European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

18 posts categorized "Animal Tales"

21 September 2015

Joannes Stradanus and his Hunting Scenes

The Flemish artist Jan van der Straet, also known as Joannes Stradanus (1523- 1605), spent most of his working life in Florence where his enormous output included religious paintings, frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, tapestry cartoons, and also designs for various series of prints.

Portrait of Stradanus with Latin inscriptions
Portrait of Johannes Stradanus ca 1580. Print made by Johannes Wierix  after J. Stradanus.  British Museum 1879,0510.428  (©Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Between 1566 and 1577 Stradanus executed preparatory drawings for a series of hunting scenes  for tapestries to decorate the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano near Florence. The success of these led Flemish publishers to commission  hunting scenes by Stradanus for engravings, an indication that the artist’s fame had by then spread north of the Alps. Six large-format engravings with scenes representing the tapestries at Poggio a Caiano were published by the renowned print publisher Hieronymus Cock in 1570, and in 1574 and 1576 Volxcken Diericx, Cock’s widow, published two series prints based on the same designs but without their ornamental borders.

Men and dogs attacking a wild boar
Wild Boar Hunt with Nets. 1570 (Series of hunting scenes with borders). Engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock, after Jan van der Straet.  British Museum 1870,0514.1233 (©Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Stradanus had by then begun his collaboration with Philips Galle (1537-1612), another engraver and print dealer who had earlier worked in Cock’s workshop. This resulted in two new series of hunting scenes. The first, which numbered 44 prints, was published in 1578-80 and some 15 years later an additional 61 prints were produced, providing a greater variety of scenes. Both series were combined into a single collection  published in 1596 as Venationes, ferarum, arium, piscium [Hunts of wild animals, birds and fish]. Several engravers were engaged on this ambitious publication which was reprinted several times during the 17th century by Galle’s heirs.

Engraved title page of 'Venationes Ferarum, Avium, Piscium', with pictures of various animals
Title page of Venationes Ferarum, Avium, Piscium. British Library C.107.k.7

The British Library has two copies of the work, and C.107.k.7. Both  have the same engraved title page, on which the name of Joannes Galle  has replaced that of  his father Philips, as it does on all the plates. This edition was first published in 1634 but as the date does not appear on the title page of either of our copies, perhaps they are later reissues. Judging by the quality of the plates, is the earlier of the two. It is incomplete – a selection of 38 plates – whereas  C.107.k.7 has all 104 plates. 

The prints are approximately 20 x 26.5 cm. They are grouped into thematically related depictions of animal and bird hunts, fishing, scenes from history or legend, fights between animals, or between wild animals and men in arenas. At the bottom of each picture there are verses explaining its subject. The examples below  give an idea of the great variety of subjects and their treatment, and of Stradanus’s inventiveness and exuberance. The landscapes, drawn following Flemish and Italian pictorial traditions, are a reminder both of the artist’s country of origin and of  his adopted country.

Scenes from history and legend

Spectators watching a staged whale hunt with the whale attacking a boatWhale Hunt by the Emperor Claudius at Ostia. Engraved by Adriaen Collaert [Plate 86]. Claudius fought a killer whale which was trapped in the harbour, an event witnessed by Pliny the Elder. The whale sinks a boat with a gush of water from its mouth.

Animal hunts

Panthers lured by mirrors into box-like traps and netsHunting panthers using mirrors. Engraved by Jan Collaert II  [Plate 16]. In the foreground panthers are lured into traps which contain mirrors; on a wooded outcrop above, huntsmen wait to spring the traps; to right, other panthers are caught in nets; a group of hunstmen, with spears, approach along a riverbank.

Different stages of a gazelle huntGazelle hunt.  Engraved by  Joannes Galle [Plate 51]. One of the most spectacular engravings in the collection.  At right foreground a group of hunters are preparing for the hunt, two of them putting on their climbing shoes. At left mid-ground, hunters armed with spears, accompanied by dogs, chase gazelles up cliffs; on the opposite side of the ravine, men drive the gazelles off the cliff.

Bird hunts

Hunters lying in wait to capture small birds lured by owlsHunting of reed warblers with owls. Engraved by Jan Collaert II [Plate 68]. Three owls perch on poles tethered with cords and a fourth stands on a cage. They attract the warblers which fly down to mock them. Lying on the ground are hunters camouflaged as bushes (their hands and faces can be seen) holding lime-twigs on which the birds land and become trapped. In the foreground, a couple is handing dead birds to an older woman who is putting them in a basket; a little boy observes the hunt.

Boys catching swallows from the rooftops of a city squareCatching swallows from rooftops using discs. Engraved by Joannes Galle [Plate 85]. One of the rare cityscapes in the series. In the foreground, boys catch swallows from the roofs and balconies of buildings using circular discs suspended from long sticks; groups of figures watch them from an Italianate square.

A man climbing a tree to capture beesBeekeeping. Engraved by Joannes Galle [Plate 83]. Beekeeping is curiously included as an example of bird hunting. A man on a ladder scrapes bees from the trunk of a tree into a hive; another figure supports the base of the ladder; two figures beat pans with sticks , and a third watches a swarm of bees flying above. A row of hives can be seen to right.


Fishermen wading into the River ArnoFishing with dip nets in the river Arno. Engraved by Joannes Galle [Plate 96].  In the right foreground a river god, holding a cornucopia, is seated upon a lion representing Florence; fishermen wade in the river Arno with dip nets; to left and right, the city of Florence flanks the river.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Studies

References/further reading

Jan van der Straet, Philippus Gallæus, Cornelis van Kiel  Venationes Ferarum, avium, piscium, pugnæ bestiariorum et mutuæ bestiarum. … . ([Antwerp, after 1634?]).

Jan van der Straet, Joannes Gallæus, Cornelis van Kiel, Venationes ferarum, auium, piscium….  (Antwerp,  [after 1634?]). C.107.k.7.

Alessandra Baroni & Manfred Sellink, Stradanus, 1523-1605 : court artist of the Medici  (Turnhout, 2012). LD.31.b.3160

Alessandra Baroni Vannucci,  Jan Van der Straet detto Giovanni Stradano: flandrus pictor et inventor.  (Milan, 1997).  LB.31.b.19393

Manfred Sellink, Philips Galle (1537-1612): engraver and print publisher in Haarlem and Antwerp.  ([Amsterdam?], 1997).  YA. 1999.b.4195.

Johannes Stradanus, compiled by Marjolein Leesberg; edited by Huigen Leeflang. (Amsterdam, 2008). YF.2009.b.2177

Yvonne Bleyerveld, Albert J. Elen, Judith Niessen, Bosch to Bloemaert : early Netherlandish drawings in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (Paris,  [2014]). YF.2014.b.1669. 

18 September 2015

‘Fables of another type’: some Animal Tales from Russia

Very few people now know the name of Ivan Ivanovich Bashmakov (?-1865) or his pen-name Ivan Vasenko. Even fewer can remember reading anything by him. A prolific Russian writer, he published novels, fairy tales, short stories, books for children, and even patriotic tracts (e.g., Enemies of the Holy Russia about the siege of Sebastopol), primers and textbooks for learners.

In literary encyclopaedias Bashmakov is described as an author of popular literature for common people. Critics agree that he was best known for his fables in verses (first published in 1854), which although not masterpieces, were lively, witty and funny.

The tradition of fables had been established in Russia by Mikhail Lomonosov, Ivan Krylov, Ivan Dmitriev and others, and Bashmakov successfully followed their steps, although supplied his book Semeinye prikliucheniia zhivotnykh (‘Animals’ family stories’; British Library 12304.c.8) with a subtitle: ‘basni inogo roda’ (‘fables of another type’). The book consists of two parts with a small appendix of three fables ‘Mysli i chuvstva rastenii’ (‘Thoughts and Feelings of plants’).

Bashmakov’s imagination took him on a trip of discovery of human features in almost every living creature: Goat’s valour, Bear’s taste, Crawfish’s  heroism, Bumblebee’s wish, Cat’s melancholy, Piglet’s annoyance, Cricket’s  dignity, Jackdaw’s gossip, Sparrow’s anger, Mouse’s impulse, etc. However, only two out of four lithographed images illustrate animals other than perfectly domesticated cats and dogs. Here is one:

A lion and an elephant

Although the fable tells a story of a Hare who, having overheard a conversation between an Elephant and a Lion, realised that all have their own weaknesses (as Lion was afraid of mice, he was afraid of dogs), it looks as if the illustrator decided to ignore the ‘main hero’ altogether. The two animals are of the same size and it is obvious that the artist had been trained to draw lions as they appeared in the European visual tradition, but had almost no idea how to approach drawing an elephant. Maybe, that is why the elephant is well hidden in the bushes?

A snake and a skylark under a tree

The picture above  illustrates the fable called ‘Snake’s tenderness’. You can probably guess already that instead of a kiss for fantastic singing a Skylark got poisoned.

In the pictures that accompany the tales, ‘Dog’s instructions’ about an old female Dog recalling a story of her love and ‘Dog’s fate’ that, by comparing cats’ and dogs’ life in one household, concludes that we should to be happy with what we have, not wishing to obtain another fate, people clearly dominate the scene.

  An encounter between a man and woman with their dogs

A peasant and his dog

 Maybe, the artist really liked cats, as he supplied ‘Dog’s fate’ with one more picture, featuring a cat:

Two dogs by a kennel being watched by a cat from a windowsill

Quite unlike other images where animals were portrayed without any impersonation that was prompted by the text of the fables, only one cat in the whole book looks like a lady.

A cat in a bonnet and dress looking of a window

Can you imagine that this lady-Kitty in the fable ‘Cat’s sensibility’ interrupts her aria to her beloved Pussycat to catch a mouse? Oh, no!!! But will you drop your love song when your iPhone notifies you of new pictures on friend’s Instagram?

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections


16 September 2015

Bruto, a clever dog from the 1490s

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557) is best known nowadays as the author of the Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535, second edition 1547),  a pioneering account of the history and natural history of the Americas.

He is also of interest as a writer and courtier whose career spanned the Atlantic.  He was also obviously something of a dog-lover.

The focus of today’s blog is the Libro de la cámara del príncipe don Juan.  This is a very full account of the personnel and activities of the court of Prince John (born 1478), son of the Catholic Monarchs.  John died young in 1497 at the age of 18.  The Libro (first manuscript version 1547-48, revised a year later) was prepared by Oviedo for the guidance of Prince Philip (later King Philip II).

One detail which Oviedo added in the second version was this account of Bruto (Brutus), the prince’s greyhound. 

He had black and white patches.  He was not a handsome beast, as his father must have been a mastiff, and so he did not have a pretty head, but he was strongly built and not very tall.   But he was clever, as dogged as could be and marvellously quick at the attack.       

Mediaeval picture of a group of men with a greyhound outside a chapelA contemporary greyhound.  No stain of the mastiff here (British Library Royal MS 16 F II)

When on the road or hunting, the prince would deliberately drop a glove or handkerchief and once they had gone on a league or so, would say, “Bruto, bring me my glove.”  And the dog brought it to him in his mouth, as pristine and clean of dribble as if a man had brought it; and this regardlesss of whether the terrain was open or thickly covered in trees.

A number of men could be fifteen, twenty or thirty paces away, and the prince would say, “Bruto, bring me that man.”  And he would go and take him by the arm, very gently and without sinking his teeth.  And when the prince said, “Not him,” Bruto left him and fetched another.  And when he said, “Not him, but the one with the green, or grey cape,” as he was commanded so he did, in such as way that it seemed he knew his colours, like a person of good judgment.  He was a marvellous tracker.

When the prince was buried at dawn on 5 October 1497 in the Cathedral of Salamanca, Bruto lay down at the head of the tomb, and whenever they took him away he returned to his place; so that finally they supplied him with a cushion to lie on, day and night, and they fed and watered him there, and when he went out to perform his necessities, he returned to his cushion.  When the King and Queen left for their daughter’s weddding in Portugal, on their return they found him there still.

The prince’s final resting place was at Avila.

  The tomb of Prince John of Spain
The tomb of Prince John at Avila (Image from Wikimedia Commons)           

Writing in 1549 of events of 1497, Oviedo obviously found Brutus as admrable as Greyfriars Bobby was to be four and a half centuries later, an exemplar of canine loyalty above the bestial standards of the late medieval court.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Libro de la cámara del príncipe don Juan, ed. Santiago Fabregat Barrios (Valencia, 2006), pp. 135-37.

Libro de la Cámara real del Príncipe Don Juan, é officios de su casa é seruiçio ordinario, ed. J. M. Escudero de la Peña (Madrid, 1870) Ac.8886/7.

Angel Alcalá and Jacobo Sanz, Vida y muerte del Príncipe Don Juan : historia y literatura (Valladolid, 1999)  YA.2002.a.11935


14 September 2015

Champfleury and his Cats

Champfleury, pseudonym of Jules Husson Fleury (1821-89), is little read nowadays,  though his name is familiar to students of French 19th-century culture because of the variety of his interests and activities, both literary and artistic. A prominent member of bohemian circles in Paris in the 1840s, a novelist and short story writer, he also championed the painter Gustave Courbet and realism in art and literature, and played a key role in the ‘rediscovery’ of the Le Nain brothers, 17th-century painters of ‘reality’ who, like Champfleury himself, were born in Laon in Picardy. He had a lifelong interest in ‘popular’ arts  and wrote on a wide variety of subjects including  pantomime, caricature,  popular imagery, Japanese prints and ceramics. For the last 17 years of his life he was the curator of the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres.

Champfleury’s most  popular work was his book on cats, published in 1869.  Les Chats, histoire, moeurs, observations, anecdotes was advertised by a poster with a lithograph by Manet, Le rendez-vous des chats (‘The cats’ rendezvous’), showing two cats on a rooftop engaged in a mating game. The black cat was no doubt a reminder of the cat that featured prominently in Manet’s Olympia, the painting that had caused a scandal when first displayed in 1865. Manet’s lithograph was also used on the poster for the second edition of Champfleury’s work a few months later and an engraving of it appears in the book itself. 

Cover of 'Les Chats' with a picture of two cats on a roof
Poster with a lithograph by Manet, advertising Champfleury’s Les Chats
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The popularity of the book was such that it was reprinted twice in quick succession and two deluxe editions followed in 1870 with several additional texts and illustrations including, in the fifth edition, an etching by Manet, Le Chat et les fleurs (‘Cat and Flowers’), showing a cat on a balcony near a ceramic jardinière, an image influenced by Japanese prints and also a reference to Champfleury’s interest in ceramics. [Fig.3]

Etching of a cat and a bowl of flowers
Edouard Manet, Le Chat et les fleurs. Etching  in  Les Chats (5th edition, 1870)

The book’s 23 short chapters (34 in the de luxe editions) and numerous appendices look at cats in ancient civilizations, popular traditions, heraldry, art and literature. There are also chapters on friends, enemies and painters of cats. It is profusely illustrated  with  full-page illustrations, decorated letters and vignettes, and several chapters have delightful tailpieces, several of them copied from a sheet of studies of cats  by Hiroshige (which Champfleury erroneously attributes to Hokusai).

Sheet of drawings of cats in different posesAndo Hiroshige , Sheet of cat studies from Ryusai gafu. ca 1836

The frontispiece of the original 1868 edition is a drawing by the Swiss artist Gottfried Mind (1768-1814), ‘the Raphael of cats’, a nickname given to him (according to Champfleury) by Mme Vigée Lebrun.  Mind painted an infinite variety of cats and he would sit for hours drawing with a cat sitting on his lap and two or three kittens perched on his shoulders; a general massacre of cats in 1809 in his native Berne was the greatest tragedy of his life. Another Mind drawing in the text (below right) has the elegance and grace of a Matisse line drawing.

Image of a cat washing itself Image of a cat washing itself

Images of cats by Gottfried Mind, frontispiece and p. 142 of the 1869 edition of Les Chats

Champfleury’s erudite interests are much in evidence in the book in the inclusion, for example, of two devices of the Sessa family of printers, active in Venice in the 16th century, showing a cat.


Printer's device of a cat sitting in a decorated frame
Sessa’s printers device, Les Chats (1869) p. 152

 There are also examples of cats in heraldry, in legends and, above all, in popular prints. They include a 17th-century French woodcut showing a concert of cats in a fairground, their trainer surrounded by cats reading from scores headed ‘miaou’ and a Russian lubok colour print showing ‘The Mice  Burying the Cat’, a typical example of the world turned upside down.

Picture of a man watching a choir and orchestra of cats

‘La Musique des Chats’ [above] and ‘The mice burying the cat’ [below], from Les Chats (1870)

   Mice holding a funeral procession for a cat

An impressive full-page Japanese print (below) showing  a composite head of a cat is another example of the author’s interest in Japanese art.

  Composite image of a cat's head made up of other cats

The numerous  portraits of writers and artists who were cat-lovers include Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Hoffmann and Baudelaire, but pride of place is given to Victor Hugo and his cat Chanoine.

Picture of a long-haired cat with a facsimile inscription by Victor Hugo

A vignette of Chanoine in the first edition became the frontispiece of the de luxe editions (above) with a note in Hugo’s hand quoting Joseph Méry’s dictum “God made the cat to give man the pleasure of stroking a tiger.”

Drawing of the head of a cat

While a drawing of a cat by Delacroix (above) almost looks like a self portrait, cat’s ears are sprouting on Champfleury’s own head in the final illustration in the book, a humorous portrait of the author in his study, poring over a book about cats and observed by a cat perched on a bookcase behind him. 

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Studies


Champfleury Les Chats. Histoire-mœurs-observations-anecdotes.  Troisième édition. (Paris, 1869).  7207.aa.23; 

Quatrième édition. (Paris, 1870). 7208.aa.10. 

1869 edition available online from the Bibliothèque nationale de France via Gallica

Luce Abélès, Champfleury: l'art pour le peuple. (Paris, 1990). ZV.9.a.67(39)

Caricature of Champfleury with the ears of a cat

A cat-eared Champfleury in his study, portrait by Edmond Morin from Les Chats (1869), p. 287.

07 September 2015

The Lion, the Wolf and the Wardrobe: Smil Flaška’s council of Bohemian birds and beasts

As we commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, it is interesting to reflect that England was not the only country in mediaeval Europe where the interests of the king clashed with those of his barons. When he succeeded his father Charles IV as king of Bohemia in 1361, Wenceslas IV faced a similar situation. Like his brother-in-law Richard II in England, he was of a temperamental disposition which did not make it easy for him to come to terms with the nobles who were concerned about his attempts to encroach on their ancient rights and organized themselves into a union of lords, the Panská jednota, to combat them. In 1402 Wenceslas was taken captive, leading to prolonged negotiations for his release and fighting between the nobility and the mainly German inhabitants of the royal towns. He was clearly in need of some sound advice about how to rule his turbulent kingdom.

It came from a somewhat surprising source – a man with a personal grudge against the Crown. Little is known about the early life of Smil Flaška of Pardubice except that he studied at the University of Prague in the 1350s, and in 1394 was appointed chief notary of the land court of the Panská jednota. It was also around 1394 that he composed the allegorical poem Nová rada (The New Council), the first example of its kind in mediaeval Czech literature.

Flaska, Nova Rada 1950 of a modern edition of Nová rada (Prague, 1950). British Library

Beast allegories were already widespread throughout Europe, both in Latin and the vernacular languages, from the tales of Reynard the Fox to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls (c.1380), written to mark the marriage of Wenceslas’s sister Anne of Bohemia to Richard II. They were the successors to the classical fables of Aesop and Phaedrus,  in which amusing anecdotes about the follies of the animal protagonists could be used to point a moral which might have been unacceptable if expressed in another guise. This tradition was picked up in France by Gervais du Bus in a satire attacking the corrupt reign of Philippe IV, Le Roman de Fauvel (c.1310), where the run-down nag Fauvel represents the shabby condition of church and state.

Flaska, King LionThe king of the beasts, from an edition of Nová rada iIlustrated by Antonín Strnadl (Prague, 1940). Cup.502.aa.12.

Smil’s poem begins with the young king of beasts (recalling the double-tailed lion of Bohemia) summoning a council of forty-four birds and beasts to advise him. In a series of speeches each presents his views, based on the natural characteristics of their species. The beaver, for instance, advises the lion to build his castles of wood in watery places, a reference to Wenceslas’s well-known fondness for taking baths. The swallow, however, counters:

No, do not build in marsh or mire,
But where the air is healthy, higher;
With stone and mortar, dry and fast,
So what you build is sure to last.

Every aspect of kingly activity is covered, from the lynx’s tips on military strategy to the camel’s advice on charity towards those in misfortune and the elephant’s on the moral upbringing of the royal children. Not everyone is so high-minded, though; the peacock, understandably, urges the king to dress in a style more suited to his station (Wenceslas was notorious for slipping out in humble garb to enjoy the low-life pleasures of the town), and the horse enthusiastically agrees, advocating the splendours of the tournament surrounded by richly bedecked lords and ladies (though we may detect a satirical note in his decidedly unheroic account of the unhorsed knights rolling in the dust, shedding teeth and imploring aid with cries of ‘Rette, rette!’ – revealing their alien origins and tastes).

Flaska, Camel and Elephant            The elephant and the camel, from Cup.502.aa.12.            

Courtierly self-interest is also evident in the recommendations of the fox (if the king needs advisers at all, surely smaller ones with their wits about them are the best?) and the cat:

And, in addition, you’ll need spies
To watch at night with shrewd sharp eyes;
Murderers and thieves are apt, I think,
Softly in darkness to creep and slink;
But spies will seize them right on the stair
And drag them to court, for punishment there.
           (Translations by Susan Reynolds/Halstead)

The wolf, too, with his shoulders mantled in grey hair suggesting a cowl, symbolizes the rapacity of certain monastic orders, with an interpolated reference to the falsification of documents which caused Smil’s ancestral estates to be forfeited to the king, one of several cases where Wenceslas deprived noble families of their lands by the feudal right of reversion. He is also associated with the much-resented ‘new men’ whom Wenceslas had taken onto his council and allowed to buy positions in the land court, to the fury of the barons.

Flaska, Leopard, Bear and WolfThe leopard, bear and wolf from Cup.502.aa.12.

Perhaps the author could have used the lynx’s wise advice about how best to avoid an ambush; having taken an active part in the fighting on the side of the nobility, he was fatally wounded on 13 August 1403 during the siege of the royalist town Kutná Hora.

Smil was too astute to speak out unambiguously and counsel the king directly, even in an allegory, but the results make for a colourful and entertaining poem which was one of the first to be published in a new edition with a parallel text in modern Czech by Jan Gebauer, a pioneer of mediaeval Czech studies, in 1876 (Ac.800/7). In 1940 a new translation by František Vrba was published by Orbis in Prague, illustrated with woodcuts by . They prove that though Smil Flaška’s poetry originated from a specific time of personal and national crisis, its appeal is timeless and universal.

Susan Halstead,  Content Specialist, Research Engagement.


02 September 2015

Happy 60th Birthday Miffy!!

Who are the two most famous rabbits in British literature? Do I hear “Peter Rabbit”? Sure, Beatrix Potter’s mischievous rabbit in his blue coat is so famous, he features in our ‘Animal Tales’  exhibition that opened on the 6th of August. “The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll!” Absolutely, and what’s more,  it celebrates its 150 anniversary this year. (Watch this space for the Library’s commemorations) But there is a third famous little white rabbit who celebrates a big birthday in 2015. Born Dutch in 1955, as main character of a story told by the author/artist Dick Bruna to his son, ‘Nijntje’ appeared in the English language as ‘Miffy’. 

Dick Bruna working in his studioDick Bruna (Photo by Dolph Kohnstamm (2007) from Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 licence).

Miffy is known the world over, especially in Japan. She inspired ‘Hello Kitty’ and Japanese artist Atsuhiko Misawa  praises her as having the perfect form. He is one the 60 artists who made Miffy sculptures as part of the Miffy Art Parade. This major event takes place all over the world and is in support of UNICEF.

In the Netherlands celebrations concentrate in Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, birthplace of Bruna. A row of six-foot tall Miffy statues graces the Museumplein in Amsterdam.

Decorated Miffy sculptures in Amsterdam

Above and below, sculptures from the Miffy 60 parade in Amsterdam  (Photos:  Marja Kingma)

A decorated sculpture of Miffy

The Rijksmuseum has just opened an exhibition on Dick Bruna, who celebrated his 88th birthday on 23 August. It shows half a century of graphic art in international context.

The British Library holds most Miffy titles published in the UK since 1964, via legal deposit. There is a Welsh translation of one,  Miffi yn yr ysbyty (‘Miffy in Hospital’; X.990/23246), but no Dutch language ones! We normally do not purchase children’s literature from abroad, certainly not if an English edition is already available. Maybe an exception should be made on this occasion?

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections

18 August 2015

Kafka’s Menagerie

One of the exhibits in our current Animal Tales exhibition is a translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) illustrated by Bill Bragg. In what is probably Kafka’s best-known work, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself transformed into – well, it’s never made quite clear. The German text initially refers to an ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’, literally  ‘monstrous vermin’, and the description of Gregor’s transformed body definitely suggests some kind of insect. English translators sometimes refer to a ‘cockroach’ and illustrators tend to depict a beetle of some kind, although Kafka himself apparently vetoed any idea of showing an actual insect on the cover of an early edition.

Cover of 'Die Verwandlung' ('Metamorphosis') from 1916, showing a man recoiling in horror from an open doorThe (insect-free) cover illustration from the 1916 edition of Die Verwandlung (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

If Gregor Samsa is the most famous ‘animal’ in Kafka’s work, he is not the only one. Indeed, Kafka’s stories contain a veritable menagerie of creatures, and Gregor’s is not the only case where metamorphosis plays a role. Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy), for example, is narrated by an ape who, having been captured by a hunting expedition, began learning to imitate his captors, continuing this ‘education’ as part of a music-hall act. He now considers that he has left ape-hood behind and become to all intents and purposes human.  In the short piece ‘Eine Kreuzung ‘ (‘A Crossbreed’) the narrator possesses a creature which is part lamb, part kitten, the kitten-like characteristics having increased since he inherited the beast from his father.

An uncertainty about the species depicted in Kafka’s animal stories is also a recurrent theme. The fragment  ‘In unserer Synagoge’ (‘In our Synagogue’) features a strange marten-like creature with blue-green fur which lives in the synagogue of a dwindling Jewish community, while in Der Bau (The Burrow) an unspecified tunnelling animal becomes obsessed with securing its elaborate burrow against a supposed enemy or predator. 

  Photograph of Franz Kafka with a dog which has moved and become blurred during the shot
Franz Kafka with (appropriately blurred and undefined?) dog, 1905. Reproduced in Klaus Wagenbach, Franz Kafka in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek, 1965) British Libray X.908/8786

Like Ein Bericht für eine Akademie, Der Bau is narrated by its animal protagonist. The same device is used in Forschungen eines Hundes (Investigations of a Dog), where a dog tries to make sense of the world around it but is hampered by its inability to recognise the presence and influence of humans in its own life and those of other dogs. Another animal narrator is found in Josefine die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (Josephine the Singer or the Mouse People), although here uncertainty creeps in again: only the story’s title makes a clear reference to mice, and without it we would not be able to clearly identify the community described as any particular species or type, animal or human.

Although we often associate animal stories with children, Kafka’s works are not generally seen as suitable childhood reading.  So I was surprised to come across a book called My First Kafka which retells three of his stories, including Metamorphosis and Josephine... in simplified versions and language, with striking and intriguingly detailed black-and-white illustrations. Kafka for the kiddies? Surely not! But the stories work surprisingly well in this format and the retellings do not talk down and do not shy away from Gregor’s death or Josephine’s disappearance.

Cover of 'My First Kafka' showing a large, patterned beetle wearing a pair of shoes
Cover of My First Kafka (Illustration © Rohan Daniel Eason, reproduced by kind permission of One Peace Books)

The book seems to recognise that, while adult readers may come to Kafka’s works primed to do anything but take them at face value, a child can read them simply as animal tales, as many have similarly done with Orwell’s Animal Farm, only understanding any deeper meaning in later years.  I saw a hint of this childish approach when walking round the exhibition: a little girl, held up in her father’s arms, was pointing and chuckling delightedly at the picture of Gregor-as-bug lying in his bed. Perhaps in 15 years’ time she’ll be a student of German, reading themes of alienation and family conflict into Die Verwandlung. But perhaps she’ll remember it simply as a strange nonsense tale of a man turned into an insect – and who knows which approach Kafka would have preferred?

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated by Michael Hofmann ; introduced by Will Self ; illustrated by Bill Bragg. (London, 2010) Nov.2011/1170  [The edition displayed in ‘Animal Tales’]

My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, & Giant Bugs, retold by Matthue Roth, illustrated by Daniel Eason (Long Island City, NY, 2013) YD.2015.b.127

Richard T. Gray [et al.], A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia (Westport, Conn., 2005) m07/.28338

Kafka’s Creatures: Animals, Hybrids, and other Fantastic Beings, edited by Marc Lucht and Donna Yarri  (Lanham, Md., 2010) m10/.21890

‘Kafka’s Metamorphosis: 100 thoughts for 100 years’, The Guardian, 18 July 2015

13 August 2015

Was Stalin "The Monster Cockroach"?

It is very touching to find a copy of your first book in the National Library of a different country. Many people of my generation who were brought up in the Soviet Union might remember the 1967 edition of Korney Chukovsky’s poems and fairy tales. Of course, my copy looked much  more ‘lively’ – it was well read all over, torn and glued together again, and significantly thicker than this BL copy that no child ever touched, because the pages were heavily thumbed and soiled. I then read the same poems and stories to my younger sister, and later  to my sons. I hope the book is still somewhere in my parents’ flat in Moscow and that  I will be able to bring it over here to read to my – as yet hypothetical! – British middle-class grandchildren.

Image1Kornei Chukovskii. Chudo-derevo. Serebrianyi gerb. Moskva: Detskaia literature, 1967. X.990/1514)

The poem Tarakanishche, translated into English as ‘The Monster Cockroach’ or ‘Cock-The-Roach’, was written by Chukovsky in 1921 and was one of the first editions was illustrated by Ilya Repin’s student and a younger member of The World of Art movement Sergey Chekhonin.

Image2Kornei Chukovskii. Tarakanishche, illustrated by Sergei Chekhonin (Petrograd, 1923) (Image from RARUS'S Gallery)  

One of the first Soviet animated cartoons for children was also based on this fairy tale (1927; director Aleksandr Ivanov, 1899-1959). The Russian Jewish poet  Elizaveta Polonskaya who in the early 1920s attended the literary studio where Chukovsky taught creative writing, later wrote in her memoirs how Tarakanishche came into being. Chukovsky initiated writing, together with his students, a funny book for children. He didn’t say what it should be about, but suggested that it should start with a scene of total chaos where animals are rushing and moving about somewhere for no apparent reason. Each of the students formulated a funny line and Chukovsky put them together reciting: 

Bears went to the hike
A-riding on a bike.
Then came Tom-the-Cat,
Back-to-front he sat.
Spry mosquitoes drifted by
In a big balloon on high. (etc. )

Later Chukovsky turned it into a story where a Cockroach appears in the middle of this funny anarchy and becomes a dictator who demands sacrifices. The animals, including bears, wolves and elephants, surrender and only an innocent sparrow, who has not heard about the new regime, accidently eats the dictator. Written according to all the rules of Greek tragedy – the chorus of animals, the deus ex machina (impersonated by a sparrow) and catharsis – this fairy tale, of course, could not have been meant to point the finger at Joseph Stalin, who had not even seized the Communist Party throne by that time.  Chukovsky certainly didn’t escape party criticism for inappropriate creativity which was initiated by Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia in 1928, but he didn’t want to disguise a political satire aimed at a certain person under funny verses. In response to this criticism Chukovsky publically promised to write a children’s book ‘The merry little collective farmers’, but instead stopped writing for children until the 1940s. 

However, much later, the link was bound to be made. The features of a dictatorial Cockroach were firstly applied to Stalin by Osip Mandelshtam in his satire Kremlevskii Gorets (‘The Kremlin Highlander’) in 1933:

His fingers plump as grubs.
His words drop like lead weights.
His laughing cockroach whiskers.
The gleam of his boot rims.  (Translated by Darran Anderson)

 Mandelstam,_Cukovsky,_Livshiz_&_Annenkov_1914_Karl_BullaLeft to right: Osip Mandel’shtam, Kornei Chukovsky, Benedikt Livshits, Iurii Annenkov (photo by Karl Bulla, 1914 from Wikimedia Commons)

In the imagination of people who lived through the Stalin era Chukovsky’s story about a monster became associated with the regime. In her memoirs Evgeniia Ginzburg described how it was happening:

‘And the cockroach became the victor and the master of the seas and forests. The animals bowed and scraped before Mr Whiskers, hoping the wretch would perish’. Suddenly I started laughing. Anton simultaneously started laughing. Yet Krivoshei became deadly serious. The lenses of his glasses flashed and sparkled. ‘What is it you’re thinking?’ he exclaimed with unusual emotion ‘… surely not! Surely Chukovsky would not have dared!’ Instead of answering, I read on, putting more expression into it: ‘And he went around among the animals, stroking his gilded breastplate…’ (Ginzburg, p.  341).

Even those who didn’t read this book can guess by now that certain Krivoshei who was so worked up about this story was a KGB informer, and laughing at the cockroach’s moustaches cost the memoirist her job. 

Now I know what I’ll tell my – as yet hypothetical! – British middle-class grandchildren when I’m going to read them funny fairy tales about the monster cockroach and other animals.

Image 3  Various Russian and English-language editions of Tarakanishche from the British Library’s collections

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/Further reading:

Vospominaniia o Kornee Chukovskom / Sostaviteli i avtory kommentariev, Elena Chukovskaia i Evgeniia Ivanova.  (Moscow, 2012) YF.2013.a.18834

M. Tskokotukha. Eshche raz o Tarakanichshe, in Nezavisimaia gazeta (23.11.2000):

K. Chukovskiĭ. Diary, 1901-1969. Edited by Victor Erlich ; translated by Michael Henry Heim. (New Haven, Conn., 2005) YC.2007.a.1240

Evgenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind, translated by Ian Boland. (London, 1989) YC.1989.a.1567

Kornei Chukovsky, Cock-the-Roach, translated by Tom Botting. (Moscow, 1981) X.992/5087


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