Thursday 24 December 2015

Christmas with a splash - and what the Dickens?

What does Christmas mean to you? Peaceful time spent with family and friends; long journeys to be with those you love; solitary rage and alcohol abuse; a one day gap in the retail opportunities; the coming of the Saviour? It means many things to many people. Most librarians use the time to take a break from their lavishly paid work and get away from the fast cars, the gaming tables, the endless social whirl and the Hollywood glitter of the working year and avoid books at all costs. 

What on earth am I going to get Cook for Christmas?
Before our chauffeurs come to pick us up, whisk us to Asprey's for last-minute presents and drive us to our respective estates, however, let's give the Taittinger another minute or two in the bucket and glance briefly through the grimy window of the past to a couple of oddities from the Victorian and Edwardian Christmases we so often see portrayed. Since we have all probably seen enough of Tiny Tims, of Ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, of Marley's Ghost and of Mr Fezziwig's balls, we'll glance first at wood engravings done by Edward Dalziel (1817-1905) for the Chapman and Hall 1863 edition of Dickens' Christmas Books. We eschew A Christmas Carol itself:

Stunningly detailed work - the originals are no more than an inch or two in height. As a change of pace from the tender and domestic, a scene from Edelweiss, the Good Words Christmas Story for 1886, and a roistering company reminiscent of that in the Library staff room pictured by artist Harry Furniss:

Your humble reviewer has only had time to scan Edelweiss briefly, and since the remainder of the scenes, while affecting, chiefly appear to concern people expiring in garrets, we shall move on.

The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, by Washington Irving, imagines Christmas on the lower floors of the house, and to much better cheer in the illustrations of C.E. Brock, picturing the festive season for the 1924 edition of William Glashier in London:

It is the proposal of this blog that tasting home made wines is to be preferred to any number of garret-hauntings and nocturnal sempstressing exploits.

Back out of the '20s to a real Edwardian Christmas card: surely here our latter-day Dickens Christmas, our Sunday evening television dose of poke bonnets and ruddy-faced cherubs; perhaps a turkey? Not so, Christmas bloggeteers. Our young correspondent's message first:

Victor has not decided on the obvious route, as indeed neither had Tuck's Postcards, despite their proud boast of Royal patronage for their series of Christmas cards, even if they were less patriotically printed in Saxony. Was Kenneth Brandon at all surprised to find that Christmas for Victor was all about cats splashing about in the sea? Not a mince pie for miles.

A very Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!

Monday 21 December 2015

Christmas magic - Rylands new exhibition casts a few of our spells!

Our friends at the John Rylands Library have found the midnight of the year - the shortest day and eve of the longest night in twelve months - the best time to launch their exhibition on the dark arts,
Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World, curated by Jenny Spinks and Sasha Handley. We've been able to lend one or two items to add to the mix: here are a few examples of the kind of thing we're talking about:

John Dee's copy of De Remediis Secretis, Lyon, 1555
This is the title-page of a tiny printed book, evidently bought by John Dee, polymath, astronomer,  mage, astrologer, adventurer, scientist, bibliophile and talker to the angels, as soon as it came out. He covered his copy with notes and sketches as well as signing and dating the title page firmly in his fashionable Italianate scholar's hand. Wisely so, if not necessarily effectively, as the huge library he built up over the course of his life was pillaged more than once. He may not have seen himself as a   sorcerer, but whispers abounded, and the knowledge he and a very few others in the western world  were exploring seemed like magic to most. Dee's remarkable role in the academic life of his age is about to be the subject of another interesting exhibition, Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians.

While Dee may have been at one or more removes from actual Black Sabbaths and midnight excavations, our manuscript of Tractatus de Nigromantia could slot very neatly into a Hammer Horror set.  Much as the scholar Konrad Gesner hid behind the pseudonym 'Euonymus Philiater' in writing of his secret remedies in Dee's book, a series of magical works falsely claiming to be the work of the Franciscan philosopher  Roger Bacon were circulated, including this with its fantastic scripts and impenetrable diagrams. We've already given it some airtime on our website as part of our 101 treasures, so we'll let the pictures speak for themselves - go to see the exhibition, but be safely in bed by midnight on Christmas Eve ...

All a little baffling? Scroll on ...
Beginning to get any clearer?
Now this diagram evidently explains Ezechiel.
But would Ezechiel himself be any wiser for it?
A Happy Christmas to one and all!

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Pop-up Afternoon Tea at Chetham's!

We are thrilled to be working with the lovely people at the Tea Alchemist to offer a pop-up Afternoon Tea event in January next year. It will be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy gorgeous tea, sandwiches and cakes in the stunning surroundings of the Baronial Hall, with time to wander around the medieval buildings and seventeenth-century Library.

It's an ideal post-Christmas present for yourself and a friend, perhaps a quiet break from sales shopping? You can have a look at the mouthwatering menu here. Tickets and Christmas present vouchers are going fast and are available from the Tea Alchemist's website now.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

P-p-picking up Penguins


No, we're not talking about the iconic, chocolate biscuit ad from the eighties... the Library has just been given a box of the (almost) equally delicious King Penguin books!

Regular visitors to secondhand bookshops will be familiar with the ubiquitous King Penguins: small, decorative and eminently affordable, they have been popular with cash-strapped collectors since the first volume (K1 British birds on lake, river and stream) was published in 1939. The series eventually ran to 76 volumes and the final book was published in 1959.

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books, wrote that 'the original idea for King Penguins came from the small Insel-Verlag books which were published in Germany before the war. Why, we felt, should there not be a similar series of books in this country? The experiment, started a few weeks after war broke out, turned out to be successful. One of the most distinctive features of this series is their decorative covers.'

The books were Penguin's first foray into hardcovers and full colour printing. They focused on art, architecture, antiques and nature, were heavily illustrated, initially reproducing plates from out of copyright works, but still relatively cheap at one shilling per book.

Lane was a savvy businessman and described the King Penguin series as being designed 'to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes on special projects' - in fact he was pretty much aiming from the start to market the series at collectors, with each book allocated a unique number.

Verlag had used patterned covers on reprints of classics, for example medieval woodcuts, and initially Penguin adopted a similar practice - the covers were original commissions but the actual images were reproductions of the work of well known artists/images, for example the very first book used John Gould's bird prints, the second was Redoute roses, and other early books featured images of Christ, and historical caricature.

After the first half dozen books were published, Nikolaus Pevsner became the series editor in 1941 and persuaded a number of well-known writers, artists and designers to contribute to the series including Edward Bawden, John Piper, Ronald Searle and Enid Marx.

At this stage the covers became much more inventive, for example the design by Marian Mahler, a textile designer, for Fashion and fashion plates by James Laver, features charming little costume drawings in grey, pink and white, arranged as a repeating pattern.

Also in this style is English ballet by Janet Leeper published in 1944. The pink cover by Kay Ambrose is decorated with leaping dancers but the book became very popular due to the humorous inclusion on the spine of a tiny penguin wearing a tutu.

Some of the outstanding volumes, both artistically and in terms of desirability for collectors, are those which feature original artwork and illustrations by contemporary artists and designers. John Piper actually went to stay in Romney Marsh and then wrote 'a description of his visit in watercolours, drawings and words' for King Penguin in 1950 and Kenneth Rowntree provided evocative, atmospheric watercolours for A prospect of Wales by Gwyn Jones.

A very different but delightfully decorative volume is Popular art in Britain by Noel Carrington. The cover design is of two brightly painted carousel horses and there are wonderful line drawings and coloured lithographs of farm waggons, Staffordshire figures and country crafts, by an artist of whom little is known, called Clarke Hutton.

Noel Carrington also provided the introductory essay for arguably the most collectable King Penguin of all, Life in an English village illustrated by Edward Bawden. There is a note with the list of plates which states that 'the coloured illustrations in this book are from drawings made by the artist directly on to lithographic zinc plates. They are therefore originals and not reproductions of drawings made on paper'. The images are of a specific place - the village of Great Bardfield in Essex, where Bawden lived with his family and other artists including his friend, Eric Ravilious. Strangely, Carrington does not refer directly to Bawden's images, or Great Bardfield, in his essay. 

So we come to the unsung hero of the King Penguin series,William Grimmond, who over a period of ten years, designed no fewer than 16 covers for the series, though, with the exception of a map (in A book of Greek coins) he is never credited with any other artwork. His first book was Elizabethan miniatures in 1943 and his last, published posthumously, was Magic books from Mexico in 1953. He was obviously a very flexible artist and seems to have been able to adapt aspects of the subject of a book to provide a cover design as required - however, his cover for Wildflowers of the chalk seems to be a more personal drawing and has great charm. Grimmond remains something of a mystery, although there are apparently references to him in the Penguin Archive at Bristol University. He seems to have exhibited quite widely and worked as an illustrator (there is even a story that he was responsible for the famous Start Rite twins image) Curiously, although he lived in Surrey for much of his life, he was actually born in Manchester and studied at the School of Art.

Eventually rising production costs brought to an end the King Penguin series with the final title, published in 1959, being The sculpture of the Parthenon. They were published in large numbers so none of them are really rare. However, we haven't quite got the full set of 76, so, if you come across a bundle of King Penguins in your attic, there are still half a dozen or so that we need!

With thanks to Patti Collins for another wonderful blog.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

The Medicine Cabinet: Unlocking Manchester's Medical History

On Saturday 12 December MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies students from the University of Manchester will be presenting a pop-up exhibition in collaboration with the Museum of Medicine and Health.

'The Medicine Cabinet – Unlocking Manchester's Medical History' will be open on Saturday 12 December from 11am – 4pm here at Chetham's Library.

Discover the wonders of Manchester's medical history in the beautiful surrounds of Chetham's Library – open for one day only!