If you’ve been to the Animal Tales exhibition (and if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat), you will have seen an edition of Crow, a collaboration between the poet, Ted Hughes, and the artist, Leonard Baskin. The two men were long-time friends and worked on numerous projects together, most of which can be found in the Library.
Baskin’s life had many facets – he was a painter, sculptor, print-maker, illustrator, writer, teacher, book collector and book artist. He founded his own press in 1942 while a student at the Yale School of Art, naming it the Gehenna Press (from a line in John Milton’s Paradise Lost – ‘And black Gehenna call’d, the type of Hell.’). Gehenna became renown for its fine typography and superbly illustrated limited edition books, and it has a particular resonance for me in that the first fine press book I ever acquired for the Library was a Gehenna edition. And it was also a collaboration between Hughes and Baskin. Published in 1998, Howls & Whispers (BL shelfmark Cup.512.b.150) contains poems concerning Hughes’ life with Sylvia Plath. At the time, these poems were not available anywhere else, having been excluded from Birthday Letters (also published in 1998).
Baskin met Hughes in 1958 when Hughes was teaching at the University of Massachusetts; their creative relationship began in 1959 with the Gehenna Press broadside Pike (BL shelfmark HS.74/1074. In addition to Pike and Crow, numerous of their projects involved animals – A Primer of Birds for example (BL shelfmark Cup.510.nax.13, 1981). This was published during the period Baskin and his family lived in Devon (they moved there in 1975), close to Hughes. As Baskin describes it, 'Proximity [we lived twenty miles from one another] & renewed intensity in our friendship led inevitably to the manuscript of ‘A Primer of Birds’, a penetrating Hughesian incursion into avian disparity, splendor & fancy. I cut a number of concomitant woodcuts.'
Their final collaboration was Hughes’ version of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, a monumental three volume work, illustrated with woodcuts by Baskin. Hughes finished the Oresteia just shortly before his death in 1998 and Baskin had intended the Gehenna edition to be a memorial to his friend. However, he completed work on it only a few days before his own death in June 2000. Lisa Unger Baskin and Carol Hughes saw the edition through to publication in 2001, ensuring that it now stands as a memorial to both men. The Library was able to acquire a copy with the generous support of The Friends of the British Library (BL shelfmark HS.74/2141).
In their various collaborations, Baskin’s drawings should not be seen as mere illustrations to Hughes’ text – in fact, in a number of instances the drawings preceded and inspired the poems.
The two men achieved a unique creative harmony, where poems and drawings combine to present a single, often terrifying vision. Their correspondence (also in the Library - Add MS 83684-83698) accordingly offers a very rich resource for research..
– Carole Holden
Visit Animal Tales – a free British Library exhibition open until Sunday 1 November 2015