Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets

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It’s not exactly the most appropriate moment to be recommending an exhibition in New York given the chaos in the city following the recent hurricane. However… Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets has been running at MoMA since August, and will continue into early 2013. A copy of the catalogue turned up this week, a slim volume of 64 pages that’s nevertheless an essential item for Quay obsessives such as myself.

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Set design for A Flea in Her Ear (1989).

I’ve written before that while the Quays’ films are the most visible part of their oeuvre, much of their early output as artists and designers remains either obscure or unavailable. So it’s a pleasure to find a number of their early drawings, poster designs and book covers reproduced here. The catalogue also features examples of gallery installations and their designs for the stage. Ron Magliozzi, the curator, and Edwin Carels contribute essays while the Quays themselves are “interviewed” by Heinrich Holtzmüller “who was once real and now only exists under the glass of a museum vitrine in Nürnberg”. An appendix includes a thorough listing of their film works, giving me more things to chase at a later date.

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In addition the Quays have also designed parts of the book, notably the title pages which feature their idiosyncratic typography. The catalogue may be purchased direct from the museum.

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Grand Box, decor for Street of Crocodiles (1986).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD

In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds

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I probably overspent a little on this charity-shop purchase, the third edition (published 1918) of In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a personal selection of writings first published in 1893. First edition copies sell for over a thousand pounds so this was an opportunity to acquire something close to the original without breaking the bank. The book is significant for two reasons: on a decorative level the cover design is one of my favourites by book designer (he preferred the term “book builder”) Charles Ricketts. The first editions have the design blocked in gold on cream cloth (below); a few copies were made with blue cloth but Ricketts apparently changed the colour after worrying that reviewers would joke about “Reckitt’s Blue” a popular laundry product. The contraposed curves of the leaf shapes pre-empt the Art Nouveau style which only started to emerge a year or two later.

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The other notable feature of Symonds’ book is its being one of the more outspoken manifestations of the author’s advocacy for what he called “a man’s love for a man”. Symonds was a pioneer of what are now called gay studies: in addition to accurately translating the love sonnets of Michelangelo which previous translators had heterosexualised, his 1873 study A Problem in Greek Ethics sought to show 19th-century readers that the Ancient Greek culture they so admired had an indisputable history of same-sex relationships running through its core. This was only one side of Symonds’ work but it was an admirably continual thread. I often think of Symonds and Oscar Wilde as twinned in this respect: Wilde made frequent use of Greek attitudes as a justification for his views on love; both men had to perform a careful balancing act, trying to advocate the unacceptable without drawing too much attention to their own proclivities. If Wilde was the public advocate for Uranian desire then Symonds was a kind of think-tank man, labouring behind the scenes to bring to light the historical precedent. Finally, both men were connected by Charles Ricketts, a friend of Wilde’s who designed and illustrated a number of Wilde’s early editions.

In the Key of Blue was published in the last year of Symonds’ life by which time much of his previous equivocations had been abandoned. In homoerotic terms it’s far more out of the closet than pre-trial Wilde ever dared to be. The title piece is a poem which presents eight studies of an unnamed “you”, a figure seen by the poet in various Venetian settings, painted in a range of colours with blue as the dominant tone. I have the poem in another book; taken alone as it is there it seems mildly homoerotic—the ecstatically observed subject is obviously male—but remains ambiguous enough for any subtext to be a matter of interpretation. In the collected edition Symonds adds additional text that picks apart the poem, explaining the origin of each setting. Thus we learn that the mysterious “you” is a 19-year-old Venetian porter named Augusto whom the author had befriended. The explanatory paragraphs discuss the artistic intent of the poem, its depiction of contrasted tones and colours, while the circumstantial details quietly remove all the ambiguity from its paean to male youth.

Elsewhere in the book, there’s a discussion of male love among the Greeks, culled from Symonds’ earlier researches, then in Clifton and a Lad’s Love, written thirty years earlier, we have another piece of alternating poetic verse and prose description. Part seven of the poem could hardly be less equivocal:

I saw a vision of deep eyes
In morning sleep when dreams are true:
Wide humid eyes of hazy blue,
Like seas that kiss the horizon skies.

Then as I gazed, I felt the rain
Of soft warm curls around my cheek,
And heard a whisper low and meek:
“I love, and canst thou love again?”

A gentle youth beside me bent;
His cool moist lips to mine were pressed,
That throbbed and burned with love’s unrest:
When, lo, the powers of sleep were spent;

And noiseless on the airy wings
That follow after night’s dim way,
The beauteous boy was gone for aye,
A theme of vague imaginings.

Yet I can never rest again:
The flocks of morning dreams are true;
And till I find those eyes of blue
And golden curls, I walk in pain.

Anyone wishing to read In the Key of Blue can find most of Symonds’ work online. Project Gutenberg has all his major texts available while the Internet Archive has a scan of the 1918 edition, albeit in slightly better condition than my copy.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Greek games
Charles Ricketts’ Salomé
Achilles by Barry JC Purves
Der Eigene: Kultur und Homosexualität
Charles Ricketts’ Hero and Leander

I Wonder by Marian Bantjes

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Book of the year, without a doubt. I only bought this yesterday and it’s been another hectic week so I’ve barely had a chance to look at it, never mind read the thing. What we have is 208 pages of unique creations by one of my favourite graphic designers, Marian Bantjes, in a truly beautiful production from one of my favourite publishers, Thames & Hudson. The text comprises Bantjes’ musings on art, design, decoration, pattern, and her personal development, together with some well-chosen quotes from other writers. I could waste a lot of pixels larding the book with superlatives but you really have to see a copy for yourself, words and pictures do it little justice.

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More than anything I’ve seen recently this book is a tactile experience, and yet another volume (that designation which Borges always used to emphasise) which makes a nonsense of the idea of screens as an adequate replacement for all books. The boards are blocked with a gold and silver pattern, the page edges are also blocked in gold and there’s a liberal use of gold ink throughout. There’s so much gold ink on the exterior that leafing through the pages leaves your clothes and fingertips lighted dusted with a glittering residue. As an additional grace note, each volume comes with a length of purple bookmark ribbon.

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Unlike many monographs from graphic designers this isn’t a “greatest hits” collection (although I’d still buy it if it was), all the layouts were created for the book alone. It’s not all gold ink and florid decoration, there are 21st century designs as well as hand-drawn pieces. And pasta. She doesn’t need a computer or even a pencil, she can work wonders with pieces of dried flour and water. Of the quotes, two stood out following a cursory perusal. The first is a humorous occurrence of the famous “Less is more” from Mies van der Rohe, placed in small type on an otherwise blank page. The second is from Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist (1890):

Still, the art that is frankly decorative is the art to live with. It is, of all our visible arts, the one art that creates in us both mood and temperament. Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways. The harmony that resides in the delicate proportions of lines and masses becomes mirrored in the mind. The repetitions of pattern give us rest. The marvels of design stir the imagination.

You can have your imagination marvellously stirred for nineteen pounds and ninety-five pence.

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Update: The Bantjes Covers, in which the designer explains how her cover design came together.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
T&H: At the Sign of the Dolphin

The art of Sydney R Jones, 1881–1966

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Church of St Michael Paternoster Royal and Innholder’s Hall (1927).

One of the better secondhand book discoveries of the past couple of years was London Triumphant, a collection of etchings and pencil drawings of the city’s streets and buildings by Sydney R Jones. The etchings immediately seized my attention, being the kind of closely-hatched architectural renderings which I enjoy, but the book as a whole is very good as it details the artist’s wanderings with a young student friend through the city. Jones established himself as an illustrator of books with titles like The Manor Houses of England and The Charm of the English Village. His London book appeared in July 1942 and collected many of his earlier views of the city as a deliberate morale boost for the populace who were watching the capital’s historic buildings yield to the bombs of what he calls “the foul Hun”. Jones catalogues the destruction with dismay as he recounts the history of the city from Roman times but ends on a note of defiant optimism, wondering what new metropolis might rise from the destruction. He mentions in passing that cult locale of mine, the Essex Street Water Gate, but doesn’t provide a drawing unfortunately. The book proved to be very popular, and the copy I found is a fifth printing from 1947.

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Serjeant’s Inn, Fleet Street (1926).

This week’s book purchase was a welcome find, then, being London Triumphant‘s sequel, Thames Triumphant, in which Jones follows the course of the river from its spring at Coberley, through Oxford and on down to Greenwich. There aren’t as many dramatic views this time, and many of the country scenes have that kind of polite blandness about them which you find in much book illustration of the period. But Jones does provide a couple of his speculative and spectacular views over the city, including the one below which shows the City of London as it was in 1939. Much of the foreground was bombed flat during the war so a drawing such as this provides a valuable record of how London’s financial centre looked before the arrival of the Luftwaffe and the office blocks. Jones lived to see much of the subsequent reconstruction—I can’t help but wonder what he made of it all.

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The City of London, 1939; click for a bigger view.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pite’s West End folly
Jessie M King’s Grey City of the North
Architectural renderings by HW Brewer
The Essex Street Water Gate, London WC2

Technology, then and now

A recent book purchase was A Century of Punch (1956), a weighty collection of drawings from the humour magazine edited by RE Williams. While much of the comedy is now very dated, many of the illustrations and cartoons yield other pleasures, not least by being a fascinating snapshot of the times and their attitudes. Some of those attitudes remain with us, and the handful of drawings below struck me for their resonance with current discussions about the impact of new technology. But first, here’s a far-sighted prediction from 1878 (note: Ceylon is now Sri Lanka):

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EDISON’S TELEPHONOSCOPE (Artist unknown)
Paterfamilias (in Wilton Place): “Beatrice, come closer, I want to whisper.”
Beatrice (from Ceylon): “Yes, Papa Dear.”
Paterfamilias: “Who is that charming young lady playing on Charlie’s side?”
Beatrice: “She’s just come over from England, Papa. I’ll introduce you to her as soon as the game’s over.”

Continue reading “Technology, then and now”