THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

17 posts categorized "Visual arts"

15 May 2020

“List Ye Landsmen all to me” about Nautical Drama on Playbills

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by Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections. Learn more and help us to bring more playbills to life through our crowd-sourcing project, Into the Spotlight and explore more digitised playbills here. Follow the activities of Printed Heritage Collections on Twitter @BLprintheritage.

The British Library have circa 100,000 playbills digitised in greyscale – a legacy of an attempt to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to capture the rich and dense details packed onto the playbills. Machines couldn’t succeed in translating the variations of text in font design, size and typographical layout – all characteristics of these eye-catching playbills. There are near a quarter of a million playbills in the Library’s collections but they are not catalogued: there has never been and never will be the resource to record their details.

It’s not always easy to find records and reports of these performances; There’s no newspaper report to be found for  ‘Gallant Tom …’ performed at the theatre in Deal in 1842 – but these playbills are crucial pieces of historical evidence and it is a vital undertaking to capture their details by marking and transcribing titles, genres and dates to make them more findable for future research. That is exactly what the Library’s crowdsourcing project, In the Spotlight strives to do; with your help we can bring these past entertainments to life. To help you navigate your way through the choppy waters of this collection, here’s an eyeglass to look at the nautical drama to be found all over these playbills.

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British Library, Playbills 264.


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British Library, Playbills 176.

 

‘The Sea! The Sea! The Open Sea!; ‘The Ocean of Life! Or, Every Inch a Sailor’; ‘Blue Anchor; or, a Tar for all Weather’; A Dream at Sea’; ‘Floating Beacon! Or, The Weird Woman of the Wreck'… Through the golden age of the playbill (the 1770s to the 1860s) we can see how theatre audiences across the country were thrilled by all kinds of genres of plays and general entertainments, but the popularity of nautical melodrama is especially apparent from any casual glance at surviving examples. Looking at the titles inspires further investigation and not just in the confines of the history of drama. Playbills contain valuable additional detail and paratext: cast listings, plots summaries, descriptions of sets and scenery, song titles and notices to the audience. These throw light on the nature and functioning of past entertainments – all of which can tell us about the wider social, economic and political history of the nation.

So why was there such an abundance of nautical themed plays during this period? For Britain and Ireland this was a period of almost constant war - the War of Austrian Succession (1739–48), the Seven Years War (1755–63) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1789-1815). The Navy and the maritime industry were key to the nation’s aggressive expansion and domination. It had immediate relevance. Audiences were familiar with or personally connected with people in industries in ports and beyond the seas.

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British Library, Playbills 263.

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British Library, Playbills 263.

The image of sailors and seafarers had an almost national symbolism like nowhere else in the world. The characterisation of these rugged figures put wind in the sails of literary hacks and dramatists. A tide of plays with very similar plots, dialogue, dramatis personae, and songs repeated in common – often riffing off the earlier tradition of popular street ballads – flowed to audiences in London and across the country. The ‘character of a British Sailor’, even across different genres, from operettas, burlesques, national-historical dramas, to romances, comedies and farces, had consistent but complex and often contradictory features. Whether a play centred on sea battles, shipwrecks (‘The Tempest’ always a strong influence), pirates, lovers’ torments and quarrels, injustices, or just plain old jolly shindigs and knees-ups, the British sailor’s portrayal involved a distinctive and a grotesque idiom with exaggerated speech, sea-phrases, dress, physique and bearing. These were the nation’s Hearts of Oak, Tars for All Weathers. Their manliness was defined through a brave and virtuous demeanour. They were daring, ‘true’, honest, uncomplaining, faithful and loyal, cheerful, and scorned all dangers and discomforts. It was an idealised representation.

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British Library, Playbills 276.

Theatres were keen to deliver grand spectacles of nautical entertainment with songs, dancing, hornpipes, fight scenes, wrecks, “real fires”, and mechanics including realistic moving wooden ships (shipwrights from Woolwich helped build props at the Theatre Royal, Deptford). For what varieties there were in the plots, most plays shared moral, xenophobic and racial stereotypes prevalent in British culture and behaviour from the time. Foreigners were cowardly, ‘sissy’; black people were pathetic (to be saved or pitied) or were monstrous and barbaric – a threat to the nation and its women. The plays appealed to spurious sentiment and ‘national enthusiasm’. Two very idiomatic plays ‘Black-Eyed Susan; or All in the Downs’ and ‘Gallant Tom; Or, A Sailor’s Life Ashore & Afloat’ shared many of these ingredients. Douglas Jerrold’s play, Black-Eyed Susan, first performed in 1829 at the Royal Surrey Theatre, was itself based on older popular ballads as well as being almost identical to an older play ‘Thomas and Sally; or the Sailor's return’ (1760). Jerrold’s archetypal nautical melodrama played a record 300 consecutive nights – understandably other theatres were desperate to emulate its success. It is the single most common play from the period, certainly on evidence from the playbills in the collection at the British Library. In the play, William and Susan are married before he goes to sea on a man-of-war. When his ship returns to port, his captain, Crosstree, sees the reunited lovers kiss and is seized with jealousy. A drunk Crosstree later tries his luck with Susan and is struck with a sword by William. Condemned for striking a superior officer he is sentenced to death. In a sign of moral recompense, the Captain provides evidence that William was honourably discharged from the service the very morning of the incident and so is spared as a civilian.

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One of the more unusual playbills for ‘Black-Eyed Susan, or All in the … “Wrong”! from Kidderminster in 1829. British Library, Playbills 291.

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The illustrated frontispiece to the Lloyd’s Juvenile Drama edition (1829) of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’. British Library, T.1364.(5.)

Plays of the category of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ were perpetually popular with the patrons of Britain’s theatres because they have a deal of human nature in them and just a sufficiency of breezy humour, observed a reporter for the Western Daily Press looking back on the period in 1898; “occasionally it lapses into the boisterous it is true, to put all parts of the house in a good temper, and as virtue ever triumphs in the end at the expense of vice there is really little to grumble at.”. 

Masculinity is prominent, but it must be understood that the maritime world was certainly not just a male sphere. Women’s contributions and participation in coastal communities is a vibrant area of current research into port towns and shipboard histories. Mister Jack Tar relied on many a Miss and Mrs: wives, mothers, lovers, service providers, traders; women filled the theatres invested with interest and belonging. Women were not just passive observers of all the tar and muscles on stage; there are instances where they played the very roles themselves. In 1836, the actress Mrs. Vining took up, ”by particular desire”, the role of William on stage at the Victoria Theatre.

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Mrs. Vining as William. British Library, Playbills 176.

Later, in 1864 in Melbourne, the Australasian reports that “traditional veneration cherished for the wooden walls of Old England and the honest manly character of the British Sailor” had a special feature in a performance of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ when ‘Lady Don’ “portrayed the noble qualities and peculiarities of Jack Tar with surprising fidelity as natural as though she had been to the manner born or passed the greater portion of her life on board a man-of-war.”

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Illustrated cover of a Penny Dreadful edition of Black Eyed Susan, published in 52 parts in1868. British Library, C.140.a.19.

One of the reasons why the sailors of nautical melodrama proved so popular was the widespread fascination with their “otherness”, they seemed to be from a different world and provided perfect material for dramatic and theatrical depiction. But this is where there is an intriguing raft of contradictions, something that has been called the ‘Jack Tar Paradox’; these Sons of Neptune were so familiar, yet so strange. They walked funny and talked funny appearing like foreigners in their own country. Their reputation for vice, swearing, drunkenness, and libertinism ran parallel to their reverence as defenders of everything cherished as British. Sailors actually spent longer in port than at sea and the moral anxieties of society followed them very closely. Plenty of ballads and songs tell of sailors spending fast and free when on land. The British Museum insisted on ticketed entry in the early 19th century, one justification for this was to shield its dignified galleries from gallivanting sailors and lady-friends when on shore-leave.

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Playbill for ‘The Lost Ship’ performed in Birmingham in 1852. British Library, Playbills 199.

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Playbill for ‘Richard Parker; Or, the Mutiny at the Nore. British Library, Playbills 276.

But there are deeper tensions too. Developing class identity amongst Britain’s audiences from industrial communities created empathy, they could relate to the strong camaraderie of sailors and the conditions they endured. Whilst naval victories could be quickly translated into stage plays (several plays immediately followed the infamous British naval victory of the “Glorious first of June” in 1794), audiences also identified with calls for a fair deal and wages for Jack. Jerrold (who had served in the Navy himself), also wrote another popular play ‘Mutiny at the Nore’ which added to the legend and legacy of the 1797 sailors’ revolts popularised in ballads and especially about one of its leaders, Richard Parker. There is a stark class tension between William from the Lower Deck and his Captain. The wooden walls of the sailors were the factories of the Sea; these toilers of the sea safeguarded Britain’s pursuit of trade, influence and wealth. The fact that the nautical genre had by the 1880s descended almost entirely into parody and farce gives some legitimate cause for suspicion that the genre was ‘defused’ and made safe. The blockbusting success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ in 1878 seemed to prepare the decks for Morecambe and Wise (or maybe Eric and Ernie were more the ‘Tars at Torbay; or sailors on Saturday night’?!).

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page from the programme for H.M.S. Pinafore at the Olympic Theatre. British Library.

What did the sailors themselves think of all this? They seem to have revelled in it – all publicity is good publicity! They were keen, often over-keen members of the audience. The large water tank at London’s Saddlers Wells Theatre had to be kept guarded against sailors breaking from the stalls and diving in the tanks to swim about the model ships (the price of admission included a pint of port or punch!). The ‘Theatre Rural’, way out West in Devonport, had a notoriously rowdy audience where stage invasions and heckling was common. Playbills for the theatre began to make special notice that “Constables are in constant attendance to keep good order”. The famous sea songs of Dibdin (a landsmen), contrary to some beliefs, were actually well beloved of many sailors.

Further reading and sources:

Allardyce Nicoll, History of English Drama, 1660-1900, vols 3 and 4,  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2009. Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 822.009

James Davey, Singing for the Nation: Balladry, naval recruitment and the language of patriotism in eighteenth-century Britain, The Mariner's Mirror, 2017, 103:1, 43-66.

Elizabeth Christine Spoden, Jack Tar Revealed: Sailors, Their Worldview, and Their World Unpublished PhD Thesis, Indiana University, 2010.

Charles Napier Robinson The British Tar in Fact and Fiction, London, Harper & Bros, 1909.

Oskar Cox Jensen, Napoleon and British song, 1797-1822, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.340180

Harvey Crane, Playbill: a history of the theatre in the West Country / Harvey Crane. Plymouth : Macdonald and Evans, 1980. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection X.989/89005

Frederick Burwick, British drama of the Industrial Revolution / Frederick Burwick. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2015.  YC.2015.a.11557

Matthew Kaiser, The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept. [Part II: Portraits / Fair Play in an Ugly World: The Politics of Nautical Melodrama, pp51-84]

'The British Tar on Stage'. The Theatre : a monthly review of the drama, music and the fine arts, Jan. 1880-June 1894, Jan 1895, Vol.25, pp.24-28

British Bravery, or Tars Triumphant: Images of the British Navy in Nautical Melodrama. New Theatre Quarterly, 1988 May, Vol.4(14), pp.122-43 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

 

29 April 2020

Writing Tools for Interactive Fiction

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by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications. 

Are you spending more time indoors and hoping to get your creativity flowing? Thinking about writing fiction? Interactive Fiction is a fast-growing collection area for the Library, and myriad tools for all levels can help you to bring your story to life.

Interactive fiction (IF), or interactive narrative/narration, is defined as “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.”

The British Library has been collecting examples of UK interactive fiction as part of the Emerging Formats Project, which is a collaborative effort from all six UK Legal Deposit Libraries to look at the collection management requirements of complex digital publications. Lynda Clark, the British Library Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction, built the Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive (UKWA) during her placement, as well as conducting analysis on genres, interaction patterns and tools used to build these narratives.

 

IF_tools

Source: Clark, L. (2019). Interactive Narrative Reports, Appendix A. Internal report (The British Library). Unpublished.

Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. Because of Legal Deposit Regulations, most of the items in the Interactive Narratives collection can only be accessed on Library premises (you can read more on what UKWA content is available while the Library is closed here). Luckily, because this a contemporary collection, many of the original websites are still live and accessible.

Twine

Twine is an open-source tool to write text-based, non-linear narratives. Created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine is perfect to write Choose Your Own Adventure-like stories without knowing how to code. The output is an HTML file, which facilitates publishing and distribution, as it can be run on any computer with an Internet connection and a web browser. If you have any knowledge of CSS or Javascript it’s possible to add extra features and specific designs to your Twine story, but the standard Twine structure only requires you to type text and put brackets around the phrases that will become links in the story (linking to another passage or branching into different directions). There is an online version or a downloadable version that runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux. There is a Twine Cookbook (containing ‘recipes’, instructions and examples to do a variety of things) a wiki and a series of written and video tutorials.

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Some quality cat dreams. (from Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000)

Charlie Brooker used Twine to plot out Black Mirror’s interactive episode Bandersnatch. As the most used tool in the UKWA collection, there are many examples of Interactive Fifction written in Twine, from cat and teatime simulators (Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000 and Damon L. Wakes’ Lovely Pleasant Teatime Simulator), to stories that include a mix of video, images and audio (Chris Godber’s Glitch), and horror games made for Gothic Novel Jam using the British Library’s Flickr collection of images (Freya Campbell’s The Tower NB some content warnings apply). Lynda Clark also authored an original story as a conclusion to her placement: The Memory Archivist incorporates many of the themes emerged during her research and won The BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.

Inform 7

While Twine allows you to write hypertext narratives (where readers can progress through the story by clicking on a link), Inform 7 lets you write parser-based interactive fiction. Parser-based IF requires the reader to type commands (sometimes full sentences) in order to interact with the story.

Play-if-card-300dpiHow to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard) Written by Andrew Plotkin -- design by Lea Albaugh. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

Inform 7 is a free-to-use, hopefully-soon-to-be-open-sourced tool to write interactive fiction. Originally created as Inform by Graham Nelson in 1993, the current Inform 7 was released in 2006 and uses natural language (based on the English language) to describe situations and interactions. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with Twine, but the natural language approach allows for users with no programming experience to write code in a simplified language that reads like English text. Inform 7 also has a Recipe Book and a series of well-documented tutorials. Inform also runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux and lets you output your game as HTML files.

While the current version of Inform is Inform 7, narratives using previous versions of the system are still available Emily Short’s Galatea is always a good place to start. You could also explore mysterious ruins with your romantic interest (C.E.J. Pacian’s Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), play a gentleman thief (J.J. Guest’s  Alias, the Magpie) or make more tea (Joey Jones’ Strained Tea).

Bitsy

Bitsy is a browser-based editor for mini games developed by Adam Le Doux in 2016. It operates within clear constraints (8x8 pixel tiles, a 3-colour palette, etc.), which is actually one of the reasons why it is so beloved. You can draw and animate your own characters within your pixel grid, write the dialogue and define how your avatar (your playable character) will interact with the surrounding scenery and with other non-playable characters. Again, no programming knowledge is necessary. Bitsy is especially good for short narratives and vignette games. After completing your game, you can download it as an html file and then share it however you prefer. There is a Bitsy wiki, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.

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A harsh but fair review.
(from Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep)

To play (and read) a Bitsy work you should use your keyboard to move the avatar around and interact with the ‘sprites’ (interactive items, characters and scenery usually recognisable as sporting a different colour from the non-interactive background). You can wander around a Zen garden reflecting on your impending wedding (Ben Bruce’s Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding), alight the village fires to welcome the midwinter spirits (Ash Green’s Midwinter Spirits), experience a love story through mixtapes (David Mowatt’s She Made Me A Mix Tape), or if you’re still craving a nice cuppa you can review some imaginary tea shops (Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep).

ink/inky & inklewriter

Cambridge-based videogame studio inkle is behind another IF tool or two. Ink is the scripting language used to author many of inkle’s videogames the idea behind it is to mark up “pure-text with flow in order to produce interactive scripts”. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge and the resulting scripts are relatively easy to read. Inky is the editor to write ink scripts in it’s free to download and lets you test your narrative as you write it. Once you’re happy with your story, you can export it for the web, as well as a JSON file. There’s a quick tutorial to walk you through the basics, as well as a full manual on how to write in ink. ink was also used to write 80 Days, another work collected by the British Library as part of the emerging formats project.

Inky-screenshot@2x A page from 80 Days, written using ink

inklewriter is an open-source, ready-to-use, browser-based IF “sketch-pad”. It is meant to be used to sketch out narratives more than to author fully-developed stories. There is no download required and the fact that is quite a simple and straightforward tool to experiment with IF makes it a good fit for educators. Tutorials are included within the platform itself so that you can learn while you write.

If you want some inspiration before starting to write your own story in ink, you can try selling real estates to supernatural creatures (Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate) or understanding why there’s a ghost stalking your flat (Isak Grozny’s Dripping with the Waters of Sheol NB some content warnings apply). In inklewriter, you can start by trying to kill your first giant (Lee Williams’ Your First Giant) or survive an interrogation (Jon Ingold’s The Intercept).

ChoiceScript

ChoiceScript is a javascript-based scripting language developed by Adam Strong-Morse and Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games. It can be used to write choice-based interactive narratives, in which the reader has to select among multiple choices to determine how the story will unfold. The simplicity of the language makes it possible to create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style stories without any prior coding knowledge. The ChoiceScript SDK (Software Development Kit) is available to download for free on the Choice of Games website. Once your story is complete, you can publish it for free online. Otherwise, Choice of Games offer the possibility of publishing your work with them (they publish to various platforms, including iOS, Android, Kindle and Steam) and earn royalties from it There is a tutorial that covers the basics, including a Glossary of ChoiceScript terms. The Choice of Game blog also includes some articles with tips on how to design and write interactive stories, especially long ones.

Genres of works built using ChoiceScript are again quite varied from sci-fi stories exploring the relationships between writers and readers (Lynda Clark’s Writers Are Not Strangers), to crime/romantic dramas (Toni Owen-Blue’s Double/Cross) and fantasy adventures (Thom Baylay’s Evertree Inn).

 

BONUS LEVEL: sok-stories

Sok-stories is not a tool to write IF, but it offers a simple and straightforward perspective on game dynamics and the results of interactions. It was developed by Sokpop Collective on commission by Now Play This 2019. There is no expectation of programming knowledge and the output games are very lo-fi you draw everything (characters, items, scenery) and set your own rules to create super-short games. There is no dialogue (unless you want to draw that as well): the main focus is the relationship between the player’s choices and the effects they cause in the game. You interact with the game by dragging and dropping characters on items, items on items, characters on characters, etc. The limited set of commands and the ease with which you can set up the tool and start drawing, make it a really good introduction for younger audiences to the cause-effect rules of games and potentially an educational and entertaining way to spend some lockdown time. Sok-stories requires a fee to download ($3 at the moment of writing), but you can browse a library of already published games for free: you can dig dinosaurs at an archaeological site, play super-abridged versions of old videogames or maybe… make more tea? Anyone?

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Setting rules in sok-stories

This is in no way a comprehensive list there are a lot of other tools and platforms to write IF, both mainstream as well as slightly more obscure ones (Ren’Py, Quest, StoryNexus, Raconteur, Genarrator, just to mention a few). Try different tools, find the one that works best for you or use a mix of them if you prefer! Experiment as much as you like. To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote by Anna Anthropy from her book Rise of the Videogame Zinester:

“Every game that you and I make right now [...] makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness. And new voices are important in an art form that has been dominated for so long by a single perspective. [...]

There’s nothing to stop us from making our voices heard now. And there will be plenty of voices. Among those voices, there will be plenty of mediocrity, and plenty of games that have no meaning to anyone outside the author and maybe her friends. But [...] imagine what we’ll gain: real diversity, a plethora of voices and experiences, and a new avenue for human beings to tell their stories and connect with other human beings.”

 

03 May 2019

Off the Page, Chapter 2

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. More details about Off the Page, with a full list of speakers, can be found here

As part of London’s Game Festival Fringe on Saturday 13th April, the British Library hosted Off the Page: Chapter 2, a sequel to the hugely popular original event exploring the increasingly porous boundaries between literature and games. The speakers came from a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the amorphous and interdisciplinary practices which continue to inform and push the medium(s) –including game designers, poets, writers and academics.

Emily Short’s fascinating discussion of metamorphic texts, focusing particularly on her interactive narratives based on Classical stories (Endure, a game about translating four lines of Homer and Galatea, a game based on the Pygmalion story ‘where how we treat somebody changes who they become') were challenging equally in terms of game design – questions of how to design systems that can engage people meaningfully with a feeling of interaction, and also in terms of literary theory questions – what status does the author/reader have in this dynamic? And what is the status of the text? Her comparison between these two areas was an incredibly fertile starting point for both: “Reading is very much a creative act, creating a relationship’, Sort said, ‘A process of constantly building a bridge between the present and the past. Games look at systems and structures, a great medium for inviting the reader and player into their work’.

Thryn Henderson’s exploration of the ‘video-game vignette’ struck a different note, and opened up another critical intersection between literature and game design. Henderson’s conception of the Vignette as a short experience without narrative context evoking a kind of mood is more akin to the experience of poetry, where the reader is asked to observe the often complex and contradictory responses that emerge from highly ambiguous stimulus. ‘Vignettes are difficult in ways that rules aren't’ Henderson said, ‘they take away specificity in a way’. They invite the participant to ‘play with a feeling’. Rather than being about protagonists, proxies, or witnesses, camera perspectives or bodies in space, the Vignette is about the immediacy of the space, the feeling or the narrative.

There is a tension in the Vignette between the highly personal – almost inscrutably idiosyncratic – world of feeling evoked and the form’s reluctance to engage in traditional modes of identification created by structures like character, plot and perspective. It is interesting, then, that short games are often strongly – if obliquely – autobiographical. Becky Lee, in her talk, described making what she affectionately terms ‘trashgames’, which are weird often single-mechanic experiences hosted on itch.io which she describes as ‘journal entries’. As autobiographical writings they are strange but also highly evocative of emotional landscapes, or playful day-dream like flights of fancy.  

This is not to say that the personal is restricted to these short, ‘poetic’ experiences though. Fragments of Him by Mata Haggis-Burridge aims for mimesis and narrative immersion within an autobiographical narrative space; drawing on photo research of real places; real period-specific objects and experiences with real people to draw out the subtleties and particularities of a personal and emotional process -- grief.

Often, though, the variety which is this area of practice’s strength – and the strength of the Off the Page event series -- presents challenges when trying to fit these textual objects into already well-established structures of funding, distribution, and study: are these objects games or literature? The answer (sometimes neither and sometimes both) is confusing for publishers, distributors and the academy. Emma Joy Reay’s talk on the intersection between children’s literature and video games, and her work towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the topic, elucidated some of these struggles. Her final invitation and assertion – that Childrens’ Literature departments had their arms open even when traditional English departments run scared – was an interesting and encouraging way to think about the event in general; as an invitation to praise, accept and celebrate ambiguity.

26 April 2019

The Book of Hours

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a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019. 

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Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell

The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word  into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films. 

Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.

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Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton

A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images.  By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons.  They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.

There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints.  Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.

In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone.  The monastic life was seen as the epitome of  proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.

A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags.  This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.

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Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett

What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.

 

All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator. 

01 February 2019

Creating Havana

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A guest blog by artist and designer Leslie Gerry. To coincide with the forthcoming evening Artists’ Books Now: América Latina, Gerry talks about his fascination with architecture, urban spaces and street life. He charts these interests into his artist book Havana, which was made by a process of painting and printing digitally. Read more about Leslie Gerry's work hereA copy of Havana is held at pressmark HS.74/2301 and can be consulted in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Havana title Page

Arriving at Havana in the dark, we made our way from the airport through dimly lit streets to a hotel overlooking Central Park. The following morning, I emerged, with cameras, sketchbook and map in hand, into a bright sunlit chaotic street full of vintage American cars spewing out clouds of fumes and bicycle taxis shouting out for business.

 

Havana Spread 1

The first hurdle was coming to terms with the city, the topography, getting my bearings. It was daunting. I just started walking, trying to take it all in, gradually absorbing the atmosphere. The narrow streets of La Habana Vieja, the Old Town, colourful, vivacious, with crumbling tenements, colonial edifices and faded grandeur. A city with an earthy authenticity, full of contradictions. Cuban music would spill out onto the pavements from the many bars and cafes.

Havana Spread 2

I generally limit my trips to a new city from 2-3 weeks, as that first exposure to a place is so intense; with fresh eyes and heightened senses, you see things locals are often unaware of and that you will not notice on subsequent visits. I try to capture this intensity in my paintings. Walking an average of 14 miles a day, I use my camera to “take notes”, recording the colours, light, shadows and patterns of Havana for future reference, often revisiting many of the streets or buildings several times in a day to view the changing light and shade.

Gradually a narrative of the city develops; subjects and compositions begin to form in my mind: a book starts to take shape. At this point I can relax a little and even start sketching in the open, although I find this increasingly difficult with the attention it invites.

At the end of my stay I felt totally exhausted, having absorbed as much as possible, and could only look forward to returning home with memories in tow.

Back in my studio, a long process of going through my photographic notes and sketches, then a year of painting begins. With a stylus and Wacom tablet, I paint on the computer in Illustrator.  Working only with flat areas of colour and no tone, I “cut out” the shapes with the stylus, arranging them on different layers, creating a collage. In fact, I first began working this way years ago by cutting out sheets of coloured paper with scissors, similar to the way Matisse created his paper collages. Starting by sketching a composition in blocks of colour as I would have done painting in oils and using photos as reference only, I gradually build up the painting with darker areas first and then lighter shades. The paintings end up as digital files; vector images which can be reduced or enlarged to any size and are then printed with a flat bed UV ink jet printer on a hand or mould-made paper.

 

All three images reproduced with the kind permission of Leslie Gerry

02 November 2018

Introducing the Artists of Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

The Artists Books Now event series is nothing without the artists and their works. This post offers brief introductions to those taking part in next Artists Books Now evening, on the 5th of November.  We have programmed the event around the theme of ‘Place’, asking the artists and other contributors to interpret that as they wished.

First, the  writer and UK Canal Laureate 2018 Nancy Campbell:

    'Since 2010, a series of residencies at museums and galleries in the Arctic has resulted in artist’s books on language and landscape including How to     Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic, which received the Birgit Skiöld Award in 2013. Collaboration is an important part of her practice; her work with     the New York based artist Roni Gross is demonstrated here by two books, The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit. Nancy’s other publications include     Disko Bay (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize) and a cultural history of books     and the environment, The Library of Ice, published this month by Simon & Schuster. Nancy is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate, a collaboration     between The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, part of the Arts on the Waterways programme.'

 

 

1Image used with kind permission of Nancy Campbell

 

Véronique Chance, artist and Senior Lecturer at the Cambridge School of Art, explores:

    ‘[t]he representation of the body in contemporary art practice, and its relationship to performance, technology, documentation and the embodied     dynamics of spectatorship. The cross-disciplinary, cultural and creative dynamics of running as a mode of artistic enquiry and expression.     The impact of technology on contemporary art practice/s, especially developments in reproductive media and their role within the ‘expanded’ field     of printmaking.’

 

2Image used with Kind Permission of Véronique Chance.

 

The work of Artist Edmund Clark links issues of history, politics and representation through a range of references and forms including photography, video, documents, found images and installation:

    ‘A recurring theme is engaging with state censorship to represent unseen experiences, spaces and processes of control in contemporary conflict     and other contexts’.

3Image used with kind permission of Edmund Clark. 

Recent MA graduate of Royal College of Art Leonie Lachlan 'is concerned with the ever-evolving relationship between two and three dimensions. She is interested in material and linguistic utterances of spatial concepts. These often find themselves embedded in and performed by the printed page [...] propositions hover on the border between spaces; actual, represented or analytical, ideas of that which is both everywhere and nowhere; they interact with the different modes she encounters with her practice. Her works traverse many materials but she always return to the book. An obsession with flatness and illusion is ever-present; in many cases planes might suppress or compel a sculptural urge.'

An insight in to the text of her 2017 Meeting Point with the opening stanzas of Municipal Kid (MK):               

    'Journey from the middle

    of no consequence as

    there is no beginning or end,

    these do not matter anyway.

    Departure is delayed

    a couple of minutes

    we pull away from Euston

    into the blue April morning.

    Train so new

    seats so very green,

    my disappointment

    reflected around the carriage.

    Opposite

    the man doesn’t finish his Innocent smoothie,

    discards his sandwich packet

    alights at Hemel Hempstead…'

4Image used with kind permission of Leonie Lachlan.

The evening's host is Professor Chris Taylor from the Department of Fine Art at the University of Leeds. He is a practicing artist, curator and publisher working in the field of contemporary printmaking and artists’ books, with a particular interest in the role of the book as primary medium within contemporary art practice. He is co-editor of the Wild Pansy Press, a collective art practice and small publishing house based in the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies.In addition Taylor is co-director of PAGES, an ongoing initiative which provides the structure and impetus for wide ranging activities promoting the development of the medium of the artist’s book, and its dissemination and reception to a growing and diverse audience. PAGES’ annual programme includes the International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair and a curated projects series, held in partnership with The Tetley centre for contemporary art in Leeds. The evening will have a discussion between Taylor and Clive Phillpot to explore the concept of ‘Place’ within the framework of an artists’ book.

19 October 2018

About Artists Books Now

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by Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications and Emerging Media. ARTIST’S BOOKS NOW is curated by the book artists and researchers Egidija Čiricaitė and Sophie Loss and the librarians Jeremy Jenkins and Richard Price. Each event explores an aspect of the contemporary through a selection of books, presented in an accessible and enjoyable style by artists and commentators. For tickets click here.  For more information please contact jerry.jenkins@bl.uk.

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One of the purposes of Artists’ Book Now is to introduce our visitors to the rich collections of artists’ books within the British Library and to widen the use of artists’ books across the research community beyond the Library.

From the outset, the project was concerned with how to get the audience engaging with the material in manner which could inspire debate, discussion and greater interaction. Traditional Library mechanisms of dissemination such as the Reading Room, exhibition, digitisation or even show and tell present various limitations to what is possible, particularly when dealing with artists’ books. Hence, we hit upon the concept of a host conversing with the artist themselves while presenting their work. Presenting the work in this manner heightens intimacy between the work and its viewer, as well as allowing the maker's thoughts about the work, and its creation, to emerge more fully.  

A key question for a national library, or any cultural institution for that matter, is how best to preserve the collection while ensuring maximum possible access and engagement. By negotiating this interchange between the audience and artists’ books, with the help of the artist, it is hoped that  a richer and fuller experience will be possible.  By using baggy themes as frames for the individual events, the co-curators hope that types of work not normally seen or discussed together will suddenly find common ground. It should be noted that this is all seen through a “Contemporary” lens, demonstrating that, while artists’ books certainly do offer up the pleasures of visual and physical artworks, and can and do use contemporary artistic techniques and aesthetics, they are also important witnesses to the the present, allowing myriad issues, concerns, and interests to surface for contemporary audiences.

 

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03 August 2018

From the strange to the enchanting: the hidden surprises of poetry pamphlets

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by Gemma Meek, PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University working in collaboration with the British Library, funded by the AHRC NWCDTP.  If you want to discover more about poetry pamphlets, you can search the library’s extensive collections. Or, you can support independent press through purchasing pamphlets on individual publisher’s websites. They are often very modest in price – ranging from £4-10. For a list of independent presses that publish poetry pamphlets visit: The National Poetry Library or Sphinx Review for a list maintained by Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press.

 

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Exploring a doll’s house, beheading a saint and the collapse of an urban café. These are just some of the themes of the pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

As the 10th Michael Marks Award approaches, it might be a good time to reflect on the current poetry pamphlet scene. As a PhD placement student at the British Library, this involves rummaging through the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets. As well as speaking to the various individuals within and around pamphlet publishing – from academics, to poets, publishers and librarians. This post is a reflection on these explorations, and a brief tour of some of the surprises in the pamphlet field.

Reading the Michael Marks shortlisted pamphlets evokes a range of different experiences. Sometimes it can feel like entering another’s dream, walking across a landscape or noticing overlooked aspects of the everyday. Although it is hard to choose a favourite, there are some pamphlets I am particularly drawn to: Sarah Jackson’s Milk (2008, Pighog Press), which includes a strange and uncomfortable exploration of a doll’s house. Richard Scott’s Wound (2016, The Rialto), which contains some violent (and occasionally erotic) poetry – with one written from a witness perspective of a saint’s beheading. And David Hart’s rather long titled: The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers. (2009, Nine Arches Press) as a politicised ‘documentary’ style pamphlet, using photography and poetry to explore a Birmingham café closure.  

Traditionally, a poetry pamphlet is a small collection of poems printed and bound with staples (saddle-stitch), glue or thread in a slim publication (normally A5, but not always). Although pamphlets can vary in the number of pages, it is generally much thinner than a book – with the Michael Marks Award only accepting pamphlets up to 36 pages long. This bite-sized format emphasises a cohesive collection of poems, with their selection, arrangement and editing often developed through discussions between publisher and poet (unless, of course, they are self-published).

Many pamphlets are published by independent press, a term used to define small enterprises which produce a limited amount of publications annually, and are often considered an ‘alternative space’ to the mainstream or more established institutions (although there are always exceptions to the rule).

In the case of poetry pamphlets, the publishers are normally involved in the selection of work, its editing, design and marketing. Most presses have some form of selection criteria, whether that is based around the personal preferences of the publisher, or certain thematic/stylistic concerns. These can range from publishing a particular genre of poetry, to a focus on certain identities, dialects or works from particular regional areas.

Some presses have ‘house styles’, in which their pamphlets have uniform cover designs, size, font choices and branding – seen in some of the Smith/Doorstop or Tall Lighthouse Press pamphlets. Whereas others, such as Longbarrow Press or Pighog Press, produce more individualised, or unique pamphlets in accordance with the content and style of the work being published.

Presses also like to push the boundaries of what is possible with the pamphlet form. This is visible in David Hart’s The Titanic Café Closes Its Doors and Hits The Rocks (2009, Nine Arches Press), and in Devorgilla Bridge by poet Hugh McMillan and artist Hugh Bryden (2009, Roncadora Press) – an artist book turned pamphlet. Like This Press have been making ‘books-in-a-box’, with Rupert Loydell’s Tower of Babel (2013) containing a poetry pamphlet, an essay and various postcards of vibrant abstract paintings. There are also free, digital pamphlets which can be downloaded from Platypus Press and Neon Books, challenging a focus on tactility. And it is worth checking out the poetry pamphlets in University of Sheffield Special Collections by CURVD H&z, where spontaneous poetry is stamped on food labels and used envelopes. These various experiments might encourage poetry pamphlets to be seen as a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition.[1]

There are also presses working to be more inclusive of the various voices, identities and performances occurring in the poetry scene – although much more work needs to be done in this area. As a recent report by David Coates from Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics shows, not only is there is a lack of BAME writers being published, but there is also little critical review of the work. Chantelle Lewis also raised this concern when she ran an event at the library ‘Bringing Voices Together’, which aimed to highlight independent publishers committed to writers of colour.  

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Rachel McCrum, The Glassblower Dances. Stewed Rhubarb Press. 

Some presses are also breaking tradition by exploring the relations and differences in written and spoken word. For example, Stewed Rhubarb Press shows a penchant for queer, feminist or minority voices– often publishing work that starts off as spoken word. Their pamphlets attempt to convey the poet’s performance through dialectical and formal experiments, to encourage the reader to perform the work.

Test Centre have also been working with spoken word and performance, publishing vinyl and cassettes with pamphlets, scores and books to highlight fiction, poetry and sound works. These multi-sensory publications are slamming, singing, humming and pacing words, whilst still giving the pamphlet form some exposure.  

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Ian Sinclair. Westering. Test Centre.

As I come to the end of my placement, I hope to pull together these reflections on pamphlet experimentation alongside discussions with publishers on running an independent press. These reflections will be collated into a report, which will consider some of the following themes: definitions, working models, budgets, pamphlet quality and the place/benefit of pamphlet awards.

This report will be a collection of different voices – as I draw together the conversations and information individuals have shared. Although it is difficult to provide a cohesive account of the poetry pamphlet ‘scene’ in three months – I hope this report will generate further discussions about the future of pamphlet production.

 

[1] The idea of a ‘zone of activity’ was used by Johanna Drucker to explain the different experiments and forms within artists’ books. Drucker, Johanna. (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books