Americas and Oceania Collections blog

12 posts categorized "Visual Arts"

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’[1] 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 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.’[2]

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.    

A selection of works by Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the British Library’s collection donated by J. B. Rund: Drawn Together by Aline Kominsky-Crumb & Robert (Basel: Cartoonmuseum Basel, [2016]), RB.31.b.431; Need More Love by Aline Kominsky Crumb (London: MQ, [2007]), YD.2019.a.366; Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691; The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, R. Crumb and Sophie Crumb (San Francisco: Last Gasp Eco Funnies, [1992]), RF.2000.b.44.
A selection of works by Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the British Library’s collection donated by J. B. Rund: Drawn Together by Aline Kominsky-Crumb & Robert (Basel: Cartoonmuseum Basel, [2016]), RB.31.b.431; Need More Love by Aline Kominsky Crumb (London: MQ, [2007]), YD.2019.a.366; Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691; The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, R. Crumb and Sophie Crumb (San Francisco: Last Gasp Eco Funnies, [1992]), RF.2000.b.44.
 
Inscription from the Crumbs to their ‘good friend’ Jeff (J. B. Rund) inside The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics, RF.2000.b.44.
Inscription from the Crumbs to their ‘good friend’ Jeff (J. B. Rund) inside The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics, RF.2000.b.44.
 
Example of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work and humour: the ‘driven woman’ from Need More Love, YD.2019.a.366.
Example of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work and humour: the ‘driven woman’ from Need More Love, YD.2019.a.366.

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.

Sophie Crumb, aged 6, appears alongside Aline in Wimmen’s Comix written by Krystine Kryttre and Dori Seda, 1951-1988; in Wimmen's Comix, no. 11 (Long Beach, CA: Renegade Press, 1987, originally published 1987). Both are also mentioned in the comic’s introduction in which Renegade satirically examines ‘The 20 Best Dressed Women in Comics of 1987’. Images copyright © 2022 by Alexander Street, part of Clarivate.
Sophie Crumb, aged 6, appears alongside Aline in Wimmen’s Comix written by Krystine Kryttre and Dori Seda, 1951-1988; in Wimmen's Comix, no. 11 (Long Beach, CA: Renegade Press, 1987, originally published 1987). Both are also mentioned in the comic’s introduction in which Renegade satirically examines ‘The 20 Best Dressed Women in Comics of 1987’. Images copyright © 2022 by Alexander Street, part of Clarivate.

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”’[3], 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.

Front cover of Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, showing examples of Sophie’s self-portraits, and a portrait of Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the book’s introduction.
Front cover of Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, showing examples of Sophie’s self-portraits, and a portrait of Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the book’s introduction.

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.”[4]

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.

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[1] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/remembering-the-artist-aline-kominsky-crumb-a-trailblazing-funny-woman

[2] 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

[3] 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, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, page 7

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/remembering-the-artist-aline-kominsky-crumb-a-trailblazing-funny-woman

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.

Amidst a magazine page with two columns of text and a large headline there is a an image of man standing in a river wearing jeans, a jacket and a hat while holding a couple of large fish with his right hand
Argosy. New York, Vol. 376, Issue 3, (1 March 1, 1973). Included in the Men's Magazine Archive, published by ProQuest and available at the British Library.

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.

Breather o Heather

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.

A middle-aged man wearing spectacles, dark trousers and an open neck shirt, lies on his side on a sofa with his head propped up by his hand. In front of him is a coffee table with an inlaid chess board, and a box of chess pieces can be seen on the floor.
Robert Lowell by Fay Godwin © British Library Board.

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.

Notes:

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.

People walking and cars driving at the corner of a New York City street in the evening; skyscrapers can be seen in the background.
'Atmosphere'; image, author's own.

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.

A five-storey brownstone house with a bay window on the third floor.
Miles Davis'  house; image, author's own.

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.

A couple of steps lead down to a brown wood front door, with a white surround; an iron balcony is immediately above.
Edgard Varèse’s front door; image, author's own.

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.

The window of McSorley's Ale House reflecting nearby buildings and trees; gold lettering tells passers by that McSorley's was established in 1854 - 'before you were born'.
McSorley's Old Ale House; image, author's own.

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.

A colourful, stretched-out concertina style book, with images of faces and text throughout.
Borderbus. [Poem by Juan Filipe Herrera; prints by Felicia Rice.] Santa Cruz, CA: Moving Parts Press, 2019. British Library shelfmark: RF.2019.b.144

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.

An image of an orange/brown toned mountain thrown into sharp relief by a starry blue sky. The image is signed by its artist: Daniel Goldstein.
Kenneth Rexroth, Between Two Wars: Selected Poems Written Prior to the Second World War. Illustrations by Daniel Goldstein. Athens, OH: Labyrinth Editions; San Francisco, CA: Iris Press, 1982. British Library shelfmark: Cup.408.rr.9

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.

An open book. On the left hand page a black and white lithograph appears to depict shards of glass flying towards the reader; on the right is a poem by Diane Ackerman.
About Sylvia. Poems by Diane Ackerman; lithographs by Enid Mark. Wallingford, PA: ELM Press, 1996. British Library shelfmark: Cup.512.d.9

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.

A double-page blue and white print depicting the sea, mountains and a wooden boat on its side.
Tom Killion, The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur. Santa Cruz & Mill Valley, CA: The Quail Press, 1979. British Library shelfmark: C.180.k.1

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.

An open book. On the left hand page a swirling black and white image appears to depict cigarette smoke; on the right hand side is a black and white image of Charlie Parker, with his name written underneath.
Trading Eights: The Faces of Jazz. Essay by Ted Gioia; engravings by James G. Todd, Jr.; poem by Dana Gioia. California: Mixolydian Editions, 2016. British Library shelfmark: RF.2016.b.69

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.

A dark and brooding image of Edgar Allan Poe. His black hair looks unkempt and he wears a high-neck collar and a dark jacket or coat.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven. Etchings and wood engravings by Alan James Robinson. Easthampton, MA: Cheloniidae Press, 1980. British Library shelfmark: C.136.g.42

Jean Petrovic

References

  1. 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)

Image of the bust of Andrés Bello photographed at the window of a conference room in the British Library
Bust of Andrés Bello (BLWA 91) at the window of a conference room in the British Library

 

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.

 

Image of the front cover of Cuadernos de Londres by Andrea Bello, the critical edition published in 2017, edited by Ivan Jasik and Tania Avilés. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841
Front cover of Bello, A., Jaksic, Ivan, editor, & Avilés, Tania, editor. (2017). Cuadernos de Londres. It shows the reading room as depicted in a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd (1792-1864) engraved for print by Henry Melville in 1841. Shelfmark: YF.2018.a.9297.

 

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:

 

Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the record of the bust of Andres Bello: the research starts from Exploring Archive and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library. The record shows title, author of the bust, collections areas, access conditions and other details.
Screenshot of the catalogue record showing the description of the bust of Andres Bello

 

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)

 

23 September 2019

‘To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes’

And who would disagree with Jack Kerouac’s assessment of the Swiss-born American photographer, who died at the age of 94 on 9th September. There have already been numerous obits etc on Frank by others more expert on the subject than me, so I thought I would just take a brief look at the publishing history of Frank’s most well-known book -The Americans.

Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 for his project 'to photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively…,' his application having gained support from a number of photographer luminaries such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. The funding enabled him to make several trips from New York over 1955/56, including one 8 month trip to the West Coast in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Frank took over 20,000 images on nearly 800 rolls of 35 mm film, many of them being processed and contact printed en route, which no doubt enabled him to more easily review and develop some of the themes which recur in his work – symbols of popular culture, race and class, religion, music etc. Frank later wrote “I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal….” (quoted in The Book of 101 Books, edited by Andrew Roth, PPP Editions, New York, 2001, p.150).

Thirty-three of these photos appeared at the end of 1957 in US Camera Annual, but Frank's intention had always been to produce a book. From his huge collection of images, he somehow managed to select just eighty-three photos, but finding a publisher proved to be even more difficult. It was Frank’s friend Robert Delpire, the influential Paris-based art publisher, editor and curator, who was eventually to publish ‘Les Américains’ in 1958. It’s interesting to take a closer look at this first edition since it’s a very different book to the later and much better known American edition, even though the photos and the sequence of them is exactly the same. Delpire had a strong interest in documentary photography - and his own distinct vision for the book. In addition to contributing his own writing, Alain Bosquet (poet, novelist and translator) gathered together texts by writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman and many many more to accompany the photos. Appearing in Delpire’s Encyclopédie Essentielle series in 1958, Les Américains also includes sections on significant dates in US history, population statistics, and encompasses themes such as politics, religion and so on. Frank’s photographs therefore become more like illustrations to a sociological and political text. Each photo faces a page of text and our reading of the photos is inevitably influenced by what appears in that text. As David Levi Strauss has commented, ‘That powerful image from Dolores Park in San Francisco where the African American couple turns toward the camera in anger is wholly influenced by the facing page quotes from Faulkner and John Brown (The Book of 101 Books as above). As you will also see from the below image, no photograph was included on the cover, rather it has some drawings by Saul Steinberg.

Photograph of Les Américains. Photographies de Robert Frank [RF.2017.a.63] showing the front and back covers of the book
Les Américains. Photographies de Robert Frank [RF.2017.a.63]

It’s not surprisingly that Frank wasn’t overly happy about this edition, and sought to persuade Grove Press to publish an American edition. Fortunately he was successful and this time all the texts were removed, not least because some of them were considered too critical of the US, un-American in fact. For this we can be thankful. As already mentioned, the eighty-three photos and their sequencing remain the same, but now each photo is opposite a white page, blank save for a small caption which provides the location of each image (much like the format of Walker Evans’ earlier and influential American Photographs, which Frank so admired). Now we have the space to appreciate the photographs and we can interpret just as we want all those images of flags, funerals, cars, jukeboxes and so on. The one other difference is that this edition, of course, carries an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The two men had met at a party in 1957 and Frank had shown Kerouac some of the photos from his road trips. It’s not hard to imagine why they had appealed to Kerouac, whose novel On The Road appeared in September of that year. ‘The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!’ The introduction is an almost perfect accompaniment, and also helped to situate Frank as a part of the Beat Generation. In fact, by the time the edition appeared in 1959, Frank was already exploring the medium of film and was making Pull My Daisy with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.

Surprising as it might now seem, the reception of The Americans on publication was quite mixed. Some people loved it, but it also attracted a lot of criticism, both for the quality of the images (described as blurry and grainy) but also some considered it to promote a too negative view of America. It is also hard to believe that the MOMA bookshop even refused to stock it at first. Of course now it has become one of the most influential and celebrated photobooks of the Twentieth Century. As David Campany has written, it was a survey of ‘all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols,’ describing it as the ‘visual equivalent to jazz’. (David Campany, The Open Road, Aperture, 2014, p.25). The jazz analogy often appears in writing on the book, and I particularly like this sentence on the sequencing of the photos from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a history, vol. 1. ‘Ideas ebb and flow, are introduced, discarded, recapitulated, transfigured, transposed, played off and piled up against each other with the exuberant energy of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.’ (Phaidon 2004, p.247).

Sadly the BL does not have a copy of the first edition of The Americans since what we now refer to as photobooks were usually not considered for acquisition for the old reference collections in the past. Consequently, the only copies of many American photobooks that we have are often in what used to be the old lending collections. Some gaps have been filled more recently but first editions are usually too expensive these days as they have become so collectable. At the end of the day, it’s the images that you want so reprints still work for many purposes.  In this case, the Library has an Aperture edition from 1969 (shelfmark AL69/4991) which includes a section of filmstrip images at the end (Frank comments that they ‘represent for me the continuation of my work’) plus several later reprints and editions. We do, however, have Les Américains (Shelfmark RF.2017.a.63). David Levi Strauss has said that ‘The French edition is sociology, the American edition is poetry.’ You can look at them both and decide for yourself.

I started with Kerouac so I’ll end with him too:

‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world!’

Photograph of 'The Americans' 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008, next to Library holding of Les Américains

(above copy of The Americans is my own copy of the 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008)

 

By Carole Holden

06 August 2019

A tribute to Toni Morrison

In the midst of the very sad news that author Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019, aged 88 years old, we shine a light on one of Morrison’s many items held in the Library’s collection: the beautiful, ‘Five Poems’ – a fine press book with illustrations by Kara Walker.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her portrayal of the black female experience through her writing has moved readers around the world for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and would become a Nobel Prize winner, and further bestselling novels would follow, namely Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). It was not long before Morrison and her work were established firmly as ‘part of the fabric of American life … woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country’ (Richard Lea, The Guardian). Alongside her Nobel Prize, Morrison would be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in celebration of her literary achievements during her lifetime.

Photograph of slipcase and cover of Toni Morrison 'Five Poems'
Slipcase and cover detail for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Upon joining the Americas Team just one month ago, one of the first treasures a colleague introduced me to was Five Poems (RF.2019.b.96) – a breath-taking fine press book compiled of Toni Morrison’s words and illustrations by Kara Walker. As I began to turn the pages, I was intrigued (and blown away) to say the least. ‘I never knew Toni Morrison wrote poetry’ I thought, careful not to share out loud for fear of making a fool of myself in front of my new team of experts. But upon closer investigation of the book, I realised there was perhaps a reason for this oversight of mine…

Photograph of title page of Five Poems
Title page for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Published in a limited run by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, between the large books’ pages readers will be entranced by ‘Eve Remembering’, ‘The Perfect Ease of Grain’, ‘Someone Leans Near’, ‘It Comes Unadorned’ and ‘I Am Not Seaworthy’. Five short poems which compile Morrison’s only poetry book, alongside them are silhouette illustrations from the New York-based artist, Kara Walker.

Reading an article by Stephanie Li (‘Five Poems: The Gospel According to Toni Morrison’) in a bid to find out more, it transpires that, at the time of Li's research, ‘in the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she [Morrison] has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetry’ (p 899).

Photograph of Toni Morrison's 'Even Remembering' with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘Eve Remembering’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

The book is said to have come about thanks to Wole Soyinka (the playwright, poet and essayist) who invited ‘Morrison … on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript. Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collection’ (p 899). Upon receiving the manuscript, the book’s designer, Peter Rutledge Koch, suggested that illustrations be included as well. Si explains that Kara Walker, whose work explores themes of gender, race and ethnicity, has often praised Morrison and the influence the author had on Walker’s own creativity; Koch saw the potential for the two artists’ work to complement each other in this endeavour. Walker was contacted and the book was made with Morrison’s words and Walker’s five relief prints side by side.

This edition is one of the 425 issues printed and has been signed by the author, illustrator and binder. It really is a fusion of skill, care and total masterfulness from across the United States. Alongside the contributions from Morrison and Walker, Peter Koch Printers printed letterpress from digital imaging and photo-polymer plates in Berkley, California, while the binding and housing was done by Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio, Austen, Texas. It’s a work of art in every sense.

Photograph of Toni Morrison's ‘It Comes Unadorned’ with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘It Comes Unadorned’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

It is with great sadness that we have lost one of the world’s, not just America’s, most prolific writers. As chance would have it I’m currently reading Jazz and I’ll be sure to savour Morrison’s storytelling even more than normal during the commute home this evening, on a train journey that will be tinged with more than a little melancholy.  

[RSW]

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