging about just the other day where an original platinum print of the Beardsley photo was sold for many many thousands of pounds.

It is said that in Beardsley has expressed a desire to be made to look, in this portrait, like a gargolye: hence the remarkable pose in which his hands and face become part of a single shape, making the best use of his rather spectacular nose.

Evans was originally a bookseller, hence his association with Beardsley and others of the 1890s gang and we know that he was acquainted with Vincent O'Sullivan. One of the things that makes O'Sullivan the 'mystery man' of the period is that fact that of all of them, we don't even know what he looked like. There is no identified photograph or portrait of him in any medium. Yet, tantalisingly, we know that several photos of O'Sullivan were taken by Evans because of the two letters reproduced below. As you can see from the letters, one of these photos came frustratingly close to being published in O'Sullivan's lifetime as a frontispiece for one of his books, but was kicked into touch by Smithers. Of course, there are significant collections of Evans's photographs held by various institutions but without a 'key' photo or portrait, it is impossible to know which unidentified sitter might be O'Sullivan.


Letter 1
October 30th 1897

Dear Mr. Evans:

Thank you very much for the portraits. My own opinion about my own portraits is, of course, valueless, and all I can say is that they are what I believe myself to be. But every one to whom I have shewn them has been full of praise. As to the new Conder, it seems to me to shew in a new and quite unexpected way what photography can be brought to do. I look forward to seeing the others of myself which you promise to send.

I saw Smithers in town yesterday, and he said that my book was now in the hands of the binders and that it would delay it considerably if I insisted on the portrait being published with it. If I ever bring out a collected edition of my verse in which a portrait of myself can be properly included, I will ask your permission to use yours.

Believe me, your’s sincerely

Vincent : O’Sullivan


Letter 2
c/o F. Newcombe : Esqr

[imprinted on paper] Ancaster. Grantham.

Friday - 4th March - 1898

Dear Mr. Evans -

I wonder if you could find an opportunity to let me have two copies of the profils portrait you made of me - I am also curious to see the two which I don’t think you printed - at any rate, which you did not send.

I need hardly add that I will of course pay your usual charges.

With kind regards -

Faithfully your’s:

Vincent : O’Sullivan


To my knowledge (which is pretty certain), only one of these letters has previously been published.

The photograph of Charles Conder referred to may well be that used as a frontispiece to Gibson's 1914 Charles Conder. His Life and Work, I cannot find a copy of the image online and do not have a copy of the book.

It is interesting that O'Sullivan was asking for the profile photos: he may have been aware already of the Beardsley portrait.

The punctuation is wonderfully and idiosyncratically O'Sullivan's own down to the separation of his name with a colon and the use of an apostrophe in 'yours'.

Equus in Chichester

I don't want to bore people. My reactions to the Thea Sharrock production of Equus in London with Dan Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths were extensively blogged at the time. The same production is now touring with Alfie Allen and Simon Callow in the main roles. It was a very different experience seeing what was apparently the same production (minor changes to staging throughout) with different actors and in a different venue. At times one was questioning whether there had been major textual changes because it simply felt so different. I'm sure there weren't but I was often left thinking, 'I don't remember that'!

The main difference for me, however, was taking R to see it. We are quite different people and our tastes are sometimes spot on together but much of the time we fail to see the excitement or interest in something that the other is raving over. In this case R just failed to 'get it'. Which is hardly surprising since we already knew he hadn't much enjoyed the film. That's not to say that R didn't have a perfectly plesant evening out but the play didn't actually touch him. The main criticism to be levelled at Equus over the years is that Schaffer is romanticising pain and suffering. Certainly, if one accepts that it is the psychiatrist whose voice is most authoritatively that of the play itself, then this charge can't really be ducked. Such is the risk-averse, overly logical, un-romantic nature of much of our culture and cultural criticism at the moment that such a charge, of making pain and suffering important and passionate and redemptive, is nigh-on fatal. But I do think it is the reason why some people 'get' Equus' and others don't. In that personality test, The Enneagram, I am very clearly a number 5 - the Tragic Romantic - this would be obvious to most people reading this blog without the aid of personality tests. R can hold on to his privacy about what his type is, but suffice it to say he ain't a Tragic Romantic. This is why I 'get' it and why many others 'get it' - and why he and many others don't. Equus isn't something to agree with or disagree with, it is an experience to have. For some, the tragic romantics, this will be akin to taking part in a ritual: intense, all-consuming, life-changing. For others, whose personality is different this will remain a puzzling and slightly disconcerting but not ultimately moving exeprience.

The final irony is that The Enneagram, in some forms, attaches a totemic animal to each personality type. One animal for when that type is at their best, one for when at their worst. When the tragic romantic is at their best? A galloping black stallion!

Oscar Wilde to John Ruskin

I am currently transcribing the text of a chapter by Walter T Spencer in his book Forty Years in My Bookshop, on his experience of the 1890s, of Wilde, Beardsley, Smithers and the gang. Spencer spends a lot of time 'mentioning' books in his possession which I imagine, for those reading him at the time was rather annoying, but which now offer some helpful bibliographical insights. There is a very sweet letter from Wilde to John Ruskin which Spencer quotes. The letter was inside a copy of Wilde's The Happy Prince which Spencer had in his possession. I am no Wilde scholar and have no idea if the letter remains extant but, as an example of sheer charm and eloquence:

“The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you, and from you I learned nothing but what was good. How else could it be? There is in you something of prophet, of priest, and of poet, and to you the gods gave eloquence such as they have given to none other, so that your message might come to us with the fire of passion, and the marvel of music - making the deaf to hear and the blind to see.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shoreline Archaeology

Today, no books, no illustrators, no vintage photos or pulp sci-fi covers. Today was one of those beautiful days of maybe-early-Spring which February sometimes throws up. It was mild with that bright, brittle sunlight cracking open a wide blue sky. So we walked down by the shore.

Not a lot of people know this but Portsmouth is an island. To the North, where we face the 'mainland' is a twenty metre stretch of water which is only crossed by three roads, leading to the massive traffic problems. The whole city is on a wide, flat stretch of marshland. To the West is the harbour everyone thinks of when, and if, they think of Portsmouth. It's here that HMS Victory and Warrior and The Mary Rose languish alongside the still functioning military naval dockyard. But to the East is Chichester Harbour across which, Portsmouth faces Hayling Island. This harbour is shallow and wide, used by pleasure craft, jet-skiers and people learning to windsurf. The whole of that eastern side of the Island of Portsea is less developed, slightly 'bleaker', and more open. It was here that R and I went walking today and found ourselve at one point on a section of disused beach where there seemed to be all manner of shards of glass and old porcelain. That sand-blasted glass from the sea is lovely but you do find it on all beaches, today I just picked a few up which had different colours. But the porcelain was great, what appeared to be a mixture of Edwardian, late Victorian and one piece which might possibly have dated from the early 1800s. I know all this, not because I have had a sudden conversion to the world of ceramics but, of course, because R was there to guide me. A beautiful afternoon topped by a lovely evening viewing of a film, 'Juno' which I would heartily recommend to all.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ephemera! Ephemera!

This is the kind of material I love to find. Three Victorian School Certificates for the three Rs and for 'Religious Knowledge'. It is this kind of thing which brings together the utterly personal, the gving of these certificates marked a moment in a single individual's life, with the public, inasmuch as these are given by Her Majesty's Inspector on behalf of the government. There's something quite special about the way that makes them 'artifacts'. And I bet that there's someone, somewhere who collects them!

PS. Chris (Artything) I'm so pleased to hear that your exhibition is going well. I only read about it the other day and was wondering when I might be able to find a time to wander over. Now you tell me there are books too! Anyone else reading here should check out Chris' blog. Natalie yes, thank you for your email, I'm literally about to start into a reply. Suffice it to say here that I was very glad you didn't take my ramblings to be a lumping you together with the serially insane.

More Tribal Bottoms

I hope I haven't started something here... A friend of mine who very occasionally reads this blog, noticed the other day the post about ethnographic photos from The National Geographic and other sources, so when she saw these rather splendid bottoms (and other bits) in an article in a Sunday supplement she thought of me and diligently ripped them out. It sounds like a fascinating story although, as I only really have the photographic pages of the article I'm having to guess the blanks a little. It seems that a treasure trove of photographs was found in a box in the family cellar after nearly forty years after they were taken by Mirella Ricciardi. They were billed in the subtitle to the article as photos of tribal life 'uncorrupted by the 20th century' which I suspect, for the 1960s/70s, is probably pushing things a little but nonetheless, beautiful photos, beautiful men.

There's an exhibition, obviously. We are told that more details are available from the Michael Hoppen Gallery, but as yet, whilst there are a few more images online, the promise of more details is disappointingly unkept.

These and other photos of tribal men at this Flickr Set.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Caryl Battersby - An 1890s Voice

As far as I can tell, Caryl James Battersby wrote but one book. I know next to nothing about him and even what little I do know requied a little genealogical digging. He seems to be remembered most for a song he wrote about lavender. He was born in 1858, the son of a Sheffield clergyman, he married and worked as a schoolteacher. The British Library catalogue has the one book, The Song of the Golden Bough and Other Poems (Constable, London, 1898) actually authored by him. He is listed as an 'additional name' on a couple of books about poetry which could mean that he wrote the introduction or somesuch.

I picked up Golden Bough in a shop some time ago. Didn't investigate it properly there and then but had a hunch about it and bought it. I've only recently read through it and discovered a really juicy 1890s poetic voice, if not of the first rank then certainly one whose sympathies and themes and style was heavily influenced by the themes of the 90s. The poem I've enjoyed most so far has been a really rather long retelling of the story of Pan and Syrinx - hence the picture above - but it really is too long to type out for you all this evening so instead, tonight's reading is a rather shorter piece:

The Were-Wolf.

The snow lies deep on wood and wold;

The moon is up, a sheild of gold;

And all is bare and bright and cold.

O Jesu, keep us! Hark, a cry!

It is the were-wolf passing by,

And howling to the bitter sky.

From set of sun to break of day

He runs abroad, a ghost in gray,

Or lies in wait to seize and slay.

The sheep from out the fold he takes,

The ice with padded foot he breaks,

His thirst within the stream he slakes.

On wind-swept moor, in wooded glen,

And down beside the reedy fen,

He hunts the track of lonely men;

And some have sen through brake and briar

His eyes, two orbs or mingled fire,

The man's regret, the brute's desire.

His human story none can tell,

Nor by what deed of guilt he fell

Beneath the burden of this spell.

Two in the wood, two on the plain -

This is the number of his slain,

And still he lusts to strike again.

One night against the gate I spied

The monster sitting, evil-eyed,

His gleaming jaws dropt open wide.

I saw him in the pale moonshine;

He stretched his haggard throat to whine,

The bristles rose on neck and spine.

My hear within me sank, afraid,

And thrice the blessed sign I made,

And loud to Mary Mother prayed.

For well I guessed my little child,

Crying for sickness, had beguiled

The starveling from his barren wild.

And Mary Mother brought me cheer;

She smote the beast with flying fear,

And drove him back to moor and mere.

Scine the, with terrors overcast,

Through what dark midnights have I past,

Each darker, drearier than the last!

A muffled foot comes up the stair,

Two eyes beside me start and glare,

A hot breath flickers in my hair.

Each day I beg the men to go

With axe and spear and bended bow,

And slay the creature in the snow.

O God, that I might see him dead,

Two arrows piercing eyes and head,

The white beneath him dabbled red!

Then might I lie and take my rest,

My limbs with holy slumber blest,

My little babe against my breast.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Revelation: Natalie d'Arbeloff - A Personal Response

At times in the past I have done some work with The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and, whilst the details are unimportant, part of that work involved having sight of the 'hate file': a file of material (once the excrement has been removed!) which has, over the years been sent to the organisation and which express, shall we say, unfriendly sentiments. It's a fascinating collection. From memory, there are letters which are typed on ancient typewriters, the dense black ink punctuated thoughout by parentheses containting scriptural references; there are handwritten notes, some scrawled in obvious haste and anger, others meticulously and tightly written using every inch of the paper; there are 'improving' or downright offensive religious tracts, some of which are illustrated comic-strip style. All in all, the assemblage looks much like the stereotypical serial-killer's wall in a Hollywood movie... There is the same obsessive quality, the same sense of moral squalor and feeling of dirt attatched to this file as there is to that kind of movie representation of the insane.


The hate file, the serial killer's bedroom wall, they both have the same aura of psychological rawness about them, a little like when one has been doodling absent-mindedly and looks down to see a page covered in black ink and full of strange images, sigils and glyphs that we barely recognise.


At the 'Covered' exhibition of artists' books today, I handled and looked through, for the first time properly, the Old Stile Press publication of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine visually interpreted by Natalie d'Arbeloff. This is how it is described:

"On first encountering the book you will see what appears to be a considerable slab of dark slate out of which loom letters - Alpha to Omega . . . On one side is the single word Revelation. As though inscribed upon the stone are the opening words of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, ringing with the seventeenth century language of The King James Bible - the book which tells of the visions as they appeared to St John on Patmos. The covers unfold, as on an icon, to reveal a shrouded face - cloth faintly imprinted with the characteristics of a man whose eyes engage directly with the soul. The pages create the sense of a powerful current sweeping through the book, words sometimes floating up, magnified, sometimes completely submerged but still present beneath the surface. Words and shapes sink deeply into the paper and become at once both tactile and visual. Word and image are off enqual importance, together both swirl across pages conveying with powerful immediacy the devastating visions os St John himself might have experienced them"


There is something of the insane about this book. The same psychological rawness of the hate-filled scribblers, the serial killer's wallpaper collage, the paper thick with doodles - is exuded also by these pages: the text is mercilessly overprinted, cut and pasted, enlarged and turned and twisted, the thickness of the black ink do indeed make it a tactile experience to read the book; the very act of taking a biblical - a 'sacred' text - and daring to interact with it by almost tarring the pages with ink is, in itself, something of an act of desperation, of need to communicate.
Of course, the text of the book itself is one of the most hallucinatory, apocalyptic and bizzare canonical holy texts known to us, from any majot faith. It's imagery is very much the source and inspiration for a lot of the language and use of language found in the hate files of LGCM or in the mind of the religiously inspired bigot or terrorist even.


Like all these objects I'm describing it is important that they are objects. I remember when handling this file of hate mail - there was something about the letters and notes and pamphlets which seemed very physical. I think the intensity of the interior processes that they represented was so great that something of that intensity was imbibed by the 'object' - the paper, the ink, the scratches on the page, the crumpled edges... The book is a tactile experience. In the picture above, the left hand side of the double page spread shown is edged by concentric, thick black lines, those lines have been close to 'stamped' into the paper. You can run your fingers over them and 'feel' the violence of the press. And it is in the object-ness of the book that some of the insanity begins to be healed - maybe redeemed.

The Book as an object is described thus:

"345x245cm. 38 drawn and collaged images with text, arranged as double page spreads and printed on one side only of the sheets which are concertina-folded and contained within a case-like binding which has an added enveloping cover which opens out to present the main cover image as a 'tryptich'. The type is Columbus. The paper is Fabriano Rosaspina. The edition is limited to 150 copies, numbered and signed by the artist."


There is order here and beauty, the sheer quality of the materials puts the book as an artifact into a different league and indeed, a different moral sphere than the ravings of serial killers or bigots or the highly disturbed. In fact, for me it begins to raise questions about the distinctions between sanity and painful psychological outpouring, between the perception of reality and the perception of metaphor and 'vision'. Which is, of course, also a large part of the purpose of the book.

The theological statement and aims of the book of Revelation are, to a large extent political. The relationship of early Christians, of John's school of thought, with Rome and the Roman Empire was antagonistic and subversive. There would be no appeasement of the secular authority by John, no assimilation of the Christian faith into Roman thought forms. The apocalyptic vision is one which is subverting and destroying Roman authority. I love the fact therefore that in the making of this book too there is a subversive element, in what many people would see as the 'defacing' of the Holy scrip. The intensity of feeling which might move someone like Saint John, or Natalie d'Arbeloff to be so iconoclastic is summed up for me in the page which shows a 'maddened' head, in the middle of speech, perhaps in the middle of screaming or shouting and with the word apocalypse repeated and enlarged near and around the head several times - a little like it were in a speech bubble. [The page is visible as part of a short 'movie' of the book.]
Ultimately the brief encounter I had with this book today made me want to scream, to become intensely involved and, if not insanely, then involved in a way which is close to the psychological rawness which the book as a complete artifact represents.
When I was a child, someone described to me a nightmare they had, they told me how they had been walking around in this nightmare with no skin so their raw flesh was exposed: nerve and sinew and bloodvessels like in any piece of meat. It was an image which has stuck with me and one which came to mind again today reading, holding and touching the binding and pages of this Revelation.

This is where we have been today...

Those of you with long memories for the unimportant, may remember me blogging about this exhibition last year. It's a huge but friendly and on the whole un-pompous affair where galleries and others show their wares so long as they're either watercolours, drawings or 'modern works on paper'. There's also a section of the exhibition called 'Covered' which is a selection of fine presses showing their artists' books. It's through the latter of course that R and I came to be there last year since we were sent invitaions by our friends Nicolas and Frances at The Old Stile Press and again this year.

The disappointment this year was the absence of the drawing swap scheme. The welcome addition on the other hand was a selection of dealers in fine vintage and antique photography. There were a good number of highlights in that part of the exhibition for me but among them, of course, were the Pluschow and Galdi nudes, but also the Frederick Evans photos of some 1890s figures and an original platinum print by Evans of his famous photos of Aubrey Beardsley - which had already sold at, I think, if I read the price through the red dot sticker correctly, £15,000. More modestly lined pockets might have been happy I suppose to discover that were was also a photogravure reproduction of the same portrait for sale by another dealer at a mere £500. The photography section of the exhibition was something of an eye opener in terms of the prices being asked, sometimes for the kind of material that I do see from time to time. Whether they were actually selling anything at those prices I can't be sure of course.

The rest of the exibition was the usual cornucopia of wonders from which there may arise more blogging yet...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Vintage Happy Returns

I suppose from the heading of the blog, the profile and the content you can see below, you might think this post is a little 'unlike me'. Maybe... on the other hand it could just prove what a complete graphics-whore I am.

In my stock box is a selection of vintage greetings cards from the 30s and 40s and possibly some from the 50s too. I couldn't bear to post the Christmas cards - it's still too soon! - but I thought a few of the birthday cards wouldn't go amiss. I'm particularly fond of the 'Happy Birthday Son' card with the picture of the smoking cigarette in the ashtray. Also the black cats are rather nice, particularly as there's a really nice texture to the ink on that one.

I also have a very good friend, [you know who you are], who very thoughtfully sent me a real, honest-to-goodness vintage Christmas card this year, which was a lovely thing to have thought to do.

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