THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

4 posts from October 2018

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

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18 October 2018

Shiva Naipaul: An Unfinished Journey

In our final Windrush blog before the exhibition closes on Sunday, I would like to focus on Shiva Naipaul, the award-winning novelist and travel writer whose archive is held here at the British Library.

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Shiva Naipaul photographed by Fay Godwin in 1974. Detail from Godwin Photo 5/229(1).

Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul (Shiva for short) was born in Trinidad in 1945, part of a family descended from the indentured workers who came to the Caribbean from India in the 19th century. He was one of seven children born to his journalist father Seepersad and his mother, Droapatie Capildeo. Five of his siblings were girls; the only other boy in the family being his elder brother Vidiadhar, later to become better known as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V S Naipaul.

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Shiva Naipaul's maternal grandmother, Sogee Capildeo Maharaj (centre of middle row), matriarch of the Capildeo family of The Lion House, Chauganas, Trinidad, 1935. Pictured with her two sons and nine daughters including Shiva's mother Droapatie. University of Tulsa VS Naipaul Archive.

The male members of the family vanished early from Shiva’s childhood: his father died when he was only seven, by which time his elder brother had already left for England to study at Oxford University. Other members of Shiva’s wider family were also leaving for England in this period in order to pursue higher education or professional careers. The ritual of the dockside farewell – ‘the familiar Trinidad ritual of “going away”’ - became ingrained in Shiva’s memory, as did the fantasy of what England would be like:

‘England’ was in the air virtually for as long as I can remember. But it was a diffused presence; part of a texture of feeling and imagination, particularly the latter. The element of fantasy and daydream was very strong indeed.

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Essay on impressions of England, from the Shiva Naipaul Archive Add MS 89154/8/8. Image © The Estate of Shiva Naipaul. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

These are the formative experiences he writes about in the essay pictured above which is currently on display in the Windrush exhibition (and available in full on our new Windrush Stories website). This untitled piece of prose was written sometime after Shiva’s arrival in Britain in 1964, by which time England had become a concrete reality for him though he could still recollect the days when his idea of the ‘mother country’ was fuelled by his escapades in English literature. The prime ‘source of fantasy’ in the Naipaul household was his father’s bookcase. Although he only read a few pages from the ‘dusty volumes’ by British authors, ‘I returned to that bookcase again and again. It was a corner under the steps in which to dream in a vague, ill-defined way about England – the place from which those blue air-letters were posted; the place to which my brother – whom I hardly remembered – had gone.’

Shiva followed in his brother’s footsteps in more ways than one, studying at Oxford before embarking on a literary career. In an autobiographical essay ‘My Brother and I’ (published in An Unfinished Journey in 1986), Shiva acknowledges that having always ‘suffered by comparison’ with his brother ‘my choice of career must seem like an exercise in masochism’. But writing came to him unconsciously, ‘It happened. Or rather, it began to happen slowly and haltingly, fed by despair’ at his lack of academic success during his last year at Oxford. What would turn out to be his first novel, Fireflies (1970), was initiated then, as described in An Unfinished Journey, p28:

It began as I was sitting at my desk, staring at a page of Chinese characters (I was doing a degree in Chinese), which danced meaningfully across the frail paper… it began when, for no reason I can fathom, a sentence came into my head. ‘The Lutchmans lived in a part of the city, where the houses, tall and narrow…’

I pushed away the books and papers in front of me, wrote down the sentence and started to follow it.

After a further two years’ work on the manuscript, the tragicomic family saga Fireflies was published to great acclaim, winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize as well as the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award. It was followed in 1973 by the Whitbread award-winning novel The Chip-Chip Gatherers, which like Fireflies was set in the Indian Trinidadian community. The next decade saw Shiva change tack to write in new genres, publishing short fiction, non-fiction, journalism and travel writing, no less excellent for the change in form. North of South (1978), Black and White (1980), and Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (1984) were followed by one more novel, A Hot Country (1983), before Shiva’s early death from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of forty. A posthumous collection of prose, An Unfinished Journey, was published the following year.

Though Shiva was rightly at pains to point out that writing was, for him, an act of independence and autonomy, a ‘breaking loose of the doppelgänger absolutism’ that had bound him to his brother in others’ eyes, there were aspects of the brothers’ lives that paralleled each other. Both men struggled to fit in in England, not ‘being straightforwardly Indian or straightforwardly West Indian’ as Shiva put it in his 1973 essay ‘Living in Earl’s Court’.

This is a sentiment that V S Naipaul expands upon in another exhibit in the Windrush exhibition. In a letter to Shiva from 1969 he remarks upon the sense of alienation he feels as a Caribbean author writing for an English literary market that will never really understand him.

The same letter also contains a note of hearty congratulations to Shiva for finishing his first novel together with advice on handling publishers and agents. It is one of a number of family letters that can be found in the Shiva Naipaul Archive alongside the working drafts of his books, notebooks, travel diaries, business correspondence and other papers. The Archive was generously donated to the Library in 2015 by Shiva’s widow, Jenny Naipaul. The collection is fully catalogued and we hope that it stands as a staging post in Shiva’s ‘unfinished journey’ for all those interested in researching the work of this important writer.

12 October 2018

Artists’ Books Now: 'Place'

by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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The morning after our Artists’ Books Now evening back in April, I was stopped in a stairwell and congratulated on contributing to such as wonderful event.  I was somewhat surprised to hear this, mainly because the colleague I was speaking had been unable to attend! Nevertheless, as more feedback came in from audience members directly, I came to see this as a clear example of the power of word of mouth – last night’s enthusiasm had traveled quickly and perhaps was still travelling. And of course, I could only take a little of the credit as a co-curator – the artists and the books they brought to the event were the real stars.

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Photograph taken from the event in April, reproduced with the kind permission of Sophie Loss

So now as we find ourselves and the end of Summer with Autumn drawing in, it is a good time to  remind my colleagues, and you, that all will have the opportunity to  attend  the next evening  in the Artists’ Books Now  series, which is due to take place on 5 November 2018 at 6:30pm in the Knowledge Centre, British Library. In a similar vein to April’s ‘Now’-themed event the evening will explore the meanings and pleasures of artist’s books in the contemporary scene, this time from the perspective of ‘Place’.

Professor Chris Taylor, the artist and academic, will be master of ceremonies, joined by the book artist and poet Nancy Campbell, the photography and video artist Véronique Chance, artist Leonie Lachlan, and fine artist and photographer Edmund Clark. The essayist, art writer, curator, librarian Clive Phillpott will be in conversation with Professor Taylor. 

03 October 2018

Poetic Afterlives: Change through Artistic Reimagining

Imogen Durant is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. She currently on a placement at The British Library, looking at connections between poetry and art in the Contemporary British collection of artists’ books and poetry pamphlets.

For this year’s National Poetry Day, we have been asked to think about the idea of change. Poetry’s ability to inspire its audiences makes it a powerful vehicle for change. And, while poems change us, poems are themselves changed as they are read and interpreted. Part of the joy of reading a poem is the creative freedom we have in interpreting it, and this process of understanding changes the poem’s impact on the world.

 During my placement with the Contemporary British Publications team, I have been thinking about the process of publishing: how publishing changes a text, and how a text might change the world it is released into. Focusing on the library’s collection of contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books, I have been looking at books and pamphlets which are often published independently and produced in small print runs. 

 One thing that has particularly struck me when reading these ephemeral texts is that even after being published, a text does not remain static. In the same way that poems can change their readers, so too can a poem be changed as it is reinterpreted in new forms and mediums. Many of the writers and artists in the collection return to texts that have inspired them. Collaborating with others, they creatively reimagine existing works, allowing the texts to change and develop in their afterlives. 

An example of this is Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell’s Poetry of Unknown Words (2017). Written in response to Iliazd’s Poesie de mots inconnus (1949), which Johanknecht and Meynell describe as ‘a collective work by 23 poets and 23 illustrators – a male line-up with two women’, Poetry of Unknown Words takes inspiration from a wide range of texts and artwork to produce a ‘feminising response to Iliazd’.[1] The poet H.D.’s jellyfish metaphor in Notes on Thought and Vision (1919) provides inspiration for one section of the text. Printed on thin photo paper to resemble ‘the ‘flimsy’ typewriter paper in the HD Archive at Yale’, this section haptically reproduces H.D.’s metaphor through its use of ‘translucent & visceral’ material.[2]  

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Section from Poetry of Unknown Words inspired by H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision

Structured as a series of loose pamphlets collected in a transparent box, the ‘unbound’ nature of Poetry of Unknown Words offers a new experience with each encounter, as the order of the sections changes through the process of reading. This structure demonstrates the way that sections of poetry and artwork can be changed by simply being contrasted or juxtaposed with other texts. In the same way that an exhibition highlights connections between items and images in order to construct a narrative, Poetry of Unknown Words reveals the ongoing relevance of historical texts by placing them alongside contemporary references.

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Complete text of Poetry of Unknown Words

Johanknecht and Meynell play on this comparison to an exhibition by including a ‘notes & colophon’ section, which resembles an exhibition catalogue.

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‘notes & colophon’ section from Poetry of Unknown Words

Highlighting the texts which inspired each section, the ‘notes and colophon’ section also changes the reader’s understanding of the sections of poetry and artwork by providing additional information. For example, the comment that Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas in Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) are ‘still clearly pertinent’ is supported, in this section, by a black and white photo of an activist on a Women’s March in 2017.

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Photograph inside the ‘notes & colophon’ section

In Poetry of Unknown Words, Johanknecht and Meynell give new life to Iliazd’s form, responding to and reinventing texts by women which have been ‘hidden from history’.[3] In this way, they show that published works are not simply historical items but that they have the capacity to change, and be changed, by modern audiences and readers. 

 Photographs used with kind permission of Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell.

 

 

[1] Susan Johanknecht Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words – for the book to come: process notes and reading (im)material scraps’

https://www.gefnpress.co.uk/about/essays&downloads/OEI%20Gefn_Press.pdf Accessed 01/10/2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Johanknecht and Katharine Meynell, ‘Poetry of Unknown Words’ (London: Gefn Press, 2017).