Monday, March 8, 2021

Easter Island and its Books

Dear friends,

Every now and then I reminisce about the books and people David and I met on our 50-year odyssey as Bromer Booksellers. Below is the story of the remotest place we ever visited and the book collection we built to memorialize that trip.

Anne Bromer

March 2021

John Dos Passos called it the “Island of Enigmas,” the most isolated inhabited place in the world. Owned by Chile, it lies more than 2200 miles from the continent of South America and more than 1200 miles from its nearest, inhabited neighbor, tiny Pitcairn Island. The indigenous people call themselves and their 64-square-mile island Rapa Nui. Chileans call the island Isla de Pascua. The first European, a Dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, set foot on the archipelago on Easter morning 1722, and named it Easter Island. It is composed of three dormant volcanic regions with ancient art exposed in a kind of outdoor museum.

The island’s gathering of enormous carved stone heads standing and scattered about makes it feel haunted. Beginning about 1000 CE the indigenous people began carving heads with torsos out of volcano rock. As a form of ancestral worship, these heads are called moai, and they weigh an average of 14 tons. Most are mounted in groups of various sizes on ceremonial ahus, or rock altars. All face towards the land, as the original Polynesian settlers thought of themselves as the center of the world. For five hundred years, approximately 1000 moai were carved from quarry rock at Rano Raruku in the center of the Island. How these megaliths were transported nearly twelve miles to the edges of the island is a puzzle that only recently has been deciphered. Oral history and modern experimentation appear to confirm that they were walked upright with ropes.

The focus on building monumental heads together with overpopulation depleted resources on the island. Plant and bird life were disrupted to feed the islanders. Fishing boats required too much of the lumber. A rat population found their favorite food in the seeds of the vast palm tree forests and devoured so many that the trees could no longer propagate. More trees were cut down to make way for land to farm. By the 16th century, Rapa Nui was deforested, and the social fabric of its people began to unravel. 

Vicious wars were fought, and the monumental heads were toppled. At the height of its population, there were about 10,000 indigenous people, but with tribal battles and the introduction of disease and slavery brought by Europeans, the Rapa Nui people were nearly extinct by the 1870s. The native population reached its lowest count of 110 in 1878. 

In 1888, Easter Island was annexed by Chile. The islanders were confined to Hanga Roa, its capital, and primarily were sheep farmers, although a large corporation owned all the sheep farms. Under the dictator Augusto Pinochet martial law was declared. Finally after his dictatorship ended in 1990, private property was restored and tourism began to bring the island prosperity. In 1995 UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage site. 

On New Year’s Eve 1997, David and I arrived for a visit. Our flight took five hours from Santiago, Chile. The two-mile landing strip, built in case of an emergency for the U.S. Space Shuttle program, is so long that the LAN-Chile pilot didn’t need to apply the brakes. We stayed in a small, Rapa Nui-owned hotel and spent five days exploring the mysteries and lessons of the island. We were so intoxicated with all we saw that we wanted to mark the experience. As booksellers we paid tribute to the journey by building a collection of books. 

Three titles by early explorers were key to the collection, two of which we were able to obtain in first editions, but we were unsuccessful in finding an original edition of the journal of the first European to sight the island.

Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) was 63 years old when he and his fleet landed on Rapa Nui, April 5, 1722. In a passage from his journal, Roggeveen saw that the island was already deforested and sandy: “We mistook the parched-up grass, and hay or other scorched and charred brushwood for a soil of arid nature….” The original Dutch edition of 1838 escaped us, but the English translation by Andrew Sharp in 1970 was included.

An engraving of a woman from Easter Island,
after a drawing by William Hodges, who was
on Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific
Image source
Captain James Cook (1728-1779) saw Easter Island from HMS Resolution in March 1774. In the second of his three-volume Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World there is a description of what he and his crew witnessed when approaching the island: “On the east side, near the sea, they met with three platforms of stone-work, or rather the ruins of them. On each had stood four of those large statues, but they were all fallen down…and all except one were broken by the fall, or in some measure defaced. Each statue had on its head a large cylindric stone of a red colour, wrought perfectly round.” 

The third 18th-century Easter Island explorer, whose travels resulted in a set of three volumes, was Jean Francois de La Perouse (1741-1788). He was a French admiral, who commanded two frigates with the goal of completing Captain Cook’s explorations twelve years earlier. Voyage de la Perouse Autour du Monde was first published in 1791 and details a portion of a day on Easter Island in 1786 and the author’s colorful first encounters with its settlers. 

“I anchored quite close to the frigate, but the undertow was so strong that our anchors did not hold and we were forced to raise them and tack a couple of times to regain the anchorage. This setback in no way lessened the natives’ enthusiasm. They swam behind us up a league offshore, and climbed aboard with a cheerfulness and a feeling of security which gave me the most favourable opinion of their character. A more suspicious people might have feared, when we set sail, to see itself torn from its relatives and carried away far from home, but the thought of such perfidy did not even seem to occur to them. They went about in our midst, naked and with no weapons, a mere string around the waist with a bunch of herbs to hide their natural parts.” 

Of the approximately 80 books, pamphlets, and objects we collected, most offered a European or Chilean perspective. Included were some of the proceedings of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool. We would consider the late-19th-century texts and observations by members who had traveled to Easter Island as unevolved. J. Linton Palmer was interested in identifying wooden tablets and figurines. A.J. Mott postulated that people other than, as he termed, “savages” must have carved the “colossal stone images.” 

There were additional books in the collection on explorations, including the voyage of Felipe González de Ahedo, who landed on Easter Island before Captain Cook, in November 1770, and claimed it for the Spanish crown. The English translation account of the expedition was published 128 years later in 1908. In 1915, Captain N.P. Benson’s log of a 900-mile voyage to Easter Island on the schooner El Dorado was printed. He wrote of the harrowing journey “…across a storm-tossed ocean in an open boat, twenty-two feet long, (this) does not fall into the life of every mariner.”

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) claimed until his dying day that South Americans were the first to discover Rapa Nui. In 1955, he led a two-year archaeological expedition to the island, which he recounted in Aku-Aku. That book and other volumes by Heyerdahl on the art and mystique of the island were part of the collection. Until very recently, Heyerdahl’s belief of indigenous South Americans being the first to settle the island was considered incorrect. The prevailing theory had been that Polynesians were the first settlers. Now, highly developed DNA analysis has reopened the question. As is true with many of the mysteries of Rapa Nui, new data has changed the science, and it now appears as if the discovery came from both the West and the East. 

The collection included books and periodicals of archaeological expeditions and of secrets and mysteries of the religious rituals of the island. Tales from the past of cultural practices and viewed from an “Ethno-Psychological” viewpoint were set out in Werner Wolff’s 1948 book, Island of Death. Arkham House published The Web of Easter Island in 1948 by the science fiction writer, Donald Wandrei. Dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, the horror story reinforced perceived terrors of Easter Island. Coupled with the myths and riddles were books about the art and language of the Rapa Nui people, many illustrated with photographs.

In 2006 the playwright Edward Albee went to Rapa Nui and wrote about it in a New York Times three-page color spread. He was 78 years old and had dreamed of the trip for fifty years. He wrote of the nature of life on the island with statues in situ where the ancient carvers left them, unfinished and as yet unborn. He spoke of moai raised on their pedestals as if living beings, while others remained face down where they were once toppled, now dead. The full cycle of life is an essential part of Rapa Nui.

Our trip to the island was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for David and me. In building a book collection, we were able to keep the adventure close. It was our way of remembering those five days of wonderment. As time and memory faded, so did the intensity of that moment. In 2012 we sold the collection en bloc to a colleague in Australia.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Covarrubias, Kahlo, and Popular Pride

Left: Cristina Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias, Frida Kahlo, and Rosa Covarrubias; Right: Covarrubias and Nickolas Murray

On June 19th, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts concluded its exhibit “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular”, a celebration-via-contextualization of Kahlo’s work. Mexican decorative art, ceramics, textiles, and other artisan materials surrounded Kahlo’s pieces, emphasizing the interplay between the two. Arte popular grew out of the Mexican Revolution, embodying the authentic Mexican self that thrived in modern society but never lost sight of heritage and tradition. In turn, Kahlo took on the same themes in her artwork: magical realism, vibrancy, and fluidity between the animate and inanimate and the living and the dead. Kahlo brought “popular” art to its dual sense, taking inspiration from the folk art of the people and giving it a global voice.

Kahlo was not the only artist of her period to adopt arte popular as the substance of a greater platform. Miguel Covarrubias, a close friend of Kahlo among her circle in Mexico City. Their relationship was captured by Nickolas Murray, Kahlo’s longtime lover. Covarrubias featured prominently as a caricaturist and illustrator, rising through a series of New York connections to become a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Like Kahlo, Covarrubias drew stylistic inspiration from the local craftspeople he grew up with. The sweeping lines and pure colors in his work mirrors the sensuosity and fantasy of arte popular, translated to suit, and subvert, the imagery of societal powers of race and class.

For Covarrubias, the process of inspiration and execution was a study in ethnography. In New York, through his friends Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W. C. Handy (for whom he also illustrated books), Covarrubias experienced the Harlem Renaissance, which he captured in caricatures and drawings. Those that depicted jazz clubs were printed in Vanity Fair, while others formed the basis of his book, Negro Drawings. When Covarrubias traveled to San Francisco to create a mural for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, he painted six murals featuring grandiose illustrated maps, respectively titled The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific, Peoples, Art and Culture, Economy, Native Dwellings, and Native Means of Transportation. His honeymoon to Bali, paired with a later return trip as a Guggenheim Fellow, resulted in the book, Island of Bali, in which Covarrubias expounded on the local culture and customs through his writing and illustrations, as well as the inclusion of his wife Rosa Rolanda’s photographs. These honest encapsulations of foreign cultures preceded Covarrubias’ perhaps most-loved work, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Throughout the book, Covarrubias balances oral history, first hand analysis, biography, and documented history, peppering the text with diagrams and illustrations, as well as colored plates showing the world of the Isthmus through his characteristic style. In our copy, Covarrubias added an additional drawing before the title page, in which with graceful simplicity he exemplifies the local women: their manner of dress, their hairstyles, their labors, and even their attitudes. This work brings to fruition all of Covarrubias’ previous labors, honoring the folk art so influential to him and Kahlo by giving it tangible, international face born out of itself. The likes of Kahlo and Covarrubias brought Mexican arte popular into the greater public purview, a democratization of art that never lost sight of its roots.

References and Links:

The MFA’s summary of the Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular:

A descriptive op-ed on the MFA exhibit, featured in the Harvard Crimson:

A collection of Nickolas Murray’s photographs of Kahlo, Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, and others, up for sale by Sotheby’s:

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Some Safe Harbor: WWII Logbooks from the South Pacific

From 1941 to 1943, Lorain Roswell Snyder, Seaman First Class, traveled throughout the Pacific, winding his way north from the Galapagos Islands, towards the South Pacific, and up to Alaska aboard the U.S.S. Richmond (CL-9). In those years, Snyder, nicknamed “Doc”, recorded not only his activities and the adventures the Richmond encountered, but also cataloged the duties accorded to his role as a gunner’s mate, drew equipment, maps, tattoos, and flags in astonishing detail, and offered his own insights into wartime events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“War!!!/Oh my! Well here's what we've been waiting for ... Arizona and Oklahoma got it bad!”). He encapsulated this life at sea, with all the specifics of its vessels and the mercuriality of its personalities and its bureaucracy, in four log books, presented here.

All commissioned naval vessels maintain log books, called deck logs, handwritten or typed by the officers on board. These are held as permanent records by the Navy, and eventually by the National Archives. The Archives’ collection spans the Revolutionary War, their earliest item being a photostatic copy of the log for the Continental Schooner WASP, through Vietnam. A certain number, listed by ship name, have been digitized, including the logs for the Richmond. Snyder’s name does not appear in the logs because he was not a commissioned officer, but the coordinates match - both Snyder’s and the official logs place the Richmond in the South Pacific in May 1942, for example, as well as being off the coast of Siberia for the Battle of the Komandorski Islands a year later.

But the deck logs make no mention of the life of an enlisted man, or anyone else for that matter, other than the arrivals and departures of various seamen, and the occasional relegation of an insolent sailor to the brig. Snyder’s accounts, then, provide a unique and eclectic view, a log crafted for the sake of self-expression, accountability, and education. Two logs document Snyder’s on-board studies to become a gunner’s mate third-class and second-class. His assignments ranged from the proper use and storage of ammunition, the parts of various weapons (Snyder’s artistic acumen is on display in his depictions of a .45 caliber automatic pistol, a gun mount, a flare gun, and other equipment), storm warning signals, and mathematical equations. At the rear of these coursebooks, which function nearly as manuals, Snyder, with characteristic precision, indexed morse code, semaphore, alphabetical and numerical flags, pipe markings, and national symbols.

The technical knowledge of these logs imbues the other two with a backbone of seriousness, even as Snyder rolls his eyes at some men who “just can’t be satisfied with enough” while he is “just taking life easy”. These books, which function as daily diaries, were addressed at the outset to Snyder’s parents, a statement only preceded by the ship’s seal and an account of its destinations from 1939 to 1942. Albeit unintentional, these two introductory elements highlight the personality and enthusiasm of Snyder’s accounts, and of Snyder himself. He expressed wonder at aerial warfare, glib boredom or approval of daily duties, fear at the scattered battles that the U.S.S. Richmond comes across, and joy at familiar sights. Outside of these regular reports, Snyder also drew a map of the Pacific, tracking the Richmond’s course alongside major altercations between the Japanese and the Allies, and penned a humorous poem entitled “A Torrid Tale of the Tropics” about a hapless lover on Waikiki.

At the heart of Snyder’s logbooks lies a love of storytelling and a weather eye toward a safe port. Snyder’s final proclamation - “Home!” - promises pride and relief, satisfaction and adventure.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Landscape of a Binding: Caro Weir Ely's Style, C.E.S. Wood's Ambition, and Their Friendship

Charles Erskine Scott Wood. Poems from the Ranges. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1929.

In 1920, the Book Club of California, then still a nascent entity, having published its first letterpress volume in 1914, hosted an exhibition of finely bound books crafted by Caroline “Caro” Weir Ely. Though Ely never matched the prominence of her father, impressionist Julian Alden Weir, or the stature of her grandfather, West Point professor and member of the Hudson River School Robert Walter Weir, she found uniqueness and acclaim as a bookbinder throughout the early twentieth century. As evidenced by the Book Club of California’s exhibition, the literary community, as male-driven as it was at the time, celebrated her skill and apparently appreciated her minimalist style. One man in particular, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, found Ely’s work worthy of continued patronage; at least four books were bound by Ely for Wood, or with Wood in mind. These are The Vintage Festival by Sarah Bard Field, printed in 1920 and bound by Ely on behalf of Field as a gift from Field to Wood, her husband; Julian Alden Weir: An Appreciation of his Life and Works, printed in 1921 and bound by Ely as a presentation copy to Wood; Snow Bound, A Winter Idyl by John G. Whittier, printed in 1911 and bound by Ely sixteen years later as a gift from Wood to Field; and the present Poems from the Ranges by Wood, printed by the Grabhorn Press in 1929 and bound by Ely for Wood.

The relationship between Wood, a military man, lawyer, and author, and Ely was not simply borne by a mutual appreciation of each other’s crafts, nor was it the avuncular fondness of a man for the daughter of an artist he admired and knew as a frequent associate (Julian Alden Weir painted a portrait of Wood in 1901, and a letter from Wood to Weir is featured in Julian Alden Weir: An Appreciation of his Life and Works). Rather, Wood and Ely seem to have known each other as genuine friends. The inscription in the Ely-bound copy of Poems from the Ranges reads: “To Caro Weir Ely, from her friend, with love. Charles Erskine Scott Wood. The Cats – Los Gatos – Calif. 1929”. The friendship between the elder Wood, who was in his twilight years and would die in 1944 at the age of 91, and the much younger Weir, who was born in 1885 when Wood was already in his thirties, certainly follows a pattern of relationships that Weir held with younger artists and activists in his later life, including Ansel Adams, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers. The difference, however, is that Ely was not based in California or in the Western States at all, instead calling Connecticut home and finding particular footing at Florence Griswold’s artist colony in Old Lyme, where Ely herself eventually settled. What bound Ely and Wood, as it did Adams and Steinbeck and other figures under Wood’s wing but removed from the West, such as Childe Hassam, Margaret Sanger, and Eugene Debs, was their continuous and intrinsic awe for place and landscape, their fascination with the land and the impressions of humans upon it.

For Wood, this passion for nature and nature-dwellers emerged in his transcription of the surrender of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce at the end of the Nez Perce War in 1877. While much of his account concerns the underhanded dealings of one of his fellow officers, Wood goes out of his way, however briefly, to laud the interactions between the Native peoples and the land. In one instance, he recounts hunting buffalo with two Native scouts while the snowy Bear Paw Mountain looms ahead of them (Wood). Other flora and fauna punctuate the story – the imposing pass into Clark Basin, the plains of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, coyotes, and horses tame and wild – in such a way as to insist upon the largeness of the landscape and the consequential, or perhaps continual, smallness of the men. When Chief Joseph emerges to deliver his speech of surrender, then, with “quiet pride”, he seems the largest, the most capable of standing against the forces of nature, of any of the figures mentioned in the narrative (Wood). This attitude translated to Wood’s later work as an attorney advocating for Native rights, in which he continually insisted on the primacy of the Native peoples’ ownership, if such a term may be used, of the lands from which they had been forcibly removed. Wood’s belief in the inevitable hugeness of the landscape was also clear in his artwork, which featured vastness of the frontier surrounding Portland, Oregon and other areas of the American West rendered in watercolors. Wood’s portrayals are hardly intimidating, however. Instead, his decision to cast the open sky, the thick arms of the trees, the limitless coast in soft watercolors softens their size.

Likewise for Ely, nature was a constant, comforting presence, a wild thing to strive with rather than against, a thing to admire and leave free. In her youth, Ely recalled, when she traveled with her family from Branchville to Windham, Connecticut, she reveled in disembarking the train “hot and dirty”, and with great joy “piled onto the waiting carriages, breathing the fresh air and enjoying every moment of the four mile drive over the plains” (Lest We Forget quoted in Dawson, chap. 2, f.16). A similar attitude colored her written and artistic recollections of Weir Farm, now a National Historic Park. The farm sported several gardens, and Ely and her sisters were very likely responsible for the design and upkeep of the Secret Garden, which Ely praised for its endurance, stating that it was “still full of the plants [she] put in” twenty years later (National Park Service, 3). Her etchings and sketches cast the farm in a similar light, drawing out the balance between nature’s whims and the boundaries and designs of the humans who lived there. The sure lines of the farmhouse blend with those of the brush, and the trees cast over the paths and fences insistent shadows. It is no great extrapolation to suggest the same balance characterizes Ely’s bindings. In each of the four examples cited here, Ely’s gilt work and tooling highlights the natural textures of the leather. For Poems from the Ranges, the minimalist exterior draws the eye to the crackings in the morocco, and makes the brilliant floral paste-paper endpapers all the more striking. It is as much a celebration of the feel of a book, and of the materials that make it, as it is a showcase for Ely’s own creative capabilities.



Dawson, Anne E. Rare Light: J. Alden Weir in Windham, Connecticut, 1882-1919. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016. Chapter 2, footnote 16.

National Park Service. “The Gardens”. Weir Farm.

New England Historical Society. “High Thinking and Low Living in Old Lyme”. New England Historical Society. 2018.

PBA Galleries Sale 464: Fine Literature with Books in All Fields. October 6, 2011. Lots 400, 402, and 403.

Weir, Julian Alden. “C.E.S. Wood”. Portrait. 1901. Portland Art Museum Online Collections.;id=3542;type=101.

Wood, Charles Erskine Scott. “The Pursuit and Capture of Chief Joseph”. Archives of the West, 1874-1877. 2001.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Announcing Bromer Gallery

To mark its fiftieth year as a leading specialist in rare and beautiful books, Bromer Booksellers is pleased to announce the launch of Bromer Gallery, which will open its first exhibition on November 1, 2018. Bromer Gallery will operate in conjunction with the book shop, and will feature original art, edition prints, and related material, executed by artists whose work is centered upon the idea of the book as art. This new endeavor is a natural extension of Bromer Booksellers’ long history as specialists in the art of the book.

The gallery’s inaugural exhibit, titled “Goldman and Lee: Shadow and Color”, will feature Jane Goldman's watercolors and editioned prints from her Audubon Series, together with the color woodcuts of Jim Lee. The two artists are old friends who both studied with Warrington Colescott and other members of the “Madison Mafia” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s famed Print Department.

A noted painter and printmaker, Jane Goldman will be exhibiting work from her latest series, Audubon Suite. This series of hand-painted pigment and silkscreen prints incorporates plates from Audubon’s iconic Birds of America into richly textured, vibrant still-lifes that chart the changing seasons. According to Goldman, this series “displays my abiding interest in creating a contemplative world of objects bathed in light with shadow contrasts. The cast shadows unify objects in the here and now with the 19th century Audubon image; past and present seamlessly occupy the same timeless space.” Since 1987, Goldman has been a partner in the Mixit Print Studio, a collaborative space in Somerville, MA, for printmakers.

Jim Lee, the Connecticut-based printmaker, book artist, and proprietor of Blue Moon Press, will bring the lush landscapes of Ireland, New England, and Maritime Canada to the Gallery. Lee works primarily with color reduction woodcuts to capture the mood and subtle features of a particular area. As he is also interested in the people who inhabit the locations he depicts, the woodcut process allows him to weave references to their history and culture into his work. Lee’s entire aesthetic arises from his draftsmanship, and in his bookwork and prints he tries to use “the intersection of type and image as a continuation of the act of drawing.” Lee teaches printmaking and book arts at the University of Hartford.

“Goldman and Lee: Shadow and Color” will be on exhibit at Bromer Gallery, 607 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116, from November 1, 2018 until January 15, 2019. In conjunction with the gallery show, Bromer Booksellers will feature a display of books with woodcuts from across our specialty areas. Visit for more information, and find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as @bromergallery.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Simons, Dwiggins, and the Modern Letter

If the modern typographic revolution can be said to have been born in London, the it ought to also be said that it came of age in Germany. The turn of the twentieth century saw the arrival of Edward Johnston to the Royal College of Art and to the calligraphic craft. Johnston explored the use of broad-edged pens for his lettering, renewing the dried-up nineteenth-century penmanship practices with flourishes and individual creativity, and considering the letters themselves, not just their collective referents, worthy of beauty. His teachings influenced the likes of Eric Gill and Percy Smith, but found their greatest hold on the young German, Anna Simons. The simple fact of Simons' attendance at the Royal College of Art was notable, since she matriculated at a time when women were not admitted to Prussian Arts and Crafts schools, and Simons improved upon her standing by becoming one of Johnston's star students.

After completing her training, from 1905 to 1910 Simons taught at Dusseldorf's Royal School of Arts and Crafts, thereby teaching at an institution that in turn had refused to instruct her. During that period she brought exhibitions of English book arts to Weimar, Berlin, and Hamburg, and translated several works on lettering, including Johnston's own Writing and Illuminating and Lettering into German. Yet equal in influence to Simons' determined dissemination of new principles of letter design were her own artistic contributions to the Bremer Presse. Over the course of her career, Simons produced some 1400 titles and initials for the Presse, each one epitomizing new design for a new post-Great War Europe. Doffing the strictures of traditional order and industrial simplicity and conformity, Simons' designs, like Johnstons', presented letters and art themselves, pushing the optics of what they could be and where they could sit on the page.

While Simons engaged the German art world in Johnston’s new concepts of lettering and herself applied them to the tangible design of books and their pages, W. A. Dwiggins was doing much the same in the United States. The connection between Simons and Dwiggins is more explicitly laid out in the inscription inside the front cover of our copy of Titel und Initialen fur die Bremer Presse, Simons’ portfolio of titles and initials employed in the first eight-odd years of her efforts for the press: “Presented by the publishers to WAD, and given by him to Edward A. Karr”. Whereas Dwiggins was primarily a type- and book-designer, Karr, a teacher at the Museum of Fine Arts School and fellow Boston artist, was more concerned with penmanship and lettering, closer to the craft of Johnston. But this second relationship ought not to obscure the first, that Dwiggins was given Simons’ portfolio by its publishers, in a clear acknowledgment of the stylistic similarities and vision of the two artists. Both are responsible for ushering bookmaking in their respective countries to meet the style and technology of the twentieth century; Simons’ influence is heavily felt in the Weiner Werkstatte corpus and in the subsequent rise of Art Deco themes, and Dwiggins’ himself designed the typefaces for the clean layout offered by the new Linotype machine.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Geoffroy Tory: Common Language, Privileged Text

In speaking of Geoffroy Tory, one most often does so in reference to his Champfleury, which established a distinctly French artistic style while it simultaneously declaimed the use and order of the French language in sound and shape. The volume ensconced Tory as a father of French book production, and in particular of French book arts. He invoked deliberate, simple design in his typography and ornamentation, and demanded the same refinement from the language itself. In a later translation of Lucian, Tory announced to the reader that “l’eficace de l’art D’oratorie est de pouvoir faire ample description non seullement d’une gra[n]de chose, Mais aussi bien de une petite [the impact of the art of oratory is to create a rich description not only of a great thing, but also of a small thing]” (Lucian 1533, 2).

Tory’s insistence that the simple beauty of the vernacular mirror the clean composition of the mise en page climaxed in his 1529 Champfleury (subsequent attempts at creating and recreating Tory’s designs are summarized here:, but was previously demonstrated in the Horae of 1524 and the later 1527 edition of the same. In the Horae, Tory revolutionized French printing, trading the traditional dark closeness of gothic text for open typography and imagery. William M. Ivins, Jr. referred to it as a “blond book”, in which Roman type and uncluttered woodcuts were harmonious and inviting, rather than cluttered and somber (Ivins, Jr., 84). The 1524 edition was a testament to this new affinity for clean design, bearing sixteen full-page borders and thirteen large woodcuts, the borders being repeated throughout on every page. The 1527 edition pushed the principle still further, incorporating twelve woodcuts and four-piece borders on every page in twenty-six distinct combinations. Most notably, Tory selected a type truly neither Gothic nor Roman, but resembling something like Bastarda script used in France and the Low Countries throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This confluence of progressive design and nostalgic type argued that the printed book could match, and even surpass, the contemplation, care, and beauty of the manuscript.

The profundity of Tory’s contribution to the emerging book trade, the newness of what he had conceived and executed, was met with favor in his own time, as evidenced by the book privileges granted to him through the royal court. The French book-privilege system was one the first - certainly the first of its cohesion and systematization - and most effective in early sixteenth century. Unlike Italy, where the book trade thrived but regulation was stymied by conflicts between ununified states, or Britain, where governmental control was clear but the trade was still nascent, the reach and control of the French government was such that it could suitably oversee intellectual property rights. Privileges were not in any way mandatory and it remained the responsibility of the printer, and in select cases the author, to submit a petition for one. Privileges could be granted by the royal chancery, the sovereign courts including Parlement, provincial parlements and officers, and various academic and ecclesiastical institutions. The chancery acted at the whim of the king himself, and thus was both the most prized of privileges and also the slowest, since it required the king to be in residence. Of the parameters considered when granting a privilege, arguably the most important was the “criterion of newness”, as phrased by Elizabeth Armstrong (Armstrong, 92-99). A book had to be a unique contributor to the existing canon or corpus, being a completely new work, a new translation, or containing a substantial addition or improvement to an existing text. It was especially uncommon for religious works to receive privileges. Although a known almost twenty-four percent of all books published under privilege in France through 1526 fall under the classification of religion, none were for editions of the Bible, and prior to Tory only Antoine Vérard received on for his 1508 Les Heures Nostre Dame (Armstrong, 165). Herein one finds acknowledgement of Tory’s genius; both the 1524 and 1527 editions have been granted privileges. The former was awarded a chancery privilege, with the particular mention of his “certaine histoires & vignettes [certain pictures and vignettes]” and his ability to bridge those “a L’antique [of antique style]” and those “a la Moderne [of modern style]” (Les heures 1524, 1v). The latter likewise received a chancery privilege, with the same nods to his art compounded by praise for his knack for “divulguer, acroistre, et decorer la la[n]gue Latine et francoise [revealing, improving, and ornamenting the Latin and French languages]” in both form and function (Les heures 1527, 1v). The first was granted for a period of six years and the second for a period of ten, the overlap suggesting that the two works were considered distinct enough, and each on its own “new” enough, to earn the right of exclusivity.

Tory’s contributions to the French language, in the ways it was spoken and written, in its abstract and physical forms, in itself and its bibliographic context, provided the nation with a contemporary visage and style unmatched elsewhere. He imbued French books with their “Frenchness”, carving out a distinct national space in an international market coming out of its infancy.



Armstrong, Elizabeth. Before Copyright: The French Book-Privilege System 1498-1526. Cambridge, 1990.

Horae in laudem beatissime semper Virginis Marie. Paris, 1524 [privilege granted in 1524, imprint states 1525].

Hore in laudem beatissime Virginis Marie. Paris, 1527.

Ivins, Jr., William M. “Geoffroy Tory.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15.4 (1920), 79-86.

Lucian of Samosata. La mouche de Lucian, et La maniere de parler et de se taire. Paris, 1533.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Unfolding Early Education and the Practice of Play

Fröbel-Album. Emmy Boldt (cover title) and Weaving (cover title)

In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Fröbel proposed the radical notion that education, and early education in particular, was a creative process, and that before setting foot in a customary schoolroom, children ought to be grounded in self-expression and playfulness. The reality of the proposition was the establishment of the kindergarten system and Fröbel’s “gifts” and “occupations”. His gifts consisted of physical implements, such as wood blocks and yarn, which students could manipulate and mutate. His occupations required slightly more craftsmanship, involving the cutting, folding, and pricking of paper and advancing through a series of skills including embroidery and weaving. Both the gifts and the occupations offered avenues for play in tandem with tasks to be mastered, wherein students received the rewards of their own creativity.

Fröbel viewed the various paper techniques as the foundation of the other occupations. In his own autobiographical reflections, he asked of himself “‘What did you do as a boy? What happened to you to satisfy that need of yours for something to do and to express? By what, at the same period of your life, was this need most fully met, or what did you then most desire for this purpose?’” (Autobiography 75). Fröbel’s personal answer, the creation of forms out of paper, fulfilled his and his students’ need to derive “precise, clear, and many-sided results due to [their] own creative power” (Autobiography 76). This activity concretely connected the student to Nature, such that the student could mirror Nature’s creative powers and in so doing find a greater sense of belonging, enterprise, and wisdom. The folding of paper also offered a tangible basis for abstract mathematical and logical concepts. A child would make “progressive experiments which teach it by experience” (Reminiscences 71). Such experimentation was, in Fröbel’s words, the means by which “unconsciousness is raised to consciousness” (Reminiscences 73). His gifts and occupations worked to prompt the child to the nature of work and introduced them through playful and practical means to the abstract notions of the gathering and employment of knowledge.

During his lifetime, Fröbel’s ideas progressed throughout Germany and the Netherlands, gathering the support of several royal proponents, such as the Baroness Bertha Marie von Marenholtz-Bülow and the Duke of Meiningen. Unfortunately, just before his death the Prussian government banned Fröbel’s practices, citing them as “atheistic and demagogic”. Though the ban was more the result of a confusion of names – Fröbel’s nephew had published an unwelcome pamphlet on the education of women – the damage deterred the growth of kindergarten education in Europe for fifteen years. Fröbel’s legacy instead grew in the United States, where his former pupil, Margarethe Schurz, founded in 1856 the first American kindergarten and later inspired the educational reformers Elizabeth Peabody and Lucy Wheelock. Fröbel occupations became particularly popular in the Midwest, as exhibited by the two volumes pictured. Students would compile albums of their work as a means to track their competencies and display their creativity. Whereas the “Weaving” album shows a single skill improved over time, the “Fröbel-Album” evinces a steady progression through a variety of tasks completed with increasing skill.

These and other albums like them, in their invitation to create something out of nothing and to repurpose common materials new fashions, served as an inspiration for later abstract artistic movements. The Bauhaus school took particular cues from Fröbel; Walter Gropius designed the Friedrich Fröbel Haus in his honor (the building was never completed, but building plans can be viewed here). Frank Lloyd Wright also noted Fröbel as a key influence, stating that his early interactions building and rebuilding with a set of Fröbel gifts taught him the basic elements of geometry and structure (Alofsin 359). Fröbel has made more indirect impressions elsewhere in the creation and perpetuation of toys and educational materials that encourage expression through manipulation, such as LEGO blocks and Montessori sensorial materials.

(28032); (28055)


Alofsin, Anthony. Frank Lloyd Wright – The Lost Years, 1910-1922: A Study of Influence. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Fröbel, Friedrich. Autobiography of Friedrich Froebel. Translated by Emilie Michaelis and H. Keatley Moore. (London: Swan Sonnenchein, 1908).

Marenholtz-Bülow, Baroness B. von. Reminiscences of Friedrich Froebel. Translated by Mary Mann. (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1889).

Monday, June 11, 2018

The World On Display

Polyorama Panoptique. (c. 1830).

The Polyorama Panoptique is not so much an optical toy as an illusory experience. With the wooden box in one hand and the wooden lens in the other, the viewer may find stretched out before him or her the streets of London with the familiar Westminster Abbey in the background or the noble arch of the Champs Elysées. Slides encapsulate these scenes; each one bears a short cloth tab for easy extraction, a label at the back of the frame to identify the illustration, and many have careful cutouts or points edging chandeliers, skylines, and candles. By adjusting the concertina or the doors at the top and back of the box, and thus allowing different amounts of light to illuminate the scene, streetlamps may glow, windows may shine, and day may turn to night. Forty-two such images accompany this particular Panoptique.

The Panoptique was at its popular height from the 1820s through the 1850s, paralleling the success of its full-size inspiration, the Dioramas created by Louis Daguerre and Charles-Marie Bouton. The Diorama, as opposed to the also-popular Panorama, was a dynamic theatrical experience that required movement of both the scenery and the audience. A custom theater was built in Paris, and later in Regent’s Park in London, that provided two adjacent stages, in front of which the audience would pivot on a turntable. Each stage displayed layers of paintings on linen, made transparent in selected areas and arranged along a deep tunnel. Through skylights, screens, shutters, and colored blinds, sunlight then transformed each image, subtly or dramatically. Thus the audience’s gaze was manipulated not only through the inclusion of multiple images, but also through the transformation of the images themselves. Like the Panoptique’s slides, the Dioramas presented familiar scenes and landscapes: the Holyrood Chapel, Mon St. Godard, and the Harbour of Brest, among others.

This hyperrealism of highly recognizable natural and manmade features, and implicating the audience in those scenes through compulsory participation, bestows upon the images a sense of the fantastic. The “normal” – the train plying its way through the land, the cabs and horses circling each other in front of state houses, the men and women milling about the large fora of major cities – becomes abnormal, a thing to be wondered at and interacted with on a new plane. Yet the interaction is stunted; there is an artificial but impenetrable distance between the viewer and the object, one that does not exist in real life. This distance, this insistence at holding the viewer at arm’s length while the world changes, is the true source of the Diorama and the Panoptique’s power. They are so profound because they render the touchable untouchable and the real unreal, and all of it highly ephemeral (the Diorama performance lasted at most fifteen minutes, and the Panoptique’s slides may be changed at will). The Panoptique makes this sensation mobile and places ownership of the experience literally into the hands of the viewer. But this shrinkage and consequential responsibility comes with an increased sense of fantasy and dissociation. The viewer may hold the world in his or her pocket, may turn on or off the lights, but despite their best efforts will never reach the place they see. The key elements, that is, the fixedness of scope and scene and the temporality of the images, dictate the extent of the interaction, and ultimately set the viewer at enough of a remove that his or her activity is inevitably futile. This futility generates fantasy, the sense that if the world cannot be totally embraced and understood, that it cannot be real. The Panoptique in this way moves beyond a simple mechanism of entertainment; it reveals to the viewer their incapability and allows them to wonder at it.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Tradition By Hand: A Book of Russian Folk Art

Denshin, Alexei. Vyatskaya glinyanaya igrushka v risunkakh: raskraska risunkov ruchnaya, yachnymi kraskami, tochno skopirovannymi s podlinnikov. Moscow, 1917.

Folk art, and artistic style itself, bends over time to the weight of cultural change, its authenticity eroding until a new style rises up to take its place. It takes deep traditional roots and regional resilience for a method to withstand such pressures; such is the case with Russian Dymkovo toys. The small figurines were first explicitly mentioned in 1811, but were noted as key parts of a celebration to commemorate a battle some four hundred years prior. Made from clay and river sand and whitewashed with chalk diluted in milk, the toys take on grotesque, almost amoebic shapes. The limbs of men and women extend only vaguely out from their ill-defined torsos, and the legs of cows, deer, and rams are often only half-realized curves protruding from their bodies. All are decorated in geometric patterns in bright colors – a duck may be covered in green dots, a ram’s horns may be a brilliant orange, a woman’s skirt checked in blue and yellow. To this is sometimes added gold leaf, giving the rustic figures a strange richness. They depict not only real creatures, but also fanciful ones, such as horses with two heads or winged beasts.

The 1811 mention of the Dymkovo toys occurs in the writing of Major General Khitrovo, who had been sent into exile to the region of Vytaka. There, at the village of Khlynov, he learned of the legend of the Khlynovo massacre, an event unconfirmed but seared into the collective memory of the town. Each year the villagers gathered to commemorate the bloodshed, and here Khitrovo noted that brightly colored and gilded clay dolls were sold to honor the widows left after the battle. The gathering, called Svistoplyaska, functioned not only as a remembrance of the past, but also as a festival to celebrate spring fertility. The festival required participants to whistle in the new season with pennywhistles, and this ritual was performed by women. Women also were the only ones who created the Dymkovo toys, thus asserting themselves as the heralds of springtime and the bearers of renewal and continuity in the land and among the people.

As time passed, the toys became more sophisticated. Ladies might bear parasols or wear bonnets, men might sport top hats and cloaks, after the fashions of city-dwellers. Toys might display multiple figures – a woman riding a horse, or a couple holding hands – and separate toys might be arranged into tableaux. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, mass-manufactured porcelain and plaster figurines were threatening the traditional handmade crafts. The Svistoplyaska festival still existed, although now known as the Svistunya, but had been reduced to a children’s party. However, in the Soviet era, the old ways were revived; in 1939, masters of the Dymkovo craft were commissioned to create a panneau for that year’s agricultural exhibition. Now, students may travel to the Vytaka (or Kirov) region, where the Kirov Artist Union closely monitors the use of traditional methods to create the toys. Though the field is still small, it trudges onward in the hands of eager young artists who learn the old ways from village women.

The revival of the tradition of the Dymkovo toys relied not just on the few old women who exhibited their handiwork at the agricultural exhibition; it also owes its success in part to Alexei Denshin (1893-1948), a Moscow artist fascinated with the craft. Denshin published a series of monographs on the toys, and in his later career taught at the Vytaka Art College. His interest in the tradition began early on, as exemplified in this 1917 volume of hand-colored drawings that reproduced original figurines. In them, Denshin well-represents the abstractness of the toys, and his colors glint off the pages as they would off the originals. The volume has a stated limitation of three hundred copies, but the amount of work required to produce it – the drawings are hand-done and glued to each page, the introductory text has been lithographed in sepia from Denshin’s own calligraphy, the book itself is carefully stab-bound with string – suggests that the actual number published is not so high. It retains its original board slipcase, which had hand-done ornamentation in red and black. The volume itself is a work of art, a book of careful construction and whimsical artistic style, but its significance lies in its testament as a man’s consideration of a woman’s art, its recognition of the resiliency of cultural custom, and its celebration of the rural arts that speak to the soul of the Russian countryside.