Tag Archives: illustration

Artistic Alphabets

A good friend of mine recently “published” a digital alphabet book app called The Curious Alphabet and as I was checking it out, I thought, wow, this is a creation that is very, very new and a genre that is quite old:  nothing is more traditional than an ABC book, but now it has broken free of its paper chains. Alphabet books are absolutely fundamental, but at the same time they have certainly inspired successions of artists, everyone from Albrecht Dürer in the sixteenth century to Man Ray in the twentieth and Steve Martin in the twenty-first.

Alphabet Curious Cover

Alphabet Curious

Screen Shots of A Curious Alphabet by Julie Shaw Lutts:  available here.

The publishers of alphabet books were always among the first to take advantage of new technologies: in addition to bibles and prayer books, ABCs constitute the most popular titles of the first century of print. Primers were not exclusively children’s books until several centuries later–and Dürer’s letter books are really more about the construction of letters than the instruction of the alphabet–but from at least 1800 a succession of artists seem to have felt free to indulge their whimsical appreciation of the alphabet, ostensibly for the sake of the children.

ABC Seller BnF


Alphabet Diabolique 1825

Alphabet Royal 1822

Alphabet Universel Anglais et Francais 1830

ABC of the Great War

PicMonkey Collage

ABC Book Falls

ABC Martineau A is for Alarm

ABC 3d Marion Bataille

A Portfolio of Primers:  Street Hawker selling ABC books in early sixteenth-century France, from the Anciens cris de Paris, Bibliotheque national de France; Albrecht Dürer, The Construction of Roman Letters, Dunster House 1924 edition, designed by Bruce Rogers; A page from the “Devilish Alphabet” engraved by Delannois, 1825, Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratif;  Royal Alphabet, or History of an Apple Pie, 1822; Alphabet Universel: Anglais et Francais, c. 1830; Andre Hellé, Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1916; Jean Saudé (Miarko), Capital letters W and O from L’Art Croquis d’Animaux, c. 1920; ABC Book with woodcut illustrations by C.B. Falls, Doubleday & Co., 1923; “A is for Alarm” from Every Girl‘s Alphabet (2006) by Luke Martineau and Kate Bingham; Marion Bataille, ABC 3D (2009).

Alice for the Ages

I’m a devoted aficionado of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which means I’m a fan not only of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), but also of the illustrator John Tenniel, whose Alice is Alice: we cannot think of the story apart from his images–the words and the pictures are an inseparable whole. Tenniel produced illustrations for many, many more publications besides Alice and Through the Looking Glass during his long life (1820-1914), but his illustrations for Carroll are the ultimate examples of what book illustration should accomplish: the creation of a tangible world in which the text’s characters dwell. And don’t we all want to live in Wonderland, at least for a little while? As today marks Tenniel’s birthday, I thought I’d share some of his beautiful hand-colored proofs from the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum. These are for the 1889 abridged “Nursery Edition” of Alice, which, ironically, has a cover illustration by a different artist: Emily Gertrude Thomson. As you can see, Thomson’s Alice looks very much like Tenniel’s: she is Alice, after all.

Tenniel Nursery Alice





Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proofs for the “Nursery” edition of Alice, c. 1889; Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1987.

Emulating Salem

I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.

Salem Room Philadelphia MA

Salem Room Winterthur McIntire Room

The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.

Salem Room

Salem Room 1928

The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.

Salem Room 1926p

Salem bed with border

1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.

It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.


May Day

Thanks to fond childhood memories (which I wrote about in last year’s May Day post) and my own rather whimsical penchant for the past, the first of May is one of my favorite days of the year. This year it is even better than usual because it marks the end of classes (yes, professors look forward to this just as much as students, perhaps more). There is lots of age-old advice about May Day, which, combined with artistic representations of bringing in the May–feasting, dancing, and processions (all while wearing garlands)– leads me to believe that it was once a much more important holiday than the non-event it is today. This is just a small list of things that you are supposed to do or not do in May, culled from a variety of sources, most from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries:  take off your “flannels”, organize a parade (especially if you are a milkmaid or a chimney sweep), cut down trees and greenery and deck the halls, dance, pick a May Queen, move house (???), but do not get married (unfortunately my anniversary is in May) or sleep with a blooming Hawthorn branch in your bedroom.

For my own May Day observance, I’ve collected a few flowery images from the past–where May Day is depicted with a strong undertone of liberation on at least this first day of the merry month of May–and my own present-day Salem. I think everyone feels a bit more liberated in the springtime, and students and professors at semester’s end.

May Day 1820

Thomas Lord Busby, Costumes of the Lower Orders of London, 1820 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Here is a rather fanciful depiction of  milkmaids and chimney sweeps in their May Day costumes, with the traditional Jack in the Green in the center, covered by a more masculine version of the traditional garland. Quite elaborate costume for the “lower orders”! This is one of 24 hand-colored etched plates “engraved from nature’ by Thomas Lord Busby in 1820: a rather voyeuristic, and expensive, collection that is brand new to me. Both milkmaids and chimney sweeps (but no Jack in the Green) are the central subjects of Francis Hayman’s earlier (and even more romanticized) painting, The Milkmaids Garland, or Humours of May Day (1741-42), below.

May Day Garland

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, Walter Crane’s images of May Day are both romantic and relevant: as devoted to the cause of the “lower orders” as he was to his art, he created the iconic Garland for May Day, 1895 which grounded politics in the same traditional imagery that is evident in his later illustration for Charles Lamb’s A Masque of Days (London: Cassell & Company, 1901).

May Day Garland 1895

May Day Masque of Days Walter Crane

Rather than a full-floral display, there are pops of color around town this morning:  it’s still early Spring in Salem. In my own garden, my perfect pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full flourish, and the boring forsythia a little past. Elsewhere in Salem, there was a lot to see on this May Day morning on my brief run around before (the last day of) classes.  I particularly like the last little striped flowers in the herb garden behind the Richard Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site–some type of tulip?

May Day 2 010

May Day 008

May Day 026

 May Day 029

Alphabet Books

A blog post by the British Library on their 15th century “Macclesfield Alphabet Book” set me off on a quest for more of these essential (and decorative) educational texts:  I figured that I could assemble a sample chronological collection that would span the centuries, and I was right: this is one literary genre that never went out of style, until now, I think. My portfolio of pages was gleaned from books produced both for learning the alphabet (primers) and learning to write, not necessarily the same thing but I make the rules! The Macclesfield text, for example, was written for professional scribes (or their prospective patrons) rather than children; centuries later the two types of texts merged a bit but still had somewhat different aims. For a better basis for comparison and evolution, I chose the letter D, my first initial.

Alphabet Sample BL Macclesfield

Alphabet Book Sloane 1448 15thC

Alphabet Book BL Harley MS 16thc

Alphabet samplers from British Library Add MS 88887, the “Macclesfield Psalter” (c. 1475-1525) and Sloane MS 1448a (later 15th century), and the embellished capital D in BL Harley MS 3885, sixteenth century. I love that the D in the Sloane MS takes the shape of a Tudor Rose.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, alphabet books, or ABCs, are pretty distinct from penmanship or “copy” books; the former were often a religious texts, as in ABC with Catechism, and the latter were strictly secular and far more aesthetically pleasing. Only towards the last part of the eighteenth century do we see more decorative alphabet books, and they get ever more whimsical over the next century, as children’s literature becomes a distinct and profitable publishing category.



Alphabet 1775 collage USC

Thomas Watson, A Copy Book Enriched with Great Variety of the Most Useful and Modish Hands (1700);William Chinnery, et. al., Writing and drawing made easy, amusing and instructive: containing the whole alphabet in all the characters now us’d, both in printing and penmanship: each illustrated by emblematic devices and moral copies: calculated for the user of schools and curiously engraved by the best hands … (1750); William Tringham, publisher, The alphabet rendered instructive and entertaining (c. 1775), University of South Carolina Libraries’ Digital Collections.

In the nineteenth century, alphabet books were in the capable and creative hands of such prolific illustrators as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, publishers like the McLoughlin Brothers of New York issued very specialized versions, and ultimately Man Ray produced an adult variation. Suddenly the alphabet book is a work of art–or was it always?

Alphabet D Greenaway V and A

Alphabet Crane 1909

Alphabet Baseball Book McLoughlin Brothers 1885

Alphabet Book of Country Scenes

Alphabet Book Man Ray 1970

Pages from from Kate Greenaway’s Alphabet Book (1885), Walter Crane’ Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909), McLoughlin Brothers & Company’s Baseball ABC Book (1885), and Alphabet Country Scenes Book (1900), as well as the French version of Man Ray’s limited edition Alphabet for Adults (1970).

Fool’s Parsley

My scholarly, botanical and materialistic interests intersected the other day when I came across a beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper print by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey named “Fool’s Parsley”, first produced in 1907. Even though it’s not really appropriate for my 1820s house, I love art nouveau and Arts and Crafts wallpapers in general, and Voysey’s designs in particular. The more I looked at the design, the more it reminded me of Sweet Cicely, one of my favorite plants in the garden, and so it was no surprise to learn that these two plants are in the same family. Though they have a very similar appearance, these herbs have very different natures:  while Sweet Cicely “is so harmless you cannot use it amiss” according to the old herbalists, Fool’s Parsley is very, very poisonous. Beauty can be deceiving.

Fool's Parsely Voysey 1907 V and A

Fool's Parsley 1856 Herbal

L0013947 L. Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii

“Fool’s Parsley”, or Aethusa cynapium, in a 1907 wallpaper pattern by Charles Voysey, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and 1856 and 1542 herbals by Constantin von Ettingshausen and Leonhart Fuchs, respectively, Wellcome Library, London.

Fool’s Parsley is often called “Lesser Hemlock” in herbals from the Renaissance onwards, emphasizing its Socratic connection and toxic qualities rather than the evergreen tree. Along with Sweet Cicely, it belongs to the large Umbelliferae plant family, named for and distinguished by its lacy, umbrella-like flowers and including such beneficial vegetables and herbs as carrots, celery, dill, chervil, parsnips, and, of course, parsley. Besides the deprecating designation, there are many stories and anecdotes of poor fools who mistook the poisonous parsley for the passive one and ended up with severe nausea, headaches, and worse. But for CFA Voysey, this lethal plant was as beautiful as a rose, and by all accounts, his very best birds embellish the design.

PicMonkey Collage

Fools Parsley 1893

Trustworth Studios has reproduced Voysey’s design in light and dark colorways; Fool’s Parsley page from an 1893 German herbal, Etsy seller CabinetOfTreasures.

Easter Ambiance

I was writing a post about the computation of the date for Easter in the medieval period and after when it became clear that my technical text was taking the joy out of one of our most joyous holidays. Math:  what was I thinking? So I deleted all that dry stuff, and assembled some of my favorite Easter images, which hopefully are easy on both the eyes and the brain. This is a very random assortment: artistic and historical images, Easter advertising, items and scenes that caught my eye. To me, they just conjure up an Easter ambiance, with a bit of religiosity, a bit of whimsy, and a bit of spring.

Easter Nerius MS early 14th Met

Easter Decoration Krebs Lithograph Co 1883

Easter Sunday in Harlem Cartier-Bresson

The Letter A with images of Easter, northern Italian MS. by Nerius, early 14th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; “Easter Decorations” by the Krebs Lithography Co., 1883, Library of Congress; “Easter Sunday in Harlem”, 1950s, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Easter Hot Cross Buns Walter Crane 1890s

Eastertide Dora Batty

Easter 1936 ad Smithsonian

Delivering Hot Cross Buns on Easter Day, Walter Crane illustration, 1890s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Dora Batty advertisement for the London underground, 1934, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Western Union advertisement, 1936, Smithsonian Institution.

Easter Ensemble Eggs

Easter Crosses At West End

Easter-esque accessories from At West End.

Easter 001

Easter 007

Easter 005

Easter Bunny at Hawthorne Hotel

Easter 015

Easter in Salem: Bunnies (and heads) in the PEM gift shop and the window of Beautiful Things on Essex Street; the Easter Bunny at the podium at the Hawthorne Hotel a couple of years ago (I loved this picture when I saw it in Northshore Magazine and found it online; could not find a photographer credit, sorry); first flowering, finally!

Green with Envy

I have posted about green quite a bit on this blog:  green cards, green men, green rooms, the green fairy, my favorite shade of green. Yet it’s St. Patrick’s Day, so I’ve got to come up with something green–why not the emotion associated with the emerald hue? Shakespeare was specifically referring to jealousy with Othello’s “green-eyed monster” line, but jealousy is just a subset of the more all-encompassing envy, one of the seven deadly sins and the one conspicuous for its complete lack of pleasure: it leads not to material wealth or power or drunkenness, but only to a festering illness in which one literally eats their heart out. This self-inflicted sickness–described as a form of moral rotting–could be one source of the sin’s connection with the color green, as could its association with snakes, either alone or in the form of an allegorical Medusa-like character, but emerald (or chartreuse) envy seems to be more of a modern conception than a medieval one.

Envy 2008 by Michael Craig-Martin born 1941

Michael Craig-Martin, Envy (from the Seven Deadly Sins series), 2008.  Tate Modern, London.

Medieval manuscripts illustrate envy (invidia) in several ways:  on the iconic “Tree of Vices”, accompanied by a demon and its “sprouts” (detraction, treachery, treason, homicide, conniving, pleasure in the suffering of others–what we would call Schadenfreude–resentment, jealousy) and as a woman looking at something or someone with daggers (sometimes literally). Pride is always the root of the tree–the root all the vices– but envy is just one branch up from the fall of Man. Pride, represented by a King-like character riding a lion, and Envy, a sword-bearing woman riding a wolf, are closely associated in the fifteenth-century edition of penitential psalms below, and Envy reveals her jealous nature in a fourteenth-century Roman de la Rose. Green is not her color, yet.

L0029366 Tree of Seven Vices

Envy and Pride 2

Roy19BXIII_royal_ms_19_b_xiii_f006v_detail2 Envy1

The Apocalypse of St. John, c. 1420-30, Wellcome Library, London; British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, c. 1440-1450, and MS Royal 19BXIII, the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, c. 1320-1340.

Beginning with Giotto, the Renaissance shifted Envy decisively towards jealousy and generally portrayed her as an aged woman, tearing at her heart and/or eating an apple to illustrate her complete capitulation to temptation, often grotesque and emaciated, clearly suffering and sometimes chained, almost always with snakes. There’s a rather striking similarity between the depictions of Envy and witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the conception of envy in particular and the seven deadly sins in general become secularized. A notable exception is Hieronymus Bosch’s famous table painting, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which depicts envy with an illustration of a local proverb about two dogs with one bone seldom reaching agreement. Still no green.

Envy Giotto Arena Chapel 1306

Envy George Pencz

Envy Bosch detail

Giotto di Bondone, Envy panel from the Arena Chapel, 1306; Print by George Pencz, 1541, British Museum; Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things detail, c. 1485.

Looking through allegorical images of envy from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I still don’t see much green, but then again, prints predominate. Lots of snakes are in appearance, which is appropriate for a St. Patrick’s Day post as the cleansing of Ireland of snakes is part of St. Patrick’s mythology. At least the connection between women and this most miserable sin is broken, as envy appears in the form of both sexes and then only as a green snake.

Envy 17th century

Envy Snake 1796

Print by John Goddard, c. 1640, British Museum; “Envy” (perhaps a caricature of the Earl of Abingdon), Anonymous, 1796, British Museum.

Envy is depicted in all sorts of ways by modern artists and illustrators, though the aged-lady-turning-green (grotesque)-with envy certainly comes back with a vengeance! I don’t usually see things exclusively through the prism of gender, but it’s really interesting to me how this most self-destructive of sins is so often associated with women. In two twentieth-century Seven Deadly Sins series, the Belgian artist James Sensor envisions a christening in which the young mother (interestingly dressed in green) is looked on with envy by everyone around her, but by the middle-aged woman to her right with particular vehemence, and Paul Cadmus’s Envy definitely harkens back to the Renaissance. As before, envy does not make for a pretty picture; I think I prefer alternative associations for the color green!

Ensor Envy 1904

Envy Paul Cadums

James Ensor, L’Envie, from the 1904 portfolio The Deadly Sins, Art Institute of Chicago; Paul Cadmus, The Seven Deadly Sins:  Envy, 1947, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Oz Everlasting

Even before the big new Oz prequel movie debuted this weekend, I was already thinking about the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as yet another candidate for the Salem Athenaeum’s Adopt-a-Book program this year is the fourth title in L. Frank Baum’s series, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). Like the new film (which doesn’t seem to be garnering the best reviews), this book features a wizard who plays a much larger role than in the first book and classic 1939 film. In fact, the Wonderful Wizard is really the star of the story, defending Dorothy and her companions (including a cat named Eureka rather than a dog named Toto) from fierce vegetables, invisible people and bears,  gargoyles and “dragonettes”:  all in an underground world which swallowed them up following an earthquake. The Wizard is so exhausted after his labors that he decides to remain in the Emerald City permanently at the book’s end, and so he becomes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz forever.


Oz 2

In his Preface, Baum as much admits that he was reluctant to keep writing about Oz:  It’s no use; no use at all. The children won’t let me stop telling tales of the Land of Oz.  I know lots of other stories, and I hope to tell them, some time or another; but just now my loving tyrants won’t allow me.  They cry “Oz–Oz!  More about Oz, Mr. Baum!” and what can I do but obey their commands?  He also admits that his “tyrant” readers wanted to know more about the “humbug” Wizard who blew off in a balloon, and so he brought him to earth–or below the earth–again.  Not only does the storyline of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz focus on the latter’s heroics, the majority of illustrations in the book–both black-and-white sketches and watercolor paintings by John R. Neill, feature the Wizard, who does indeed enter the story in a balloon. Towards the end of the book, when everyone returns to the Emerald City, the Wizard reveals his and its origins, and this backstory seems to provide some of the plot for the current movie:  a humble circus performer from Nebraska whose appellation was Oscar Zoroaster (and many other names) Diggs, he emblazoned the initials “O.Z.” on all of his possessions, including his balloon, and was blown away to a strange land of rival witches whose inhabitants took him for a wizard. And so he became one.

Wizard in Balloon 1901

Wizard fightin Gargoyles

Wizard fighting Gargoyles 2

Oz Portrait of the Wizard

baum-poster 1901

A decade of the Wizard:  up and away in a W.W. Denslow illustration from the first book, 1901; fighting gargoyles in two watercolor illustrations from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz and a “portrait” (“From the Wizard’s latest photograph taken by the Royal Photographer of Oz”) by John R. Neill, 1908; the real Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, featured with his best-selling titles on a contemporary  poster issued by his publishers, Library of Congress.

Fennec Foxes (and a Scottish Explorer)

Begging your collective indulgence for one more fox post, I want to showcase another title from the rich collections of the Salem Athenaeum that is a candidate for the annual Adopt-a-Book program:  James Bruce’s Select Specimens of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and Nubia, the last volume of his five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768-1773 (1790).  This book had me at hello when I laid eyes on just one of Bruce’s “select specimens”, a nocturnal Egyptian desert fox with very large ears called a “Fennec”.

Fennec from James Bruce Select Speciments of Natural History Collected in Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Wow! You can’t get any cuter than this. I’m hardly the first person to be entranced by this desert fox; fennecs caught the eyes of several visitors to Africa after Bruce, including the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who based the wise fox character in The Little Prince (1943) on this particular species. I don’t remember noticing these ears in my childhood, but how could I have missed them?

Fennec Fox in Little Prince 1943

Fennec Foxes Tower by Joachim S. Muller

The Little Prince and the Fox, 1943; a “tower” of Fennec Foxes by photographer Joachim S. Müller.

I am so enraptured with the illustrations of the Fennec and other African animals in Bruce’s Select Specimens that the explorer himself has become the backstory for me. But the Scottish explorer and scientist James Bruce (1730-94) is very notable for being among the first modern European explorers of Africa and seekers of the source of the Nile, preceding the great Victorian expeditions by almost a century. He is generally credited with tracing the course of the Blue Nile, one of the Nile’s tributaries, and rediscovering and reintroducing Ethiopia to Europeans. Apparently his descriptions of African lands and life were viewed as so fantastic by his peers that his credibility was questioned, but his accounts were verified by later explorers. I just love his fauna, which he drew himself:  the bat-like fennec, the expected hyena and rhinoceros, a long-legged, long-tailed mouse called the “Jerboa”, a tail-less guinea pig-like creature called the “Ashkoko”, even his African insects and reptiles (though not the scary snake).

Bruce Rhinocerous croppped

Bruce Mouse Cropped

Bruce Ashkoko cropped

Bruce illustrations cropped

Illustrations from James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. Edinburgh: J. Ruthven, for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1790.


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