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126 posts categorized "France"

29 June 2020

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (Part 2)

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This is the second of our blog posts about the Roma community in Europe to mark Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month 2020

Roma French authors

Our collection of French Roma authors is not, as yet, as developed as it as it could be, but we hold books by some of the most prominent Roma advocates of the Roma culture and way of life in France: Sandra Jayat and Alexandre Romanès.

Sandra Jayat was born in Italy, or France, in 1939. She came from the Roma group called “Manouche” or “Sinti”. At the age of 15, she fled to Paris to escape a forced marriage. She sought refuge with her cousin Django Reinhardt, the jazz musician, taught herself how to read and paint, and soon became the muse of Parisian artists and writers. Herbes Manouches, her first collection of poems, was published in 1961 and illustrated by Jean Cocteau. In 1972, she produced a recording of readings of her poems, accompanied with original music by Reinhardt. In 1978, her semi-autobiographical novel, La longue route d’une zingarina, became a success, selling more than 40,000 copies, and being read in schools. Jayat still lives in France today. Her entire artistic oeuvre is inspired by the world and symbolism of Roma.

Jayat is also a renowned painter, and has always been committed to the recognition of Roma artists. She organised the exhibition ‘Première Mondiale de l’Art Tzigane’, which ran from 6 to 30 May 1985 at the Conciergerie in Paris. We have her Moudravi, où va l'amitié, published in 1966 and illustrated by Marc Chagall (X.908/14070.)

Photograph of books for sale by Alexandre Romanès

Books by Alexandre Romanès, photo by Fabienne Félix, Flickr 

Born in 1951, Alexandre Romanès comes from a famous family of circus artists. Thinking that the circus was losing the values of the Roma, he quit in the 1970s to create his own travelling show. He met the French poet Jean Genet, who became a friend, and Lydie Dattas, who taught him to read and became his first wife. Romanès went on to create his own “Tzigan Circus”, the “Cirque Romanes”, in 1993.

This prompted a writing career, dedicated to poetry and the defense of Roma values and ways of life. After publishing Le Premier Cirque tsigane d’Europe, in 1994, Romanès wrote Un peuple de promeneurs in 1998 (2011 edition, BL YF.2013.a.16398), Paroles perdues, published in 2004, (2010 edition YF.2010.a.32293) and Sur l'épaule de l'ange (Paris, 2010; YF.2011.a.5.). His two latest publications, Les corbeaux sont les Gitans du ciel (2016) and Le luth noir (2017), will soon be at the library.

His style consists of short poems, aphorisms, memories and scenes of Roma life and wisdom:

Si on pouvait noter…
Si on pouvait noter
toutes les phrases magnifiques
qui se disent chaque jour dans le monde,
on pourrait publier chaque matin
un live exceptionnel.

(If one could take note, if one could take note, of all the magnificent sentences, which are said everyday in the world, one could publish, every morning, an exceptional book.)

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

 

Diary of a Young Roma Traveller

Cover of Mykola Burmek-Diuri’s book, Shchodennyk molodoho roma-mandrivnyka with a drawing of a young man

Cover of Mykola Burmek-Diuri’s book, Shchodennyk molodoho roma-mandrivnyka (Uzhhorod, 2017) YF.2019.a.9992. The BL’s copy is signed by the author.

Two years ago, the Roma writer Mykola Burmek-Diuri caught the attention of the Ukrainian media following the publication of his book, Shchodennyk molodoho roma-mandrivnyka (‘Diary of a Young Roma Traveller’). Writing in Ukrainian, Burmek-Diuri provides a unique window into the daily life, culture, traditions and history of the Roma community in Zakarpattia, the region in southwestern Ukraine where Burmek-Diuri and the majority of the country’s Romani population live, through a mixture of autobiographical stories, fairytales and ethnographic sketches. Given the rise in violent attacks against Roma communities in the country in recent years, this book is particularly timely and important for its presentation of the world through the eyes of a young Roma writer. Burmek-Diuri has since published two further books: Mama kazaly pravdu (Uzhhorod, 2018; YF.2019.a.7579) and, most recently, a collection of poetry and prose entitled Honir dykoi troiandy. All three were published with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation’s Roma Programme, which works with NGOs and activists in Ukraine to involve ‘representatives of the Roma community in social processes and combating discrimination’.  

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

 

Romani authors in Czechoslovakia

In her foreword to the English edition of the book A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Elena Lacková, Milena Hübschmannová, one of the founders of the Roma Studies as an academic discipline in Czechoslovakia, wrote: “What can I say about Roma better than the song of a lone Romani woman’s life experience?”. And this is true indeed. This book is available in English, and is a really fascinating account of Romani traditions, customs, ceremonies and superstitions, seen though the life of someone who grew up to become the first Romani author in post-Second World War Czechoslovakia. Elena Lacková (Ilona Lasko, 1921–2003), born in a Roma settlement in Veľký Šariš in eastern Slovakia, was the only girl among the 600 children in the settlement to complete primary education and in her 20s became the first author to give the Romani people a voice in literature. Many consider her to be the Roma equivalent of the writer Božena Němcová, who played a prominent part in the Czech National Revival movement. In her works Lacková transformed and refined original folk tales opening a whole new world of the people who had been almost invisible before. Her first literary work was a play written in Slovak, Horiaci cigánsky tabor (‘The Gypsy Camp is Burning’, 1947) about the local Roma’s collective experience of the Second World War. Later she chose to write in Romani and founded a Romani periodical, Romano L’il (Gypsy News).

Elena Lacková is probably the best-known name, but definitely not the only one in Romani literature. Tera Fabiánová was the first person in the former Czechoslovakia to write poems in Romani. The Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology of the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna recorded her reciting her poems in Romani.

Photograph of four Romani women. Three are sitting on a bench and one is standing

Romani women in Czechoslovakia in 1959, a photo by FOTO:FORTEPAN / Zsanda Zsolt, Wikimedia Commons 

Ľudovít Didi (1931–2013) was a Czechoslovak dissident, chartist and Romani Slovak author. His first book Príbehy svätené vetrom (‘Stories of the Holy Wind’; Bratislava, 2004; YF.2006.a.19867) is considered to be the first ever authentic Roma novel. His other three books Róm Tardek a jeho osud (‘Roma Tardek and his destiny’; Bratislava, 2013; YF.2016.a.3251), Čierny Róm a biela láska (‘Black Roma and white love’, 2011) and Cigánkina veštba (‘The Gypsy Prophesy’; Bratislava,2008; YF.2010.a.8945) also tell the story of the Roma community.

Viťo Staviarský, a well-known name in Slovak literature, is the author of the short story ‘Kivader’ (2007) and the novel ‘Kale topanky’ (2012), which are set in a Romani settlement. In 2014, the publishing house Knihovna Václava Havla in Prague published a book of Romani women authors called Slunce zapadá už ráno (‘The sun sets in the morning’). Irena Eliášová, Jana Hejkrlíková, Iveta Kokyová and Eva Danišova contributed to it. I hope that we will see more of these books translated into English, so that they can get a wider readership.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

Elena Lacková, Narodila jsem se pod šťastnou hvězdou (Prague, 1997) YA.2003.a.9308 (English translation by Carleton Bulkin, A false dawn: my life as a Gypsy woman in Slovakia (Paris; Hatfield, 1999) YC.2000.a.8592

Helena Sadílková, ‘Romani Literature in the Czech and Slovak Republics’. In Countries & Regions. Accessed 11 June 2020: https://www.romarchive.eu/en/literature/literature-countries-and-regions/literature-czechoslovakia/

Jana Horváthová, Roma in the Czech Lands. In Countries & Regions. Accessed 11 June 2020: https://www.romarchive.eu/en/roma-civil-rights-movement/roma-in-the-czech-lands-abstract/

Radka Steklá, Elena Lacková – romská publicistka, spisovatelka o média. Bachelor's thesis. Univerzita Karlova v Praze. 2006. Accessed 11 June 2020: https://is.cuni.cz/webapps/zzp/detail/1444/?lang=en

 

Bódvalenke

How did a tiny settlement of around 230 souls and 60 houses in northeastern Hungary put itself on the map? Bódvalenke, a community of Romani majority, became renowned as the ‘fresco village’ thanks to a remarkable initiative some ten years ago. A charitable organisation started to invite Romani artists, both from Hungary and abroad, to use the dull windowless walls in the neighbourhood as blank canvasses for giant colourful paintings.

Mural on the side of a building by József Ferkovics

Mural by József Ferkovics. A colourful album dedicated to the work of the artist and published recently is among our recent acquisitions. Image by Pásztörperc - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0 

The aim of the project was to pull the village out of deep poverty: each house volunteered by its inhabitants was given new plastering before being decorated, but the community as a whole would also benefit in a variety of ways from any income generated by the arrival of visitors to this unique open-air display. Today, one can see 33 magnificent murals by 18 painters on Romani and Gypsy themes: old legends, traditional life, family, grief and dreams. Sadly however, with the lack of infrastructure it is proving difficult to attract tourists and the village is still struggling economically.

Mural on the side of a building by Rozi Csámpai depicting everyday life in Bódvalenke

Everyday life in Bódvalenke. Mural by Rozi Csámpai. Rozi Csámpai features in a book on Romani women painters in today's Hungary: Színekben oldott életek: cigány festőnők a mai Magyarországon (Budapest, 2011; YF.2011.a.11388). Image by Pásztörperc at Hungarian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ildi Wollner, Curator East & SE European Collections

References:

Ferkovics József festőművész. ([Gencsapáti], 2019). Awaiting shelfmark.

18 June 2020

Radio Londres

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On June 17, 1940, still reeling from France’s fall to Nazi Germany three days earlier, the recently promoted Brigadier General and Under-Secretary of State for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle, fled to London. The next day, having obtained special permission from Winston Churchill, he broadcast a message to France on the BBC radio from Broadcasting House: “I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me.”

Photograph of de Gaulle recording a speech
Charles de Gaulle broadcasting from the BBC in London in 1941. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

This speech, known as L’Appel du 18 juin (The Appeal of 18 June) is often considered to be the founding step of the French Resistance, and it is extremely famous in France – many streets and squares now bearing that name – up to the point that it is often wrongly quoted: the famous rousing sentence “La France a perdu une bataille! Mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre” (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”) is often associated with the Appeal of 18 June, but actually comes from a motivational poster headed “A Tous Les Français”, which was plastered over London on 3 August 1940. (The British Library has a copy of the Bulletin officiel des Forces françaises libres, a journal issued intermittently from 15 August 1940 to 31 August 1944. (SPR.Mic.B.150(2), which reproduces the poster exactly albeit in a smaller size.) Other broadcasts by de Gaulle, on 19 and 22 June reached more people in occupied France.

The first, famous speech, was not actually recorded, but a manuscript for internal use was later found in the archives of the Swiss Intelligence Agencies. The manuscript of the speech, as well as the recording of the 22 June speech, was entered in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register on 18 June 2005.

Following the speech, a daily radio show called Ici la France was launched on 14 July on Radio Londres, a station broadcast from 1940 to 1944 by the BBC in London to occupied France. From 6 September 1940 the title changed to Les Français parlent aux Français. The programme was entirely in French and was operated by the Free French who had escaped from occupied France. It served to send coded messages to the French Resistance, appealed for uprisings, and counterbalanced the propaganda from the authorities in the occupied territory. Radio Londres opened its transmission with: “Ici Londres! Les Français parlent aux Français” (“This is London! The French are speaking to the French”) another quote that has become famous in France. In contrast to the  traditional formal style of French radio stations, some of the announcers introduced personal messages, songs and jokes into the programmes. The first four notes of the theme music, for instance, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, were stylised to represent the letter “V” in Morse code (…-), standing for the Victory sign.

Radio Londres commemorative plaque featuring the motto 'Les Français parlent aux Français' and a portrait medallion of the station's presenters
Plaque commemorating the work of Radio Londres in the Asnelles cemetery, Calvados, with a medallion showing the profiles of presenters including ‘Jacques Duchesne’ (Michel Saint-Denis) (Photo by Wayne77 from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0)

Of particular interest to us today is Michel Saint-Denis.

The British Library Manuscripts Department has recently completed the arrangement and cataloguing of the Michel Saint-Denis archive. The archive brings together almost 200 volumes of professional correspondence, papers, and other ephemera relating to Saint-Denis’s work in the theatre, as well as his personal letters and diaries.

The nephew of the famous French actor and theatre director Jacques Copeau, in 1935 Saint-Denis accepted an invitation to London, where he founded the London Theatre Studio, working with actors such as Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. He soon became a renowned director. During the Second World War, he directed the French programme of Radio Londres under the pseudonym of Jacques Duchesne. Section D of the archive contains evidence of Saint-Denis’s service with the French section of the BBC during the Second World War (Add MS 81143-81166) including scripts of radio talks, reports showing uncertainty about what to talk about, what the BBC thinks the French want to hear, and material on Anglo-French relations generally. There are also lots of newspaper clippings and reactions from listeners, including internees in concentration camps asking for help. The Library also holds some audio recordings of Michel Saint-Denis from the 1960s describing how he helped Winston Churchill to make a broadcast in French during the War.

But the most moving memory is actually buried in a pile of other letters and souvenirs and is evidence of the reach of Radio Londres and of De Gaulle’s messages. When the French Curators from the Romance Collections department had the chance to go and visit the archives, we were touched to see this letter from a French family who listened to the programme every day. On paper from a run-of-the-mill French schoolchild’s notebook, such as is still in use today, the young daughter had drawn a heart and cross for the General de Gaulle, with a song titled “Heart of a Free Family” (to be sung on the melody of the Marseillaise)

A handwritten poem entitled 'Coeur d'une famile libre', illustrated with a heart enclosing the Cross of Lorraine
A child’s poem and drawing of a heart with the Cross of Lorraine, created in response to Radio Londres Broadcast 24.3.1, from the Michel Saint-Denis Archive (Add MS 81143-81166).

The verso only had a simple message: “Pass on to General de Gaulle”.

Verso of the poem with a request to pass to General de Gaulle
The verso of the poem with the request to pass it to de Gaulle

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections 

With thanks to Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1850 1950, and to Jack Taylor, former PhD placement student working on experiences of the Second World War in Britain. 

19 May 2020

Esperanto and Endangered Languages

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Esperanto can be described as the language of hope, peace, and solidarity as Professor Renato Corsetti, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto has discussed in his previous posts for the European Studies blog. Hope remains the governing principle, as the name of the language attests (espero in Esperanto).

Driven by hope for enhancing linguistic diversity, dedicated Esperantists have been translating minority language literatures into Esperanto, ranging from local stories to epic poems.

Local stories of the Pyrenees are featured in Christian Lavarenne’s translations from Occitan: Kvar mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneoj and Mirindaj rakontoj el la Pireneo (Balagué, 1998; YF.2019.a.18502 and YF.2019.a.18517).

Portrait of Federic Mistral

Portrait of Federic Mistral from La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988) YF.2011.a.10850. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.

The gem of classic Provençal literature, Mirèio by Federic Mistral was translated into Esperanto (Mirejo) by Paul Champion and Eugène Noël in 1909. At the time Mistral was still active and Esperanto was still a new language.

Mistral’s other masterpiece, the pensive Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants (Paris 1897; 11498.b.64.), translated into Esperanto as La poemo de Rodano (Laroque Timbaut, 1988; YF.2011.a.10850) by Rajmundo Laval or Valo has a particular resonance for us now as it tells the story of the end of an era.

Cover of Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants 

Cover of Le Poème du Rhône en XII. Chants 

Cover of the Esperanto translation of Le Poème du Rhône

Cover of La poemo de Rodano. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.

While the title implies the poem is about the river Rhône, it is actually about the river’s people, the bargemen, the Coundriéulen (Provençal), Condrillots (French). Fitting to a monumental opus, the bargemen are portrayed in the opening stanza as giants who can only be described by the beauty and strength of their natural environment, the river, the sun and the trees:

From Lyons at the blush of early dawn
The bargemen, masters of the Rhône, depart,
A robust band and brave, the Condrillots.
Upright upon their crafts of planks of fir,
The tan of sun and glint from glassy wave
Their visages have bronzed as with gold.
And in that day colossuses they were,
Big, corpulent, and strong as living oaks,
And moving beams about as we would straws.

Translation: K. Katzner

First stanza of the Esperanto translation of Le Poème du Rhône

First stanza of the Esperanto translation of Le Poème du Rhône. Image courtesy of the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. A digitised copy is also available.

The beginning, however, foreshadows the end: the strength of these natural giants succumbs to a new era’s unnatural giants, the steamboats of industrialisation. It is a tragic story not only of the lovers on board but also for lovers of the past. Although the bargemen lose their barge, hauling horses and people on board, they keep their dignity. After an epic journey, literally and metaphorically, we can see them on the shore, saying not a word about their loss, but moving forward. A digitised copy of the original Provençal and French text is available via Project Gutenberg.

Bargemen on the river Rhône

Bargemen on the river Rhône. From Joannès Drevet, Aux Environs de Lyon: préface de M. Coste-Labaume. Édition illustrée de 250 dessins de J. Drevet, etc. (Lyon, 1892.) 10172.g.9. 

Mistral was more than a storyteller. His ambition was to revitalise Provençal, the language of southern France, particularly Provence. With his magnificent poetry Mistral connected the rough 19th-century bargemen and the better-known refined Provençal singers, the troubadours of the 12th and 14th centuries, and expressed his hope that the language would thrive, whoever its speakers came to be.

Illustration of Troubadours

The Troubadours of the 12th-14th centuries were the best-known Provençal singers. Image from J.B.M. Challamel, La France et les Français à travers les siècles (Paris, 1882.) 9226.m.1.

Today the surviving variants of Occitan and Provençal are designated as ‘definitely’ and ‘severely’ endangered languages according to UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Map of Occitan dialects speaking regions

Map of Provençal dialects speaking regions

Maps of Occitan (above) and Provençal (below) dialects speaking regions (yellow: definitely endangered; orange: severely endangered) UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 © UNESCO

Inter-generational transmission is the most prominent of the nine factors considered in the designation.

Definitely endangered means ‘children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home’.

Severely endangered refers to a language which is ‘spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves’.

Keeping a language alive can take many forms, even in translation. For example, Jomo (Jean-Marc Leclerq), a French Esperantist promotes Occitan in songs.

The British Library’s Esperanto collection contains works translated from over 50 languages, including some in anthologies. The most translated languages, not surprisingly, are the larger ones: English, Russian, French, German and Polish, followed by Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Dutch and Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Croatian, Serbian, Danish, and Romanian. The list is indicative of the languages spoken by the most active Esperantists. However, within the collection a special corpus is dedicated to translations of minority language literatures including Occitan, Provencal, Basque, Walloon, and Welsh. 

In addition to books, Esperanto journals, most importantly Literatura Mondo (1922-1949; ZF.9.b.266), La Nica Literatura Revuo (1955-1962; ZF.9.a.7040) and Beletra Almanako (2007- ; ZF.9.a.7847) have also regularly published translations, both poetry and prose, from various languages.

Etnismo, an international organisation with an online newsletter, connects Esperantists who are interested in minority issues including minority languages.

Translators of minority and endangered language literatures into Esperanto often publish dictionaries as well. These are either embedded in the translated book as addendum or constitute stand-alone titles, for example: Basque-Esperanto dictionary (Bilbao, 2015; YF.2016.a.2481), and Catalan-Esperanto dictionary (Barcelona, 2014; YF.2015.a.22072).

So, why is it important to translate endangered language literature into Esperanto? By raising awareness of endangered languages and making their literature accessible to a larger readership through translations, Esperantists promote linguistic diversity. As Professor Renato Corsetti explains: ‘Esperantists think that all languages, large and small, are equally valuable, and Esperanto wants to contribute to the revitalization of all languages.’

Andrea Deri, Cataloguer

With contributions from:

Olga Kerziouk, former Curator, British Library Esperanto Collections

Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics, La Sapienza University Rome, Former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank Professor Corsetti for his generous assistance in acquiring images from La poemo del Rodano from the Esperanto Museum at the Austrian National Library, and Candide Simard and Phil Hatfield for their helpful suggestions.

Further reading:

Moseley, Christopher (ed.), Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. (Paris, 2010).

Reinhard Haupenthal, La unuaj libroj de Schleyer (1880) kaj de Zamenhof (1887): pri la lanĉo de du plan-lingvoj (Schliengen, 2000) YF.2008.a.12642

09 April 2020

PhD Studentship Opportunity - Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune

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We are delighted to announce that The British Library, in collaboration with The Department of History at Royal Holloway, is offering a fully-funded PhD studentship (fees and maintenance) on the theme: Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, 1870-71. The project will be co-supervised by Sophie Defrance and Teresa Vernon (British Library), and Robert Priest (Royal Holloway).

Caricature of a French soldier looking in a shop window

French caricature from the Franco-Prussian War, British Library Collections

The British Library holds a world-class collection of (mostly) French and (some) German caricatures in three separate collections bound in 55 volumes. There is also a small number of war-themed Italian, Swedish and Dutch illustrations and caricatures. The successful student will develop a PhD project that draws on this rich resource of over 5,000 caricatures and images produced during the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. Part of the collection was discussed in two blog posts here and here

This fascinating primary material represents a wealth of visual sources dealing with the War and the Commune. The caricatures, most of them coloured, touch on a wide variety of subjects, making fun of famous people and politicians, soldiers and civil populations. The project will add a new dimension to our understanding of several processes at key moments in French (and German) history: the development of French (and German) national identity, the creation of a modern popular culture, and the development of caricature as a medium. The forthcoming 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune in 2020-21 offers us the chance to promote and foster scholarship based on an exceptional collection of visual primary sources. Students will be invited to propose a project that uses one or more of the following themes to bring this rich collection into a wider European context, such as ‘Prints as sources for a Franco-German history of 1870-1’ or ‘the international public for printed satire’. The project will also investigate the provenance and formation of the British Library’s collections: there are other known sets in the world, are in the V&A, Cambridge, Oxford, Heidelberg, Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and Minneapolis, and perhaps more to be discovered.

Drawing depicting the arrival of French prisoners

Arrival of French prisoners at Ingolstadt, 10 August 1870, British Library Collections

The project is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) scheme, which offers doctoral studentships as part of collaborations between a Higher Education Institution and an organisation in the museums, libraries, archives and heritage sector. The doctoral grant will cover fees and pay the student a stipend; the British Library will also provide a research allowance of up to £1,000 a year for agreed research-related costs. In addition to being able to draw on the researcher development opportunities and postgraduate community in both the Department of History and the Doctoral School at Royal Holloway, the successful student will become part of a vibrant cohort of collaborative doctoral researchers at the British Library, and benefit from staff-level access to its collections, resources and training programmes such as the Digital Scholarship Training Programme

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 4 May 2020. All applicants must have a good reading knowledge of French and meet the standard UKRI residency requirements for Training Grants. The successful student will be expected to begin on 1 October 2020.

For further details of the studentship, and the CDP programme, see the British Library Research Collaboration page or download the advert directly on the Royal Holloway website.

To discuss the project further, potential candidates are very welcome to contact Sophie Defrance (sophie.defrance@bl.uk) or Robert Priest (robert.priest@rhul.ac.uk) in advance of submitting an application.

Additional reading:

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’, Electronic British Library Journal, 2005.

Bettina Müller, ‘The collection of French caricatures in Heidelberg: The English connection’, French Studies Library Group Annual Review, 8 (2011-2012), p. 39-42.

W. Jack Rhoden, ‘French caricatures of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune at the British Library’, French Studies Library Group Annual Review, 6 (2009-2010), p. 22-24.

10 March 2020

Jean Cocteau’s ‘Drôle de Ménage’

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The French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau is best known for his novels, his stage plays, his films and decorative art, and for having been linked to the major artistic movements of 20th century France.

Cover of Drole de Menage with an illustration of the Sun, the Moon and their children

Front cover of Drôle de Ménage ('A Strange Household') (Paris, 1948) J/12316.w.67.

So this book might be surprising: it is the tale of the marriage of the sun and moon and of their children, written ostensibly for children. At the time of publication, in 1948, the theme and images would have strongly resonated, for children and adults alike, with Charles Trenet’s successful 1939 song “Le soleil a rendez-vous avec la lune”, a famous and humoristic metaphor of the impossible relationships between men and women. In Cocteau’s book, however, the Sun and the Moon eventually meet and marry. They have children, but can never find the time to look after them, having to work night and day. They have the idea of entrusting their education to a lazy balloon-seller dog: catastrophe! The children start to behave like dogs, and the experience ends in disaster. After crying a lot, which ruins both the summer holidays and the crops of that year because of the incessant rains, the Moon and the Sun find a wonderful Nanny, a Star, which also acts as a nightlight for the children (who nevertheless regret their wild dog education).

Illustration of the wedding of the Moon and the Sun

Wedding of the Moon and the Sun, Drôle de Ménage

It is hard to tell to what extent the book was really for children, and really an expression by Cocteau (who considered himself first and foremost a poet) of graphic poetry. Although usually writing for adults, Cocteau has written a lot about lost children, and the trappings of parenthood and education – from the Enfants Terribles in 1929 to Les Parents Terribles in 1948, turned into a film and a play in 1948. The book, printed in 2720 copies, is illustrated all over by whimsical, and sometimes scary (the blood-red image of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, stays with you) drawings by Cocteau, and coloured on each page by a big block of colour. In the “dedicace a nos jeunes lecteurs” (address to our young readers) Cocteau seems to play with his own artistic work: “Autre chose: si les couleurs de notre livre vous déplaisent, prenez vos crayons de couleurs et ne vous gênez pas” (“and another thing: if the colours of our book are not to your liking, take your colour pencils and don’t restrain yourself”).

Page from 'Drôle de Ménage' with an illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens

Illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, Drôle de Ménage

Cocteau’s a-conventional take on the story, however, might lie in the colours: the book ends on the ambivalent image of the severe Nanny-Star holding the hands of quiet, but now sad, children – the only image coloured in grey.

Final page of 'Drôle de Ménage'. The severe Nanny-Star holds the hands of the quiet, but now sad, children.

Final page of Drôle de Ménage

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

06 March 2020

Children’s Tales from Across the Channel (2)

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The British Library has just launched its new ‘Discovering Children’s Books’ web pages, a treasure-chest of stories, poems and illustrations from old favourites to modern classics, with plenty to discover along the way. This venture has inspired us here in European Collections to reflect on some favourite and classic children’s books from the collections we curate and the countries we cover.

Cover of Ježeva kućica with an illustration of the hedgehog smoking a pipe and having tea in his underground home

Cover of Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Zagreb, 1974). X.902/3982

Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Hedgehog’s Home)

Chosen by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

‘There is no place like home’ and there is no other story that better conveys that message than the Yugoslav fable Ježeva kućica by Branko Ćopić. Ćopić wrote the story in 1949 but the famous picture book came to life in 1957, with illustrations by a well-known Croatian painter and illustrator, Vilko Gliha Selan (1912-1979).

The main protagonist is a hedgehog called Ježurka Ježić, a name cleverly derived from the word jež (hedgehog in both Serbian and Croatian). His English counterpart is Hedgemond the Hunter, as named by S.D. Curtis in Hedgehog’s Home, a relatively recent and first translation into English published by Istros Books (YK.2013.b.3589).

Ježurka Ježić wanders in the woods, hunts and is known by all of the other animals. One day Ježurka receives a letter from Mici the fox inviting him to a party, which he gladly accepts. After what seems like an abundant feast, Mici tries to persuade Ježurka to stay but he is keen to get back to his cosy home. The curious fox decides to follow Ježurka and see what the fuss is about. On her way she picks up the angry wolf, the hungry bear and the greedy wild boar, only to discover that Ježurka’s home is indeed a very humble abode. But for Ježurka his home is his castle, he takes pride in working and defending his precious home. The message of this popular and timeless Yugoslav tale is universal, that of love for what is ours, especially for our home.

Three covers of Histoires de Babar with illustrations of Babar the elephant

Three copies of Histoires de Babar (1930s) from the British Library collections: LB.31.c. 2337, LB.31.c.2154, LB.31.c.2155.

Jean de Brunhoff, Histoires de Babar

Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

In the summer of 1930, a pianist named Cecile de Brunhoff invented a bedtime story for her two sons about the adventures of a little elephant. The boys liked it so much that they asked their father, the artist Jean de Brunhoff, to illustrate it for them. This led him in 1931 to produce a book published by the Jardin des modes – an avant-garde fashion magazine and publishing house directed by his brother Michel de Brunhoff. It was an immediate success. Histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar), was quickly followed by Le voyage de Babar (The Travels of Babar), in the same year, and Le Roi Babar (King Babar) in 1933.

Jean de Brunhoff created four more Babar books, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 37 in 1937. Laurent, who was 12 when his father died, later succeeded him and went on to produce more Babar books. Over the years, Babar has been many things to many people and embodied many of the complexities of children’s literature (accusations of colonialist undertones and of scenes too scary or sad for children have even led to an essay boldly asking “Should we burn Babar?” (Kohl, 2007)) but the stories of Babar, now the subject of exhibitions the world over, are still read by parents and children alike today.

Cover of the first Swedish translation of The Hobbit with an illustration of Bilbo by Tove Jansson

Cover of J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Bending the rules slightly, here is an English classic in its first Swedish translation that the library has just recently acquired. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was first published in 1937 to critical acclaim, leading to the demand for the sequels that became The Lord of the Rings. Although revisions were made to subsequent editions of The Hobbit as the fictional universe developed through the later works, the Swedish translation, published in 1962, is based on the original. The library holds some unique archival material from Tolkien, including this Map of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world was influenced by the sagas and legends of Northern Europe and its own significant contribution to that fantasy tradition is evident in the choice of Tove Jansson, creator of Moomins, as illustrator. Jansson’s wide-eyed, juvenile figures populate Tolkien’s epic mountains and dark forests, an imaginary landscape already so familiar to the artist’s imagination.

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books: Happiness! (X.990/2342), Felelj szépen, ha kérdeznek! [=Answer nicely when you're asked!] (YA.1990.a.12972) and If I were a grown-up… (X.990/2343), with an opening from Happiness! below.

Hungarian children’s books by Éva Janikovszky, with illustrations by László Réber

Chosen by Ildi Wollner, Curator East & SE European Collections

During the 1960s-1980s Hungary's young enjoyed a series of attractive and witty children's books written by Éva Janikovszky (1926-2003). Her typographically chopped-up texts are abundantly interspersed with distinctive illustrations by caricaturist László Réber (1920-2001). The stories tend to revolve around child-adult relationships, voicing the ponderings of a young boy. He proudly shares his reservations and realisations on the weighty issues of life at his age, all with the utmost seriousness. On the one hand, these books were presumably aimed at helping children to navigate the maze of the big world – refreshingly, not in an overly dogmatic way so typical of those times. On the other hand, they also made grown-up readers smile (including hopefully at themselves!), as they were confronted with their own ingrained but not always reasonable behaviours. We hold several of Janikovszky’s books in our collections, in both the original Hungarian and English translation.

An engraving of the white cat by Voldemārs Krastiņš in Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill

Engraving by Voldemārs Krastiņš from Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill, translated by W.K. Matthews (Stockholm, 1952). 12802.aaa.42

‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’)

Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

The fairy tale ‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’) by the Latvian writer and politician Kārlis Skalbe (1879-1945) is firmly part of the Latvian literary canon. This tale of compassion and forgiveness was recently recognised as the nation’s favourite book. It tells the story of a white cat who owns a mill. After spending his money on his daughters’ dowries, the cat falls on hard times and sees his mill being taken over by an evil black cat. Turned away by his daughters, chased by dogs and pelted with sticks and stones by children, the cat finally finds his way to the royal palace where he tells his story to the sick king who “grieved for all that man and beast suffered in the world” and is so compassionate that “skilled court physicians advised him to bind his heart with golden hoops, that it should not tremble so easily at every sigh”. The cat surprises the king by refusing to bear any grudges against his tormentors, teaching him the value of forgiveness. As in traditional fairy tales, order is restored at the end – the cat gets his mill back, the king is cured of his illness and new life begins at the palace.

17 January 2020

‘How delightful to be a governess’ [not]: Anne Brontë in Translation

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‘Parson’s lass ’ant nowt, an’ she weänt ’a nowt when ’e’s deäd,
Mun be a guvness, lad, or summut, and addle her breäd.’

Those hard-headed words of Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer: New Style’ rang bitterly true in a family where ‘parson’s lass’ was the youngest of four surviving children out of six. The Rev. Patrick Brontë’s daughter Anne, born on 17 January 1820, had no choice but to earn her own living, and a teaching position, whether as a governess or in a school, offered respectability and an income, albeit a modest one. In her first post Anne earned £25 per year. Meagre as the material rewards were, though, her months with the Ingham and Robinson families provided her with others – a fund of experience and a determination to expose the humiliation and exploitation suffered by other women in her situation.

Pencil portrait of Anne Bronte
Anne Brontë, drawn by her sister Charlotte

As the youngest of three sisters, plus a scapegrace elder brother, Anne might have been expected to be accustomed to deferring to others and displaying the submissiveness required by her employers. If we are to believe her sister Charlotte’s account of her, she had all these qualities; the picture which Charlotte paints of her in the most delicate pastel tones suggests a muted meekness and piety which nowadays seems dangerously close to mawkishness. Samantha Ellis, in Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life (London, 2017; DRT ELD.DS.181944), describes how the taxi driver taking her to Thorp Green, the site of Anne’s second post, was unaware that there was another sister besides Charlotte and Emily.

This state of affairs is reflected to some degree in the British Library’s holdings of translations of Anne Brontë’s two novels and her poetry. Their scantiness contrasts strongly with the numerous versions of Jane Eyre or Emily’s single novel Wuthering Heights, and the fact that the majority of them are 20th-century publications suggests the slow growth of international awareness of her significance. The earliest in the collections is a French translation of Agnes Grey dating from 1859 in which Anne is not even accorded the dignity of a book to herself but shares it with a translation of her elder sister’s Shirley – both novels being attributed to ‘Currer Bell’, Charlotte’s pen-name, while poor ‘Acton Bell’ is completely obscured.

Title-page of a French translation of 'Shirley' and 'Agnes Grey'
Title-page of the translations of Shirley and Agnes Grey by Ch. Romey and A Rolet (Paris, 1859) 12602.d.3.

Another French translation, Agnès Grey, was published in 1949. It is easy to see the appeal of this work in a society where the governess was also a familiar figure in middle- and upper-class families, and where, indeed, French was, like music and drawing, one of the obligatory subjects in a curriculum designed to fit eligible young ladies for the marriage market. However, superficial accomplishments did little to enable them to choose wisely, as Agnes’ former pupil Rosalie Murray laments after becoming Lady Ashby, deploring her husband’s ‘carnet de paris, sa table de jeu, ses filles de l’Opéra, sa lady une telle, sa mistress une telle, ses bouteilles de vin et ses verres d’eau-de-vie et de gin!’ In contrast, Agnes, after two miserable experiences as a governess to charges who are spoilt, odious or uncontrollable, returns home to run a successful school with her widowed mother, and makes a happy marriage when independence has rendered her able to make a free choice.

Anne’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, similarly highlights the importance of education in enabling a woman to make a life for herself, escape an abusive marriage and support herself and her children. Helen, its heroine, is at first dazzled by the handsome and wealthy Arthur Huntingdon, and convinces herself that the flaws in his character are due to neglect by his unsatisfactory mother. The marriage rapidly deteriorates through his drinking and mental and physical cruelty, and Helen finally leaves him, taking their child, and adopts a new identity under her late mother’s maiden name. She is able to make a living from painting because she treats it as a serious pursuit, taking lessons to develop her talent (one of the most painful scenes in the novel is that where Arthur burns her work), and becomes a well-regarded (and saleable) artist. Likewise, Agnes Grey’s elder sister Mary develops her artistic gifts and by doing so not only earns a decent living but lifts herself out of the depression which envelops her after the family’s decline into poverty. Nor does this preclude a happy marriage, as we learn when Agnes goes home to help with the preparations for Mary’s wedding to a young clergyman.

The title of this second novel provides some interesting challenges for the translator. In a French translation by Maurice Rancès (Paris, 1937; 12643.a.41) Helen becomes La Dame du Château de Wildfell, suggesting the banks of the Loire rather than rugged Yorkshire, while a 1985 Hungarian translation (YF.2006.a.11670) makes her simply Wildfell asszonya (‘The Lady of Wildfell’). A Russian translation which also includes Agnes Grey makes her Neznakomka iz Uaĭldfell-Kholla (‘The Unknown Lady of Wildfell Hall; wisely, translators have avoided attempts to tackle the name of her residence which produced some bizarre results in the case of Wuthering Heights). This translation appeared in 1990, and also contains her poetry.

Cover of a Russian translation of Anne Bronte's works
Cover of a Russian translation of Anne Brontë’s novels and poems (Moscow, 1990); YA. 1995.a.15633.

The strangest ‘translation’, though, is one purporting to be a Spanish version of a joint production by Charlotte and Anne Brontë from a German translation of a text never published in English. Adversidad (Barcelona, [1946]; 012643.tt.74.) is the work of one Ricardo Boadella, who in his preface claims that the novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, bears the unmistakeable stamp of the sisters’ admiration for Nelson, their interest in education and their devotion to duty as illustrated by the hero, ‘Rockhingham’ [sic], who becomes a martyr to it. One would like to think that Anne – a far more courageous and spirited character than she is conventionally perceived – would have relished this preposterous pastiche.

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

26 December 2019

One of the very best Danish bookplate artists: two recent Ebba Holm acquisitions

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According to Otto Wang, author of niche publications in defence of the reputation of Danish ex-libris, and writing in 1927, no one had received more praise for their bookplate artistry than Ebba Holm. A painter, engraver and illustrator, Holm became most famous for 108 linocut illustrations to a 1929 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Christian Knud Frederik Molbech’s translation. Otto Wang sees Holm as belonging ‘to the not too many Danish artists who have really been interested in this special little art [of ex libris] and realized that it is necessary to cultivate it and subject it to a special study’.

In Wang’s survey of Holm’s ex libris art, he suggests the artist has given us two of the greatest Danish bookplates, one being for Harald and Karen Abrahamsen (answers on a postcard) and the other being Ebba Holm’s own. Recently, the library acquired L’Opinion et l’amour, a 1830 French book belonging to Holm herself, so we are lucky enough to be in the possession of this famed ex libris. Sadly we don’t know much about Holm’s personal library, and whether she had chosen the book because it was a historical novel written by a woman, Madame de de Saint–Surin, who had also written about the Middle Ages, or for its pretty binding by Janet, a Parisian bookbinder known for his decorative tastes. In any case, it is exciting to see her choice for this most personal design:

Ebba Holm’s ex libris featuring a knight on a horse

Ebba Holm’s ex libris from Madame de Saint Surin, L’Opinion et l’amour (Paris, 1830), awaiting shelfmark

Holm’s love of medieval imagery, or of all things medieval, is expressed in her own bookplate, which features a knight (or could it be Joan of Arc?) holding a spear from which floats a banner displaying her name.

The library has since also acquired a copy of Johannes Jørgensen’s Dantestemninger (‘Dante moods’), a limited edition from 1928, which features a quartet of poems first published in Jørgensen’s collection Bag alle de blaa Bjærge (1913) here in large format alongside four striking woodcuts by Ebba Holm. Our copy has a small book label designed by the illustrator and stuck on the inside back cover. It bears her initials and is adorned with what looks like a heraldic eagle.

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Jørgensen and Holm were both Italophiles. Jørgensen (1866-1956) lived in Siena from 1914 and wrote the lives of St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden after his conversion to Catholicism around 1895.

The Dantestemninger were written at the time he was composing his work on Catherine of Siena and his research into the period allowed Jørgensen to explore an interest in Dante. As Jørgen Breitenstein has written, the poems often explicitly recall Molbech’s translation of Dante, as we see at the end of Jørgensen’s first poem’s reference to Inferno III, 1: ‘og fører ind til Staden, fuld af Jammer’ (‘Per me si va ne la città dolente’ / ‘Through me the way into the suffering city’). That said, Jørgensen portrays a wet, foggy, autumnal forest that has no real parallel to Dante’s Inferno, and Holm depicts a lost forest-bound protagonist in the first woodcut.

Jørgensens Inferno

Jørgenson’s Inferno in a Northern European sylvan mood

Holm might be said to deviate from Jørgensen’s second poem as she depicts the protagonist’s encounter with Beatrice. Holm’s scene might be based on Dante’s Florence but the city is also simple and industrial, the encounter itself without any of the symbolism of Jørgensen’s (and Dante’s) association of Beatrice with fire and flames.

Woodcut depicting the meeting of Dante and Beatrice

Dante meets Beatrice

The third poem deals with Dante’s exile from Florence and the fourth with Dante and Beatrice’s ascension in Paradiso.

Woodcut of Dante in exile. He is sitting under a tree and his hand is resting on a book. Florence is depicted far in the background.

Dante in exile

Woodcut depicting Dante's ascension to heaven

Dante in paradise

Holm’s illustrations here are accomplished without being remarkable but they can also be seen as preparatory for the more lavish, impressive and ultimately prize-winning linocuts for the later Divine Comedy edition. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a copy of this but we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for a fine edition!

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections, and Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Johannes Jørgensen, Dantestemninger (Copenhagen, 1928) LF.31.b.13902

Otto Wang, Ebba Holms Exlibris (Kolding, 1927), 2708.g.23

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team

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Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

The British Library has, for the third year running, worked with the British Fashion Council on the Research Collaboration Project. This year Glaswegian radical designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year, followed in October by a Masterclass organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition. Charles Jeffrey, considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the BL resources. The show and tell, being the interactive part of the Masterclass, gave curators opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of the visually intriguing collection items.

Image 1

‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – The British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

In this blog post the European and Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’, as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief.

 

Picture of marble pavements in St Mark's basilica, Venice

Ferdinando Ongania, Dettagli del Pavimento ed Ornamenti in Mosaico della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia, Venice, 1881 (74/tab.1283)

Ferdinando Ongania and his Venetian workshop spent more than 10 years (between 1881 and 1893) publishing the 18 volumes of La Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. Inspired by John Ruskin’s work, Ongania commissioned studies to historians, architects, and archaeologists, and put together an exceptional body of photographs and illustrations. His work depicts every single detail of the exterior and interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica, from the architecture to the sculptures and the decorations. The British Library owns the full set, but the volume I chose for the show and tell focuses solely on the mosaic floors, whose drawings I find particularly inspiring for the kaleidoscopic richness of the details and beauty of the colours.

Valentina Mirabella – Curator, Romance Collections

Abstract floral designs

Abstract floral designs

G. Darcy, Or et Couleurs, Paris, A. Calavas, [n.d.] Probably 1920/1921? (fF5/3743)

The designs in the albums contain a variety of geometric motifs, flowers, plants and birds typical of the Art Deco style. Art Deco fashion, which started in France in the 1920s, and took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, was inspired by new artistic movements, most notably Cubism and Fauvism, by the bright colours of the Ballets Russes, and by the “exotic” styles of Japan, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art, among others.

The technique of “Pochoirs”, or stencils, used here, was at the height of popularity in France during the 1920s. It was frequently used to create prints of intense colour and the brilliant effects of gold and silver, as expressed in the title of these collections of plates. The full title explains further that the plates were made in the “new taste” for use by “Fabric makers, Decorators, and ornaments designers” – it was for sale at the bookshop of the Arts Décoratifs.

A particularly interesting feature of this item is that it comes from Nottingham Public Library, which acquired it very soon after its publication. It was quite successful, and was borrowed 25 times between 1922 and 1930.

I chose this item because of my interest in the Art Deco movement and the pochoir technique. The plates are very beautiful of course, and the colours are still incredibly vivid, but most of all I think it is fascinating to have a real proof of interest from readers (presumably amateur decorators and fashion lovers) in the 1920s.

Sophie Defrance – Curator, Romance Collections

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January 2020 when during the reverse show and tell students will reveal their work inspired by the British Library collections.

For featured American collection items please see the parallel American Collections blog.

23 October 2019

‘The Shakespeare of the dance’: Jean-Georges Noverre

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As we celebrate World Ballet Day in the year which sees the centenary of the birth of Margot Fonteyn, arguably the greatest ballerina that a British company has ever produced, it is instructive to consider how much farther back the tradition of ballet as we know it extends. In the very first line of a pamphlet entitled Problema russkogo baleta (‘The Problem of Russian Ballet’), A. L. Volynskii claims that ‘Modern classical ballet was born in Russia, and grew up there’ – a statement which, had he read it, would no doubt have left Jean-Georges Noverre speechless.

Cover of Problema russkogo baleta with a drawing of a ballerina

Cover of Problema russkogo baleta (Petrograd, 1923) YA.1997.a.20295

Noverre was born in Paris on 29 April 1727, and was expected to follow a military career like his Swiss father. Instead, though, the young Jean-Georges chose a vocation requiring equally rigorous discipline, studying dance with a M. Marcel and then with the famous Louis Dupré and making his debut at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 8 June 1743. This led to further engagements abroad; while still in his teens, Noverre performed at Fontainebleau, and in Berlin before Frederick II, at whose court he met Voltaire. The king’s excessive thrift, however, led his maître de ballet, Lany, and several of his colleagues to break their contracts and desert the Prussian court in 1747. Noverre became ballet master in Strasbourg and created his first great success, Les Fêtes chinoises, there. He went on to Vienna, where he worked under Empress Maria Theresa and became maître de danse to her 12-year-old daughter, the future Marie Antoinette, who later became his patron.

Portrait of Noverre

Portrait of Noverre from Deryck Lynham, The Chevalier Noverre: father of modern ballet (London, 1950) 7920.e.34

In 1755, he went to London with his family and his company to work with David Garrick at the Drury Lane Theatre. He had access to Garrick’s library, enabling him to study classical literature and draw on it for subjects for his ballets while developing his own methods of teaching dance and choreographing for the stage. It was here, in 1756, that he began to formulate his ideas in a treatise published four years later in Lyons.

When the London production of Les Fêtes chinoises was destroyed by rioters on the eve of the Seven Years' War, Noverre and his family were forced to go into hiding. Although he continued to oversee productions at Drury Lane, he was not credited on the playbills. When Marie-Antoinette became Queen of France in 1774, she recalled her former dancing-master, and appointed Noverre to the Paris Opéra. However, in 1779 Noverre was displaced from his position because rival ballet masters and dancers Jean Dauberval, Maximilien Gardel and Mlle Guimard campaigned against him, although he did not finally leave the Opéra until 1781.

Noverre’s innovatory ideas are preserved in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets, of which the British Library holds a copy of the first edition (1760); it was translated into English in 1782. He was strongly opposed to the flamboyant virtuoso style of Italian choreographers such as Gasparo Angiolini, his successor in Vienna. Maria Theresa herself declared in 1774 that Angiolini was ‘producing abominable ballets’ there, and said of Noverre that, although he was ‘unbearable, especially when he has had a little wine which frequently happens to him, […] I find him unique in his art and his ability to get something out of the most indifferent material’.

Title page of Lettres sur la danse  et sur les ballets

Title page of Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (Lyons, 1760) 785.b.54.

The type of material which Noverre brought to life is evident from another volume in the British Library’s collections, Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre. This contains details of ballets such as his first great dramatic piece, Der gerächte Agamemnon / Agamemnon vengé, first performed in Vienna in 1772. In a preface, Noverre anticipates criticism for taking liberties in his presentation of great classical myths, but defends his decision to bend the rules in accordance with contemporary taste, maintaining that ‘a ballet is not a drama, and that it is impossible for a production of this kind to be subordinated to the strict rules of Aristotle’. The action conflates the entire Oresteia of Aeschylus, culminating in a scene where Orestes is ‘terrified by the Furies, tormented by Crime, Remorse and Despair personified, and finally rent by the bloodstained spectre of his mother’ (providing, no doubt, not only a terrific spectacle but all kinds of opportunities for vengeance by any performers with a personal grudge against the dancer portraying Orestes).

Title page of Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre

Title page of Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre (Vienna, 1776) 11739.a.7

Besides Garrick, the great influences on Noverre’s work were the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose opera-ballets he greatly admired, and the dancer Marie Sallé, notable for her acting abilities and imaginative use of mime, who collaborated with Handel during her London seasons. Sallé also shared Noverre’s belief in the potential of ballet for dramatic expression and narrative rather than mere displays of impressive footwork. Cooperating with Noverre allowed Sallé to introduce many of her own ideas, including costumes which departed from the rigid ceremonial quality of earlier productions and allowed the dancers greater freedom of movement. For Noverre, as later for Wagner, ballets within operas could not be merely inserted to provide a pretext for glittering display, but should be closely integrated into the action: ‘the dancers … would have to abandon their posturing and take unto themselves a soul’.

Noverre’s own life was almost as eventful as the plot of any of his ballets. In June 1776 he returned from Vienna to Paris, retaining his post there until the French Revolution reduced him to poverty. He died on 19 October 1810 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, at the beginning of a century which would see his concept of the ballet d’action established as the basis of classical ballet performance throughout Europe.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services