THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

11 posts categorized "Artists' books"

09 June 2017

New Acquisition: Three Works by Natalie d’Arbeloff

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Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

Recently, I was transported far away from my open plan office, by the vivid work of the renowned book artist Natalie d’Arbeloff.

D’Arbeloff was born in Paris of Russo-French parentage. Since settling in London her career has spanned five decades during which she has worked as a painter, printmaker, book-artist, cartoonist and teacher.

Being a novice in the area of artist’s books it is was a great pleasure to meet the artist and to be introduced personally to Natalie’s work. Something extra is added to the interaction when it occurs in person. This was very evident in March when Natalie visited us in the British Library. During her visit she outlined some of the techniques in her printing processes that went into her work. As she presented her works to myself and fellow curators the books seemed to come alive. There was a growing air of excitement in the room.

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Seventh of seven poems and etchings from  For a Song.

Everything about the work entitled For a Song intimates accessibility. The texture of the book and its size, being a compact sixteen and a half centimetres square nestles comfortably in your palms. The finely honed poetry all draws you closer and closer into this work. Often inner spaces are so firmly shut away for fear of having those delicate feelings trampled and crushed. Between the soft tactile boards of the full leather binding we are confronted with the raw courage, though gentle language of seven love poems.  These are accompanied by the soft flowing lines of etchings printed in intaglio and relief. The verse is set in juxtaposition with the technique. The text was engraved with a power tool on metal plates before being printed in relief.

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Full leather binding of For a Song with blind–embossed panels in a velvet–lined  box.NA2 enochtitle

The title page  of  The Creation from the Book of Enoch (Five and a Half Hours in Paradise)

Published in 1992, The Creation from the Book of Enoch (Five and a Half Hours in Paradise) (copy 9 of 12) consists of twenty loose double leaves printed black from sugar–lift and aquatint plates. This technique enhances the letter press giving it a commanding presence on the page drawing the eye into the starkness.

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Double leaf from The Creation from  the Book of Enoch (five and a half  hours in Paradise)  the Garden of Eden. 

Fungus & Curmudgeonly, a title which I cannot say without a chuckle, excites me on a number of levels.  Pointedly a mix of media, the clear comparison for me is with works such as Heuristic Media’s app version of Shakespeare’s Tempest, where it is possible to follow the text while actors, including Sir Ian McKellen, perform the play.  This offers an aural immersion into the play along with the performance.

Fungus and Curmudgeonly is a play by Simon Meyerson illustrated by Natalie d'Arbeloff. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976 then following that in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Macbeth Room of the Shakespeare Hotel in 1977. Our copy is presented in a maroon cloth-covered double slipcase which incorporates the cassette with a recording of the play with Charles Turner reading the role of Fungus, ageing Shakespearian super-star, and Jack LeWhite as Curmudgeonly, his understudy. 

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Fungus & Curmudgeonly with its maroon cloth-covered double slipcase incorporating the cassette.

The ingenuity of the slip case brings two mediums together in one object providing a practical yet pleasingly simple way to present the work.  

 These and other works of Natalie d’Arbeloff are accessible through Explore the British Library. The internet provides an additional rabbit hole of exploration of d’Arbeloff’s work through her comprehensive collection of web pages which explore many aspects of her work.  

Images are reproduced with the kind permission of  Natalie d’Arbeloff.

Bibliography

For a Song: General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.10

Fungus & Curmudgeonly General Reference Collection EMD.2017.b.8

 

17 February 2017

Ken Campbell: 4 poems

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Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. The texts of presentations from Cathy Courtney and Richard Price can be found on this blog. Reprinted here, with kind permission, are four poems by Ken Campbell.  

 

He is now so close Death

that is, to speak of him is crude,

as remarking on another in the room.

Blackness around the vision

marks the card; prelude

to black ink of songs flow

through windows and door fattening

cushions of dark fill the room

leaving only the space of the client.

 

Terror, Terror 1977

 

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A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Widow’s Song

Is that you; chance being,

a fine thing; is that you.

The stair creaks, money kept

under carpet, particular tread

now not long dead; is that you.

 

Hovers in the glass of door

your needle, my thread; dog stares,

our garden’s grown too big

with pints of sweetened tea gone cold;

time to leave: is that you.

 

A Knife Romance, 1988

 

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Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Father’s garden ran his ship:

no waves outraged his wailing walls:

no pitching keel beneath his feet

– nor claycrumb shift in his cold helm.

 

One vision, his, stood stack stock still:

his cargoes all the displaced knew,

& how they all could kill; thus twine

& baling; thus stolen, lying sleepers

 

stacked-in-law, & ordered buckets of fill

made fit. Garden ship shape never could

set sail: I so felt myself & missing went

overboard, awol. Breadcast. Fatherwater.

 

Round the chairdecks made windbreak

his hull horizon sat down stare for me:

a row of planted beanstakes breaking leaf

– our father’s juice flows everywhere.

 

Time water drowns all our fetch,

in reach of unsung dunes: - unless,

land-locked, life-tides work and move: so

ere it remembers you, remember home.

 

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Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Unlaced in springtime

stepping beneath a golden monastery

a buck in a bush

leapt to his morning furrow.

 

Such a day brought such a boy

from golden morning hoof

to the hammered dead of the afternoon:

history rang on the boiler of his engine.

 

Father’s Garden, 1989

31 January 2017

A few ways through the window: welcoming Ken Campbell’s work to the British Library

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Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections, reflects on the Library’s recent acquisition of Ken Campbell’s artist’s books.

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Pantheon (2000). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I was first in touch with Ken Campbell at the end of the millennium. I can’t now remember the circumstances of our introduction but it was probably through the art librarian Stephen Bury when he was a colleague here, or via the artist Ronald King, who I had been recently working with in my semi-secret life as a poet.

I don’t think we’d actually met until 2004, when I went over to the east end to see Ken at his home, just beyond Brick Lane. We then visited a separate studio space, a short walk away.

Looking back, that morning seems altogether a perfect window into Ken Campbell’s artistry, its darknesses and its considerable areas of light. Impressions include the metallic traffic of Bethnal Green, particulates in the air – Ken’s books don’t dodge politics at the level of the industrialisation of the individual – the rich, argued-over layers of Brick Lane’s history. And then that crossing from the main road near Ken’s home into a vital backstreet. You stepped past pools of blood from halal meat, witnessing scuffed grey-silver shutters half-closed, half-open, all-hours business of some kind or another, openings and closings. Finally, as you walked, Ken was himself telling the stories of the poems and ideas and the making of his books.

That thick blood on the ground, moving at the speed of deliberation, and the strong working frames for those shutters– for a door, for a window the length of a building – these contrasting images, these sensations, rise to the surface of my mind when I think about Ken Campbell’s books.

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Firedogs (1991). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

Kinds of argument and kinds of agreement - collision, scrap, conversation, conference, colloquium, tango – all kinds of interlocution are central to Ken Campbell’s books. He forces the hard components of printing to meet the soft ones, ink layered to a viscosity. Ken Campbell’s books are forensics in reverse, a crime scene de-enactment, with elegy and so love at their heart.

Another part of this is Campbell’s probing of limits. Erasure, superimposition, borders, a window / a black mirror / a printer’s forme / an enclosed garden; fire grate; the aperture of a camera, aperture of the eye; the case-hardened skull; the simple Pantheon, the complicated window frame. His work is always a tribute to, because a transgression of, defining restraints.

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EXECUTION (1990). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

And these are very visceral books. At first they can seem austere, ‘pure’, but it soon dawns on the reader how hybrid and fluid – technically and thematically – they are, and of course how the books flow into each other.

For researchers and other pleasure-seekers at the British Library they will be the focus of hours and hours of immersion, of discussion, of I hope a kind of readerly joy.

They are perfect for us in so many ways. One is to do with their embodiment of an intensely self-reflexive book art – these are books which press a range of traditional printing methods up against modern ones, sometimes to destruction (warped zinc plates), but always physically, a material sub-text in each. Here are printerly zones where the physicality of letter press meets the surface sophistication of contemporary laser printing -- layering and replying to each other. In a way, centuries of book history are made metaphorical in Ken’s work.

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Dominion (2002). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

The voice of the prophet, of a driven messenger, a voice which I believe is strong in Ken’s poetry, is in one of the earliest traditions of the artist’s book – The Lindisfarne Gospels, Blake’s poems, are testament – and I stress testament – to an urgency of creativity within the English artist’s book tradition.

Ken’s big, sculptural books and their compelling texts are the sort of events in space that this muscular part of the tradition recognises, delicate though they also are, and of course the British Library is a very good place to ground yourself in the tap-root tradition of artist’s books in these islands.

Even so, I don’t want to limit Ken’s work to the artist’s book tradition, or even to book history. Artist’s books are seldom ‘just’ about art or books and that’s the same for Ken Campbell’s work. Look here for the resonances of an old old Sanskrit song of the horse, of a fire god, of Halley’s comet from tapestry to our contemporary times; of Rodchenko as creator and, under extreme duress, censor; of Gaelic psalms of exile; British military history, British shipping history, Judaica, black flag anarchy, Shiva, show trials and trick photography, native American narrative and moving personal testimony. Ken Campbell’s books brim with the riches and questions of culture, of civilisation. In so being they are a perfect addition to a Library whose mission is to be a question-mark resonator, to safeguard information and text-based creativity in the cause of thought-provocation and particular kinds of book-related pleasure, particular kinds of reflection and even joy.

by Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections.

13 January 2017

A New Acquisition: Celebrating 50 years of the Graphic Studio Dublin

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Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

In November 2016 I had the pleasure to attend “From Yeats to Heaney: Discovering 140 Years of Literature at the National Library of Ireland” hosted by Embassy of Ireland. After the introduction from the Cultural Attaché and opening remarks from Dr Sandra Collins, Director of the National Library of Ireland, the assembled guests were treated to insightful, often humorous talks on both William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney given by Katherine McSharry, NLI Head of Outreach and Professor Geraldine Higgins, NLI Heaney Exhibition Curator respectively. The lectures illustrated the measurable contribution to, and healthy involvement both men had with the National Library of Ireland.  It is worth noting that the archives of both Heaney and Yeats rest within its walls. 

The British Library has also been fishing in those culturally rich waters which are Dublin. Earlier this year the Library acquired a set of six Sponsors’ Portfolios from the Graphic Studio Dublin.

Between 1962-1979 Graphic Studio Dublin produced a collection of work entitled Sponsors' Portfolios, containing art and literature by writers and artists from Ireland and internationally. In conjunction with their 50th anniversary in 2010 the Graphics Studio re-launched the Sponsors’ Portfolios in 2010.

Each portfolio contains a work commissioned by an acclaimed contemporary Irish writer, and four visual artists. A list of contributors can be found on the  Graphic Studio Dublin's website.  These showcase the printmaker’s art and the skills which are employed in producing fine press items. Each year a limited edition of 75 imprints are produced.  The project will continue to produce folios until 2019 thereby capturing a snap shot of some of the finest work of contemporary Irish writers and artists over the decade. The formula of inviting artists and a writer to work together presents a fresh and vibrant perspective to the interception where visual arts and the written word meet.

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Seamus Heaney, 'The Owl'. Translated from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli. Letterpress. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

Poignantly Seamus Heaney contributed to the Sponsors’ Portfolio in 2013, in what turned out to be the year of his death. Entitled Translation, his subject was a translation from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli poem “The Owl” or “L’assiolo” in the original. The acquisition of this late and rare Heaney work to the British Library is an important addition to the rich collection of Heaney’s writing the Library’s has garnered over the last forty years.  My colleague, Dr Richard Price has highlighted some of these in a previous post.

“The Owl” is accompanied by four prints: Pamela Leonard’s “For Sheer Joy ... Took Flight”, Liam Ó Broin’s “Death of Orpheus”, with Jane O’Malley’s “Still Life” and finally Robert Russell’s “Lost in Translation”. These works are beautifully illustrative of how the printmaker’s art can transfer the depth of emotion conveyed in the written word to colour and form of the artist’s reimagining.

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Pamela Leonard, 'For sheer joy... took flight'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Liam Ó Broin, 'Death of Orpheus'. Lithograph. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

If there was any doubt about the truly individual nature these works, when measuring the individual portfolios for their protective phase boxing it was noted  that the was a slight  discrepancy  of millimetres between the size of each of the portfolios. A sure sign of a distinctive and hand crafted nature of these artist’s books.      

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Jane O'Malley, 'Still Life, La Geria'. Carborundum. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

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Robert Russell, 'Lost in Translation'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin.

To return to where I started, a thought-provoking question was raised at the “From Yeats to Heaney” event at the Embassy: who will inherit the mantle which seemed so mysteriously to pass from Yeats to Heaney in 1939, (the year of Yeats’s death and of Heaney’s birth)? Within the folios of the Sponsors’ Portfolio might be a good place to start looking for the answer to that question.  

In closing, I would urge readers to explore the rest of the series the British Library’s copies of the Sponsors’ Portfolio. 1/10-7/10 are orderable at pressmarks:

 

Ultramarine, Jean Bardon, Carmel Benson, Roddy Doyle, Kelvin Mann and Donald Teskey RHA., 2010, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2280;

Journey, Caroline Donohue, Theo Dorgan, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor and Louise Leonard, 2011, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2281;

Thoughts, Jennifer Lane, Seán McSweeney, Niall Naessens, Marta Wakula-Mac & Thomas Kinsella, 2012, British Library Shelfmark: HS.75/2282;

Translation, Pamela Leonard, Liam Ó Broin, Jane O'Malley, Robert Russell & Seamus Heaney, 2013, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2283;

Thief’s Journal, Yoko Akino, Diana Copperwhite, Ruth O'Donnell, Michael Timmins & John Banville, 2014, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2284;

Naming the stars, Colin Davidson, Niamh Flanagan, David Lunney, James McCreary and Jennifer Johnston, 2015, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2285;

Pax, Mary Lohan, Tom Phelan, Grainne Cuffe, Sharon Lee and Paula Meehan, 2016, British Library Shelfmark HS.74/2286.

Furthermore, The National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast have also acquired sets of the Sponsors’ Portfolio series.     

07 December 2016

Cathy Courtney talks about Ken Campbell at the British Library

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Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. Reprinted here is the text from Cathy Courtney’s introduction to the evening.

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You All Know The Words (2016). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I speak as one of the first beneficiaries of the British Library’s decision to augment its collection of Ken’s books, and was lucky enough to spend some time with a selection of them last week in preparation for tonight, and to re-encounter works I hadn’t seen for at least a decade as well as to meet more recent books for the first time.   I’m not a member of the British Library staff so I feel I can also pay tribute to the curators here for their commitment to Ken’s collection and their sensitive and excited response to it.

Beginning in 1983 I wrote a column on Artists’ Books for Jack Wendler and Peter Townsend’s magazine, Art Monthly, and it was Peter who led to my meeting Ken. The world of artists’ books is a hotly disputed one, full of splits and factions about what does and does not count as an artists’ book. At one extreme are the de luxe livres d’artistes, limited editions usually printed on fine paper, often images supporting texts and the two separated on different pages with masses of white space on the deckle edged sheet. At the other extreme are the much cheaper multiples, making use of new technology, often deliberately cocking a snook at the livres d’artistes, rejecting high spec values, usually costing little and often given away. In Britain, at least, the supporters of one school were always anxious to knock down the supporters of the other.

There were ten issues of Art Monthly a year, not much space therefore to cover the field, and I was determined to use the column for a broad range of work. The years writing for Art Monthly were ones in which I was heavily pursued by the book artists, not least by belligerent phone calls before 8 o’clock in the morning from Ken and from another artist who used to ring me at 11 pm and talk for an hour minimum. It’s not unconnected to this that I bought my first telephone answering machine.

Ken Campbell’s books are an outstanding achievement and his is one of the strongest voices we have in the field. His works are a compelling amalgam of erudition and violence, raw pain and refinement, anger and joy. In many ways he has created a place in the spectrum between livres d’artistes and multiples that is his ground alone.  

His books are remarkable for a number of reasons and I have only time to refer to a few.   One aspect is his professionalism. Ken trained as a printer and is rare in having come to make books with a deep intellectual and hands-on knowledge of the materials and how to control them. Skilled in how to manipulate the letterpress perfectly, nevertheless he chose instead to instigate a fierce and warlike dance with the process, courting accident and breakage, and this vitality is wonderfully captured in the results. You can feel the energy burning off the pages. The massive scale and solemnity of some of the works makes this even more of an accomplishment. Whilst there has been plenty of prior planning, many of his decisions were made in the heat of action on the printing bed and with relish at the semi-accidental richness thereby achieved.   He’s a risk taker backed by proficiency, too restless a soul to take the safer route.  

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A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

He’s also an ad-libber with a learned tongue. Although some of the works are collaborations, another characteristic not shared by many other book artists is Ken’s repeated taking responsibility for both text and image, these two elements being distilled into a single entity, the content inseparable from the form.   His texts are an extraordinary synthesis of the personal and the learnt, the historical and the now. When he quotes from religious or historical texts he does so as if these are deeply felt, avoiding the tripwire of bathos, which is no easy feat. He is a poet with a natural and muscular brimming over of language from which to edit. Anger at injustice is a theme which runs through several of the texts, whether political in the wider sense or closer to home, and his engagement, conflict with and love of his family – his parents, his wife and daughters – bleeds into the works without veering into sentimentality.

Wearing another hat, I am speaking as Project Director for an oral history project, Artists’ Lives which National Life Stories, an independent charity based here at the British Library, runs with Tate.   Ken was recorded for Artists’ Lives in 2005 and his recording will go online shortly.   As with most National Life Stories recordings, it’s an in-depth life story, made over several sessions, covering biographical material as well as professional experience.   It was a perfect platform for Ken, and draws together the elements of his personal life which consume him alongside much detail about his work and how it has been made, and will be very useful for anyone wanting to know more about how the books in the British Library’s and about his sculpture and painting.

National Life Stories has to raise funds for all its recordings. Ken’s was supported by Yale Center for British Art, and I would like to include a message from Elisabeth Fairman, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Center. She emailed me to say

“how pleased the Center is to also have a complete collection of Ken’s work, someone whom we consider one of the greatest book artists of his time”.

       ******************************

Following on from the event in October, many of the Artists’ Lives recordings have now been made available on the British Library’s website. These can be heard at http://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Art 

 

15 June 2016

P is for Printess: New Acquisition

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Christine Tacq’s latest artist’s book Printess & the p is a reimagining of the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young woman who proves her nobility to her suitor prince, by detecting a pea through twenty feather mattresses. Only a princess would be so sensitive to be awakened by a pea. In this version, it is a woman printer, or ‘printess’, who is the person of discernment.

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The first thing that is striking about Tacq’s latest work is the interspersed monotone plates sit in sharp contrast to the vibrant rich imagery of the colour spreads illustrating the narrative. This contrast is beautifully underpinned by using different paper. The colour reliefs are printed on Zerkall paper, while, intaglio collagraphs are on Fabriano paper. By cleverly changing the medium it reinforces the initial contrast at the physical as well as on a visual level.

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The theme of contrast extends to the depictions. The seven richly coloured double-page spreads juxtaposed with the far more vulnerable black and white which offers an intimate glimpse into an inner darker world. Some of these prints spill out from the confines of the frame with hard edged intaglio  printing as if attempting to burst out from the page and ape the freedom a vibrancy depicted in the colour plates.   

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Tacq’s skill as a book artist are illustrated in the way this volume unravels and draws in a complex range of themes and concepts, techniques; - and then presents them in such an appealing way. Her use of Optima for the text balances with the rich relief collagraphs

The Printess &the p was published in July 2014, it is a first edition of twenty five copies. The volume was printed by p’s &q’s Press, Thame in Oxfordshire and bound at the Fine Book Bindery.  

The covers are bound in hand-printed linen designed with relief-blocks and comes in a linen slipcase.

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The images are created using the collagraphy technique in which the plate is constructed of adhered elements and inked with a roller or brush to produce in both relief and intaglio, and an embossed impression can be obtained by printing the plate dry without inking.

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The way the imagery and the narrative intertwine to create this volume weighted with powerful subtexts which engage with concepts of feminism and identity. In some respects it offers a self-portrait of a printer.  

On returning the volume to its slipcase one evening after working with it I noticed a small piece of paper squashed in to the back of the slip case. On retrieving and unfolding it, it read:

“18 Excellent Copy, British Library? Excellent”

Because of the way the creases appear it was possibly placed on the spine as part of the quality assurance process. Nevertheless, to come across such a note adds to an authenticity of the artistic process and speaks to the huge range of skills and processes it takes to create a tome of such outstanding quality.

 

The Library’s copy of the Printess &the p will be accessible at British Library shelfmark RF.2016.b.35. in the near future.

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Christine Tacq.

Blog by Jerry Jenkins, Curator, Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections

13 April 2016

Seamus Heaney: From “Ex-poet” to Nobel Laureate

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Recently the British Library hosted an event to mark the publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, published by Faber. Poets Jo Shapcott, Tom Paulin, Matthew Hollis, and Simon Armitage gave readings from the work, offered insights to Heaney’s influence on their own work, and read much-loved poems from Heaney’s celebrated collections. The translation, which details Aeneas’s descent into the Underworld, is the last collection from the Nobel Laureate, who died in 2013. Here Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections, reflects on two meetings he had with the Laureate at the Library.

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Seamus Heaney at the University College Dublin, February 11, 2009, By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m lucky enough to have met Seamus Heaney a couple of times, as part of my job here at the British Library. My first encounter was when he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was giving a lecture for the Library on the poetry of Robert Burns, an important influence on Ulster poets in the nineteenth century and perhaps still to this day.

Those were in the days of the Round Reading Room in the British Museum when I was a junior curator in the Library there. He had a little time before the event so before he took to the lectern, I met him with my then colleague Mary Doran, the Curator of Modern Irish Collections, and we ushered him into an anteroom.

We had recently acquired a very rare item relating to Heaney’s early days of writing and were excited about what his reaction might be. It was the Hilary Term 1961 issue of the magazine Gorgon (Hilary Term is the second term, at the start of the calendar year). He had been an assistant editor of the magazine as a student at Queen’s University, Belfast and this was the last issue he was involved in. Unusually, he supplied his own, extra, editorial.

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Gorgon, Hilary Term Issue 1961. British Library shelfmark: Cup.410.f.750

It was quite something to be able to show the new Nobel Laureate this early piece of his poetry activism, a slim mimeographed magazine, crammed with poems and articles Heaney had been involved in selecting (the main editor, Pat Roche, makes a point in his editorial that the assistant editors had taken a particularly active role in the process).

Even so, the mere fact of Heaney’s involvement magazine wasn’t why we were so excited: rather, it was because of the dramatic way in which Heaney signed off his editorial. “I am not an ex-editor of Gorgon but something (I have convinced myself) more despicable,” he writes in his last sentence of the editorial, “an ex-poet.”

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An extract from Seamus Heaney’s editorial in the 1961 issue of Gorgon in which he signs off as an ‘ex-poet’

What would the elder, feted, famed, Nobel prize winning, poet say to that?

He laughed, of course.

I think in that chuckle there was an affection for his younger self and for the earnest activity of all poets, young or otherwise. The high stakes of poetry, its solemnities, its purposefulness, even in humour, is particularly felt. Five years later, Heaney would publish Death of a Naturalist to worldwide acclaim. As well the first edition of Death of A Naturalist, Faber, 1966, the Library has sound recordings of him from this time and later, e.g. from our British Council collection.

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Image from a handbook issued by the British Council: Catalogue of Tape Recordings (November 1974).

 

I suppose all poets are like the “young bloods” he describes in the opening of The Aeneid VI, making quick landfall, “vaulting quickly out” with their urgent poetry, metaphorically in search of flints for fire or simply to stand amazed at new rivers.

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The cover of Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI, with kind permission of Faber & Faber

The second time I met Seamus Heaney, sadly the last time, was in late 2003. It was in our new building at St Pancras – Heaney had been viewing the Ted Hughes exhibition I had curated because he was going to give a reading of some of Hughes’ poems for the launch. We met for a cup of coffee with Hughes’s widow, Carol. We were talking about Hughes of course, who had been an early inspiration and then a great friend to Heaney.

Then, to my surprise, Heaney began to talk about Robert Henryson, the fifteenth century Scots Makar, the name given to a Scottish poet of national standing. He said he had started to translate, or retell, Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. This would clearly be one of Heaney’s present-in-the-past projects which followed on from his acclaimed version of Beowulf, in which contemporary battles, and contemporary hubris, seem pre-echoed. As with Edwin Morgan’s translation of Beowulf, which Morgan had described as his ‘Second World War poem’, there is a feeling in Heaney’s translations that in such epic translations the present is being addressed by the past.

 

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“Fair Cresseid” © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Testament of Cresseid is a sorrowful story about the fate of the once beautiful, vivacious Cresseid, separated from her lover Troilus. For lamenting her life intemperately she is punished by the gods with disfigurements akin to leprosy (though if anything sounds intemperate to me, those punishments do!). Years after they have parted, Troilus recognises her but does not reveal his identity, instead giving a large amount of money to the leper colony. Cresseid, realising who her patron was, dies in grief.

Henryson is in a sense writing a sequel to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, and is also part of a great Troilus literary chain, since Shakespeare, in one of his more bitter plays, would later dramatise the story in Troilus and Cressida.

Leper house gate

“Leper house (gate”), © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Heaney’s Beowulf had only recently been published when we met that second time. Famously, the British Library holds the original Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and in fact, now, the manuscript of Heaney’s translation, too. Manuscripts were the link for the Henryson poem, too: Heaney had seen a Henryson manuscript at the Library and this had inspired him, after long admiring the poet, to render Henryson from Middle Scots into modern English.

Heaney’s Testament would later appear in a beautiful artist’s book with images by Hughie O’Donoghue, published by Enitharmon (British Library shelfmark: LD.31.b.557), as well as in a more commercial publication five years later.

Cresseid 2

 “Cresseid” © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

As we talked, Heaney emphasised how the Makar’s distinctly moral vision appealed to him: there is a teacher-like morality in Henryson he especially admired. As he talked I thought I detected, what, a hesitation? Knowing me as a Scottish poet, was he testing me, about Scottish reaction to ‘versioning’ this apparently sacrosanct text?

No, the moment passed, and I am still not sure if anything happened at all. In retrospect, I doubt he was worried. Henryson, Beowulf, Virgil, are each surely a gift to the world, in the original or in its re-transmission, and there would surely have been little reason for qualm.

Where is your garden

“Where is your garden?”, © Hughie O’Donoghue, painting reproduced as a tipped-in plate, from Seamus Heaney’s Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, used with kind permission of the publisher and artist

Seamus Heaney highlights in the British Library include

  • Gorgon, Hilary Term 1961. Queen’s University literary magazine for which Heaney was an assistant editor.
  • Eleven poems (Belfast: Festival Publications, [1965]), X.909/37714. Heaney’s first collection, followed in 1966 by Death of a Naturalist (Faber).
  • Many sound recordings from 1966 onwards, including some made by our own curators.
  • Beowulf, typewritten drafts of Heaney’s translation with MS annotations; 1995. Add MS 78917
  • 'Forecast', a typewritten poem (inspired by the Shipping Forecast) with autograph annotations, extensively re-worked and edited. Presented by the author; 3 April 1998, Add MS 74089
  • Correspondence between Ted Hughes and Heaney, 1991-1998 (Add MS 88918/35/12)
  • Testament of Cresseid, with images by Hughie O’Donoghue, Enitharmon Editions, 2004, LD.31.b.557.

29 March 2016

Recent Acquisition: Shirley Jones’ ‘The Quest’

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by Jeremy Jenkins, Curator for Contemporary British Published Collections Emerging Media

As part of the Library’s brief to collect a copy of every book published in the UK, the Contemporary British Publications team takes a keen interest in publications outside the mainstream, including the publications of fine presses and artist’s books. Recently, we were pleased to welcome the internationally acclaimed Welsh book artist Shirley Jones of Red Hen Press who visited us to deliver a copy of her latest work, The Quest. Located in Powys, Wales, Red Hen Press has been in operation since 1983, creating limited edition letterpress books that present poetry and prose in concert with etchings and mezzotints.

 Quest title page crop

 The title page of the artist’s book The Quest by Shirley Jones

The Quest represents an artist’s book of the very highest order. The book contains five of the most sumptuous coloured mezzotint plates augmented with gold. Jones’ skill and experience as a book artist is plain to see from her reimagining of this folk tale, drawn from the middle Welsh epic Culhwch and Olwen. The Quest explores a stimulating and imaginative narrative of Gwrhyr’s search for Mabon, the son of Modron, which picks at the threads of folk tales which extend back to some of the very earliest oral and folk traditions.

In the tale, Gwrhyr, a warrior emissary of King Arthur, petitions various animals in his search for the whereabouts of Mabon, the son of Modron. Each animal refers Gwrhyr to another, older creature. They illustrate their ages by making reference to how the landscape and physical environment have changed over a great length of time. The Blackbird of Cilgwri, pecked away every evening at a smith’s anvil, and in this way she has eroded it to the size of a nut.

Quest blackbird crop2

A depiction of The Blackbird of Cilgwri in mezzotint plates augmented with gold from artist’s book The Quest

The Blackbird of Cilgwri refers Gwrhyr to the Stag of Rhedynfre, who in turn demonstrates his age by outliving an oak tree, which now is only a withered stump.  The Stag of Rhedynfre has no knowledge of Mabon the son of Modron. He goes on to suggest that Gwrhyr visits the Owl of Cawlwyd. In turn the Owl of Cawlwayd, unable to help, suggests he visits the animal that has travelled most, the Eagle of Gwernabwy. The Eagle of Gwernabwy, to illustrate his great age, makes reference to pecking the stars in the sky.  He had heard of Mabon when he was searching for food, and attempted to catch the Salmon of Llyn Llyw. The Eagle of Gwernabwy brought Gwrhyr to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.  Finally the Salmon of Lyn Llyw tells what he knows of the fate of Mabon, the son of Modron. It transpires that he is imprisoned in a watery Gloucester dungeon.

The five full page mezzotint plates depict each of these animals in stunning and uncompromising detail. They are interleaved between six folded sheets containing the text. 

The story may act as a metaphor for the changing environment and the impact of man on the delicate balance of the natural world. The Owl of Cawlwyd makes reference to men coming and uprooting a wooded glen and its being replaced two times over. However what is most interesting about this depiction is the different ages of the animals mentioned; as the narrative unravels, the animals become progressively older. This is an interesting feature of the tale and contrasts the idea of all animals being the same created on the same day within Christian tradition. 

The connection of the salmon and wisdom or knowledge is well established in mythology, and in the quest for Mabon, the son of Modron, it is noteworthy that the salmon is the oldest of the creatures that we come across in the tale. This is similar to the folk tale of the Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of knowledge, where, while preparing the fish for his teacher, Finnegas, Fionn burnt his finger and inadvertently tastes the fish from his finger and in doing so acquired the gift of all knowledge.

Another more contemporary reference brought to mind by the plates Jones has produced for this tome is the images on Irish coinage prior to the introduction of the Euro.  Although the punt and sterling remained linked until 1979, Ireland retained legal tender of its own design.  In 1926, the poet William Butler Yeats chaired a committee to plan new Irish coinage. The committee agreed that the national symbol of the harp should continue to adorn the face (common obverse).  A set of designs by Percy Medcalf were agreed by the committee for the reverse. Amongst those designs was the salmon, which adorned the florin and then after decimalisation, the ten pence piece.  In 1990 the pound coin was introduced, designed with a red deer by the Irish artist Tomas Ryan very much in the style of Percy Metcalf's 1928 design. On seeing the images of the stag and the salmon, from the plates in The Quest, I was immediately reminded of the Medcalf design that rattled around in my pocket during my teens and early twenties while studying in Dublin.

The Quest Delivery 2 IMG_1305

Dr Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library receiving a copy of The Quest from Welsh book artist Shirley Jones 

The British Library’s copy of The Quest can be ordered up for consultation in our reading rooms. It is stored at British Library shelfmark: RF.2015.b.75. The Quest is also being exhibited at the Craft in the Bay, Members Showcase, Cardiff until 24 April 2016.

Jeremy Jenkins

March 2016

Further reading:

Shirley Jones and the Red Hen Press John R Kenyon, Museum of Wales, 2013.

The Mabinogion, translated with an introduction and notes by Sioned Davies. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007. General Reference Collection Nov.2008/1344

The Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, Dent, 1906. Document Supply W70/2881

Culhwch ac Olwen, Part Three, Celtic Literature Collective 

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/culhwch3.html