Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Anthology in Calligraphy by John C Tarr

John C Tarr wrote and edited books on calligraphy, printing, illustration and handwriting. Those publications span the 1940s o the 70s but apart from that there is little online to tell me much about him. For the last little while I've been working on putting together a collection of "Unique Books", that is, books that are written by hand, or assembled in some way. One of the problems of such books sometimes, is that handwriting can be a little impenetrable. Not, of course in this instance. An 'Anthology in Prose and Verse' by John C Tarr, "For Paul" and dated 1961. It's a great selection which includes everything from aphorisms and quotes by Wilde, Norman Douglas, D. H. Lawrence and Gaugin to ribald doggerel by Tarr himself, all beautifully written over 71 pages of a card covered book of blank paper.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Things That Fall From Books #16: The Band of Purity

It was in August that we last had an entry in the occasional series of blog post about things that I've found tucked inside books. I really couldn't let this one go now could I? Made better still by the fact that it appeared to have been used as a bookmark inside a book on The Prayer Book of King Edward VI, this is a small folded prayer card given out to members of the Band of Purity at Twyford School.

Okay, so it is very amusing, and the comedy value of the name Vyvyan Ollive (sic.) Nicholas Donnithorne only serves to heighten the amusement, but it is also astonishing to think that so much time and effort was put into this. There is a book catalogue which isn't in my collection at the moment and which one day I must procure and read, it is titled Onanism: The Masturbation Panic 1756-1973. It was issued by Michael de Hartington and Burton Weiss in 2006 as a record of a collection they sold en bloc to Cornell University. This little piece of ephemera would surely fit well among such company.

Poor Vyvyan...

PS. A big thank you for those people who, in the comments to this post, became interested in this item of ephemera and took the time to research and tell us all about Vyvyan. Thank you guys!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Aubrey Beardsley by Joseph Pennell: An Early Notice

In volume one of The Studio, in 1893, under the editorship of Joseph Gleeson-White, a man whom we have mentioned many times on Front Free Endpaper as not having received his due for his influence on the art scene of the end of the nineteenth century, included not only an article that showcased probably the first publication in the UK of the photography of Baron von Gloeden, it also, in issue number one, had an article on Aubrey Beardsley by the American author and illustrator Joseph Pennell. This is really right at the start of Beardsley's career, indeed one of the illustrations from the article is a double page spread of Beardsley's work on Morte d'Athur for J. M. Dent. This was Beardsley's first commission and the illustration is captioned as 'forthcoming'. So it is interesting to see what Pennell made of this bright young thing. I imagine that it was actually Gleeson White who showed the drawings to Pennell and asked him to write about them:

"I have lately seen a few drawings which seem to me to be very remarkable. The very limited number which the artist is said to have produced makes their perfection of execution all the more remarkable. I am quite well aware that the mere fact of publicly admitting one's interest in the work of a new man, whose first work may be a delight to artists, is not considered to be good form in criticism. But what should one care about good or bad form - or criticism either, for that matter? For the criticism of art to-day is merely the individual expression of persons who mostly know nothing about their subject. Though artists may be struck with a man's earliest work, and though the creator of it may, and frequently does, never produce anything better, one usually waits until he is dead, or discouraged, before any visible sign of appreciation is granted him. Thus is the intelligent critic spared from making a spectacle of himself.

But whether Mr Beardsley's work is appreciated or despised - and my only fear is that he will suffer from over-appreciation and enthusiasm - the drawings here printed show decisively the presence among us of an artist, of an artist whose work is quite as remarkable in its execution as in its invention: a very rare combination. It is most interesting to note, too, that though Mr Beardsley has drawn his motives from every age, and founded his styles - for it is quite impossible to say what his styles may be - on all schools, he had not been carried back into the fifteenth century, or succumbed to the limitations of Japan; he has recognised that he is living in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and he has availed himself of mechanical reproduction for the publication of his drawings, which the Japs and the Germans would have accepted with delight had they but known it. The reproduction of the Morte d'Arthur drawing, printed in this number, is one of the most marvellous pieces of mechanical engraving, if not the most marvellous, that I have ever seen, simply for this reason: it gives Mr Beardsley's actual handiwork, and not the interpretation of it by some one else. I know it is the correct thing to rave over the velvety, fatty quality of the wood-engraved line, a quality which can be obtained from any process block by careful printing, and which is not due to the artist at all. But here I find the distinct quality of a pen line, and of Mr Beardsley's pen line, which had been used by the artist and reproduced by the process-man in a truly extraordinary manner. The decorative borders also are very charming. Mr Beardsley has recognised and shown by his work that decoration means, not the production of three or four fine stock designs, and the printing of these in books, to which they have no earthly relation, on a hand-press; but that decoration should be the individual and separate production of designs which really illustrate or decorate the page for which they were made, and that the artistic value of such designs is not lessened by the fact that they are quite as well, if not better, printed by steam than they have ever been by hand.

Although in all of Mr Beardsley's drawings which I have so far seen there are signs of other men's influence, I know no reason why this influence should not be apparent if the inventor of what we consider the type is not a worthy man to imitate. However, to say that Burne Jones, or even his far greater master Rossetti, invented what is vulgarly known at the Rossetti type, is absurd. They did not invent it: they have only recorded a type which is very common in this country, emphasising certain characteristics which no one had ever emphasised before. Mr Beardsley, in illustrating the Morte d'Arthur, wished an appropriate type; he has taken the one which appealed to him most, and he was perfectly justified in doing so. But it seems to me that he has drawn such special attention to it that it detracts from the otherwise great merit of his designs which he himself calls Japanesques, this type scarcely occurs at all. It is far more amusing to dwell upon what may seem its weaknesses, and though he had allowed recently a number of drawings to be printed elsewhere which are not worthy to be signed by him, some of the little head-pieces, notably one of men in armour, seem to me, in execution as well as design, quite equal to the best fifteenth century work. Then, too, his little landscapes are altogether delightful: though they are conventional in the right sense, they are not imitations. But most interesting of all is his use of the single line, with which he weaves his drawings into an harmonious whole, joining extremes and reconciling what might be oppositions - leading, but not forcing, you properly to regard the concentration of his motive. In his blacks, too, he has obtained a singularly interesting quality, and always disposes them so as to make a very perfect arabesque. Certainly, with the comparatively small amount of work which Mr Beardsley has produced, he had managed to appeal to artists - and what more could he wish?" - Joseph Pennell

More Underwater Vintage Swimming

A couple of weeks ago I blogged a press photo that I had bought of two men, underwater, an ambiguous image that turned out to be reportage of lifeguards training for rescuing a swimmer in distress. That photo is now in a frame and on my wall next to my desk here in Callum James Heights. The photo above was, I'm sure, from the same series, sold by the same seller on Ebay but unfortunately I was the underbidder so whilst I can't put it on my wall, I can at least share it here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Late Review: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham
Fourth Estate, London: 2011

Another example of reaching for a book for its cover. I confess, however, I wasn't expecting to like it. Peter and Rebecca are a couple in their forties in New York, both working in the art world: he is an art dealer, she is a magazine editor. They have a grown up daughter living in less than salubrious surroundings in Chicago who they both feel they have failed. Their relationship is clearly comfortable but long-in-the-tooth with all that implies. Rebecca has a young brother, known as Mizzy in the family, short for, 'the mistake', he came late to the family and is now in his early twenties: he's a stunning beauty and a troubled young man with a history of drug abuse. At the opening of the novel he comes to stay with Peter and Rebecca. Shortly afterwards, Peter returns home one day and, going into the bathroom, he finds that person in the shower he thought was Rebecca was in fact Mizzy. The younger man's beauty and his resemblance to Peter's wife as a young woman when they first met bring on the crisis of the novel.

Other reviewers have found the three main characters difficult to like and it is true that we experience the story from so far inside Peter's point of view that we hear all the uncensored thoughts in his head, but then, we can we not all be sure that if the uncensored thoughts in our heads were broadcast we would be hard to like? The extraordinary insight we get into Peter's thoughts and feelings is a challenge, leaving us as readers to collate the things he actually says out loud, the things he does and the way he treats people and in that to meet the man both inside and out. The book is essentially about a mid-life crisis but this unusually clear point of view serves to help us realise that the term 'mid-life crisis' is actually rather condescending and it's status as a cliche minimises a stage in life which is, in fact, full of meaning as well as being a real point of serious crisis for many.

For Peter the crisis is one of beauty, youth, and sexual ambiguity. Mizzy forms a focal point at which important elements in Peter's life collide: the death of his gay older brother from (we are left to infer) HIV/AIDS, the state of his marriage, his poor relationship with his daughter and his feeling of dissatisfaction with his career in the contemporary art scene of New York. His feelings for Mizzy interact with all of these threads and threaten to tear them all apart. It is in this that the novel finds its direction and tension. It is unclear until the very end of the book what decisions Peter will make and how his life will be from that point. The book ends with a moment of decision.

The New York art scene is something we see in great detail throughout the novel and it isn't an very flattering portrait that is drawn of the rich clients and appearance/position obsessed dealers. But Cunningham uses art in the novel much more positively, as a means of meditating upon beauty: he draws on an extremely wide range of reference material from Rodin to Thomas Mann to Damian Hirst and puts Mizzy alongside their creations as a creation of both Cunningham and of Peter's mind. The whole novel plays with the open question of whether Mizzy is, himself, a piece of artwork, is he the beauty that Peter has been searching for his whole career? Or is it all as ironic as a shark in a tank of formaldehyde.

Cunningham is feted for a style that is usually described as 'spare', 'clean', and 'elegant'. I found it to be somewhere between stream-of-counsciousness and a kind of verbal impressionism: a perfect match for a story about art, beauty, youth and love and what happens when it seems you might loose all of them.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Patterned Paper at Bonhams

If, like me, you have something of a penchant for patterned paper or marbled paper, or simply the joy of paper of any kind, you might want to check out lot no 100 in Bonhams upcoming sale of books, maps and photographs in Oxford on the 26th of this month. A stunning book containing over 200 mounted or tipped-in paper samples including patterned and marbled pieces.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

More Vintage Polaroid Loveliness

Not the first time in the last couple of weeks that I've been tempted by rather more modern, but still vintage photos. Polaroid photos have something of an appeal for their sheer one off-ness. I have no idea in what context these were taken.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ex Libris Vivian Forbes

In my Short List #11 I listed the postcard above and cataloged it thus:
FORBES, Vivian. Autographed Card. 140mm x 100mm. A
sepia-toned reproduction of Forbes’s painting, “The Echoing
Valley” is signed at the top and dated xii.v.22. Forbes (1891-
1937) studied art at Chelsea Polytechnic and, while serving
in WW1 met Glyn Philpot with whom he lived and shared
a studio from 1923. Forbes was known in particular for
his decorative schemes, including for St Stephen’s Hall in
Westminster and the Vice-Regal Palace in New Delhi. His
artwork is clearly heavily influenced by Philpot. Their studio
space was also shared by Charles Ricketts and Charles
Shannon. Forbes’s intense attachment to Philpot was tested to
its limit by Philpot’s sudden death in 1937 and, the day after
the funeral, Forbes took his own life. Very good with a little
album residue on the verso.
Forbes is not a major figure but should probably be better understood than he is today. I was, of course, delighted to discover that he had drawn his own ex-libris bookplate. The scan below is not from an actual copy but is rather a photograph of a reproduction in a book. If anyone out there has a copy of the actual bookplate and would like to sell it to me, please drop me a line.

Don't put your hand up!

Provenance is everything. I bought this at an auction. Admittedly for not very much money at all. It was catalogued as being 'reputedly by G. K. Chesterton'. Everyone else was sitting on their hands and I put mine up when the opening bid seemed very cheap and got it, and a number of other sketches, for the opening bid: everyone else was right. Of course they were. I've seen a couple of sketches by Chesterton and there's no reason to believe this can't be by him - and even if it were signed and legally attested it wouldn't be worth very much - but as it is, without signature, without provenance of any kind it is worth almost exactly nothing. A moral tale about why, if no one else is bidding, there's usually a good reason!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Shane Leslie: Better if Rolfe Crowley & Maundy Gregory Never Born

This astonishing letter from Shane Leslie to an someone connected with Exeter University in 1964 is currently for sale on Ebay, and the images are reproduced here with the permission of the seller. Leslie was known in later life for playing down his interest and involvement with the personalities of the decadent nineties. In fact, until A. J. A. Symons got ahead of him, Leslie was in line to be one of the fist biographers of Rolfe and he not only wrote publicly about Rolfe in The Mercury and elsewhere, he also attended both the first and the second Corvine Banquets at which he spoke about Rolfe after the dinner. The two dinners were both organised and paid for by Maundy Gregory. His interest in these Nineties figures never waned and with the initiated he would speak of them with great enthusiasm. However, as I mentioned, later in his life, in public he would distance himself and this letter is perhaps the most violent expression of that I have seen. He writes:
"The arcane figures of the Nineties in this country have been immensely over-written and I should be sorry to see any further information reaching the young and respectable in the University of Exeter or elsewhere in America. It would have been better for this country if Rolfe, Crowley and Maundy Gregory had never been born."
Heated stuff indeed!

A Very Late Review: Ernesto by Umberto Saba

This is a quite remarkable book. Usually billed as an unfinished novel, the novella-length story is divided up into five chapters headed first, second, third... 'episode'. Each episode is a little piece of Ernesto's life. Ernesto is sixteen and a couple of the episodes deal with his relationship with an older man, in his late twenties, and so the book has become a part of the gay 'canon' and deservedly so. But for all its brevity and simplicity it is actually a complex and multi-layered masterpiece which is just as much concerned with Ernesto's first sexual experiences with a woman as with a man. The relationship with the older man (only ever referred to as 'the man') is not by any means the most important in the story which examines just as closely and intensely Ernesto's relationships with his mother and extended family, with his boss at work in the flour mill and even with his former nanny.

As you read, you soon begin to realise that you can't consider Ernesto without considering Saba himself. The story is set in the 1890s, the time of Saba's own adolescence: it was written in the 1950s but Saba knew it would be unpublishable in his lifetime, which indeed proved to be true: it was finally published for the first time in the 1970s. It is certainly a piece of confessional writing and the occasional references in the narrator's voice to the fact this story may never be read by anyone heighten that sense that the reader is being let into a secret. It is not a conventional piece of autobiography for many of the things that happen to Ernesto did not, as far as we know, happen to Saba: and yet some certainly did. It is not a coded roman a clef in the traditional sense where we are to read off the characters against the real people in Saba's life. Instead I would suggest that Ernesto is actually Saba's alter ego, another self: both real and fantasised. This is an idea reinforced in the Paladin paperback edition by the translator's inclusion of a letter Saba wrote in response to an admiring and perceptive letter he received from a University professor in 1932, after Saba had abandoned the idea of finishing the novel. The letter is dated 1899 and is from Ernesto who refers all the way through to Saba in the third person. The letter carries on Ernesto's story after the end of the last 'episode' and so, in a peculiar way, becomes a part of the novel.

Above all, the thing which makes the episodes that Saba did write so powerful and striking is the character of Ernesto himself. Part wish-fulfilment, part autobiography, Ernesto is not, as in many coming-of-age stories and films, a stock character, he is not a cipher for a troubled adolescent. He is not, in fact, really very troubled at all. The reason Ernesto stays with you after reading is that he is a real person: contradictory, odd, sometimes lovable, sometimes irritating, capricious, he is written without any sentiment and with, at times, a shocking candour. The author makes a lot of the fact that one of Ernesto's personality traits is that he says exactly what he thinks, openly and sometimes at the expense of the composure of the people around him: it is no accident that the narrative has exactly the same quality. Saba's great gift is his psychological realism. He is able to present, in the simplest terms, a whole raft of interconnected and complex emotional currents between people without overburdening his language or his reader. The relationship between Ernesto and his mother is couched, at various points, in terms of hatred, and also of great tenderness, without either seeming to contradict the other. Despite the fact that the story describes only a very few, very simple elements of Ernesto's life, the intensity is kept at fever pitch within the simplest of styles.

Without giving away the ending that this unfinished novel doesn't have, it is also worth noting that unlike nearly every gay-themed piece of writing of the early twentieth century, the central character does not in this instance end up dead at his own hand or someone else's: that by itself would make this a piece of gay fiction worth reading.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Frederick Rolfe Centenary: The Catalogue

Last week we issued our Baron Corvo centenary catalogue, Baron Corvo: One Hundred Items from the Collection of Robert Scoble. Members of our mailing list were sent a link to the digital version a few days ago. You can view it here:

The contents are selling fast but there are still plenty of fascinating things to get your hands on if you are coming late to the party.

As well as an electronic version of the catalogue, as a permanent record of a collection 40 years in the making and as a contribution to Corvine bibliography, we have produced the 120pp. catalogue as a quarto paperback in a limited and numbered edition of 50 copies signed by both the bookseller and the collector. If you would like to order a limited edition hardcopy of the catalogue for your collection please send 24.00GBP plus the appropriate postage (i.e. 3.00GBP for the UK: 5.00GBP for European countries: 7.00 for everywhere else) to If required for your records I can send an invoice via paypal.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Vintage photo: Nearly Naked Dancers

I stayed out of the bidding on Ebay for this one, knowing that if I got invested in it I'd end up spending far too much. It sold earlier for just over 200 GBP: which sounds okay until you realise it was postcard-sized. Anyway, a beautiful image that I will never own...

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Penguin Poets: Elizabethan Verse

...and while I was away this addition to the collection of the Penguin Poets series arrived. This is the Penguin Book of Elizabethan Verse (D83) with an amazing design by Stephen Russ on the cover.

Corvine Pilgrimage Photos

Well, I'm back from a week of Corvine celebrations. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@callumJBooks) will already have seen some of these photographs of my Corvine mini-pilgrimage just completed: they start with a white clad Gwernvale in South Wales where Rolfe ingratiated himself into the life of the Pirie-Gordon family for a while, through some pictures of St Winefride's Well in Holywell, North Wales, where Rolfe caused chaos in the catholic community, down to photos of the old workhouse in Holywell which was the place of Rolfe's final abode in the town.
All of this was on the back of attendance at the third Corvine Banquet of all time, held at the Durrant's Hotel in London over a seven course meal in the presence of some of the greatest Corvines in the world. It was a sumptuous evening full of ceremony, great food and wine and great conversation. The first two Corvine Banquets were held in the 1920s, funded by Maundy Gregory in his Ambassador's Club: it is an honour to stand in line with the great names of Corvine history who were in attendance on those occasions and it was an honour too to become a life member of the Corvine Society by attendance at the dinner.

Who links to my website?