August 31, 2020

Words of the Month - Johnson's Dictionary

        Samuel Johnson (England, 1709-1784) was a writer, critic, and lexicographer whose dictionary, published in 1755, had a huge influence on the English language.  There had been a number of dictionaries published before Johnson’s, but they tended to concentrate on “hard words” rather than being comprehensive, to have poor definitions, and to fail to indicate how words were actually used.  Johnson took about eight years to produce his dictionary at the instigation of a group of publishers who saw the demand.  It included 42,773 entries in the first edition, which made it the largest dictionary of the time, but this was still perhaps only a quarter of the words in the language.  Among the words Johnson left out were all those beginning with the letter J before jubilant: everything from jab through joy.  Oops.  It also gave few guides to pronunciation and its etymologies were weak.  On the other hand, it included not only definitions of multiple senses of words, but frequent notes on usage and literary quotations.  It became extremely popular and was considered the definitive English dictionary until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary more than 150 years later - and this despite its enormous size and expense which apparently only about 200 people a year could actually afford.  (It was the abridged edition that actually sold well.)  It became the model for both how dictionaries should be made and how entries should be presented.
        Johnson’s dictionary was also widely lauded as an incredibly impressive feat of scholarship for a single person to have completed, and it is most definitely the work of one single man, displaying his own personal opinions and quirks.  Some of his more famous editorial and humorous comments include the definitions
finesse - artifice; strategem: an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language (I include this because of the editorial comment - Johnson tended to disparage all things French, as is evident below - but it’s also interesting to note how his definition differs from the current meaning.)
lexicographer - a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge…
monsieur - a term of reproach for a Frenchman
oats - a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people
patron - one who countenances, supports, or protects.  Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery
        (I have also seen the following quoted as humor or editorializing:
luggage - any thing cumbrous and unweildy [sic] that is to be carried away; anything of more weight than value    
But judging by the quotations with which Johnson illustrates the word, I tend to think it is actually a serious definition.)

        I also want to share with you some of his less-famous words.  Johnson’s dictionary includes a number of entries that are no longer present in my standard “college” dictionary, and some fun ones are
ariolation or hariolation - soothsaying, vaticination  (Johnson’s source for this word is Thomas Browne, whose contributions to the lexicon I discussed previously.)
clancular - clandestine; secret; private; concealed; obscure; hidden
cubiculary - fitted for the posture of lying down
     and also discubitory - fitted to the posture of leaning
digladation - a combat with swords; any quarrel or contest
        Johnson’s birthday is coming up, so on September 18 you might spare a moment to appreciate the work, scholarship, and occasional snarkiness of one of the English language’s most influential lexicographers.

[Pictures: Samuel Johnson, engraving by P. Maverick from a drawing by W.H.Brown, 1811 (Image from Internet Archive);
Horse, wood block print from A Farmer’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian, 1981.]

August 26, 2020

Jakubowski's Fairy Tales

        Stanislaw Jakubowski (Poland, 1888-1964) is a Polish artist about whom I have very little information.  However, he made 10 woodcuts illustrating Kraina slowianskich basni (Land of Slavic Fairytales) in 1929.  For this series, at least, his style is very dark and shadowy with only a few white lines to delineate form and texture.  The fineness of the lines and hatching give these almost the look of wood engravings, but there are certainly some thicker gouges, as well.  Also, I’m not sure how large they are.
        We’ll start with the dragon, because a good dragon is always a winner.  Note that this one has no wings; otherwise, however, it’s a classic.  Plus, I like the bright area in the background: moonlit clouds, perhaps?
        Another classic creature is this basilisk — not the version that’s been conflated with the cockatrice, but the true King of Serpents.  It clings to a most excellent gnarled tree, something Jakubowski clearly enjoyed depicting, as similar trees show up in several illustrations.  But I especially like the touch of fantasy in the plants.  The vine at the left has a distinctly whimsical vibe.
        And finally, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut.  This is a subject that’s been in the back of my head for a long time as something I would enjoy doing.  Baba Yaga is an interesting character who deserves her own post some time, but she is, basically, the most famous witch in Slavic folklore.  In Jakubowski’s version there is a crow or raven perched outside, and a girl is sitting by the door or perhaps climbing down the ladder.  I assume these details are specific to the particular story this piece illustrates.  Another interesting touch is that while Baba Yaga’s hut is usually said to be in a forest, the plants in Jakubowski’s version appear more like weeds enlarged to forest scale - or 
perhaps the house is shrunk down to something more like actual chicken size.  In it you can see again Jakubowski’s predilection for whimsical botany.  The faint pin-prick suggestion of very circular clouds in the sky is also reminiscent of the brighter clouds behind the dragon.
        I did share one more of Jakubowski’s fairy tale illustrations previously.  You can see his will-o-the-wisps here, with another gnarled tree.  The very dark style with only the wispiest of white lines works particularly well in depicting faint, mysterious faerie flames.  I think his work is great and I’d love to see more some time.

[Pictures: Dragon;
Baba Yaga’s Hut, all woodcuts by Stanislaw Jakubowski from Kraina slowianskich basni (Land of Slavic Fairytales), 1929 (Images from lamus dworski).]

August 21, 2020

Here's Something Cool: Mysteryes of Art

        John Bate first published The Mysteryes of Nature and Art, his illustrated compendium of mechanical and technological instructions, in 1634.  It proved popular for its practical instructions for how to make various fireworks, waterworks, art, and “confusedly intermixed” “extravagants.”  The book is most famous because it was a favorite of young Isaac Newton, said to have inspired him  to study science - especially in the matter of fireworks and colors.  Although there are fascinating projects described and illustrated throughout the work, I have chosen to show you some of Bate’s information about art.
        First, I give you a couple of recipes in which Bate instructs the artist on how to make colors, which makes up a major proportion of his advice.  Keep in mind that pre-made paints and inks were not available from your local craft store in the seventeenth century.  An artist had to be a chemist first.
        A Purple colour.  Take two pound of Heidleber, two ounces of Allum, halfe an ounce of ashes of Copper, halfe a pound of water; put them into a Skillet, and let them boyle till a third be consumed: when it is cold, straine it into a cleane vessell, and let it stand a while, then straine it into another, and then let it stand till it be thick enough.
        That sounds complicated enough, but rational.  However, apparently an artist had to be an alchemist, as well.  The following instructions seem to include more than a little magic:
        To write a gold colour.  Take a new hennes egge, make a hole at one end and let the substance out, then take the yolke without the white, and four times as much in quantitie of quicksilver; grinde them well together, and put them into the shell; stop the hole thereof with chalke, and the white of an egge, then lay it under an henne that sitteth with sixe more, let her sit on it three weeks, then breake it up, and write with it.
        Of course I’m most interested in what Bate has to say about printmaking.  His first edition covers only copper engraving and etching, but in the second edition, published the next year, he includes an extensive section on engraving in wood.  He says The working is farre more tedious and difficult than the working in brasse… when you have cut it so that it may be pickt out, yet if you have not a great care in picking it out, you may break out a part of your work, which may deface it…
On the other hand, for those inconveniences an Artist may finde in the practise thereof, this is one commodity he shall gaine; he shall be private in his designes; for he himselfe may print them when they are cut…  Bate and I are on the same wavelength there: much of the fun of relief printmaking is the ability to draw the design, carve the design, and print the design all myself.
        It’s fun to see how many different skills were required for the art being made 400 years ago.  I don’t think I would have been up to it.

[Pictures: frontispiece to Of Drawing, Limming, Colouring, Painting, and Graving;
A very easie way to describe a Towne, or Castle: being within the full sight thereof;
Of Gravers, all wood block prints from The Mysteries of Nature and Art (second edition) by John Bate, 1635 (Image from Internet Archive).]

August 16, 2020

Summer Vacation: UK Edition

        It’s time for another armchair trip with block prints, and today we’re heading for the UK.  I actually don’t have many proper British scenes of my own to share, but we’ll begin in the small Lancashire town of Yealand Conyers.  I visited here in 1987, where I made a sketch of the wonderfully “quaint” buildings visible from my hostel window.  (You can see the sketch here, in the first picture.)  I didn’t then use it as the basis of a block print until 11 years later, when it was one of my earlier rubber block prints, made only a year or two after I really started working with rubber block prints as my medium of choice.
        We skip up to Scotland next, for another of my faux woodcuts from The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  This door is in St Salvator’s Chapel in the University of St Andrews.  It dates to the fifteenth century.  I’ve also posted some other artists' block printed views of Scotland, which you can revisit:
Plus a post that serves as our transition, with coastal views in both Scotland and all the way down in the East of England.
        From here we will visit another church door, this one from St Bartholomew-the-Great in London.  The design in the upper corners is supposed to represent William Bolton, who was prior from 1505-1532.  It’s a crossbow bolt through a cask or tun.
While we’re in London, here are a couple more landmarks by E. White
And two views of nearby Ely Cathedral to round out our string of churches.

        That’s all I have from the UK, but I may as well throw in an English-speaking bonus from the antipodes.  This fern actually represents the fiddlehead of a tree fern in New Zealand.  The original is about life size, the size of a curled fist.  I love ferns of all sorts and am pretty much completely nuts about tree ferns.  I took about a thousand photographs of them while in New Zealand, and based this print on one.
        I have also previously shared some of A. Laurence’s views of Australia, which you can revisit,
plus a kangaroo.
        And after that it’s time to come on home, our block-printed travel completed for the summer.  I hope you enjoyed some of my views of different parts of the world that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit in the past.  I hope we’ll be able to  travel again safely before too much longer.  In the meantime, don’t forget the interconnectedness of the whole Earth, both nature and we people who are inextricably intertwined, in relationship with each other and everything else around the world.

[Pictures: Window at Yealand Conyers, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
Plate X; Plate XXII, illustrations from The Extraordinary Book of Doors by AEGN, 2014;
New Zealand Fern, rubber block print by AEGN, 2000.]

August 11, 2020

Clanging Upon the Heart

        Here’s an interesting fantasy poem by James Joyce (Ireland, 1882-1941), although probably it would be more accurate to call it a vision or a nightmare than “fantasy.”

I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

        This poem is actually a sort of response to or rewriting of William Butler Yeat’s 1899 poem “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace.”  In his poem Yeats describes “the Horses of Disaster,” but ends with the idea that lovers can hide "their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet” of those horses while lying together.  The voice in Joyce’s poem, by contrast, has no beloved to lie with him “in deep twilight of rest.”
        Joyce’s poem, published in 1907, has some really wonderful, intense imagery, and magnificently dark phrases.  My favorites are “whirling laughter” and “clanging upon the heart.”  But what exactly is it about?  Again, without having any deep knowledge of Joyce, I’d guess that he meant it as an expression of dread and despair and longing.  These days I can certainly resonate with the oppressive feeling of the second verse.  As usual, though, if I look at it as fantasy, I imagine the host of demons or dark elves, or possibly unquiet ghosts of long-dead warriors.  It’s an intensely vivid evocation of images and emotion.

[Picture: Illustration of an Old Norse Ballad, wood block print by Olaf Willums, 1920s?]

August 5, 2020

Moronobu's Birds and Flowers

        Hishikawa Moronobu (Japan, 1618-1694) was the most important ukiyo-e printmaker of his day.  Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints celebrating the pleasures of the hedonistic lifestyle of Edo (now Tokyo) from the 17th-19th centuries.  These woodblock prints were popular with a newly wealthy merchant class.  Although this genre is full of images of beautiful women and kabuki actors, it also included depictions of flora and fauna, and that’s what I have for you today.  I’ve been having a lot of fun recently trying to take photographs of goldfinches in the rudbeckia and hummingbirds in the lilies, so it seems timely to appreciate Moronobu’s pictures of birds and flowers right now.
        This first piece includes lilies the same color as mine, although I certainly don’t have pheasants preening beside mine!  (Turkeys might be plausible, although we usually don’t see much of them in the summer, but there are definitely no pheasants around here.)  You can
see that these pictures come from a book, and all the pages have the same layout, with the widest margin at the top, and the text above the pictures.  The color here is not printed, but hand-painted afterwards.
        Next up is a dove.  We have plenty of mourning doves around here, and they’re one of my favorites, with their gentle call falling heavily in the summer air.  The flowers to the left look a bit like our stewartia, although they could probably be a lot of things.  Anyway, the stewartia is past its flowering now.  You can see a grey smudge across that page which is presumably the painted ink showing through from the back, which is a shame.
        All of today’s pieces come from the same woodblock printed book entitled, fittingly, Birds and Flowers.  This third piece is unusual in that it is only a single page picture instead of a double-page spread, with an unrelated picture on the facing page.  The coloring of the purple flags is faint enough to be ignorable.  I especially like the composition of this one, with the bird behind the flowers.
        This last is really my favorite, even though it’s not a bird.  (I tend to take a lot of photographs of dragonflies, too, though.)  I like the variety of plants, with busy, many-petalled mums, some larger twining flower, a few sprigs of bamboo with solid black leaves for contrast, and the interesting black buds or seed pods in the left-hand panel.
        It’s a great reminder to keep your eyes open for the interesting flora and fauna all
around, even if you don’t have an extensive garden or natural areas nearby.  It’s a blessing to notice not only the beauty of birds and bugs and flowers, but also their pairings.  It’s wonderful to see the world at work around us, everything living and growing in its own best way.  And it’s delightful to see how artists through the ages have captured and shared that wonder.

[Images from Birds and Flowers, wood block prints by Hishikawa Moronobu, 1683 (Images from The Met).]