THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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12 posts categorized "Illustration"

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.     

15 June 2016

P is for Printess: New Acquisition

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Christina 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 Christina Tacq.

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

09 February 2016

Seven things that you might not know about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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With the Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition now almost half way through its run I have been thinking about some of the surprising things that I have learnt about Carroll's famous story whilst working on the exhibition. I shared seven facts about Alice as part of one of the breakout sessions at the Alice themed Festival of the Spoken Nerd event that was held at the Library on 1st February and I thought that I would share them here too.

1. It took Lewis Carroll over two years to create the manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, after he first told the story to Alice Liddell and her sisters on the 4th July 1862. Carroll recorded in his diary that he had finished the text of the manuscript (which is written in a very neat hand in sepia ink) by February 1863. However Carroll was not a professional artist and it took him more than a year to finish the illustrations.

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2. Carroll added two new chapters, ‘Pig and Pepper’ and ‘A Mad Tea-Party’ when he reworked the story for publication. These chapters include some of the most famous characters – the Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the March Hare. It is hard to imagine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without some of its most famous and eccentric characters!

3. The model for publication was rather different in the Victorian period. Although Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published by Macmillan Lewis Carroll bore most of the financial liability for the publication of the book himself. This meant that decisions about all aspects of publication from selecting the illustrator and engraver to the size and colour of the volume were made by Carroll. This may help explain part of why Carroll was so determined that the book should be a success.

4. John Tenniel who illustrated both of the Alice books was blinded in the right eye in a fencing accident aged only 20. Tenniel sustained the injury in a fencing match against his father though he managed to conceal his disability from his father for the rest of his life in order to spare him any guilt. This isn't strictly a fact about the book but I found it so incredible that Tenniel was able to become such a successful artist with such a disability.

5. The first colour illustrations of Alice which are featured in The Nursery Alice (1890) show Alice wearing a yellow dress rather than the blue and white outfit which we often tend to associate with her.

6. The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be seen in the range of 19th century merchandise and Alice themed music and theatre which were created. This included Charles Marriott’s Wonderland Quadrilles and the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case which Carroll personally helped to create.

 

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7. Copyright for Carroll and Tenniel’s edition of the book expired in 1907. This meant that any artist who wished to publish their own version of the story could do so. The market was flooded with new editions with twenty being produced between 1907 and 1920 alone. 

If you haven’t already seen the exhibition please do visit before it closes on the 17th April. In addition to the free exhibition the Library is also running an interesting series of events based around the exhibition. These include two Ekphrasis poetry evenings inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on the 4th and 5th March and an Alice in Wonderland Discovery day for all the family on Saturday 20th February.

Finally the Library is running two adult learning courses with Alice themes, Illustrating Alice and Alice and the World of Children's literature which will begin in February and March. Please see the Library’s website for more details.

03 July 2015

Remembering the 4th of July...

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Carroll lewis alices c03312 08 Additional MS 46700

 

       Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the now world famous boat trip on the River Thames in Oxford, when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford University, rowed up the river with the three young daughters of the University’s Vice-Chancellor. The middle child was Alice Liddell, then aged ten.

       Dodgson recorded the trip in his diary for 1862, one of nine volumes of his diaries that are held at the British Library. The details of the rowing trip itself are recorded on folio 15 of his diary:

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but the page opposite records why the trip turned out to be so important in the history of English literature. As he rowed up the river Dodgson began to tell the girls a story about a bored child called Alice who follows a white rabbit and ends up having a series of surreal adventures. The story, as recorded in Dodgson’s diary, was initially called ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’. One year later, under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, the story was published in an expanded form with the new title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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         After the trip, Dodgson had written up the story, painstakingly added his own illustrations, and presented the manuscript to Alice Liddell as a gift, with the dedication: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day’. This manuscript is now one of the British Library’s treasures; however, its journey from its original creation to its home in the Library is quite a marvellous tale in itself. Alice Liddell kept the manuscript until 1928 when she was forced to sell it to pay death duties after the death of her husband. The manuscript was sold at auction at Sotheby’s for £15,000 to an American dealer, Dr Rosenbach, who in turn sold it to Eldridge Johnson upon returning to America. Following Johnson’s death in 1946 the manuscript was again sold at auction. This time, however, it was purchased by a wealthy group of benefactors who donated the volume to the British people (and the British Museum) in 1948 in gratitude for their gallantry against Hitler during World War Two.

        This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland and gives us a chance to celebrate and to reflect upon the continuing influence of this much-loved story. The Alice manuscript has just taken a trip back across the Atlantic to be the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Later in the year it will have a short sojourn at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia before returning to us and going on display as part of our Front Hall exhibition which will explore the many ways that the story has been adapted, appropriated, reimaged and re-illustrated since its conception. The exhibition curators will be blogging later in the year as we work towards the launch on 20th November.

       Though if you can’t wait until then to find out more, you can explore this manuscript and much more besides on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, which you can find at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland

16 December 2014

Jane Austen and the ‘very horrid’ Northanger Abbey

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Jane Austen, whose 239th birthday is today, has another anniversary this month – at the very end of December 1817, after her death, her novel Northanger Abbey was published.

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Northanger Abbey is a joyously playful satire on the gothic novel of the 1790s, and was written in around 1798-9, when Austen was in her early 20s. It was the first of her novels to be submitted for publication, and was bought by a London publisher for the princely sum of £10 in 1803 – but for unknown reasons lay unpublished until 1816, when Austen’s brother bought it back for her. She made a few revisions, changing the heroine’s name from Susan to Catherine Morland, and also the title (which had been ‘Susan’) perhaps to tie it more firmly to the gothic tradition it pastiches.

In the first half of the book, set in fashionable Bath, Catherine meets with a new friend, Isabella Thorp, a flighty young woman. When Catherine opines that she wishes she could spend her whole life in reading Ann Radcliffe’s hugely popular and influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella replies that she has “made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you…  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

For some time in the 19th century, it was generally believed that Austen may have made up these titles, so preposterous did they sound to later, non-Gothic readers. However, later scholarship revealed that the novels did all exist, and they are on display together for the first time in Terror and Wonder. You can read more about the seven horrid novels on the British Library European Studies blog here.

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The second half of Northanger Abbey features Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself, the home of her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. On the journey Henry teases Catherine about what she expects the house to be like (as it is called an Abbey, Catherine has of course imagined a full-on Radcliffian dark, brooding, mazelike building stuffed with secrets): "And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as 'what one reads about' may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" Henry then proceeds to distil various key plotlines from the complete work of Ann Radcliffe into a single, very entertaining narrative at what is to happen at the Abbey during Catherine’s visit. His intention is to entertain, but Catherine is both frightened and immediately expects the worst – or, the most exciting – to happen.

Austen draws the line between the gothic novels of the 1790s (usually set centuries in the past, in continental Europe) and England in the 1790s when Henry reminds Catherine that she should “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?” By the end of the novel, Catherine has at last learned not to take novels (or herself) so seriously.

Another theme of the novel which, perhaps strangely, links to our exhibition Terror and Wonder, is that of consumerism. Isabella Thorp, when she recommends the seven horrid novels to Catherine, admits that she hasn’t read them herself but has in turn been given the list by Miss Andrews. Isabella’s interest seems to be more that she keeps up with the fashion and is able to make these recommendations than in her own enjoyment of novel-reading. Amongst many other references to the consumer culture of the 1790s (whose lace trimmings are nicer, whether a muslin will wash well) one stands out – the fact that Northanger Abbey itself has a Rumford fireplace. Designed by Count Rumford in the mid- 1790s, this new style of fireplace increased the heat to a room by narrowing the vent.  On display in Terror and Wonder is a parody of an advertisement for a Rumford, in which a young lady reading the scandalous gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis, has a lovely time by her RumPford fire. Scandalous indeed.

Lady reading The Monk by Charles Williams.

Terror and Wonder is on till the 20th January, and you can buy tickets here

Read more about our Jane Austen collections here

Final image courtesy of British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 1935,0522.7.12

02 October 2014

London - A Literary Anthology. A new publication from the British Library.

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Literary walks round London have been popular since at least the 19th century. A personal favourite of mine - I offer it to most of my guests from overseas - is a walk round the homes of writers and artists who lived in Chelsea. Starting with Agatha Christie and ending with Oscar Wilde, the itinerary takes in, among others, Edith Sitwell, Thomas Carlyle (a National Trust house), Henry James, T S Eliot, Ian Fleming and Somerset Maugham (all four residents in the same block of flats, though not at the same time), Christina Rossetti and George Eliot. On a fine day, and with little traffic on the route, it is the perfect introduction to literary London. 

And when it rains? I recommend an indoor tour of a different kind, a promenade through books in which great literary figures give us their own introductions to London. Each of the writers named above left us pictures of the London they knew, and some of them are exhaustive on the subject. Henry James, for one, could keep the reader occupied for days. This is not just his non-fiction, like English Hours. The novella, A London Life, has a marvellous passage in which Laura Wing takes her American visitor to see the sights, starting with the Temple and St Paul's ("a disappointment") and finally making a "long, rummaging visit" to the Soane Museum, one of the least known of the city's attractions.

The sense of exploration - are they exploring the city or starting to explore each other? - is one captured by many writers. We can share the excitement as Benjamin Disraeli's Ferdinand arrives in London (in Henrietta Temple) or the ever more suffocating air as Oliver Twist is led down the dark and dangerous backwater that is Saffron Hill. Another of the writers on the Chelsea walk, George Eliot, left a heartrending passage in Daniel Deronda, which sees the desperate Mirah Lapidoth trailing the streets and contemplating suicide. Other newcomers - Christine, a French prostitute in Arnold Bennett's The Pretty Lady, or the post-war arrivals from the West Indies in Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners - are lone figures trying to find their place among the multitude.

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General view of London, drawn and engraved by T Bowles, 1794. Shelfmark Maps.3518.(14).

What makes every one of these books worth reading is that they are not merely a list of sights, or buildings, or an objective picture of the city. Each is a personal account, seen through the eyes of its characters and emotion is drawn from interacting with the city. In some of the best, observer and city seem to fuse into a shared spirit - try almost any passage in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (I suggest Elizabeth's bus journey up the Strand, which memorably captures Woolf's identification with London).  

Mrs Dalloway walked the streets of London in the 1920s, and the great advantage of literature is that we can be not just tourists, but also time-travellers. Writers and poets allow us to drop in on London past, present and future. If I had to pick one piece of writing that I feel transports me to another London that I can see, and hear, and smell, it would be the celebrated passage from Book 7 of Wordsworth's The Prelude, in which he explores the city wide-eyed, pleased to note "all specimens of man...Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese/ and Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns". Reading that, you might reasonably ask, "Has London really changed?". "Yes," answers Tobias Smollett, whose Humphry Clinker is open-mouthed at the rate of expansion and predicts that Pimlico and Knightsbridge could soon be joined to Chelsea and Kensington (horror!). Or Dickens, who witnessed the furious growth of the railways (Dombey and Son is vivid on this). Or Angela Carter, who observes in Wise Children that there is "a time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down. Then they build it up again..."

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Sunday Morning in the New City, Lambeth, from The Illustrated London News, March 1872. Shelfmark PP.7611.

There is so much great writing about London that it could take a lifetime to absorb it all. That is certainly how it felt to me when the British Library asked me to compile an anthology of the best poetry and fiction that might encapsulate everything London stands for in about 120 pages. Who should be in? Wordsworth, yes definitely. Dickens, of course (at times it felt as if the entire anthology could come from Dickens). And there have to be those who have shone a light on London that brings a particular time to life like no other, from William Blake to Peter Ackroyd, Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith. 

What I did not know at the time was the marvellous range of illustrations that would come out of the British Library's collections, though in retrospect, that should have gone without saying. The wealth of material about London in the basements at St Pancras must go down to floors that even the staff hardly know are there. If London - a literary anthology is able to encapsulate a fraction of that literary inheritance, it will have done well. No amount of walking the city's streets, however enjoyable, can equal it. 

Richard Fairman 

London: A Literary Anthology is published by the British Library (hardback £20, ISBN 978 0 7123 5740 1) and is available from bookshops now, including shop.bl.uk/

08 July 2014

Arthur Graeme West’s 'Diary of a Dead Officer' remembered.

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In the run up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War the British Library has been involved in a number of projects including collaboration in a Europe wide initiative, Europeana. This project covered a range of activities one of which was the digitisation of thousands of books and documents.  Part of my involvement with the project was to put forward literary works to be digitised.  One book that had a particular impact on me was The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West.  This slim volume comprises diary extracts written between 1915 and 1917 and a selection of West’s poems.

IMG_1186The Diary of a Dead Officer. British Library shelfmark 010856.de.16

The Diary was published posthumously in 1919 shortly after the end of the war and was edited by the pacifist campaigner C E M Joad who had been a friend of West’s since schooldays.  The Diary charts West’s growing sense of disillusionment as the reality of war takes its toll.  West had initially tried to obtain a commission in 1914 but had been turned down because of poor eyesight.  Undeterred, he enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915.  However, faced with the realities of army life and the way the war was being conducted, his sense of duty and patriotism gradually turned to disenchantment.  In 1916, after serving in France for several months, West was sent to Scotland for officer training, a period when West’s disillusionment reached crisis point.  Many of the instructors were soldiers who had not experienced life at the front making it difficult for them to gain the respect of the officer cadets who had served in the front line.  West felt that the training he received was ineffectual for the conditions faced in the trenches and at times he felt it bordered on the farcical.  During this period he became increasingly influenced by the writings of Bertrand Russell and the pacifist arguments of his friend Joad to the point where he decided he would write to his Commanding Officer resigning his commission and refusing to take any further part in the war.  In the end, West couldn’t bring himself to deliver the letter and reported for duty as instructed.  He went back to France in September 1916 on active service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry and was killed by a sniper on 3 April 1917.

Along with the diary excerpts is a selection of West’s poetry.  The poetry section opens with ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’ West’s angry reaction to the patriotic poetry of those idealistic young men who believed they were living through “epic days”.  The most well-known of West’s poems is ‘The Night Patrol’ a powerful and honest account of the atrocious conditions and horrific experiences endured by those living in the trenches and one of the first realistic war poems to be published.

Last year I was delighted to learn that the Old Stile Press were to publish a fine press edition of West’s work to commemorate the 1914 centenary.   This new publication, in a limited edition of 150 copies, contains newly commissioned linocut illustrations by the artist and print-maker John Abell who also provides an afterword.  The Illustrations, several of which are full-page, reinforce the sense of horror and outrage found in West’s narrative. The black and white images create a striking and haunting impression.  Hand printed by Nicolas McDowall this edition is a fitting tribute to West.  For more information about the creation of this work please see the Old Stile Press blog.

West’s frank and powerful writings deserve to be more widely known.  I hope the interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and publications such as the one from the Old Stile Press will go some way to helping his work reach a wider readership.

The Old Stile Press edition of The Diary of a Dead Officer is now available to consult in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, shelfmark RF.2014.b.25.

24 April 2014

A Long Forgotten Poem by the Admirable Crichton

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James Crichton, known by the appellation the Admirable Crichton, was the epitome of the cultured Renaissance man.  Perhaps for many, the name the Admirable Crichton is more familiar from the 1902 play by J M Barrie ‘The Admirable Crichton’ or its subsequent film and television adaptations. However, these have little connection with the historical figure apart from portraying a highly talented individual. 

So who was James Crichton?  He was born in 1560 in Dumfriesshire.  His father was a lawyer and land owner in the service of Mary Queen of Scots. On his mother’s side he could claim royal descent from the House of Stewart.  As a child he displayed a prodigious intelligence.  He was educated at St Salvator’s College, St Andrews gaining a BA in 1573 and an MA in 1575.  Two years later, in 1577 at the age of just seventeen, he left Scotland for the continent and continued his education in France at the Collège de Navarre and, according to some sources, subsequently spent two years in the French army.

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 The Admirable Crichton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1579 he travelled to Genoa and then a year later to Venice where he was reputed to have wooed crowds with his skills in oratory.  In Venice he also made the acquaintance of the influential printer Aldus Manutius who became a great friend and promoter of Crichton’s abilities.  By this time Crichton was said to be a skilled horseman, swordsman, accomplished dancer, man of letters, debater, and to be fluent in ten languages.  For many he was regarded as the perfect gentleman with elegant social graces and enviable good looks.  From Venice he travelled to Mantua where he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua and seems to have been well established within the court by 1582.  However, his popularity was not universal; in particular he seems to have aroused the jealousy of the Duke’s son and heir Vincenzo Gonzaga.  This resentment came to a head one summer’s evening in July when an angry altercation took place in the streets of Mantua which resulted in the Prince mortally wounding Crichton.  He was buried the following day in the small graveyard of the church of San Simone in Mantua. 

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Photogravure © Norman McBeath 

It was Crichton’s first impressions of his arrival in Venice, combined with the compelling majesty of the city, that inspired his most accomplished poem ‘Venice’.  The British Library is delighted to announce it has acquired the first English verse translation of Crichton’s Latin poem.  The book is a new collaboration between the poet and academic Robert Crawford and the photographer and printmaker Norman McBeath.  The source of the text is taken from the two volume anthology of Scottish-Latin poetry Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), a copy of which is held at the Library at shelfmark 1213.a.7.  Robert Crawford’s impressive translation will hopefully generate wider interest in this sadly neglected poem.  The poem is accompanied by eight evocative photogravures by Norman McBeath which perfectly capture the enigma and splendour of that fascinating city. 

Venice is published by the Edinburgh based Easel Press in an edition of twenty copies and will be available to consult in the Library’s reading rooms shortly.