07 February 2023
Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections
Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.
I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.
One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.
One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.
I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.
Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.
What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.
I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.
As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.
17 January 2023
Sculptures, time machines and vampires: items from the Americas collections on display in Leeds
The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is currently displaying seven items from British Library collections as part of their FREE exhibition, The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture – open until 26 February 2023
Two of the items in the Institutes’ main galleries for this spectacular exhibition are from the Americas collections held here at the British Library. It’s always great to be able to loan items from the Library to other museums and galleries. For starters, it means more people gain access to viewing the works, those who might not ordinarily consult collection items in the Library’s Reading Rooms, or be in the London vicinity to see items on display at our St Pancras site. Secondly, it’s wonderful to see the items interpreted by a multitude of experts and curators, often placing the item in a completely different context from the library setting we’re used to. In this case, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the books are alongside an array of fantastic sculptures as the display brings into focus a rich yet largely overlooked body of sculptural work collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.
The exhibition has had great reviews from The Observer and The Telegraph so don’t miss out on seeing it. Here’s a quick peek at the items from the Library’s Americas collections on display – if you want to find out more and see some remarkable sculptures do make time for a visit to Leeds.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (BL shelfmark: 012629.de.20.)
This science fiction novella by H. G. Wells is generally credited with popularising the concept of time travel by using a device to travel forward or backward through time. Indeed, the term itself, ‘time machine’, was coined by Wells and is now commonly used to refer to such a vehicle. This edition of The Time Machine was printed in New York in 1895 by the American book-publishing house Henry Holt and Company.
This first American edition, first issue, preceded the British edition and you’ll see the author’s name is misspelled as H. S. Wells on the title page and on the Authors Note as ‘H.S.W.’ – something that was later corrected in the British edition. Unable to let the error slide, a past reader ever in search of correctness has at some point noted in pencil the correction of ‘H. G. Wells’ on the title page under the misprint, initialled simply by the letter ‘K’. As well as the misspelling of Wells’s name being corrected for the English edition, according to science-fiction editor Mike Ashley, this American edition is a shorter version than the English but was published two weeks earlier and is regarded today as particularly collectable. It will certainly be interesting to see this item on display in the Henry Moore Institute Galleries as just one example illustrating anxieties about rapid social change and developments in science that were occurring during the Victorian era.
The Vampire. A poem ... Written for a picture by Philip Burne-Jones exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897. [With a reproduction of the picture.] by Rudyard Kipling (BL shelfmark: Cup.402.a.30.)
Also on display from the British Library Americas collections is The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling, printed by Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC in 1898. Whilst doing some digging in the archives for approving this outward loan, I discovered the item was acquired by the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum Library in the spring of 1961. Purchased from a second-hand bookstore based in New York for the handsome price of £5 it was bought along with a scarce pamphlet on Rudyard Kipling entitled American Oats (BL shelfmark: Cup.503.l.26.). The Vampire was catalogued by the British Museum Library team swiftly as is shown by the red Library stamp dated 15 May 1961.
Kipling wrote the poem to gather publicity for what was then considered a mildly pornographic painting by his cousin, the artist Philip Burne-Jones, entitled ‘The Vampire’ (1897) – the piece would become Burne-Jones’s most famous work. The painting depicts a woman leaning over an unconscious man and was believed to have been modelled by the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – with whom Burne-Jones had been romantically linked. This painting is an example of how, despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity circulating at the time, male artists responded to and reinforced an increasingly sexualised representation of the female body in art, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women. Indeed, Kipling’s poem echoes this notion also.
Alongside items from British Library collections, visitors to The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture will be able to see artworks from the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Collection Trust and Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries and pieces created by artists sculpting during the Victorian period, as well as more contemporary spectacles from the likes of Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter. The exhibition runs until 26 February 2023 and is free to visit. Find out more and plan your visit via the Henry Moore Institute website.
Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850
 Out of this world: Science fiction but not as you know it by Mike Ashley, page 49 (London: British Library, 2011), BL shelfmark: YK.2011.b.8873
06 December 2022
Celebrating the work of Aline Kominsky-Crumb
The artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, best known for her pioneering contributions to underground comics, passed away on 29 November 2022.
Kominsky-Crumb leaves an impressive legacy of ‘intimate, self-deprecating, and liberating’ comics, some of which were created with her husband, fellow cartoonist Robert Crumb. After relocating from New York to San Francisco in the 1970s, where she met Crumb, she became heavily involved in the underground comics scene, contributing to various publications for the subsequent decades, by boldly illustrating and giving voice to particularly feminist issues concerning sex, motherhood, family life and abortion.
The British Library holds a number of materials authored by Kominsky-Crumb and/or featuring her artwork, many of which have arrived via years of generous donations by J. B. Rund, an American book publisher and businessperson. Rund, owner of Bélier Press, has sent the British Library regular donations of underground comics and related ephemera since the 1970s. He is a prolific collector of monographs, comics, literary materials, original illustrations and erotica, many of which contain inscriptions, annotations and inserts from their contributors and creators, including some from Aline. Items by Robert Crumb are perhaps among the most prolific and sought after in Rund’s collection and Bélier Press’s 1976 creation R. Crumb’s Carload O’Comics (RG.2019.b.23), remains one of the press’s most successful outputs. With Crumb and Rund working closely together comes a number of (sometimes) rare and important pieces from Kominsky-Crumb making their way into our holdings thanks to Rund’s depositing practice here.
Bursting into what was typically seen as the male world of underground comics; Kominsky-Crumb unashamedly shone a light on contemporary issues and everyday life that was specifically based on women’s experiences and perspectives, skilfully doing so with humour and her characteristically unapologetic brashness. In the introduction to Kominsky-Crumb’s Love that Bunch, American comic book writer Harvey Pekar explains as much in his observations of Aline’s style. He writes:
‘Even if you like Aline Kominsky’s work a lot, as I do, you’ve got to admit that it’s loaded with ugliness. Her characters look ugly and frequently talk (“tawkh”) ugly, with whiny … accents. Aline’s at least as hard on herself as anyone else; her work is full of self-loathing. You’ve got to know this to understand her stories.’
Indeed, the strapline to this particularly title affirms Kominsky-Crumb’s self-effacing humour: ‘Read this book! It’s cheaper than therapy!’
Below are just a few highlights from the British Library’s collection of Kominsky-Crumb donated by J. B. Rund, as you’ll see, some contain examples of the personal inscriptions mentioned above, showing both a the professional and personal working relationship that evolved between Rund and the Crumbs.
Interestingly, and perhaps testament to Kominsky-Crumb’s importance and influence as a female comic artist, Aline and Robert’s daughter, Sophie Crumb, would also go on to become a recognisable artist within the same comics scene years later. Sophie would get her first credit in a comic aged just six years old, alongside her mother, in Wimmen’s Comix #11 (April 1987). Registered British Library Readers can view a fully digitised version of this publication on their personal device using the e-resource Underground and Independent Comics.
From the collection donated by Rund, Readers can also find this book of chronological drawings compiled to show Sophie’s development as an artist from age 2 to 29. Aline writes the introduction to the book. In it she praises the talents of her ‘precious little “genius”’, as any mother would, but her irreverent tongue-in-cheek manner is ever present to ease the flow of too much ‘gushing.’ Aline’s introductory piece sits alongside a portrait by Sophie of her mother. Similarities between the two women’s artistic styles can certainly be seen.
I particularly enjoyed reading Françoise Mouly’s insightful and illuminating words about her friend Aline in this recent New Yorker piece. Mouly quotes her husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose work also features heavily in Rund’s donation to the British Library, and whose description paints a picture of honesty in Aline. I think it is a fitting note on which to end this very short homage to Aline Kominsky-Crumb:
“She is the precursor to Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman—women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified. They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.”
All of the Library’s Aline Kominsky-Crumb holdings can be viewed in our Reading Rooms – you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access.
Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850
 Harvey Pekar from the introduction to Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb; edited by Gary Groth (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691, page iii
 Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the introduction to Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, ), RF.2018.b.149, page 7
28 September 2022
E-resources: magazines and comics
This month’s e-resources blog explores five wonderful resources offering full-text access to a wide variety of magazines and comics.
Please note: all of these resources can be accessed remotely with a British Library Reader Pass.
Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015 covers the history of the film and entertainment industries, from the era of vaudeville and silent movies through to the 21st century. It includes numerous trade magazines which have effectively provided the main historical record for their subject areas throughout the 20th century – Variety (1905-2000), The Hollywood Reporter (1930-2015), Billboard (1894-2000) and Broadcasting (1931-2000) – as well as more specialist titles, such as American Cinematographer (1930-2015), Backstage (1961-2000) and Emmy (1979-2015). The inclusion of consumer and fan magazines enables researchers to retrieve industry news items, features on technological breakthroughs and in-depth interviews with major artists, together with photographs and illustrations, gossip columns, listings, reviews, charts and statistics. Items such as advertisements, covers and short reviews of films, music singles or other works have been indexed as separate documents enabling researchers find all the relevant material for their search topic.
Men’s Magazine Archive contains a handful of US titles, with two being particularly notable. Founded in 1845, the tabloid-style National Police Gazette was in print for over 120 years and initially covered matters of interest to the police – in particular, lurid murders and Wild West outlaws. It also focused on sport, and its plentiful images of burlesque dancers and strippers meant it was a fixture of nineteenth and early twentieth century barber shops. In many ways, the Gazette was a forerunner to illustrated sports weeklies, girlie magazines, celebrity gossip columns, and sensational journalism. Published in New York, The Argosy/Argosy was one of the “big four” pulp (all-fiction) magazines. It had many different iterations, and its writers included Upton Sinclair, Zane Gray and the former dime novelist William Wallace Cook. From the early 1940s, much of its fiction content was replaced by “men’s magazine” content. The magazine ceased publication in 1978.
Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War contains over 1,500 journals and magazines written and illustrated by service personnel in the infantry, artillery, air force, naval, supply and transport units, military hospitals and training depots of all combatant nations. Not only did these magazines create a sense of esprit de corps and raise the spirits of the unit through humorous stories, poems, jokes and parodies, but they also documented the unit’s unique circumstances and experiences. The vast and previously unrecognised corpus of war poetry, written by a multitude of hitherto unknown poets, offers a vital counterpoint to the more established authors who emerged from the Great War. NB – a similar resource, Service Newspapers of World War II, was covered in our e-resources blog in November 2021.
Underground and Independent Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels is the first-ever scholarly online collection for researchers and students of adult comic books and graphic novels. From the first underground comix of the 1960s, to the work of modern sequential artists to the present day, it covers the full spectrum of this visual art form and offers 200,000 pages of original material alongside interviews, commentary, criticism, and other supporting materials. Please note that it contains graphic material that some may find offensive.
Vogue Archive contains the entire run of US Vogue, from its founding to the present day and includes all text, graphics, ads covers and fold-outs, indexed and in colour. Vogue was founded in New York in 1892 as a weekly society paper catering for Manhattan's social elite. After being purchased by Condé Nast in 1909, not only did the quality of the paper, printing and illustrations all improve, but there was a new focus on fashion and the magazine quickly became one of the icons of the modern age. The Archive’s contents represent the work of the greatest designers, photographers, stylists and illustrators of the 20th and 21st centuries and are a primary source for the study of fashion, gender and modern social history.
19 May 2022
Cross-media Research: Searching for Poets, Painters and Photographers
Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
The British Library is an excellent place to do cross-media research. During my research stint, I intended to study the working relationship between poets and visual artists, especially Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). As a consequence, I spent most of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room where papers of both are held. In addition to finding many relevant letters and manuscript drafts that reveal how the English poet and American artist collaborated, I found plenty of doodles and drawings that showed the genesis of several books on which the two worked together. The detailed finding aids on the British Library website often describe these, but they cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this visual material in person. In order to take photographs or have scans made, it is necessary to acquire permission from the copyright holders, so it is advisable to seek this before making the trip to the British Library. It is much more of an ordeal to do that after visiting.
The British Library’s holdings of fine press materials was equally relevant for my research, but to check these out I needed to go one floor down, to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.1 Hughes and Baskin collaborated on many books that were published by their own publishers, Eremite Press and Gehenna Press, respectively. The leather bindings containing the richly illustrated books printed on handmade paper are sights to behold. Some of the fine presses were short lived and have remained obscure, but they often presented young authors with their first opportunity to publish, or gave established writers the chance to try out new approaches for their work. It allowed Hughes, for instance, to express his grief about Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath in poems hidden in limited and sumptuously designed editions, years before this became public knowledge with his more public Birthday Letters, which he issued through a commercial publisher.
In a different corner of the same reading room, I listened to many interviews with poets, painters and photographers. These recordings are not accessible from outside the British Library, but through a few desktop computers of the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. They include radio recordings, footage made at and by the British Library, and assorted other tapes that were digitized. I was able to listen to dozens of digitized cassette tapes that Ian Hamilton recorded for his biography of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). He only used a tiny fraction of these interviews for his book. This raw material will undoubtedly give researchers new leads, insights, and ideas, as Hamilton could obviously not pursue all angles, and there are always unexpected pronouncements in these interviews that are waiting to be explored further. Not all links that I clicked on worked, but the reference staff encouraged me to fill out forms when that occurred, so that they could help repair the broken links.
The physical papers of the Ian Hamilton collection are still largely unprocessed, and so not readily accessible. Yet the curators are interested in making portions of them available if scholars can specify what exactly they are looking for. I was lucky to be able to peruse some transcripts of interviews and some correspondence from that collection that are not yet detailed in finding aids, but that I can now use for my research. The joy of searching through boxes and folders of unsorted material is the distinct pleasure of being like a kid in a candy store. Every time you open a folder or box you don’t know what it will contain, and I discovered nuggets that I know will become part of articles or essays that I will write down the line. I was allowed to look at these unsorted papers in the Maps Reading Room, yet another reading room that I could add to my tally at the British Library.
My favorite research experience was looking at Fay Godwin’s contact sheets and photographs in the Visual Arts Reading Room. Tucked away in the much larger Asian and African one, this tiny reading room is only open from 10.30am to 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you need to make an appointment before going there. Godwin (1931-2005) was an English photographer who collaborated with Hughes on a book, Remains of Elmet, about the area of Yorkshire where Hughes grew up. Godwin, however, also took photographs of many poets and writers, including of Lowell. The contact sheets and developed prints held in the Visual Arts Reading Room allow one to retrace the photographer’s steps. The sequence of shots helps you to see how she conceived of several images, and decided which one to single out to develop as a photograph. Godwin clearly wanted to showcase chess pieces in her photograph of Robert Lowell, for instance, when she visited him and his wife Caroline Blackwood at Milgate House in Kent in 1971. He stares intently and bemused into her camera, and as viewers we are interested in observing the next move in his life, and also Godwin’s next move as photographer.
The limited access time and spacing in the Visual Arts Reading Room made me value the opportunity and experience of viewing this unique visual material even more. Like visiting the other reading rooms, it deepened my interest into how poets and visual artists collaborated together. To make the most of your research time at the British Library, it is surely important to plan ahead, but also to allow for chance to occur. Allow some time to wander around, and to inspect some of the other reading rooms that you were not intending to visit. You never know what you will find.
1. A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down).
20 April 2022
Writer's Award Winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part I
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
26 October 2021
US Fine Presses: a new guide to the Library's holdings
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)
This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.
Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.
The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.
In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.
Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.
I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.
- Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820.
28 April 2020
The Library Quest: Andrés Bello (1781-1865)
Do you know this man? – His name is Andrés Bello and he was one of the most influential thinkers and makers of post-independence South-American nation building. Bello was born in Caracas in 1781 into the Spanish empire and, in his twenties, enjoyed a short career in the colonial administration, before the struggle for independence across his continent made him a life-long exile. In 1810, Andrés Bello joined the diplomatic mission of the continent’s foremost military leader Simón Bolívar in an effort to trump up political and financial support from the British government. Little did he know that the events unfolding back home would leave him stranded in London for what turned out to be almost 20 formative years from his late twenties to his late forties.
The long fight for independence meant that diplomatic funds quickly ran dry and Bello had to find other ways to make ends meet as a private tutor and translator. Sometimes better-off intellectual friends lent him a helping hand: the Scottish philosopher James Mill, best known today as the father of his more famous son James Stuart Mill and as collaborating with the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, was able to pay Bello for his help in transcribing some of Bentham’s manuscripts (Weinberg 1993/2000: 3). In these times of economic hardship, the British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, became his refuge and undoubtedly also a meeting place with other like-minded intellectuals. This was not yet the grand round reading room the outline of which is still visible today in the circular structure in the atrium of the British Museum, but the older, more intimate reading rooms of the previous building at Montague Square.
And no matter how dire his life and the prospects of ever returning home, Bello found solace in his work at the British Museum Library, painstakingly transcribing the fruits of his labour into his London Note Books, which were published in a critical edition in 2017 fittingly bearing a contemporary picture of the reading room Bello would have visited on its front cover.
When I started working as Curator for Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) at the British Library at the end of this January, colleagues offered to show me the way to the reading rooms. Although I had been an avid user of the library for years, I had yet to learn to navigate the secret passageways at the periphery – or backstage, as I call them – that surround the light-flooded public spaces and reading rooms. It allows us staff to help today’s users at the centre of the library efficiently and discreetly. So I tried our catalogue on Andrés Bello, whose work I know well, both from my student days at Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and as a professor of Hispanic Linguistics teaching his writings on language and grammar. Yet, what I thought was a safe bet, the British Library catalogue turned into a surprise. I certainly didn’t expect to find a bust:
This catalogue entry would become my unofficial induction course to the collections, which I began to inhabit over the course of my search for the elusive bust. The next couple of weeks, I continued to search the catalogue and asked many members of staff along the way, until I found the bust at last in a small meeting room at the end of an open space office at the end of a long corridor – or so it felt to me as I was asking my way to the goal: the bust of Andrés Bello made by his Venezuelan compatriot Lorenzo González in 1938, or what is more likely, a bronze copy of the original bust.
In the temporary absence of libraries (see blog from 13 April 2020), I feel it is important to remember that libraries are also physical spaces that provide more than knowledge and enlightenment, although Andrés Bello would have been the first to hail them for these important services. Thinking of the physical space and its objects, the light-filled atrium and the piazza, where readers and staff mingle in the summer, reminds us of the individuality of different libraries with their specific collection histories; and of their many readers and visitors, most of them not as famous as Andrés Bello, but who, like him, find intellectual nourishment, solace and joy within their walls. We look forward to having them back!
[Blog post by Iris Bachmann, Curator, Latin American Published Collections (post 1850)]
Bibliography and suggested readings:
Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres / Andrés Bello ; prólogo, edición y notas de Iván Jaksić y Tania Avilés ; con la colaboración de Miguel Carmona Tabja, Claudio Gutiérrez Marfull y Matías Tapia Wende ; epílogo de Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. (Primera edición ed.). Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.
Bello, A., & Jaksic, Ivan. (1997). Selected writings of Andrés Bello / Andrés Bello ; translated from the Spanish by Frances M. López-Morillas ; edited, with an introduction and notes by Iván Jaksić. (Library of Latin America). New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Caldera, R., & Street, John. (1977). Andrés Bello : Philosopher, poet, philologist, educator, legislator, statesman / by Rafael Caldera ; translated [from the Spanish] by John Street. London: Allen and Unwin. Shelfmark: YC.1998.a.612
[A readable short introduction to the life and work of Andrés Bello written by a young Rafael Caldera, later to become two-time president of Venezuela.]
Jaksic, I. (2001). Andrés Bello : Scholarship and nation-building in nineteenth-century Latin America / Iván Jaksić. (Cambridge Latin American studies ; 87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Shelfmark: YC.2001.a.12217. [Definitive academic biography]
Weinberg, G. (1993/2000). ‘Andrés Bello (1781-1865)’. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 71-83. Online version ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 at: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/sites/default/files/belloe.pdf (accessed 15 April 2020)
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