Category Archives: illustrations

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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Puss in Books

In recent days at home I have been much absorbed in settling in a cat who has newly arrived in my house from the local pet rescue centre. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about cats in books. They seem very plentiful in children’s books, but despite cats and readers being very complementary, there are not so many for adults.

My childhood cat books

One of the earliest books I remember is The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, created in 1907. Tom Kitten was forever losing buttons off his trousers. One year a tin featuring his mother sewing on a button appeared in my Christmas stocking. The toffees in it soon disappeared, but it has found a place in my sewing basket ever since, to store all those loose buttons that we seamstresses collect.

The other feline companion of my childhood was Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. He first appeared in 1938, and the only copy that I have from that series is An Evening Out. Orlando is a caring father and husband. Grace is a rather retiring cat, but their kittens are splendid, and like Tom Kitten, easy to identify with: Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle. Especially Tinkle, who was the smallest, naughtiest and blackest kitten you ever saw. The family go to the circus, and Orlando, by mistake, gets caught up in the acts: Performing Dogs, the Human Horse, Mr Plunkett the elephant, Signora Celia and her celebrated seals and Mr Meek the lion-tamer. The audience think Orlando is part of the show, but when he saves the life of Mr Meek the Circus Manager presents him with a gold medal.

My daughter’s childhood books

Mog the forgetful cat appeared in 1970, the creation of Judith Kerr. Mog was recognisable to any family who had lived with a cat, especially as she was not very bright. But she too earned a medal when she accidentally saved the family from some burglars (pronounced burg-gew-lars in our family).

The other series that featured in reading to my daughter was The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley. Sampson the Cat was befriended by the Church Mice and saved them from threats of extermination.

The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite, mostly for the illustrations that showed the absurd situation with plenty of delightful detail.

My grandson’s childhood book

When I asked my grandson, now 15, what cat book he remembered from earlier reading, he promptly replied The Patchwork Cat. William Mayne wrote the story and it was charmingly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Tabby was very attached to her old patchwork quilt and when it was thrown out she went to the dump to rescue it, despite all kinds of terrors on the way.

And two for the adults

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

I read this classic Russian novel in 2006 and noted that it was hard to get into – it’s connections with our world are so strange. No doubt the citizens of Moscow who were familiar with Stalin did not find it so. I lived in London at the time and several people commented on this book when I read it on the bus.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) Penguin Classic. Translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Levear. 432pp 

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide 

Enjoyable story about a man and his wife who are adopted by a cat, and then she dies. They must leave the house and this disrupts their grieving. Every cat lover will recognise the obsession and madness.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (2014) Picador. Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. 140pp

And for the poets and poetry lovers …

You thought that TS Eliot was a rather dry modernist poet with a high squeaky voice. But his triumph was his collection of cat poems: The Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat amongst other. He also had an irrefutable theory about what cats are doing when they are sitting quietly looking at nothing.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
the reason I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt concentration of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable, effable,
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
[From The Naming of Cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot]

Have I left any important cats out?

And my little cat is called Bindi and she is already capable of upsetting a pile of books or dislodging some less favoured tomes from the bookshelf. She is making herself quite at home.

Bindi, making herself at home on the dog’s bed.

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Beowulf – 5 The remarkable revival

The ancient story of Beowulf has had a remarkable revival. 

Beowulf’s story was composed around the 6th or 7th centuries, written down in the 10th or 11th centuries, and has survived for about 1500 years. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Whether it was composed by one artist or several is not known.

Originally the story would probably have been told or sung in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations, films and retellings. 

Beowulf is a Geat and a hero. His story tells of his defeat of Grendel and of Grendel’s mother, and a treasure-loving dragon. Grendel was terrorising the Danish mead hall, the pride and joy of its builder the king. After defeating Grendel, the monster’s mother came seeking revenge and there was another epic battle, this time underwater, but again Beowulf prevailed. Much later in life, when he was a king himself, Beowulf took on a dragon who guarded the most fabulous pile of treasure, and although the dragon died, so did Beowulf to the dismay and misery of his people.

As far as I am aware, the revival of Beowulf’s story is a recent phenomenon.

Why is Beowulf so popular today?

It’s a good story. It’s the story of good triumphing over evil and with a couple of twists. Just when Beowulf and his admirers think he has solved the problem of the attacks on the Danish mead hall, along comes another monster for him to dispatch. Later he becomes a king and does the kingly thing of defending his people, even at the cost of his own life. 

Beowulf appeals to children as well as adults. The plot can be simplified, omitting the genealogies, back stories, and sub plots. The hero defeats three monsters. He is brave. He is young and one of a gang at the start of the story and becomes king in his mature years. 

Beowulf is a hero. Superheroes are all the rage at the moment. His power, his superpower, is to have the strength of 30 men in one of his arms. He is more than a human. He finds a magic sword and has the ability to fight for hours underwater. He fits right in with the spidermen, supermen, and other film heroes.

We like a little of the supernatural in our fiction. The powers of the hero and of his defeated monsters and dragon are all supernatural. They don’t quite belong in our world, so we can return from ancient Denmark and feel happy at the outcome, and relieved that such things do not exist in our world. 

The antagonists are sympathetic. Both Grendel and his mother have been made the focus of novels: by JohnGardner and Maria Dahvana Headley respectively. Maria Dahvana Headley updated the story not only to interpret it through feminist eyes, but also to place it in a modern context, which seriously challenges the goodness of Beowulf. John Gardner views the story from the eyes of Beowulf’s first victim, who might even be a human of sorts, seriously challenged by the bragging Danes in the mead hall, and much misunderstood by the other characters and by the original storyteller of course. 

Other times, other places. There is also the mystery and attraction of this being a very old story, capable of retelling in ways that say something about the teller and their context and time. I have not yet read Edwin Morgan’s version, but I note that he says this about his original version published in 1952.

The translation, which was begun shortly after I came out of the army at the end of the Second World Wat, was in a sense my unwritten war poem, I would not want to alter [in a new edition] the expression I gave to its themes of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss. Inter arma musae tacent (“In time of conflict the Muses are silent”) but they are not sleeping. (Preface to 2021 edition)

These themes are timeless, conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss and just as Edwin Morgan experienced them in the Second World War, so do we today.

The mystery of the text. The story of the survival of the version of Beowulf that we have is fascinating, not least because it is so ancient, and the language in which it was written is obscure to most readers, despite being a version of very old English. It is not clear whether it is written by more than one scribe or composed by more than one poet. We know that the poet and the scribe cannot be the same person, for the poem predates the written version by some centuries. Survival of texts and arguments about versions and who wrote what and authenticity are the very stuff of fascination. For example, Shakespeare’s plays have been subjected to a huge amount of scholarly examination in the various versions that still exist. I have looked at the versions listed below, which include prose, and poetry, adaptations and translations. No doubt there are others, and in different genres, perhaps a computer game, anime or film. Whatever version Beowulf is in, the story will be read into the late twenty-first century. Not bad for a text that started as a spoken or sung poem fifteen centuries ago.

Pile in order 2

Versions of Beowulf discussed in this series

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, (1961) reissued by Puffin in 1966.

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, (2006) by Walker Books.

Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, (1982) Oxford University Press.

Beowulf by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, (1999) Faber

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley (2021) Scribe. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (2018) Scribe. 

Grendel by John Gardner, (1971) Picador. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Beowulf by Edwin Morgan (1952) republished by Carcanet (2002)

Links to previous posts in the Beowulf series

Beowulf 1 Some versions February 2021

Beowulf 2 in which he meets a feminist July 2021

Beowulf 3 – Grendel by John Gardner March 2022

Beowulf 4 – Charles Keeping’s Illustrations December 2022

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Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures 

Sorting through more of the books that came to me from my mother, I found a copy of Struwwelpeter. It seems to have been given to one or more of us children in the 1950s by ‘Grandpop’ my father’s father. I have two other editions, an earlier one, perhaps from the ‘20s or ‘30s and a more modern one, published in 1972. 

Struwwelpeter can be translated as shock-haired Peter. It is available today from bookshops, including with joint German/English text. Older editions sell for three figures on the second-hand websites. And an e-book is available on-line from Gutenberg editions.

The History of Struwwelpeter

The oldest of my editions has a page by the author, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, translated as the stories in the book are by an unknown translator. In this introductory note Dr Hoffman describes how the book came to be written. He wanted to find an appropriate picture book for his 3-year-old son for Christmas in 1844. He was very unhappy with what he found in the shops.

Long tales, stupid collections of pictures, moralizing stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like: “the good child must be truthful”, or “children must keep clean”, etc.

At the time Dr Hoffman was the medical man at the lunatic asylum, and often had to see children. He was aware that doctors and chimney sweeps were often used as bogeymen by mothers when they admonish and threaten their children. So to allay their fears he would produce little rhymes and pictures for the children. 

A story, such as you find written here, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.

The ‘pretty stories’ found an instant readership, including in Great Britain. 

The Stories in Struwwelpeter

Each of my three editions contains 12 stories, with titles such as 

  • Cruel Frederick: Fred is bitten by a dog that he was tormenting
  • The Dreadful story of Harriet and the Matches: Harriet played with forbidden matches and was burned to a cinder, leaving only her red shoes
  • The Story of the Inky Boys: the boys who were taunting a ‘Black-a-moor’ got dipped in ink 
  • The Story of the Man that went out Shooting: the man who went shooting found the gun turned on him by the hares

In all these stories naughty people get their comeuppance: the hunter should not have fallen asleep; Harriet didn’t listen to the cats that warned her and so on. 

But the story that freaked me out as a child was The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Guess what? I was a thumb-sucker all through my childhood. I was in constant fear of the ‘great tall tailor’ with the huge scissors.

One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out now and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off – and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

She leaves, Conrad sucks his thumbs, the great tall tailor comes and ‘Snip! Snap! Snip!’ his thumbs are cut off. His mother returns and finds Conrad looking ‘quite sad’.

“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Today I am shocked that a mother would go out, knowing her son would suffer this fate, and return and say to the thumbless boy a version of “I told you so!”

Some of the other stories are as moralizing, but with exaggeration, as The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. But few have outcomes as frightening.

  • The Story of Johnny Head-in-Air: although he falls in the river, he ultimately only loses his writing-book
  • Flying Robert: he fails to stay at home in the rain and is blown away with his umbrella, never to be seen again 
  • The Story of Fidgety Philip: he manages to bring the tablecloth, the meal and his own chair down onto the floor, spoiling the family dinner

I was relieved that there was no story about a nail-biter.

While every child likes to see other children getting their just deserts, the spectre of the tailor and his scissors haunted me. As did the exhortation to always be good!

When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play
Good all night and good all day – 
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these shall never look
At this pretty Picture-book.

And …

Dr Hoffman may have provided some humour and merriness into these stories, but to me they were awfully cruel. I think Dr Hoffman was disingenuous to claim that his stories weren’t moralising, for the sins of these children are just those that annoy their parents and get them nagging their children: thumb-sucking, playing with matches, tormenting animals, laughing at Black children, fidgeting, and not paying attention. I am sure there were other children than me who believed in the fate of these wrong-doers.

I worry that I inflicted this on my daughter. For the newest of my editions was published when she was 4 and I may have bought it for her. She too sucked her thumb, but I never minded, or threatened her with the great tall tailor and his scissors.

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Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

There is an antiquarian feel to this week’s post. I was moving some books around the other day, most came from what is left of my mother’s library. For some reason I had put aside the larger books. Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book came into my hands. An inscription revealed that it had been a Christmas present to my grandfather, from his two sisters in 1916. There are mysteries concerning this volume.

Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

The book is about A4 size, with 170 pages, the pages thick like cartridge paper. Inside there are 14 stories, one of which is alarmingly called White Caroline and Black Caroline. There are 15 illustrations listed, but one of the plates is missing: 

The prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the princess . . . and soar rapidly away. [From Bashtchelik (Or Real Steel) a Serbian fairy tale]

And to my shame one of them has a pencil drawing in profile on the reverse, much like the profiles I used to draw aged about 10.

The stories are not the familiar ones. For example, the story called White Caroline and Black Caroline is Flemish.

Come, Come, Caroline,
White, white, child o’ mine!
I hate you, HATE you,
And, at any rate, you
Are no child o’ mine.

Come, Come, Caroline
Black, black, child o’ mine,
I bore you, adore you,
Will give whatever more you
Want, O child o’ mine!

This verse heads up the story, which goes on to describe how the mother, who does not believe that White Caroline is her daughter, tries to dispose of White Caroline, but is thwarted by Black Caroline. They manage to defeat their mother, resist the nymphs and vampires, one of them marries a king, and then they change into white swans.

The other stories are as unfamiliar as the Carolines’. Here are some of the titles:

  • The Buried Moon (English)
  • The Seven Conquerors of the Queen of the Mississippi (Belgian)
  • The Serpent Prince (Italian)
  • Ivan and the Chestnut Horse (Russian)
  • The Queen of the Many-Coloured Bed-Chamber (Irish)
  • The Blue Bird (French)
  • The Friar and the Boy (English)
  • Urashima Taro (Japanese)
  • The Fire Bird (Russian)

It is the illustrations that are this volume’s glory. Dulac managed to capture something of each country’s style of illustration: here, for example are English, Italian and two Russian pictures. 

In her frantic struggles the hood of her cloak fell back from her dazzling golden hair, and immediately the whole place was flooded with light. From The Buried Moon.
When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous. From The Serpent Prince.
The chestnut horse seemed to linger in the air at the top of its leap while that kiss endured. From Ivan and the Chestnut Horse.

With a scream the Princess rushed forward, and, before her wicked sister could prevent her, she had upset the cauldron with a crash. From The Fire Bird.

Two Mysteries, and one of them is solved

The first puzzle for me was the gift itself. My grandfather was 16 when he received this from his sisters. I wondered why they thought this was an appropriate present for a young man. Fairy stories are usually for the nursery. But a little internet research provided the answer.

Edmund Dulac was a French illustrator who was naturalised as British in 1920. He came to London before the First World War and was working for Hodder and Stoughton producing illustrations for their books. Starting with Arabian Nights in 1907 they published illustrated annuals. Fairy Book was published in 1916, the year it was given to my grandfather. Special dispensation must have been provided to use the high quality of paper during wartime. And the reason for that permission was that this was a patriotic book. Its subtitle is Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations. There were therefore no Austrian or German stories included as all the stories come from allies.

This was a relief book, according to an article I read, although I couldn’t find the phrase used elsewhere. But it explains the gift to a 16-year-old. It was a patriotic present, perhaps other copies were given by the sisters to other relations. And perhaps they gave him other presents too. Was money raised by the sale of Fairy Book? And if so, where did it go? There is nothing in the book to indicate this.

The second mystery emerged from the American website (The Minneapolis College of Art and Design) where I read about Fairy Book. It referred to The Story of the Bird Feng – a Chinese story. Neither story nor illustration are included in the version in my possession. This is a shame as the illustration is very elaborate drawing, its inspiration from Chinese lacquer work, I think.

The wonderful bird, like a fire of many colours came down from heaven, alighted before the Princess, dropping at her feet the portrait. From The Bird Feng.

The details on the website reveal that there was an American edition of Fairy Book. I don’t understand why. Was China considered an American but not a British ally?

Some other notes

Edmund Dulac continued to be a successful illustrator, although the fashion for fairy stories changed after the war. In the Second World War he designed banknotes and stamps for the British government.

Copies of Fairy Book are for sale in many places, ranging from £20 to £90.

Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton

I recently had cataract operations, which gave me a new view on the world. One major change is that having used contact lenses for nearly 50 years, I no longer need them. Another change is that some colours that I thought were black have resolved into dark blue and purple. And as well as an all-round improvement in my sight I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye what I call ghosts, just the fluttering of something sheet-like disappearing out of sight. Having read With or Without Angels I think these may be angels. 

I loved this short book because it is about seeing, about looking, and doing those things differently, more closely and with a more imaginative eye. And I have always enjoyed how the arts influence each other. With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton is inspired by a series of collages by the Scottish artist, Alan Smith, which in turn are a response to Il Mondo Nuovo by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

It is a short novel about creativity, about seeing, about looking, and about some important questions to do with art, illness, life, change and death.

With or Without Angels

The starting point is a fresco from 1791 by the Venetian artist, Giandomenico Tiepolo. It is called Il Mondo Nuovo, The New World. It’s a large piece, landscape form, showing a variety of Venetians with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea, not excited but not at ease either. Tieoplo has placed himself in the picture, in profile, raising something to his eye, standing just behind his father. The picture is strange, and the viewer must ask, what is this new world that these people are awaiting? A reproduction of the fresco is provided at the start of the book and sections are used on its cover. 

The central character in this novel is an unnamed artist who, through sickness, has become less able to use his hands to hold pen, pencil or brush. The old artist has taken to using a small camera. Working with a digitally skilled assistant, they created a series of 11 montages. They begin in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and by the penultimate image have assembled a response to Il Mondo Nuovo, in which the figures now face the viewer. A final montage includes some figures from Antony Gormley’s Another Place, an installation of 100 figures on the beach at Crosby. I visited last year and was very moved. 

Other elements of his photographs are found recurring in the series, such as a floating shape, a little like a sheet – angels? As the old artist and Livvy work on the series, the significance or the references to other paintings emerge, some are included. The old artist reflects on the wisdom of various artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dimmi, dimmi, se mai fatta cosa alcuna – tell me, tell me if anything was ever done. (24)

And contemplating his own mortality he reflects on Philip Larkin’s comment that what will remain of us when we are gone is love, love will survive. The old artist thinks ‘it is the work that will speak for him long after he is gone’. (25) Later he recalls being on Crosby beach.

He walked out to stand by one of the bronze men, shoulder to shoulder and looking out to sea. Do they look with longing? As though they already miss the push and pull of the water, like being held in a crowd and now let go. He took one rusted hand in his, felt the roughness of metal that will not last.
Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us – he had not been convinced of that before. He thought maybe his work would be the thing that survived – misunderstood perhaps. Now, remembering that day on Crosby beach, holding the hand of a rusted man, he is not so sure. He is not so sure they can be separated, the love and the work. (103)

So this book makes one think on several levels. It’s an exploration of Il Mondo Nuovo and Alan Smith’s collages in which he is responding to that fresco, and finally the author Douglas Bruton’s fictional account of the creation of the collages. He has considered life, death, illness, interactions, love and meaning and so much more. In his Acknowledgements he tells the story of how an artist’s widow visited his garden and spoke about the work of her husband. She has approved the publication of this novel.

In the process we are given a demonstration of looking, seeing the details in a picture, and the relationships, the dynamics, between different genres, different works, different inspirations, and concerns.

It is beautifully written, and very tender.

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton, published in 2023 by Fairlight Books. 112pp. Includes 12 colour illustrations.

Related links

The review on A Life in Books is what put me onto this book. I love discovering books through other blogs, and this post described a work I knew I wanted to get hold of. It was part of a Read Indies initiative.

The author, Douglas Bruton, recommends the website of the artist Alan Smith where the images can be seen screen-size, and there is also a video about the creation of his collages. You can find it through this link: http://www.alansmithartist.com/the-new-world.html

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Beowulf – 4: Charles Keeping’s illustrations

Moving some books around I found a copy of Beowulf, with the credits on the cover to Charles Keeping and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Readers will know that the illustrator is not normally the first named. Most readers of children’s books in the post war period will be familiar with Charles Keeping and his style of illustrations. Many of my copies of books by Rosemary Sutcliff have them, including Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf.

It is not immediately apparent that this is a book for young readers, but the blurb on the back says that it is ‘retold for children’. A Wikipedia search tells me that Oxford University Press created a series of four books, this is one of them, to showcase Charles Keeping’s illustrations. It was published in 1982. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, possibly I inherited it in the collection of books I received when my mother died a few years ago. 

This is the fourth in a series of connected posts, connected by the ancient English poem Beowulf. You can find links to the previous posts at the end of this piece.

Beowulf

This is not a translation, but a retelling by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I referred to another version of his in the first post I wrote on this ancient poem as well as the version by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1961, also with illustrations by Charles Keeping. In the present version the illustrations are powerful and provide the dark atmosphere for the story.

They are in black and white which makes for stark images and reflects the Nordic location of the poem. Beowulf was a Geat (from present day Sweden) who travelled to assist Hrothgar, the king of Denmark. This king had built a huge feasting hall, Heorat, that was being terrorised by a monster called Grendel.

The illustrations do not shy away from the horror, violence, and pain. The story tells how Beowulf defeated Grendel, causing his death by ripping off his arm. Not just one but two monsters are taken on by Beowulf. If anything, Grendel’s nameless mother is an even more formidable enemy than Grendel. She has supernatural powers and Beowulf must wrestle with her underwater. 

The pictures are drawn with fine lines, which pick out individual features, for example of sleeping warriors. But the lines are also used to create the surroundings of the figures, often in fog, or at night, or with simple stalks growing from the ground. When we see them, the people’s faces are gnarly and often scarred. Grendel is the stuff of nightmares.

Through the dark night a darker shape slid. A sinister figure shrithed down from the moors, over high shoulders, sopping tussocks , over sheep runs, over gurgling streams. It shrithed towards the timbered hall, huge and hairy and slightly stooping. Its long arms swung loosely. (17)

Perhaps only the one-armed Grendel shrieking as he ran is more terrible. Or his hairy arm, ripped from his body and pinned up by the entrance to the hall. Commentators suggest that Charles Keeping’s monsters have a human and vulnerable quality to them, and that makes them appealing to the viewer/reader.

Charles Keeping 

Charles Keeping was born in 1924 and spent some of the war years in the RAF serving as a wireless operator. At the end of the war he was wounded and after his recouperation attended art school and began his career as an illustrator. It took off after he had illustrated Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Silver Branch. He had a very successful career, illustrating children’s books most often. He died in May 1988.

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, published in 1982 by Oxford University Press.

You can see several of Charles Keeping’s illustration on the Paris review website (September 2015) called Charles Keeping’s Beowulf with a link to yet more.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

Beowulf – 3, Grendel by John Gardner (March 2022)

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