March 27, 2012

Another Woodcut Abecedary

        I've made another fun ABC discovery.  This is An Odd Bestiary: Or, a Compendium of Instructive and Entertaining Descriptions of Animals, Culled from Five Centuries of Travelers' Accounts, Natural Histories, Zoologies, &c. by Authors Famous and Obscure, Arranged as an Abecedary.  You might think that after that full disclosure of a title I wouldn't need to tell you anything more about this book, and indeed the title is pretty accurate (except that I'm not sure I would have called it particularly "Odd.")  But it manages to include a whole host of my favorite things all bound into one: block prints, ABC, animals, history, and even a few mythical beasts to add a fun surprise to the collection of remarkable real creatures.
        The artist, Alan James Robinson, has included two portraits of each animal.  The first is a line drawing, and the second a wood engraving.  Each animal is also given two quotations, one long and one short.  These quotations are a lot of fun, spanning the travels of John Mandeville to the travels of Charles Darwin.  They illuminate the way people have described and interpreted animals that were strange and new to them, from the Middle Ages to the rise of modern science.  The selected animals range from beasts that seem fairly straightforward to us, to oddities of nature, to wholly mythical beasts -- but all of them seemed equally bizarre and wondrous to the early naturalists whose descriptions are quoted.
        But of course it's the block prints that earn this book a proud place on this blog. Robinson's woodcut style is dense with lines of texture.  Feathers, fur, wrinkles and all sorts of shading are shown with delicate lines of white in the black.  The animals are generally isolated so that nothing distracts from the portrait.  Some of them have less contrast than I like, but in my favorites all that texture and detail contribute to giving the animals a real sense of individuality.  They have a delightful gleam of expression in their eyes.

[Pictures: Jerboa, woodcut by Alan James Robinson, 1982;
Walrus, woodcut by Robinson, 1982;
Flying fish, woodcut by Robinson, 1982;
Ostrich, woodcut by Robinson, 1982.
All images scanned from An Odd Bestiary, designed and illustrated by Alan James Robinson, text compiled and annotated by Laurie Block; University of Illinois Press edition, 1986.]

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