Saturday 31 August 2013

Some Original Victorian Magazine Cover Art. Talk About a Steady Hand...

A collector I've been corresponding with has sent me these scans of some pieces he owns, which he's kindly said can be shared here. They're two wonderful examples of hand drawn magazine covers, each followed by the printed version (the second one with an additional colour at the printing stage).

The first piece of art has the written annotation to the printer 'Please take great care in reproducing this', and they evidently did: the printed version is barely distinguishable from the original. The periodicals these come from appear to be pretty much lost in the mists of time, as is the artist H. L. Heatly (googling didn't turn up much), though Wikipedia informs us that George Robert Sims, the top-billed writer on the Cherry Blossom issue, was a successful author, dramatist and campaigning journalist who ended up gambling away his fortune. He had some fun on the way though:

In 1876, Sims penned a satiric open letter "To a Fashionable Tragedian", humorously accusing actor-producer Henry Irving of inciting mass murder by emphasising the gore in his Shakespeare plays and of paying bribes to critics. Irving sued Sims and his editor Harry Sampson for libel, but after an apology he withdrew the legal action.

Anyway, the art. Presumably pencil then ink onto art board, so not a lot of room for mistakes... Though you can see a hint of tippex (or whatever it was called then) in one of the close-ups.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Penrith of the Daleks

In a wonderfully random development, the reception area of Tim Roebuck Opticians, in the middle of Penrith, has gained a Dalek. There's probably quite a good 'You'll think you'll need your eyes tested' type gag to insert at this point, but I can't think of one right now.

It's a fan-made example, albeit largely following the 'official' plans, and with the headlight/flashers made from the same parts that the BBC uses: the company that manufactures Belisha beacons makes them especially for the Beeb's Daleks: they even have a BBC part number, apparently. It also has a built in ring modulator (so the person inside can do the voice!).

Anyway, if you're local, do pop in to say hello/exterminate, as I'm told he won't be there for long...

Monday 19 August 2013

A Maltese ABEwhack, NICE Paintings, Giant Whiskers and their link to British Fascism. Now there's a sentence you've not read before.

This unassuming little book came across my desk a few days ago:

Description of the Governor's Palaces in Malta, of Valletta, St. Antonio and Verdala, and Catalogue of the Pictures, By Blanch Lintorn Simmons. Second edition, Malta Government Printing Office, 1895.

Its title is self-explanatory: a book with a very narrow remit, and no illustrations, bar a few vignettes 'from old blocks belonging to the Printing Office of the Order of St John'. A very rare volume it appears: there's no google ebook, and no copies — not even Print on Demand ones — on ABE. (I know technically 'ABEwhack' should mean a book with one hit/copy on ABE, but I've invented the term and I say it should mean no copies. So there.) Several libraries do have it however, so it's not a completely 'lost' title.

The copy I have has pages which are mostly uncut, so in all its 118 year life, during its long journey from Malta to Cumbria via who knows where, no one ever bothered to actually read it. Sad really, though this link to an entry from the National Inventory of Continental European Paintings (and yes, rather wonderfully, they call themselves NICE Paintings) does at least point out that:

The value of this work lies in it being an accurate record of paintings in the old palaces of the Order, 'found' by the British after the French surrender. A large number of these paintings are now in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Malta, so Blanch's catalogue helps fill in the gaps between the tenancy of the islands by the Order of St John, the French invasion, the British Protectorate, and the current independent State of Malta.

Good for Blanch. When she wrote the book, her Dad, Sir John Lintorn Simmons, was the Governor of Malta. He looked like this:

And in case you think that's a 'caricature' that's overplaying his frankly alarming facial hair, it isn't. Here's a photo of him.

Terrifying. How did he eat?

Anyway. All this is apropos of nothing, other than as an example of stuff you find out on google within a few minutes of looking up a book. I'd love to think there's someone out there who reads this and triumphantly shouts, "Finally! A copy of Description of the Governor's Palaces in Malta, of Valletta, St. Antonio and Verdala, and Catalogue of the Pictures! I've been after one for years!" But let's face it folks, that probably isn't going to happen.

I promised you Fascism, so here goes. Blanch had a daughter, and she turned out to be a bad egg. Rotha Lintorn-Orman was a founding member of The British Fascists (not to be confused with The British Union of Fascists, oh no. Rotha considered Oswald Moseley of the BUF "to be a near-communist").

Here's a photo of her. She's even more terrifying than her Grandpa's whiskers...

... I want that coat though. 

Wednesday 14 August 2013

A Penrithian Photo Mystery: Trying to Track Down J. C. Varty-Smith

This photograph arrived as part of a batch of old prints from various photographers which included one I've already mentioned, but it stood apart from the others, which were all posed portrait shots.

The scan above doesn't really do it justice. It's not large, about 8in x 5 1/2in, and has a sheen of what I assume might be silver nitrate around the edges, which gives it a kind of halo effect. While it's obviously a snow scene, there were additional white dots/blotches added to the image at the printing stage to heighten the 'snow' — at least I think they were; they don't appear to be signs of ageing (they are part of the printed image), though I admit I'm no expert in these things.

So, perhaps the photographer was experimenting a bit at the developing stage, aiming for an 'artistic' effect to heighten what is already a nicely composed, rather atmospheric picture.

The print is signed in pencil, bottom left, 'J. C. Varty-Smith 1904'. It turns out Mr Varty-Smith was a Penrithian of some note, and evidently a gifted photographer: this page, detailing an exhibition of recently acquired items at the Penrith and Eden museum (which is just down the road from Withnail Books) includes a mention of 'medals awarded for photography to a Penrithian J C Varty-Smith (d.1924) an early patron of the Museum.'

J. C.'s google-friendly name (how many other J. C. Varty-Smiths do you know?) crops up in various other places too. He wasn't just a patron of Penrith and Eden museum: a sample of Spring Sandwort he collected is in Manchester Museum, and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge has a whole collection of glassware collected by J. C. and donated by his sisters, 'The Misses Varty-Smith', including a Rum Decanter made by the Bristol glassmaker Lazarus Jacobs. The Fitzwilliam doesn't have an image online, but it sounds similar to this one at the V&A:

J. C. didn't just collect things, he wrote about them too, including a paper on creepy-crawlies:

Some Staffordshire Myriapods in North Staffordshire Field Club Transactions and Annual Report, Stoke-on-Trent vol.LIII pp.88-90

He also turns up, brilliantly, on the Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Knitting Reading List' for his no doubt definitive:

'Some Knitting Implements of Cumberland and Westmorland', in Connoisseur, Vol. XXV, 1909

There is a very badly OCR'd archive of the text of Connoisseur magazine online here, alas it's too garbled to read much, though the tantalising opening paragraph of the article is clear:

To those living in the Midlands and the 
South of England the subject of this paper will no 
doubt be puzzling, and the accompanying illustrations 
may at a first glance be taken for instruments of war- 
fare used by some savage tribes. They are, however, 
innocent and useful instruments of industry, which 
were among the belongings of our grandmothers and 
their fore-elders of the eighteenth century. 

J. C. Varty-Smith sounds like a very cool Penrithian. I'd love to know more about him, and indeed shed more light on his photography, and specifically the background to the image above. I think a visit to the Penrith and Eden Museum is in order...

Saturday 10 August 2013

Discover a New Subculture: Fruit Crate Label Collecting

Last week, the words 'fruit crate label' wouldn't have conjured up much as far as I was concerned. The label you put on a crate of fruit. End of.

Now I know better, thanks to a cache of them that has come across my desk. Add the magic words 'Vintage' and/or 'Original' and a huge world of collecting opens up. It turns out that old fruit crate labels, mainly American ones from the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, were often things of beauty; graphic art and indeed hand separated colour litho printing of the highest order. These labels were the 'window' to the produce inside the closed wooden crate, and had to be eye-catching and memorable. Some would have representations of the fruit inside, but many would concentrate on the brand name, which leads to my favourite label (above), for 'Trout Brand' Apples. Hats off to whoever in marketing came up with that one.

Books have been written about the history of these things (here's an excerpt from one of them) and there are many specialist dealers. There are evidently tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them still circulating as collectables, and while repros are available, it's still possible to come by originals, most of which are unused - they've never been stuck to the side of any crate. I wondered at first how this could be, but the answer's simple: the change to cardboard boxes, with logos and so on printed on them, left piles of unused labels sitting in warehouses. It was only a matter of time before they went walkies, or were sold off in bulk to people who thought there might be a market in selling to them to people who, well, just liked the way they looked. They tend to be about 12 in x 11 in, so big enough to look great on the wall, if you're into that kind of thing.

Here's just a tiny selection, starting with a few from the batch I acquired, but followed by others from around the web...

... and finally, this company presumably underwent some frantic re-branding in the late 1930s...

Saturday 3 August 2013

Really? A Rather Disturbing Victorian Book for Children

This only came in yesterday, and has already sold this morning (along with three others in the same series, also illustrated by Frank Cox), so I'm glad I took the chance to photograph it last night. It's a little nursery rhyme book, circa 1890, and it's really a bit bonkers. Especially the last picture.

Here it is, in toto:

Let's just have a nice close-up of the final image:

Yes, that's children laughing at gravestones. Their own gravestones, from the other timestream this book appears to have going on, Sliding Doors style? So this is an early sci-fi nursery rhyme, to boot. OK, Victorian cautionary tale and all that, but laughing at gravestones? Really?

Friday 2 August 2013

An original print by William Blake?

OK, it probably isn't a print by William Blake... but it could be. Indulge me.

The text on this print reads:

The Royal Procession, as they processed through the City, to the Cathedral of St. Paul's, April 23: 89
Published as the Act directs by J. Basire, Charterhouse St. May 28: 1789

A little light googling reveals that the print depicts the celebrations surrounding the return to health of King George III (as in The Madness of...). As this fascinating blog entry details, St George's Day that year featured all kinds of thanksgiving events, from the buildings around the Bank of England being 'lit by 12,000 lamps', to a gala dinner in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea. There was also a brisk trade in commemorative items, and this little (it's only 12 x 16cm) hand coloured print is an example of one them.

But that's not the interesting part. Or at least, not the *most* interesting part. The print is credited to James Basire, an engraver who had, from August 1772 until October 1779, an apprentice named William Blake. And yes, it was *the* William Blake.

According to the biography at

"In Basire’s shop at 31 Great Queen Street in London [until it moved to Charterhouse St?], Blake learned the craft of copy engraving as it was practiced in England at the end of the eighteenth century. The standard method of preparing a copperplate for etching or engraving was time-consuming and labor-intensive. The original large sheet of copper had to be cut into appropriate sizes and the edges beveled to facilitate cleaning the ink off the plate and to prevent it from tearing the paper. The plate also had to be squared and its corners rounded, because the pressure of the printing press would leave an impression of the plate’s edges in the paper. Next, the surface had to be polished, cleaned, and covered with an acid-resistant film, or “ground,” which was then darkened with soot to contrast with the copper. Onto this ground the design was then transferred and traced with a needle to expose the plate’s surface to acid, which bit the design into the copper. In a shop like Basire’s, most of the tedious preparatory work was carried out by apprentices like Blake.

"It is difficult to know which of the works produced in Basire’s shop during this period Blake himself may have engraved, because engravers’ apprentices were discouraged from developing their own individual styles, and their work was usually signed by the master."

So, it's nice to think this print had the hand of the great man somewhere in its creation, but we'll never know. Even if it did though, I doubt his heart was in it. In May 1789, young William was probably counting the days until that October, when he was to become a student at the Royal Academy. After that, he would no longer have to bother himself with the 18th century version of the cheap cash-ins to happy royal events that are still around today, and instead let rip with stuff like this: