14 April 2023
Next week, on Friday 21 April, the Italian Cultural Institute will host a round table about Futurist books, with Dr Günter Berghaus (University of Bristol) and Giacomo Coronelli (Libreria Antiquaria Pontremoli, Milan). Introduction and chair by Valentina Mirabella (Curator of Romance Collections, British Library). The event is free but places are limited and registration is required.
Front cover of Ardengo Soffici’s Bïf§zf + 18. Simultaneità e chimismi lirici. (Firenze, 1919), 20009.f.12.
The event is dedicated to the work and collecting of Chris Michaelides (1949-2017), former Curator of Romance Collections, British Library. Chris was co-curator of the exhibition Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (2007) and we owe to him the acquisition of Marinetti’s tin Futurist book, Parole in libertà, and of an original edition of La prose du Transsibérien, Blaise Cendrars’s and Sonia Delaunay’s poem–painting.
Chris Michaelides in St Pancras Station in 2016, courtesy of Günter Berghaus
The Futurist book was instrumental in the circulation of Futurist ideas and represents a very experimental phase in book production, paving the way for the book object, the artist’s book, advertising and design. This round table will look at its importance and at the history of collecting Futurist books, in Italy and in the UK.
On this occasion, Valentina Mirabella will present an article she recently published on the British Library Electronic Journal, which contains a survey of the Italian Futurist collections held at the British Library. The survey, arranged by date of acquisition, is a tool for studying the circulation of Italian Futurist books in the UK, based on acquisition data contained in the British Library Corporate Archives and on the books themselves.
The event is organized with the support of Libreria Antiquaria Pontremoli.
For more information, visit the website of the Italian Cultural Institute.
30 December 2022
C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.
D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.
E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.
F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.
G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive!
H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.
I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.
J is for Jubilees.
Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.
K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.
L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.
M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.
N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.
O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.
Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.
Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan.
R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.
T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.
Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar.
W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.
X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)
Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!
Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.
Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
11 August 2022
Under the auspices of the German Studies Library Group in association with the British Library, the fourth Graham Nattrass lecture, Wittenberg 1522: Print Culture and Soundscape of the German Reformation, will be delivered on Tuesday 20 September 2022 at the British Library by Professor Henrike Lähnemann.
Her lecture will take us back five centuries to September 1522, when the Wittenberg printers had a bestseller on their hands: the German New Testament translated by Martin Luther over the summer. It sold so quickly that in December they produced a second edition.
Title-pages from the editions of Luther’s New Testament translation published in Wittenberg in September (above, C.36.g.7.) and Deccember (below, 1562/285) 1522
The lecture will contextualise this publication in the print culture and soundscape of its time. A particular focus will be on Reformation pamphlets from 1522 in the British Library and contemporary hymn production to spread the biblical message. The British Library and British Museum Singers will provide practical examples.
Title-page of Martin Luther, Das Huptstuck des ewigen und newen testaments, [(Wittenberg, 1522?]) 3905.c.68., one of the pamphlets that will be discussed in the lecture.
Before the lecture there will be a performance of music in the Library’s main entrance hall by the British Library and British Museum singers, conducted by Peter Hellyer, including pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.
The timetable for the event is as follows:
17.00: Music in the main entrance hall
17.30: Refreshments served in the Foyle Suite
18.00: Lecture in the Foyle Suite
Graham Nattrass (1940–2012) enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the British Library and its antecedents, starting at the National Central Library at Boston Spa in 1971. He became Head of the British Library’s Germanic Collections in 1996 and retired from the Library in 2005, as Head of West European Collections. He was Chair of the German Studies Library Group from 2003 to 2007, and a founding member of the group, which in 2016 instituted an annual lecture in his memory.
Henrike Lähnemann is Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Her research interests include medieval manuscripts, the relationship of text and images, and how vernacular and Latin literature are connected, currently mainly in late medieval Northern German convents.
Both concert and lecture are free to attend and open to all, but places for the lecture are limited, so if you wish to attend please contact the Chair of the German Studies Library Group, Dorothea Miehe ([email protected]).
05 August 2022
A while ago I was alerted by a colleague to a German item in our collections that appeared to have no catalogue record. It was bound with a list of books censored by the Austrian Empire in the late 18th century, so when I ordered the volume up, I assumed that the uncatalogued item would be something similar, perhaps even a continuation of the previous list.
However, when it arrived, it was obvious that, although only a fragment of a larger work, it was not at all similar, let alone related, to the other work in the volume. It began with a half-title page bearing the title ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ (‘Additions, improvements and printing errors’), so it was obviously an appendix to a larger work, and from the first two pages of text it was clear that the larger work was a guide to a spa town.
Opening of the mysterious fragment (818.d.9.(2))
Since the town was not named anywhere in the few pages of text, it might have been impossible to identify the place and therefore the book. However, a long-ago cataloguer had obviously had a better knowledge of spa culture than I did as there was a pencil note reading ‘K Carlsbad’. The letter K was used in the British Museum Library to indicate that an item had been catalogued, and the word after it denoted the heading used for it in the catalogue. So this was presumably a guide to the famous spa at what was then known as Karlsbad (anglicised as Carlsbad), and is today Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. From the look of the typeface and the style of writing – and based on the date of the other item in the volume – it seemed likely that it dated from the late 18th or early 19th century.
I knew from the pencil note that there had been a catalogue record made for the fragment, so went to the version of the printed catalogue published between 1979 and 1987 (known as BLC) to check it out. Perhaps it had been one of those odd records that had somehow fallen off the radar when the printed records were converted to an online format. But there was no heading in the catalogue for ‘Carlsbad’. There was one for the German spelling ‘Karlsbad’, which was a cross-reference to ‘Karlovy Vary’, but there was nothing there that could conceivably match the item in question.
So I had to go further back in time, to the first general catalogue of the British Museum Library, published in the 1890s and known as GK1. Here there was a heading ‘Carlsbad’ with a number of mainly anonymous works listed, including the item in hand. However, the record didn’t get me much further in identifying the book the fragment came from, describing it simply as ‘a fragment of some work on the mineral waters of Carlsbad’ with a speculative date of 1803.
At this point I had two options. I could either create something similar to the GK1 record on our current catalogue, giving approximate details and date, or I could see whether I could find an item that would match our fragment by searching online and create a fuller record. I thought I would try the latter and turned to one of my all-time favourite websites, the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue, which can be used to search a wide range of German and other library catalogues. By typing in ‘Carlsbad’ along with other keywords that might conceivably appear in the title of a German travel guide I found various possibilities, and the increasing availability of digitised editions enabled me to check for matches in most cases.
I was on almost my last attempt when I finally found what looked like a match in the collections of the Austrian National Library. Ironically, this copy didn’t have the ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ to make a direct comparison, but by cross-checking the corrections and additions with the page references from the original given in our fragment I was able to confirm that I had indeed found the right book, and to create a full catalogue record for it with a note explaining that we only hold a small part of the whole.
Engraved title-page of the complete work, from a copy in the Austrian National Library
Although I’m rather proud of myself for having solved this little bibliographical mystery, I doubt anyone will ever know why two such different items ended up bound together. But at least the fragment that we have is now identifiable.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
14 September 2021
Today, 14 September 2021, we mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His main work, the Divine Comedy, is widely considered one of the most important works of literature. His vision still informs our idea of afterlife: how Hell, Purgatory and Paradise look like. His poetry still moves and inspires.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.
This video offers the rare opportunity to look at the circulation of one work of literature across seven centuries. Nothing survives in Dante’s own hand. The manuscripts of the Divine Comedy are, for this reason, even more important. The invention of printing shows how Dante was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, and his limited fortune during the Baroque and Enlightenment eras.
The Romantic era, the Risorgimento and the Italian unification sparked a new and increased interest in Dante as national poet. The Divine Comedy was acknowledged as the greatest work of poetry in Italian and became the subject of studies in Italian schools and universities. Translations started to become popular outside of Italy (we have editions of the Divine Comedy in about 40 different languages in our catalogue) and Dante studies became a subject in itself.
Amos Nattini, Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII
Dante became popular in the mass media: for example, the first Italian feature length movie, commissioned in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification, was inspired by the Divine Comedy and titled Inferno.
The political importance of the Divine Comedy is shown by the number of editions published in the 20th century, many directly sponsored by the Italian government.
Two of them are shown in the video. La Divina Commedia novamente illustrata da artisti italiani a cura di Vittorio Alinari (Firenze, 1902-3; 11420.k.11.) is the first. This lavish edition includes works of 59 young artists who had won a contest to produce new illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Two of them, Duilio Cambellotti and Alberto Martini, both in their early twenties at the time of the competition, distinguished themselves with a work of great graphical interest that shows their Symbolist style and anticipates the development of Art Nouveau.
Duilio Cambellotti, Inferno, Canto X
The second work that I show is La Divina Commedia / illustrazioni di Dalì ([1963-64], awaiting shelfmark). On the occasion of this anniversary the British Library had the opportunity to acquire a precious edition of the Divine Comedy illustrated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalì. This edition was commissioned on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, in 1965. The painter took nine years to complete this work. In this collection of 100 watercolour woodcuts, Dalì adds elements of his iconic and unique imagination to Dante’s vision: desolate landscapes, crutches, spiders, figures with drawers.
Salvador Dalì, Purgatorio, Canto I
We couldn’t include them all in the video, but here are some other remarkable editions:
La Divina Commedia. Illustrazione su cento cartoline eseguita da artisti fiorentini, ideata e diretta dall’ingegnere Attilio Razzolini. (Milano, [1902, 03]). 11421.e.23. This is a collection of 100 postcards, one for each canto, in Gothic revival style. Each of them is decorated with miniatures by the illustrator.
La Divina Commedia, with plates by Amos E. Nattini. (Turin, [1923-41]). Cup.652.c.
La divina commedia. Introduzioni ai canti, di Natalino Sapegno. Disegni a colori di Antony de Witt. (Firenze, 1964). L.R.413.w.37.
Interested in learning more on Dante? Join us tonight for the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30).
Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections
04 December 2020
The world into which Christophe Plantin was born in 1520 was in great flux. Less than 40 years before, Europeans had landed in America; 50 years before that Gutenberg printed the first books using movable type. More new inventions made some time before became established, such as spectacles, the windmill and gunpowder. Martin Luther had just unleashed the Reformation which would result in a wider spread of literacy. What better time for setting up a printing business?
Cities flourished, including the port of Antwerp, a busy commercial hub on the Schelde. 80 percent of the Low Countries’ maritime trade landed there. Ports not only processed goods, but also knowledge and culture, so it is no wonder that ports like Venice, Antwerp and Deventer became centres of printing.
Plantin fitted perfectly within that world. He was dynamic and adaptable. He possessed good business sense and good organisational skills. So it was no wonder that he and his family moved from Paris, where he had originally established a bookbinding business, to Antwerp in 1548.
No institution tells the story of that history better than the Museum Plantin Moretus, based in the very house where the Plantin family lived and ran their hugely successful printing business for 300 years. The Museum had planned a year of celebrations, when COVID threw a spanner in the works.
Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens , ca. 1630. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Plantin’s phenomenal success as a printer has somewhat overshadowed the achievements of his earlier life as a master bookbinder. He was apprenticed to Robert Macé II in Caen, where he married Joanna Rivière. The Plantins set up shop in Paris in the mid 1540s before relocating to Antwerp, where in 1550 Christophe became a citizen and member of the Guild of St Luke, which regulated the work of painters, sculptors, engravers and printers. He also sold books, prints and decorated leather items in his shop, while his wife sold draperies. The quality of his work as a bookbinder was exceptional and attracted many important patrons (the binding pictured below was probably made for Queen Mary I of England).
Front cover of Jan Christoval Calvete de Estrella, El Felicissimo viaie d’el ... Principe Don Phelippe ... (Antwerp, 1552.) C.47.i.4
His decorative style, particularly the delicacy of his gold tooling, was influenced by the finest Parisian workshops. The way Plantin incorporated colour into the designs, however, was all his own, as we can see from the image below.
Front cover of Juan Boscán, Las Obras de Boscan y algunas de Garcilasso de la Vega repartidas en quatro libros (Antwerp, [1550?]) C.46.a.23
Why did Plantin abandon bookbinding? There are several theories. The version written by Plantin himself and later clarified in a letter by his grandson Baltasar Moretus is the most dramatic (if at the same time rather odd!). In 1554 or early 1555, a Spanish royal secretary, Zayas, then resident in Antwerp, asked Plantin to personally deliver a leather jewel casket he had made as a royal commission. On the way, Plantin was attacked by some masked and inebriated men. Apparently they mistook him for a zither player of their acquaintance who had behaved insultingly. It is said that the knife injury Plantin sustained meant that he was no longer able to bind books and needed an alternative career.
According to an account in the 19th-century British journal The Bookbinder, “As he no longer felt strong enough for a trade in which there is much stooping and movement of the body, there came to him the idea of setting up a printing-press. He had often seen printing carried out in France, and had done it himself.” Founding such an establishment required investment. Financial support from several sources have been suggested. These include Plantin’s assailants who were legally required to pay him damages; the aforementioned Zayas and Alexander Graphaeus (both important figures in Antwerp commerce) and the non-conformist religious sect the ‘Huis der Liefde’ (‘Family of Love’). Whatever the truth, Plantin “started the business, guiding and directing it with such understanding, with God's help, that even the earliest beginnings of this press were admired, not only in the Netherlands but throughout the world.”
In 1576 Plantin set up a second printing shop in Leiden and served the new university there for two years, before returning to Antwerp.
The British Library holds 835 titles and editions that have Plantin as publisher on the record. Amongst these is a catalogue of titles published by Plantin up to 1575, available online via our Universal Viewer, or Google Books. Other titles have been digitised too and are available in the same way.
M. A. Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections, and P J M Marks, Curator of Bookbindings
‘Plantin the Binder’, The Bookbinder, v. 5, 1891-92, p. 215
De Boekenwereld , v. 36 (2020) nr 1
05 November 2020
Frederick William Cosens (1819-89) began his working life aged 17 when he joined the sherry firm of Pinto Pérez in London as an invoice clerk. It was the start of a highly successful business career. In 1848, he set up his own sherry export-import company, based in London and with bodegas in Jerez and Puerto de Santa María. Then, in 1862, he entered the port wine business in partnership with the London-based firm Da Silva. In 1877, Silva & Cosens merged with the prestigious Dow & Co. Cosens’ income allowed him to build up substantial collections of fine art, printed books and manuscripts. At his death, these were auctioned at five sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s catalogue of Cosens’ printed books highlighted ‘Spanish and Portuguese literature, and numerous publications relating to Cervantes, Calderón, Lope de Vega… standard works by English and foreign writers…’. He also owned books on Spanish painting, Peninsular history, travel accounts and an extensive collection of Spanish chapbooks. Arguably, drama held the greatest attraction for him, notably Shakespeare and the Spanish theatre of the Golden Age. Dickens, Cervantes and Galdós were among his favourite novelists. He also contributed articles and reviews to the Athenaeum and Notes and Queries on a range of Spanish topics, plus not a few on Shakespeare.
Frederick Cosens’ bookplate. The plate appears in many of Cosens' books acquired by the BL.
Cosens was also active as a translator. He produced English versions of two 17th-century Spanish plays on the legend of Romeo and Juliet: Lope de Vega’s Castelvines y Monteses and Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla’s Los bandos de Verona. These were privately published in 1869 and 1874 respectively. His treatment of the two plays was very different. Cosens translated the whole of Lope’s play into English verse, while of Los bandos he put into verse only ‘such portions … as bear some reference to Shakespeare’s tragedy’. He regarded Lope’s play as superior to Rojas Zorrilla’s and provided only necessary linking passages in prose in the latter.
English translations of the two Spanish plays were among Cosens’ manuscripts auctioned at Sotheby’s in July 1890. The manuscript of Castelvines is held by the library of the University of Pennsylvania, while that of Los bandos is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The latter is written in an even copperplate hand and is evidently the fair copy of a close literal translation in prose. The published version, however, is very different, both in the summary passages in prose, and also in the selected passages of verse. The style of the latter is highly poetic.
Title page of the Sotheby sale catalogue of Cosens’ manuscripts (1890) SC.Sotheby
Cosens’ library also contained copies of translations into English prose of other Spanish literary works. These included poems by Lope de Vega, Spanish ballads, Gonzalo de Berceo’s life of Santo Domingo de Silos and the medieval Spanish epic, the Poema de Mio Cid. The evidence of the literal prose translation of Los bandos suggests that it was the first step in a process that ended with the published text. Except for a version of a tale from Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor, Cosens published no other translations, although he evidently did intend to publish a version of the Poema de Mio Cid, but stopped when John Ormsby’s was published in 1879. His interest in the medieval narrative works has rarely been commented upon and the location of the translation of Berceo’s Vida de Santo Domingo is – as far as I know – unknown. There also remains the question whether Cosens himself was responsible for the prose translations or whether he employed someone to produce them as the basis of potential literary versions.
Cosens’ interest in Spanish literature and art began most probably in Spain in the course of his business career. His collection of Spanish books had begun by 1854 when he sent a list of some 500 books to the Orientalist and scholar, Pascual de Gayangos, who later would catalogue the Spanish-language manuscripts of the British Museum Library. Gayangos commented that Cosens subsequently acquired many more excellent books. Some of these could be those that he purchased at important auction sales, e.g. those of Lord Stuart de Rothesay (1855) and Richard Ford (1861). Gayangos’s role in Cosens’ development should not be underestimated. He continued to advise and assist him in the acquisition of Spanish books, as he did with notable Hispanic scholars including Stirling-Maxwell, Ticknor and William H. Prescott. It was Gayangos who, together with his son-in-law, J.F. Riaño, selected and had transcribed for Cosens documents from the archive of the Conde de Gondomar, Spanish Ambassador to London (1613-18, 1619-22), held at the Archivo General de Simancas.
When Cosens’ library was sold at Sotheby’s in 1890, Gayangos purchased a number of the Spanish manuscripts and considerably more of the printed books. These were acquired for the Spanish national library following Gayangos’ own death in 1897. The British Museum purchased 37 printed books in Spanish, the majority published in the 19th century. Henry Spencer Ashbee purchased 15 items related to Cervantes, all of which came to the British Museum Library with his bequest of 1900. Just one Spanish manuscript – an account of the reign of Felipe V - was purchased, although the transcriptions of Gondomar’s papers were acquired for the Public Record Office.
Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections
Santiago Santiño, Pascual de Gayangos. Erudición y cosmopolitismo en la España del siglo XIX (Pamplona, 2018) YF.2018.a.9696
Barry Taylor & Geoffrey West, ‘The Cervantes Collection of Henry Spencer Ashbee in the British Library’, in Studies in Spanish Literature in Honor of Daniel Eisenberg, ed. Tom Lathrop (Newark, DE, 2009), pp. 337-61. YD.2009.a.4481
Geoff West, ‘The Acquisition of Spanish Chapbooks by the British Museum Library in the Nineteenth Century: Owners, Dealers and Donors’, in El libro español en Londres..., ed. Nicolás Bas Martín y Barry Taylor (Valencia, 2016), pp. 61-80. YF.2017.a.19281
12 August 2020
This post is part of our ‘Inheritance Books’ series with the Americas blog, where colleagues choose an ‘inherited’ item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to ‘pass on’ to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they’re important to us. This week, Marja Kingma, responsible for the Dutch collections, shares her choices.
The one item that I would consider to be my inherited item is a 16th-century herbal, which has been a constant presence over the ten years I have been a curator for Dutch Language Collections. It is without a doubt my favourite item from the Dutch Language Collections.
It is a Latin edition of Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydboeck, or herbal, Stirpium historiæ pemptades sex, sive libri XX, printed in 1583 by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp. It was THE standard book on plants for almost 200 years.
We hold two copies, but my favourite copy is at shelf mark 442.i.6.
Title page of Stirpium historiæ pemptades sex, sive libri XXX. (Antwerp, 1583). 442.i.6.
I had only just taken up my position as curator in January 2011 when I received an enquiry from a reader relating to this copy. I cannot remember what the enquiry was about, but I do remember my utter amazement and surprise when I opened the book.
It is full of manuscript notes, in the margins, in between text blocks and on inserted pages, crossed out sections, hand-coloured images of plants, cut out from some other book (another edition of his Cruydboeck, perhaps?). It had five dried plant specimens in it, now separately stored in a special case.
The title page of the second edition of 1616 states: ‘Varie ab auctore, paullo ante mortem, aucti & emendati’ (‘In several places augmented and amended by the author shortly before his death’). Dodoens himself edited the second edition shortly before his death in 1585. Could this copy be the editing copy?
It was none other than Hans Sloane, one of the founders of the BL’s collections, who acquired this copy. His catalogue number is written on the title page (to the right of the words ‘medici caesarii’ on the title page pictured above).And it was none other than Joseph Banks, another founder of our collections who acquired the second edition. (442.i.7). I display both copies at show-and-tell sessions for visitors, where I lay them side by side so you can trace the changes made by Dodoens. We also hold many more editions of Dodoens’ Cruydboeck, as well as other titles written by him.
Last September BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time recorded an episode at the British Library. I asked the panel whether they could identify the dried plant specimens. It turns out they are all medicinal plants. I like to think they were inserted by Hans Sloane, which would make them 300 years old.
The link between Dodoens, a Fleming of Frisian descent who taught at the newly established university in Leiden, the city I was born in, with Sloane and Plantin makes this copy very special to me. The copy is digitised and will be available online via our website in due course.
The book I would like to pass on is a wonderful artist’s book, entitled Spijker-schrift, by the avant-garde artist Willy Scholte. This is also a unique book, for it is handmade and one of only six copies. Willy was self-educated as an artist and her handmade publications were usually issued in small editions
Front cover of Spijker-schrift (Amsterdam, 1985) HS.74/2416.
Scholte was one of very few women artists in Amsterdam working with Stempelplaats, an avant-garde printing house/artists’ studio in Amsterdam led by Ulises Carrion and Aart van Barneveld, from its beginning in 1976.
The book plays with the concept of nails. Spijker-schrift is the Dutch term for cuneiform, and there are two clay tablets with cuneiform texts, one a quote from the Assyrian period. The clay is of course modern. It is attached to cardboard ‘pages’, two of which have nails in them. The pages are wrapped in a cardboard cover, which is covered on the inside in words and texts relating to nails, produced using a stamping technique. You can watch a video about it on the @BL_European Twitter feed.
Spijker-schrift is a marvellous work and I am so happy I have been able to acquire it, thanks to a London based dealer who specializes in mail art, concrete art and similar avant-garde art forms from all over Europe. It is a valuable addition to our small but nice collection of works by concrete and mail artists from the 1970s and 1980s.
It is an art form I knew nothing about before I became curator, but I am getting to know it better and love it. I hope to write more about it in future.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
N.B. Items mentioned in this blog were acquired and previously owned by figures who are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.
29 April 2020
Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman never was the luckiest of men. He lost his father at a young age and during his career as a printer he fell on hard times a couple of times. He always managed to overcome his problems with creativity and optimism, but on 29 April 1945, barely three weeks before his 63rd birthday and only three days before Groningen was liberated, Werkman was executed together with nine others. At the same time most of his works were destroyed in the battle for Groningen that raged at that moment.
Undoubtedly the best source of information about Werkman and the British Library’s holdings of his work is Anna Simoni’s article from 1976 in the British Library Journal, which is available for free online. Simoni, herself an exile from Nazi Germany, was curator for Dutch Collections from 1950 to 1981. It is thanks to her that the Library holds such an extensive collection of Werkman’s work and his clandestine works from the Second World War in particular.
Werkman was a painter before he was a printer. He was a member of the Groningen artists’ group De Ploeg (‘The Plough’) and took part in a exhibition of their work in 1938.
Self-portrait of Werkman from the catalouge of the 1938 exhibition, Lustrum tentoonstelling van schilderijen en zwart wit werken van leden van “De Ploeg” in de zalen van “Pictura” van 25 Sept. tot 10 Oct. 1938 ... (Groningen , 1938). Cup.406.b.97
His printed works are just as artistic as his paintings. They were called ‘druksels’, a word sitting halfway between modesty and irony. The word belies the work that went into them and the innovative techniques Werkman applied to them. Most titles are only a few pages long. They range from translations of the Psalms, and other religious texts to poems from the Eighty Years’ War and specially-written poems by both Dutch and foreign writers. The Library owns 41 titles Werkman published clandestinely between 1940 and 1944. Because of the scarcity of paper he used other materials, such as brown packing paper.
Print runs ranged from ‘a few copies’ to 40 to 150. As Simoni notes in her article (page 72) not all copies are the same. Hand pressed from several templates, Werkman would shift them slightly to make another version. The Royal Library (KB) in The Hague carried out a systematic research project on their own collection of ‘Werkmaniana’ which showed similar deviations in many copies. This makes them unique works, rather than part of a print run.
Hopefully similar research will be carried out on our collections, to see whether our copies differ from those at the Royal Library. Unfortunately for the time being this will have to wait.
With no access to our collections at the moment I refer to the webpages on Werkman on the Royal Library website for examples of images of his work. The Chassidische legenden (‘Hasidic Legends’) are among his most famous work. The British Library holds a facsimile edition of Werkman’s original of 1942/3 consisting of two sequences of ten loose druksels, each with the text of passages from Buber’s Die Legenden des Baalschem from the edition published in Berlin, 1932, in German, with F. R. A. Henkel’s commentary in Dutch. It was published in Haarlem in 1967 (C.160.c.15).
Later in 1945 a friend of Werkman’s, Willem Sandberg, then at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam held an exhibition about Werkman. Other exhibitions would follow, the latest one was held in 2015 at the Groningen Museum.
Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections
References and further reading
More on H.N. Werkman at the Royal Library, The Hague. https://www.kb.nl/themas/boekkunst-en-geillustreerde-boeken/de-blauwe-schuit-en-hn-werkman-1941-1944
Catalogus. H. N. Werkman, drukker-schilder, Groningen. Tentoonstelling, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 24 november tot 17 december 1945 ([Amsterdam, 1945]) X.805/2781.
Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, Brieven rond De Blauwe Schuit, 1940-1945 (Amsterdam, 2008) YF.2010.a.9693
Anna E. C. Simoni, ‘Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman and the Werkmaniana in the British Library’, British Library Journal, vol. 2 (1976) 70-87
Dieuwertje Dekkers, Jikke van der Spek, Anneke de Vries, H.N. Werkman: het complete oeuvre (Rotterdam, 2008) LF.31.b.4972.
Willem Sandberg, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, 1882-1945 (Sacramento, 2004) RF.2019.b.31.
Het verborgen woord: drukken van Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman en andere clandestiene publikaties uit de collectie *** / samenstelling Marieke van Delft (The Hague, 1995) YA.1995.a.22294.
26 December 2019
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 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
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.
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.
Dante meets Beatrice
The third poem deals with Dante’s exile from Florence and the fourth with Dante and Beatrice’s ascension in Paradiso.
Dante in exile
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
Johannes Jørgensen, Dantestemninger (Copenhagen, 1928) LF.31.b.13902
Otto Wang, Ebba Holms Exlibris (Kolding, 1927), 2708.g.23
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