February 28, 2017

Past Professions

        There are many jobs that have become obsolete over the centuries due to changes in technology or culture.  Some of these professions that are no longer widely practiced are still familiar words, such pharaoh and alchemist, but others have faded from common usage in the language.  Of those obsolete words, some are pretty self-explanatory, such as lamplighter and iceman, while others have become quite odd-sounding and mysterious over time.  It is from among these obsolete names for obsolete occupations that I’ve selected this month’s Words.

ackerman - ploughman (note the connection with acre.  And yes, people still plough, of course, but not with this word.)
alnager - inspector of woolen cloth (from an Old French unit of measurement)
awblaster - crossbowman (I assume related to the large crossbow called an arbalest)
colporteur - peddlar of books or newspapers, especially Bibles and religious tracts (from Middle French comporter “peddlar,” influenced by porter a col “to carry from the neck”)
gaberlunzie - licensed beggar, in Scotland
gong farmer, gongfermour - one who empties out cesspits and privies (from Old English past tense of “to go”)
hayward - hedge warden, an officer in charge of hedgerows, fences, and enclosures
knocker-up - human alarm clock, the one who goes around town in the morning knocking on doors and windows of clients so they can get to their jobs in factories
pantler - servant in charge of bread and the pantry (note that the etymology of pantry is “bread room,” and compare with the servant in charge of the wines and spirits in bottles: butler)
pargeter - plasterer, either simple whitewashing or decorative plasterwork
parnel - priest’s concubine or mistress
postilion - one who drives a carriage by riding one of the horses that pulls it (usually the front left)
puddler - iron worker who produces wrought iron from pig iron (by the process called puddling)
resurrectionist - body snatcher, usually exhuming fresh burials to procure cadavers for dissection
screever - sidewalk artist, who draws pictures on the sidewalk in colored chalk, for donations
whitesmith - tinsmith (as compared with the better-known blacksmith)

        A couple other notes that interest me: 
Many obsolete jobs, thank goodness, are those that were often done by children, such as 
link boy - carries the torch in front of a carriage at night
doffer - exchanges the bobbins, etc, in textile mills
breaker boy - separates impurities from coal
pugger - kneads clay for pottery by treading it
And many of these words that are no longer encountered as professions live on as surnames, such as chandler, fletcher, and fuller, as well as ackerman, hayward, and parnel above.
        I’ve encountered some of these words in literature or history, while others were entirely new to me.  Sure, we no longer need to use them on a daily basis, but it would be a terrible shame to lose them altogether.

[Pictures: woodcut from Ein Schönes Spiel.. von Wilhelm Tell by O. Schweitzer, 1698 (Image from British Museum);
Of Pride, wood block print from A christall glasse of christian reformation by John Day, 1569 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
The two men drew the corpse gently out of its coffin, engraving from The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds, c1843 (Image from Hathi Trust Digital Library);
Link-boys lighting the way, from The Illustrated London News, Volume 10, 1847 (Image from Wellcome Library).]

February 24, 2017


        We’re going swimming this morning, so that’s a good enough reason to show you this curious sixteenth century wood block printed instruction manual about swimming.  The book itself, De Arte Natandi by Everard Digby, was the first English instruction manual on swimming and was very influential.  It includes a guide to different strokes and methods of floating as well as attention to matters of safety.  It also includes copious woodcut illustrations.       
        Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, I can’t find any record of the artist who illustrated Digby’s work.  But whoever he (or she, but probably he) was, he came up with a clever method of making the more than 40 illustrations all large and beautiful without having to go through all the trouble of carving more than 40 different scenes.  There are five different large blocks showing detailed landscapes of rivers, but each of these blocks was made with a rectangular hole in the middle.  Each of the different strokes or swimming techniques could then be carved on a small block and inserted into one of the landscape blocks for printing.  Some of the blocks fit in more smoothly than others, but I think it’s a very clever system.
        This first background block has some cows by the riverside, and a man who looks as if he’s about to fall into the water accidentally, but I’m most intrigued by the swimmer on his smaller separate block.  At first I thought he was holding two birds, but now I think it’s a hawk and something else, though what I can’t tell.  A lure, perhaps?  Whatever it is, is Digby
providing instruction for falconry while swimming?  It seems an odd and amusing choice.
        Here are two illustrations that use the same background so you can see how the artist could  make a variety of swimming poses fit into his framework.  I like the house in the background, and the man in the lower left getting undressed, or possibly putting his sock back on; I’m not sure which.  An Elizabethan gentleman had an awful lot of clothing to get off and on in order to go swimming.
        And one last scene, with the river going horizontally, a charming windmill on the hill, and a magnificent sunshine.  Although it’s unseasonably warm here today, we will not be swimming under New England’s February sun, but will be indoors.  And we’ll be playing with balls and pool noodles rather than hawks.  Still, no doubt we owe something to Everard Digby and his ingenious illustrator for their influence on the Art of Swimming.

[Pictures: Four wood block print illustrations from De arte natandi libri duo by Everard Digby, 1587 (Images from Wellcome Library).]

February 21, 2017

The Golden Key

        The Golden Key is a long short story by George MacDonald, first published in 1867.  I first encountered it at age 9 in a collection of four fairy tales by MacDonald, all strange and wonderful, allegorical and mysterious, mythical and beautiful.  The Golden Key tells the story of a boy called Mossy and a girl called Tangle, and how they spend a lifetime and longer searching for the land above the rainbow.  It clearly means something, but what it means is not easily pinned down.  You can’t map out the allegory and say “This stands for that, and this for that…” yet it is certainly a story about more than ordinary travels.  It is about light, holiness, suffering, and joy.  C.S. Lewis said of MacDonald’s writing that “the meaning, the suggestion, the radiance, is incarnate in the whole story.”
         As a nine-year-old I wasn’t analyzing the deeper meanings.  I was simply basking in the magic.  I enjoyed the kind, thoughtful characters travelling through wonderfully beautiful and mysterious settings, having adventures that certainly weren’t thrill-packed action sequences, but which really caught at my imagination.  The word that best describes MacDonald’s fairy tales is “numinous.”  The dictionary gives three definitions for numinous: spiritual or supernatural; surpassing understanding, mysterious; and arousing elevated feelings of virtue.  I didn’t know the word numinous at age nine, but even then I definitely felt that MacDonald’s stories exemplify all of these definitions.
        A new edition of The Golden Key has just been published, featuring copious illustrations by Ruth Sanderson.  As a story involving a magical rainbow, The Golden Key includes beautifully color-rich descriptions, and yet it’s also a story very much about light and shadow.  So maybe it’s appropriate that Sanderson’s illustrations are done on scratchboard, a medium that, like relief printmaking, is all about carving the light out of the dark.  This weekend at Boskone 54 I met Sanderson briefly, as her display in the art gallery was adjacent mine, and her display was primarily an exhibition of her illustrations for The Golden Key.  What a treat to be able to look up close at the originals of her detailed, meticulous, magical pictures!

[Pictures: The End of the Rainbow, scratchboard by Ruth Sanderson from The Golden Key by George MacDonald, 2016; 
Tangle descending from the Old Man of the Sea, scratchboard by Sanderson;
Aëranth and owlfish, scratchboard by Sanderson (All images from Golden Wood Studio.com.)]

February 17, 2017

Grashow's City Monster

        I’m off to another fantasy/sci-fi art show this afternoon, (Boskone 54) so this morning I’ll give you a very cool stand-alone fantasy block print.  This wood block print by James Grashow (USA, 1942-) really tickles me.  Maybe it’s got a serious message about cities devouring the countryside, but despite the monster’s obvious menace, I think it’s more fun than scary.  I love how the pointy rooflines make teeth and claws, the bridge of the nose (get it?), the clocktower eyes…  The carving is quite impressive, too, with all those tiny windows and details.  I can see a sci-fi movie with enormous special effects budget having a blast with this.  In such a movie there would be people running around screaming and shooting the monster, of course, but here I don’t see any people at all.  The only animals are the cows behind the barn, and they don’t seem troubled a bit by this monster, which must be clanking, and grinding, and making an enormous amount of horrible noise.  This is one of those pieces of art I wish I’d thought of!  I hope you get a kick out of it, too.

[Picture: Woodcut by James Grashow, c 2011 (Image from Stamford Advocate).]

February 14, 2017

Valentine's Block Prints

        In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve collected a few Valentiney relief block prints for you.  The practice of sending Valentine’s cards didn’t really get started until after wood block printing had been replaced as the chosen method of mass production, so these three pieces are all modern.  But what hasn’t changed is the symbolism of hearts and roses and lovebirds.
        I have to confess I’m pretty low-key about this holiday (as indeed about most, when it really comes down to it).  But I like roses, I like birds, and I like love, so it’s good.   (I like chocolate, too, but chocolate generally doesn’t make such interesting relief block prints.)  These birds and flowers, on the other hand, have a lovely old-fashioned folksy look, with lots of interesting patterns and designs.  The first piece reminds me a bit of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, and the dusty rose color adds to the vintage appeal.  The second piece is warmer, brighter, and simpler.  These are happy birds and happy flowers.
        The final piece becomes almost abstract.  It’s still clearly recognizable as roses, but the shapes have been flattened and simplified into something bold and graphic.
        Although Valentine’s Day is usually billed as the holiday for smoochy romantic couples, don’t let that limit your view.  Why not instead celebrate Love for all?  And flowers and chocolate and block prints for all while we're at it!

[Pictures: Valentine’s Birds, lino cut print by Amanda Colville, 2013 (Image from Mangle Prints);
Flowers & Birds, rubber block print by Jessica D of PaperPlanesMudPies (Image from Etsy shop PaperPlanesMudPies);
Valentine Card, wood block print by John Beauduy, 2006 (Image from JohnBeauduy.com).]

February 10, 2017


If there were dreams to sell,
What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?

        Here’s a poem that recently struck me.  It actually has two verses.  In the second verse the poet answers the question, “A cottage lone and still…” but I’m not really interested in the poet's answer.  I like the question to stand unanswered, open-ended.  What does it take to buy a dream?  What are the costs, from a few sighs, to giving your life?  What does it mean to put an economic or monetary spin on dreams, and how does it change the way we think about them?  Normally we think we have our dreams for free, whether we like it or not, and it’s the accomplishment of those dreams that will have a cost.  So how does it change the way we think if we have to purchase or earn even the dreams themselves in the first place?  What is the cost of denying someone a dream?  What happens to a dream deferred?
        And what would you buy?

Dream-Pedlary by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (English, 1803-1849).  (Poem from Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre.)

[Picture: Histrio. Der Schalksnarr (The Peddling Jester), wood block print by Jost Amman from Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum, 1568 (Image from the British Museum).]

February 7, 2017

Beyond the Thorns

        I just finished printing this piece, which I had actually carved last summer, and first printed in the early fall or so.  I’d initially printed the thorn block with dark green and didn’t like it.  There wasn’t enough contrast for it to pop; it just looked like mush.  I was discouraged enough that I didn’t get around to trying again until now, with a deadline coming up in the form of Boskone Sci-fi and Fantasy Art Gallery in a week and a half.
        Actually, this piece’s history is even longer than that.  It goes all the way back to when I saw some of M.C. Escher’s pieces in which he had a grey background with black framing by another block.  That was back in 2015, and you can read my initial post here.  Ever since then I’d been mulling what I might do with the idea of background and foreground blocks.  But I still hadn’t got around to doing anything until I gave the assignment to my students this summer, and their work gave me the kick I needed.  (You can see what they came up with in this post.)
        I’ve mentioned before that “Sleeping Beauty” is one of my favorite fairy tales.  The part of the original German version that I like best is the descriptions of the mysterious sleep behind the mysterious hedge of thorns.  (I wrote a poem about it, too, but that's not yet published.)  I love the idea of the beautiful sleeping castle hidden away for a hundred years, but there all the time if one could only glimpse it.  So while my castle block is pretty straightforward, what I really had fun with was the thorn hedge block, just beginning to sprout buds and other signs of life, and open up as the hundred years come to an end.

[Picture: Beyond the Thorns, rubber block print from two blocks by AEGN, 2016-7.]

February 3, 2017

Year of the Rooster

        Happy Year of the Fire Rooster!  Actually, the animal of the year is a word that means either rooster or chicken, so they’re equally good symbols.  In honor of which, today I’ve collected a nice selection of relief block printed fowl.  I always enjoy seeing the different ways different artists choose to depict the same thing.  You can really see how each artist’s style and choices contribute to different pieces.
        I’ll start with my own, in which I was most interested in playing with patterns.  To me the interesting thing about chickens is the remarkable array of patterns in their feathers, and how they’re repeated and varied.  I was also fooling around with borders: the chicken’s border is an “egg and dart” design, which I thought terribly clever.  (Apparently I’m easily amused!)
        Jacques Hnizdovsky is the king of relief block printed patterns and he’s done many birds of all sorts with intricately geometric feathers.  But interestingly, his rooster is more about the the sweep of feathers than their design.  His rooster is quite simple and bold, and very sleek.  I'd even go with "regal."
        Hugh Ribbans was also clearly playing with pattern in his hen.  The various areas of feathers are quite stylized, with individual feathers outlined in some areas, and filler patterns in others.  I like how active this hen looks, head down and scurrying, unlike the more static creatures it’s so much easier to show.
        Thomas Bewick’s chickens are illustrating a fable, so they come with their whole story: barnyard, dunghill, jewel and all.  There are lots of little details, including the broken pipe on the dunghill, and the fences and outbuildings of the farm.  That makes a nice transition to my last fowl, which carries its farm inside it.  This is definitely a different, interesting take on the patterns that make up the feathers.  I like the way the grain looks feathery at the bottom and the sky morphs up into the tail, and the diagonals of the furrowed field are a little reminiscent of wing feathers.
        Chickens are one of the most common and popular creatures for artists, so there were certainly plenty more I could have chosen, but I tried not to get carried away.  At any rate, I hope these provide plenty of inspiration.

[Images: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
Hen and Chicks, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
Cock, woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1972;
Little Hen, linocut by Hugh Ribbans (Image from hughribbans.com);
The Cock and the Jewel, wood block print by Thomas Bewick from The Fables of AEsop, 1885 (Image from Internet Archive and University of California, Victorian Web);
Bantam Chicken, linocut by Kelly Shields (Image from her Etsy Shop RedFlowerLetterpress).]