4.27.2013

Scrapbooking: mishaps and object lessons

The scrapbook is pretty large, about 15 x 17. Each linen page is pasted back and front with scraps of printed woodcuts and engravings hand-colored with watercolor paint.
The whole thing is dirty, creased and coming apart— but its fabulous.
At last years Ephemera Fair, Doug, Sam, and I bought a large scrapbook of brightly hand-colored printed illustrations. Culled from a series of British children’s chapbooks, the scrapbook’s most recent image appears to date from about 1837 but many of the images are “cuts” created years, even decades before. All the clippings are affixed to pages of linen edged in red silk and are bound in a now-disintegrating cover marked “Juvenile Scrapbook” and “B. de B. Russell.” 

“B. de B. Russell”? Was that a business, place
,
or person?


Person.

We discovered what we had purchased in Connecticut in 2012 was a scrapbook created 175 years ago to mark the birth of a little tyke with a preposterous name
. It turned out Blois de Blois Russell was born at the very start of the Victorian era, on June 6, 1837, near Birmingham, England. He rowed crew for St. John’s College, Oxford, and, according to a sniffy email response from the Oxford registrar’s office, he was most certainly matriculated as a “commoner” (not nobility or even a “gentleman-commoner”). We also discovered he died under unrecorded circumstances in 1860 just before his 23 birthday. He seemed to have come from compromised stock as his brother and a sister both died very young as well. Whether being saddled with the name Blois de Blois Russell had any impact upon his health is unknown.

And now, a bit of background on the chapbook: Stories, ballads, rhymes and popular tales of piety were passed down through the generations verbally. These oral transmissions started to be written down and printed in the 16th century as broadsides, leaflets and booklets called chapbooks. These were popular, cheap, and cheaply produced texts of instruction of any sort, typically from 8 to 32 pages and sold by itinerant peddlers called chapmen. “Chap” is etymologically related to an old (Middle?) English word for “trade” (see place name Cheapside in London), and by extension, cheap. Chapbooks in the form of manuals of instruction and entertainment specifically for children became popular in the mid-1700s. These small chapbooks and other printed matter proliferated and gradually took the place of the medieval educational form of hornbooks—the alphabet carved on a wooden paddle and literally covered in a transparent sheet of horn. Chaps were sold plain as printed or colored for an extra cent or two. Who did the coloring? Surely women and children. Pure speculation, but what a Dickensian thought: little waifs with their paint pots working in the dim glow of a lamp, so other, more cosseted children, like B. de B. Russell could enjoy their handiwork...

4.12.2013

38+ shades of grey

Iceland greys
19th century Dufour et Cie Psyche grisaille wallpaper panel. the paper trail
Farrow and Ball paint chips
undyed wool
Claremont Grisaille, fabric by Schumacher
Confederate greys
my mother and her pet chicken, 1930s
above and below, Vija Celmins, Ocean, 1975 and Explosion at Sea, 1966
ash, carbon, cinder, lead, smoke, fog, battleship, greige, Davy’s, charcoal, heather, flint, cement, slate, silver, platinum, titanium, warm, cool, dark, light, medium, pigeon, elephant, graphite, pearl, dove, glaucous, Cadet, cinereous, mouse, gunpowder, stone, fuscous, liard, lavender, blue, steel, mercury, chinchilla, seal

I've been thinking about grey. A design job I was working on turned unexpectedly difficult this past week when the printing of some 4-color greys proved to be a stubborn wrangle. [In printing, as you may know, all colors are reproduced as flat (or Pantone) inks or represented by overlapping tint screens of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink ("4-color" or "CMYK")]. Grey, I have confirmed firsthand, can be difficult to capture in 4-color printing. The tone can shift to purple, green, or a brown muddiness; ironically there is a lot of color buried in grey.
Despite an array of odd, unlovely and opposing connotations, I've always loved grey. It has an elegant subtlety, range, and depth: Grey matter, grey flannel, Grey Lady, eminence grise, strength, intelligence, sophistication, business, storminess, boredom, depression, old age, grey area, doubt, indistinct, equivocal, dustiness, dirt, disuse, poverty, humility, religious asceticism, modesty, conformity, totalitarianism, secrecy, shadows, fog...  Grey is protean; it's never black or white.

4.09.2013

The Anatomy of Swearing

"The fact is swearing is an instrument, which like any other can only be effectively played
when it is sustained by a sufficient amount of feeling."


It sounded good. I found The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montagu randomly at the Library hoping it might bear resemblance to one of my favorite books of recent times, The Anatomy of Disgust. (Also, I was amused at the idea of swearing being parsed by someone who may as well have called himself Percy, Lord Foppington)

Swearing is fundamental to human behavior, providing a psychological as well as physiological release. Montagu asserts that it is "a means of expressing anger and potentially noxious energy is converted to a form that renders it comparatively innocuous." He explains distinctions between swearing that draws strength from invoking sources of religious power and the sacred, and swearing that calls upon the secular, the "prohibited" and the prurient. Also, that swearing owes much to the form of the judicial oath, (May I be gutted like an oyster if its not true) whereas cursing invokes some evil to be cast upon the subject (A pox to thy bones). Obvious perhaps, but interesting enough, none-the-less, to someone who never thought about it before. He sets out to cover swearing from antiquity (did you know swearing was sex-determinant in Greece and Rome? Ostensibly women swore by female deities, men, male gods) onwards up through an unintentionally humorous analysis of motherfucker (“It may be used as a pejorative or as an honorific”).

Yes! the book is a bit high-flown, could you tell? Montagu revels in the British love of wit and wordplay (he touches admiringly upon invective and sportive swearing, essentially skillful put-downs as performance art). Here's a magnificently dashed off explanation which I loved:

Damn remains the great English shibboleth, the most widely used of intensives, and the one most likely to steer the swearer clear of the Scylla of profanity and the Charybdis of vulgarity.
Getting beyond the basic groundwork, though, I often found the book difficult to follow... The distinctions between swearing, oaths and cursing start muddying since definitions or partial definitions are given numerous times in differing ways. Mostly, I think, I got lost amidst the liberal excerpts from Shakespeare, Rabelais, Sterne, Smollett, Byron and on and on... Far, far too many long and digressive quotes, pages really, reproduced verbatim which was just a tad too much for this attention-challenged reader to handle.

I was hoping to get profanity, blasphemy, vulgarity and obscenity laid forth in a buffet of verbal amuse-bouche, but I got a fucking five- course sit-down dinner instead.

4.03.2013

Top Form


White silk, or probably beaver, hat, c 1848, from iphotocentral 
Below, how did the top hat sink so low?

Lincoln in his stovepipe at Antietam, 1862
Mose, famous Bowery B'hoy and fireman, was a New York urban hero character popular for decades.
Mose's and Bill the Butcher's hats should probably have had more in common, but the subtleties may have been more than the costume designer was able to discern.
"Bill the Butcher", Gangs of New York
His hat probably would have been glossy black with a flat brim, similar to Mose
Civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and below, second from right, at the attempted launch of the steamship Great Eastern, November 1857, via His hat seems a little worse for the wear
Ambrotype of two would-be dandies, c.1855. via FIDM
A conformateur, a hat-fitting device. See much more at the Musee du Chapeau in Bern
The Brighton Swimming and Sea Bathing Club, 1863, via
"Modifications of the Beaver Hat"
Henry IV of France, 1591-- Top hat progenitor?
Above and below, two Incroyables— young French aristos who mixed reactionary politics with outrĂ© fashion
after the Revolution. They're both cutting very daring figures for 1798 by wearing the "Titus" haircut—
we know it as a Caesar—and abbreviated top hats.
This is when the top hat really got going.

The man above is also carrying a noteworthy accoutrement— the umbrella.
The Mad Hatter by Sir John Tenniel, 1865/1871, and Uncle Sam by Montgomery Flagg, 1916/17: both wear white or dove beaver toppers in the flared, modified "Wellington" shapes. Uncle Sam would have appeared pretty retro in 1916
Ladies in riding habits, c 1900
Astaire, making a last hurrah for top hats in the eponymous movie, 1935
Top hat, beaver hat, high hat, silk hat, chimney pot hat or stovepipe hat: all names for the tall, flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, primarily recognized in the United States as a receptacle from which to extract rabbits and for being Abraham Lincoln’s headgear of choice. A bit of history:

Something that appears similar to a top hat crops up sometime in the very late 16th century. During the 17th century vaguely top hat-like appurtenances called capotains could be found atop Puritans (think "Pilgrim Hat" ) and English Civil War antagonists. I don't really count these.

The style really picks up after the French Revolution when those who kept their heads
dared to throw off the powdered wigs and adopt outlandish head gear. (See those crazy Incroyables and Merveilleuses.)

Top hats made from felted beaver fur dominated the 19th century (the industry practically wiped out the beaver). I've always loved the exaggeratedly tall Lincolnian version but the subtleties of this type of hat are myriad. It took on dramatic cylindrical, flared or pegged crowns (rising to over 8 inches in the 1850s); brims could be wide and flat disks, or rolled and swooping. There were even collapsible "Gibus" variants made so everyone could attend the opera without coming to blows.

The top hat steamed its way into the 20th century (by now made of glossy silk plush) and made it through the 1930s retaining most of its dignity. By Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration it was an awkward throwback. And alas, as the 21st century dawned, this once crisp and debonair hat was relegated to Halloween costumes, a few cloying rock guitarists, and legions of Steam Punk aficionados and Comic Con attendees.

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