November 30, 2019

Words of the Month - Of Writing lllllllKS

        English has many oddities of spelling that derive from a wide variety of historical incidents and accidents.  Today we look at why a number of words that sound like they should be spelled with U are instead spelled with O.  The words in question include come, some, son, monk, tongue, honey, and worm.  If we were to spell them phonetically, they should be cum, sum, sun, munk, tung, hunny (to Winnie-the-Pooh’s satisfaction), and wurm.  And so they were spelled, more or less, in Old English.  Why the change?  A leading theory is that it came about because of the difficulty of deciphering handwriting.
        The Carolingian script used for European manuscripts in the ninth through thirteenth centuries is quite clear and legible, with nice, round, well-spaced letters.  It was also slow to produce and took up a lot of space on precious parchment.  The gothic or blackletter script developed from attempts to squish letters ever closer together, and make them quicker and easier to write with quill pens.  Letters were reduced as much as possible to short, vertical downstrokes with the pen, called minims, while curves or other penstrokes were minimized. 
Easier to write, however, meant harder to read.  The letters m, n, r, u, and v were each simply a series of minims.  To add to the mix, i was often written with no dot, and t didn’t extend upwards much beyond the others.  Put all that together, and a word like minim might end up looking like llllllllll (only with shorter strokes.  This is the best way I can reproduce the effect with typing.)   And that could equally be numin, or rumun, or mirum, or wurm…  So our Middle English words listed above would look something like ClllllE, flllllE, fllll, lllllllK, lllllG, HlllllG, and llllllllll (with S's that looked more like another fairly straight line: f).  Yikes!
        The solution, apparently, was to use an O instead of a U in common words when it came next to other letters composed of minims, thus making it easier to parse which letter was which.  Instead of lllllllK, write lllOllK, and it’s a lot easier to make out.  This scribal habit may also have turned wimman (lllllllllllAll) into woman, and the minim problem may also be the origin of the dots over I and J.  That dot is technically a tittle (from Latin titulus), and first began to appear as another way to differentiate among the mass of minims, while remaining comparatively quick and easy to write.
        The manuscript examples I have here are all in Latin, not Middle English, but they certainly serve to illustrate the gothic script, and how all the letters can begin to look the same.

[Pictures: Details from the “Alphonso Psalter,” 1284 (Images from The British Library);
Details from bestiaries, c1200-c1210; 1201-1225; 1201-1300 (Images from The British Library, Bodleian Libraries, Bibliotheque Nationale de France).]

November 26, 2019

Harvest Mice

        Here is a little collection of harvest mice, which seem appropriate for Thanksgiving even though we don’t have harvest mice in the US.  (Or at least not the standard kind.  Apparently there are some other species in the New World.)  My favorite first: I love the detail in this wood engraving by Rosamund Fowler.  The mouse’s soft fur, delicate toes, and clinging tail are all carefully portrayed, and there’s a nice contrast with the graphic pattern of the seed heads, punctuated by those that are solid black.
        Lynda Durrant’s web site says that she makes her linoleum prints with separate blocks, one for each color.  Looking at these charming mice, I’m seeing three: pale yellow, an ombre of oranges, and brown, with the white being the paper.  Given the arrangement of colors, it could be a reduction print, too.  But in any case, the autumnal colors would be perfect for seasonal decor, and I hope these little mice get their harvest done in time for Thanksgiving.
        This precariously perched mouse by Colin Blanchard has three or four shades of beige/brown, plus a touch of blue in the background and eye.  It is done with screen printing for “additional color” (presumably background colors), with linoleum block printing on top.  Despite its wonderfully prehensile tail, this harvest mouse looks a little alarmed at being up so high.  There is a feast of seeds up there, though, so presumably it’s worth it.
        And finally a whole scene, much more stylized than the others.  The mice look downright cartoony, but all the background plants are accurate enough to recognize their species.  There are also a few insects, as well as a nest.  Harvest mice make wonderful little woven pockets for their nests, and this one is a room with a beautiful view.  I like the riot of pattern in this busy meadow.
        Let the harvest mice inspire you to work hard, take care of yourself and those around you, and be grateful for all the blessings to be gathered in.  Happy Thanksgiving!

[Pictures: Harvest Mouse, wood engraving by Rosamund Fowler (Image from the artist’s web site);
Harvest Mice, lino block print by Lynda Durant (Image from Full Circle Design);
Harvest Mouse, linocut and screenprint by Colin Blanchard (Image from the artist’s web site);
Yare Valley Harvest Mice, linocut print by rockhen (Image from the artist’s Etsy shop).]

November 22, 2019

Cheesy Block-Printing Slogans

        Here’s a “shower thought” for the day (illustrated with a very nice bath block print instead).  It seems that every group of people, from those with shared national origins to those with shared hobbies, to groups with shared physical traits or skills or jobs, likes to come up with cheesy slogans to celebrate themselves.  Think of the “Old ____ never die, they just…” slogans, or “____ do it better.”  So I figured it was time for some cheesy block-printing slogans.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:
     Requisite: Old printmakers never die, they just limit their edition.
     Hip: I dig block prints.
     Rude: I’d love to stay, but I’ve got more pressing business.
     Celebratory: What a relief!
     Or the retro version: Carve carve, ink ink, oh what a relief it is!  (It would be better if it rhymed, but oh well.)
     Cheerful: I’ve got that inking feeling!
     Fanatic: Proud to be a blockhead.
     Dismissive: Why don’t you make a noise like a brayer and roll away.
     World-weary: Yeah, I’ve been around the block.  In fact, I carved the block.
     Collegial: Great minds ink alike.
     Modest: Printmakers make great first impressions.  And second impressions, and third impressions, and fourth impressions…

        Surely any art-loving punsters out there can help me out!  What would you put on a T-shirt to advertise your love of relief block prints?  Or your artistic medium of choice?  (And if you’re inclined to sneer about my stupid puns, you’d better reread my past post on paranomasia and the impressive brain-power involved.)

[Picture: Bath Time, lino block print by Claude Flight, first half of 20th century (Image from Gallery on the Usk).]

November 19, 2019

Picturing the Unseen

        There is a particular issue that comes up when illustrating fantasy, which is how to depict those things that are unseen: invisible, or never witnessed by human eyes.  It’s a contradiction that encompasses illustrators of dinosaurs, prehistoric personalities, and ancient cities, as well, but it hits fantasy and sci-fi illustrators particularly hard.  I think invisibility deserves its own post some day, so for now I’m thinking about drawing things that no one has ever seen.
        First, there are the things that, within the context of a story, are perfectly visible, such as dragons, time machines, or indeed any fictional person, place, or thing.  These cannot be drawn from life or copied from reference photos, so what’s an artist to do?  The more popular mythical things, such as dragons and fairies, have no shortage of previous depictions to be used for inspiration, but some creatures are entirely new.  The most common method for depicting fantastical things is the chimera approach: wings like a bat, tail like a snake, feet
like a raptor, and so on.  In other words, find something real that relates to it, and use that model just for the element to which it relates.  In many cases we have written descriptions to work from, as well.  Ultimately, however, there has to be a picture in the mind to be used for guidance, instead of a real object or photo.  All we have to do is imagine something, and then it can be drawn.
        What about things that even within the context of a story, no one has ever seen?  Some ghosts or spirits are supposed to be invisible, some objects are hidden away in utmost secrecy, some beings are veiled from mortal view by darkness, light, mist, or distance…  In these cases  we must make pictures that reveal nothing — Or we get caught in a contradiction.
        This is an illumination of the simurgh, a bird that this thirteenth century Persian bestiary tells us lives “in fastnesses never penetrated by man,” and hidden from view.  The marginal note is by a later reader, who wrote testily, “Thou fool, if nobody has seen the simurgh, then how dost thou portray it?”  It’s a fair point.  Here’s where an artist’s superpowers become evident: sometimes an illustrator is omniscient and can show you in lavish and loving detail what no mortal has ever seen.  I say, just go with it!
        For a satirical little poem about a never-seen microbe (with a picture, of course!) revisit this previous post.

[Pictures: 10. Landscape with Ruins and Cylinder Segments, wood block print by Lorenz Stöer, 1567 (Image from TU);
Drollery, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Simurgh, painting from Persian bestiary, c 1297-1300 (Image from The Morgan Library & Museum).]

November 15, 2019


        This color wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, 1797-1858) is part of his series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.”  It illustrates a legend from the Oji area.  Every year on New Year’s Eve the kitsune fox spirits of the entire region gather around a famous, large enoki tree, bringing foxfire torches with them.  Kitsunebi, therefore, are those torches, which can be seen as ghost lights that mysteriously appear and disappear without explanation — or at least, with no explanation besides fox spirits.  The flames are said to be glowing breath of kitsune, or to be struck with their tails, or to be carried as torches.  Hiroshige has made his fox spirits glow more brightly than their fires in the winter dusk.
        The famous enoki tree is no longer standing, but apparently there is now a shrine somewhere near where it stood.

[Picture: Oji shozoku enoki omisoka no kitsunebi (Fox Fires on New Year’s Eve at the Changing Tree in Oji), color wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

November 12, 2019

Caricatures in Wood

        Aline Fruhauf (USA, 1907-1978) was primarily known as a caricaturist, and she worked in various media.  Here are a few of her caricatures that she made as wood block prints.  Relief printing seems like an odd medium for caricatures, which I usually think of as being very loose and spontaneous.  Indeed, Fruhauf’s woodcut portraits definitely have that look: simple lines, doodly shapes, little shading or patterns or details…  And yet they aren’t quite just reproducing the look of pen lines; there is enough roughness to remind us that wood was carved in the making of these pieces.
        The first is a portrait/caricature of Louis Michel Eilshemius, an American painter I confess I can’t recall ever having heard of before.  He looks wonderfully astonished, but in a quiet, non-demonstrative manner.  I
like the wrinkles on his sleeves, but most of all I love his curlicue eyebrows.
        The second one depicts Lord David Cecil, an author.  This one doesn’t have particularly interesting carving and is closest to looking like a simple drawing.
        We pass on, therefore, to the third, which is a self-portrait.  Although the depiction of the face is clearly a caricature, the inclusion of the shorebird decoy behind and the dog in front connects it a little more with traditional portraiture.  Fruhauf looks quite intent on the drawing she’s doing, her heavy eyebrows pressed together in concentration — but the snub nose and sharp little chin hint at a more impish personality.  This is also the carviest of the bunch, making more use of the wood block print medium’s ability to capture textures rather than simply reproducing outlines.
        I think these are fun.

[Pictures: Louis Michel Eilshemius, woodcut by Aline Fruhauf, 1974 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
Lord David Cecil, woodcut by Fruhauf, 1973 (Image from liveuctioneers);
Self Portrait, woodcut by Fruhauf, undated, (Image from invaluable).]

November 8, 2019

Catching a Falling Star

        The famous song by John Donne (England, 1572-1631) is a fantasy poem only in the sense that it is so absurdly cynical as to be pure fantasy.  However, it refers to a number of fantastical themes, and has apparently exerted a strong pull on the imagination of several fantasy writers.

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

        The poem consists of lists of impossibilities, or fantasies, if you want to look at them that way.  For lovers of fantasy perhaps the appeal is that we do dream of catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing.  (As for impregnating a mandrake, I have to wonder whether that’s impossible because it’s a plant, or because you can’t get at it without its scream killing you.)  Fantasy writers do like to think of ourselves as being born to strange sights and things invisible to see, which perhaps explains why at least two authors have written books rooted in this poem.  Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is related to the poem primarily in that its action is set in motion by the protagonist setting off to catch a falling star.  There is a callback to the final stanza, however, in that by the time he returns with it to the woman he loves, he finds that she has been untrue.  Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones uses even more of the poem, with a series of episodes in which the various impossibilities of the poem occur, signalling the unravelling of a curse based on it.  There are probably numerous other references to this poem in fantasy works, which I either don’t know or am not remembering.  Put it in the comments if you think of any!
        As for Donne’s cynical point, I can attest that it’s fantasy, because I am sitting right here, and I am both true and fair.  So there.

[Pictures: The Great Comet of 1577, wood block print by Jiri Daschitzsky, 1577 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)  As a fun side note, today is the 422nd anniversary of the Great Comet of 1577 being reported by Japanese astronomers.  It was viewed by Tycho Brahe on November 13.
Mandrake root (female variety), wood block print from Ortus sanitatis printed by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);
Delphin, wood block print from Historia aquatilium by Nicolaus Marschalk, 1520 (Image from Bodleian Rare Books).]

November 5, 2019

Of Leviathans and Copy Cats

        I’ve previously mentioned the fact that printing was invented before the concept of copyright, so early printers of books stole from each other with blithe abandon.  When you remember that before the printing press, the only way to get any book at all (short of composing one yourself from scratch) was to copy it, then you can understand that it took a while for the mindset to change.  So today I have for you a little demonstration of how this played out.
        In 1491 Jacob Meydenbach published Ortus (or Hortus) Sanitatis, the expansion of a 1485 herbal to include animals, birds, fish, and stones as well as plants.  You can note a few things from this page from that edition.  For one thing, it’s in Latin, as were most scholarly works.  Secondly, although the author (possibly Johann Wonnecke von Caub) was moving toward a scientific attitude and attempting to give accurate information about the uses of
plants and animals for medicine, the fact that this red and yellow monster is a leviathan shows that the author was still working with the bestiary tradition of finding information in religious works.  (To be fair, it’s hard to blame the Bible for this leviathan, which seems to live on land as much as water.)  Thirdly, note the hand coloring of the wood block illustrations.  Although crude, it was highly unusual for the time, making this a deluxe edition.  As for the blue and red ink in the text, I can’t tell whether that was printed or hand-painted.  At any rate, the book proved wildly successful…
        So successful, in fact, that in 1499 Johann Prüss of Strassburg thought he wouldn’t mind getting in on a little of the action, and he printed his own edition which, obviously, he simply copied from the earlier version.  Look at this leviathan entry and you notice right away that the layout  is different.  You can also see if you look a little more closely that the wood block illustration is different, as well, even though it was clearly copied from Meydenbach’s picture.  This leviathan has rolling hills in the background and very attractive decorative patterns on his spine plates, as well as an outline around the block.  Despite these minor differences, this would clearly be a flagrant copyright violation if such a thing as copyright violation had existed.
        In addition to straight-up copies, there were also translations, and in 1521 Laurence Andrew produced an abridged version in English entitled The Noble lyfe & natures of man, of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes.  Once again, he copied the previous illustrations.  Comparing his leviathan with the others you can see that it has a little more space above its tail, a medium amount of embellishment on its plates, and a little nick out of its tongue where the thin wood outline got carved away too much.  You can see that Andrew has also copied the illustrations of the next creature, called “lanificus,” which seems from the description to be something along the lines of a silkworm.
        So that’s all pretty straightforward, but this particular wood block print illustrates another habit of early printers, because… what’s this? 
That’s right, it’s the same block yet again - this time the exact same block - used again in the same 1521 edition by Andrew as the illustration for the dragon.  After all, having gone through all the work of copying and carving a block, it seems such a waste to use it for only one animal!

[Pictures: Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Meydenbach edition, 1491 (Image from University of Cambridge);
Leviathan, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis, Prüss edition, 1499 (Image from Boston Public Library);
Leviathan, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Laurence Andrew, 1521;
Dragon, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man, by Andrew, 1521 (Images from The Wellcome Trust).]