Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Cardinal Directions

Today is my birthday, and I thought I’d share my beautiful birthday present. It’s a series of reclaimed slate discs, inscribed with the words of my short poem The Cardinal Directions by letter-carver and sculptor Giles MacDonald. Giles came and set them into the lawn beneath our rose pergola yesterday. As you will see, already nature is incorporating them into the garden, with sun dapple, fallen leaves, and even birdshit.

The Cardinal Directions

The first disc is blank, for the navel of the world, which is now in Idbury, as any fule kno. Previous navels of the world that I know of include Delphi, Easter Island, and the mouth of Heart River in North Dakota. There’s even one in a song by Jesse Winchester, which turns up in his backyard, just as it has in mine. The next four roundels lead you through the four lines of the poem, as you walk the length of the pergola (which in six weeks time will be a glorious mass of white Wedding Day roses).

the earth

the stars

my heart


Here are two close-ups to show the beauty of Giles’s letter-cutting, and the intimate detail of the chisel-marks.

Close up of the letter o

Close up of the words the stars

The sculpture isn’t quite complete. At a later stage there will a stone column - a world axis - at the far end of the pergola, with the same text in rudimentary Anglo-Saxon.

seo eorðe
se steorran
min heorte

If anybody out there spots any errors in this, I’d be grateful to have them pointed out before Giles takes his chisel in hand… I’m looking forward to leaving a 21st-century inscription in Old English, complete with an eth (ð) and a thorn (Þ), just to puzzle future generations.

Friday, May 2, 2008


Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Portrait of Georges Rodenbach
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

I first came across the riveting pastel portrait of the Belgian Symbolist novelist and poet Georges Rodenbach by his friend Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer in an entry in Jane Librizzi’s arts blog, The Blue Lantern. The pastel was executed in 1895, and shows the dandyish author dishevelled and wild-eyed, seemingly rising – or even resurrecting - from a canal in front of a backdrop of gabled roofs and cathedral towers. Although Rodenbach was very much alive, the portrait is an intimation of his early death, in 1898 at the age of 43. Rodenbach looks already lost. It is, as Alan Hollinghurst writes in his perceptive introduction to the Dedalus edition of Rodenbach’s decadent masterpiece Bruges-la-Morte, a kind of double portrait of Rodenbach himself and of Bruges-la-Morte’s central character Hugues Viane, a widower driven mad by grief and desire. Now in the Musée d’Orsay, this striking pastel is today Lévy-Dhurmer’s most celebrated work. It’s all the more remarkable in that the precisely observed Bruges townscape in the background was all done from photographs, Lévy-Dhurmer having never – at this point – visited Bruges.

Georges Rodenbach

Until Jane piqued my interest, I had not paid Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer much attention. I already owned a single lithograph, Belle d’antan, published in 1897 by L’Estampe moderne. The generic wistfulness of this image doesn’t much appeal to me, and I had Lévy-Dhurmer down as a minor Symbolist of little originality or importance. The link with Rodenbach suggested a more subtle and intriguing artist, and so I began investigating what else could be found out about him.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Belle d'antan
Lithograph, 1895

Lévy-Dhurmer was born in Algiers, into a Jewish family. His real name was Lucien Lévy, to which he added a corruption of his mother's maiden name, Goldhurmer, to differentiate himself from other artists named Lévy. Although he did not attend the Beaux-Arts, Paris, as a regular student, Lévy-Dhurmer benefited from advice and encouragement from several teachers there, including Raphaël Collin, Vio, and Wallet. He first exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1882; however the need to earn a living prevented him from devoting himself fulltime to fine art. From 1887-1895 Lévy-Dhurmer worked as artistic director of the ceramics factory of Clément Massier, becoming known for his experiments with metallic lustre glazes and for his Islamic-influenced Hispano-Moresque designs.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Tower in Bruges
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

It was not until 1895 that Lévy-Dhurmer returned to Paris, to take up painting full time. His paintings and pastels of melancholy women, in a dreamy Symbolist style, exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1896, were a success both with the public and his fellow artists. From 1906, Lévy-Dhurmer exhibited regularly at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, The two women had fused into one
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

Around 1910 Lévy-Dhurmer also became interested in interior design, and the Art Nouveau concept of the interior as an integrated and coherent work of art. The magnificent Wisteria Drawing Room that he created in 1910-1914 for his friend Auguste Rateau is now on display in the New Galleries for 19th and early 29th Century European Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after decades in store.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Trees in Bruges
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

In his later years, Lévy-Dhurmer abandoned overt Symbolism, but he remained committed to the Symbolist aesthetic of using art to open a window into another world; he was particularly interested in finding a visual correlative for music. In 1973 a major exhibition at the Grand Palais, Autour de Lévy-Dhurmer, placed his art in the context of the period, and the work of other Symbolist and Intimiste artists, such as Ernest Laurent, Charles Cottet, Henri Le Sidaner, and Edmond Aman-Jean.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Procession of the Holy Blood, Bruges
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

His friendship with Rodenbach in the last three years of the writer’s life was clearly important to Lévy-Dhurmer, and in 1930 he published an illustrated edition of Bruges-la-Morte, in which the feverish melancholy of this very 1890s text is brilliantly expressed in 18 pastels, interpreted as colour etchings with aquatint by René Lorrain. Lorrain, born in Nancy in 1873, was a pupil of Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and therefore finely in tune with the Symbolism of both Rodenbach and Lévy-Dhurmer.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Swans in Bruges
Colour etching after a pastel, 1930

It is fairly clear from these moodily atmospheric etchings that Lévy-Dhurmer had by now visited Bruges and soaked up the atmosphere of haunted decay that Rodenbach imagines rising as vapour from the canals and falling as drizzle from the sky.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Canal in Bruges
Colur etching after a pastel, 1930

The book was published by Javal et Bourdeaux, Paris, as loose folded and gathered sheets in a cover and slipcase, in an edition of 170 numbered copies – 15 on Japon imperial, with 5 states of the etchings, 155 on vélin d’Arches, with 4 states of the etchings. The text was printed by Robert Coulouma, the etchings by Adolphe Valcke. To print these subtle colour etchings required great skill. Printing “au repérage” in this way needs successive copper plates to be printed in close registration. Keeping the paper in exactly the right place to print these overlapping images leaves tiny pinholes above and below the image, something avoided if all the colours are printed at once in the “à la poupée” method.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, View across a canal in Bruges
Colour etching with remarque, after a pastel, 1930

This was not the first illustrated edition of Bruges-la-Morte; the first edition of 1892 had a cover by Fernand Khnopff and 35 sepia photographs, and there was also a 1909 edition with wood-engraved illustrations by Henri Paillard. But Lévy-Dhurmer’s must be the definitive treatment of this extraordinary text.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Building
Etching in green, after a pastel, 1930

I have been lucky enough to acquire an unnumbered hors-commerce copy – one of a few extra copies reserved for the artist and publisher – which is exactly as the 15 exemplaires de tête, i.e. printed on Japan paper, with the etchings in five states. These are: the definitive state in colours, interleaved with the text; a final state in colours with remarques; a state in blue; a state in green; and a state in brown. These last three states are not a decomposition of the various plates needed to form the colour images, but separate and sometimes highly effective interpretations of the pastels in shades of one colour.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Swans
Etching in blue, after a pastel, 1930

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Tree
Etching in brown, after a pastel, 1930

A walk along High Street

Eric Ravilious, High Street
Lithograph, 1938

Probably the most famous and sought-after English autolithographed book is High Street, with text by J. M. Richards and 24 colour lithographs by Eric Ravilious (plus two further lithographs on the front and back covers, and a wood-engraved title page). Copies change hands at very high prices – not because of Richards’ rather arch and superfluous text, but because of Ravilious’s stunning images. They seem to define the very essence of mid-twentieth-century Englishness. They depict a trim England in which everything and everyone knows its place. It is a vision, in fact, that already seems tinged with nostalgia, as if Ravilious could sense the imminent collapse of this safe, certain, ordered world. Though in one case, the cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield in Jermyn Street, the shop façade and even the window display has survived to this day almost unchanged.

Eric Ravilious, Cheesemonger
Lithograph, 1938

Ravilious created the lithographs in 1936 and 1937, drawing directly on the stone in the studios of the Curwen Press, where he made his first lithograph, Newhaven Harbour, in 1936. The idea for an “alphabet of shops” came from the artist’s lover, Helen Binyon, and he first floated it to the Golden Cockerel Press, who were too small-scale to take it on. Undeterred, Ravilious worked on the lithographs anyway, apparently subsidized by Curwen, who were keen to encourage the idea of autolithographed books. Such books from France and Russia were admired and collected by Ravilious and his circle, and also by High Street’s publisher, Noel Carrington.

Eric Ravilious, Letter Maker
Lithograph, 1938

Noel Carrington was the brother of the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington. He was the publisher at Country Life Books, and was also to launch the lithographed Puffin Picture Books. Carrington was quite simply the perfect publisher for High Street Although not aimed at the same mass market as the Puffin Picture Books, High Street was not an expensive limited edition. It was published in an initial run of 2000 copies in 1938, and the lithographic stones were retained for future reprints. However the stones were destroyed by a German bomb in 1941, so the book has never been reprinted in any form – until this year, when the Mainstone Press will issue a new edition, with the lithographs reproduced by the four-colour process, and with unpublished sketches and watercolours for the project, and essays by Alan Powers and James Russell, under the title The Story of High Street.

Eric Ravilious, Submarine Engineer
Lithograph, 1938

The Story of High Street promises to be a hugely informative and well-researched book, if the articles by Powers and Russell in issue 15 of the magazine Illustration (Spring 2008) are anything to go by. For instance, Alan Powers not only identifies the rather surreal and unexpected Submarine Engineer as the shop of Siebe Gorman & Co. in Westminster Bridge Road, London, but also makes the delightful point that it was surely from Siebe Gorman that "Edward James hired the diving suit worn by Salvador Dalí at the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in the summer of 1936." It would be nice to think that this is the very suit depicted by Ravilious. Dalí nearly suffocated in it.

Eric Ravilious, Amusement Arcade
Lithograph, 1938

The idea of a book of shops was not completely original. Alan Powers points to F. D. Bedford’s The Book of Shops (1899) as one precursor; another is Faites votre marché by Nathalie Parain (Natalie Tchelpanova), published in the Père Castor series of lithographed children’s books in 1935.

Lucien Boucher, Enseignes
Lithograph, 1925

There is another powerful cross-Channel comparison to be made between High Street and a collection of 37 colour lithographs by Lucien Boucher, published by Marcel Seheur in 1925 with accompanying text by Pierre Mac Orlan, under the title Boutiques. There were 500 numbered copies of this, all on Arches, plus 20 hors-commerce copies numbered I-XX. Copies 1-4 each had 10 original drawings by Boucher, as well as the lithographs.

Lucien Boucher, La Pharmacie
Lithograph, 1925

Eric Ravilious, Pharmaceutical Chemist
Lithograph, 1938

There is some overlap in the businesses chosen – a butcher, a baker, a charcutier, a pharmacy. But there are also a number of shops in Boucher’s art deco vision of Paris that would never have occurred to Ravilious or Country Life. The horse butcher is one; the maison close, or brothel, is another.

Lucien Boucher, Maison close
Lithograph, 1925

Lucien Boucher, born in Chartres in 1889, was 14 years older than Ravilious, and survived him by 29 years; Ravilious was killed when the plane he was flying in as an official War Artist was lost in 1942, but Boucher lived until 1971. Of the two, Eric Ravilious has the greatest reputation today. Boucher is remembered mainly for the Art Deco lithographed posters he created for Air France. But although on a much smaller scale, Boutiques (and its sequel of 1926, Boutiques de la Foire) is just as lively, charming, and expressive of its era. Of all the 20th-century French prints I have acquired, these little lithographs by Lucien Boucher are among my favourites.

Lucien Boucher, Couleurs et vernis
Lithograph, 1925

Like Ravilious, Boucher has a love of the quirky and surreal; the two artists also share a love of letterforms. Where they differ is in their sense of composition and perspective. The vast majority of the Ravilious lithographs position the artist – and therefore the viewer – at middle distance from the shop, with attention focussed on the shop window, through which we peer as into another world. By contrast, although Lucien Boucher also loves shop windows and doorways, he readjusts his focus from subject to subject, now swooping in on the advertising sign of a shop specialising in artist’s paints and varnishes, now pulling back to show the sweep of the street in which a monumental mason is located. As for perspective, Boucher’s work is deliberately flat, with very little sense of depth; he doesn’t want us to forget we are seeing the world in two dimensions, not three.

Lucien Boucher, Le Manège d'aéroplanes
Lithograph, 1926

Boucher’s lithographs of fairground stalls and attractions for Boutiques de la Foire are just as delightful as his shops, from a merry-go-round for budding aviators to a modernist slide.

Lucien Boucher, Le Toboggan
Lithograph, 1926

I also have another set of prints by Boucher dating from the same year as Boutiques. These are woodcuts for Bérengier au long cul: Fabliaux du Moyen Age, published by Seheur in 1925 in an edition of 250 copies, each with the woodcuts in colour in the text, on Arches, and with a suite of the cuts in black-and-white on china paper.

Lucien Boucher, Woman and dog
Coloured woodcut, 1925

Some of these woodcuts are very witty in the way they play with the human form, elongating one woman to the same shape as her hound, and bulking out another to resemble her cow. This is a minor work compared to Boutiques, but it shows a similar graphic confidence, and demonstrates just what a versatile and talented artist Lucien Boucher was.

Lucien Boucher, Four men
Woodcut, 1925

I also have a single wood engraving by Ravilious, his contribution to the Cresset Press Apocrypha in 1929, The Song of the Three Holy Children.

Eric Ravilious, The Song of the Three Holy Children
Wood engraving, 1929

I don't suppose Eric Ravilious and Lucien Boucher ever met or had anything to do with each other, but I like to think of their art shaking hands across the channel, as each in his own way recorded and celebrated the shops and the atmosphere of London and Paris.