Tag Archives: Book of the Month

Art Book of the Month, February 2017

Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant

Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant
Hamish Hamilton, 1986
(First published by Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1929)

Stephen Tennant, “the brightest” of “The Bright Young People”, was twenty-three years old when Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook was first published.  The notebook tells the story of the Rev Felix Littlejohn and his quest to convert the heathens to the light and in the process is exposed to all sorts of outrageous, horrifying and hilarious behaviour by natives, sailors and other characters.

from: Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant

It is in some ways a book ahead of its time, as the story is told in graphic novel format with drawings by the author who was also an artist as well as a socialite and a quintessential English eccentric.

from: Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant   from: Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant

Stephen’s life is as interesting as any book if not more so.  The son of British nobility, as a young man he is supposed to have ‘resembled the youthful Shelley’ and was the inspiration for Cedric in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Stephen’s friends ranged from Virginia Woolf to David Hockney and his surrealist poses are a frequent feature in Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the 1920s and 1930s.

Dedication in Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook by Stephen Tennant

Stephen’s niece was British novelist and editor, the Hon. Emma Tennant who sadly died last month.


Art Book of the Month, December 2016

Title page from 'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

Shelter Sketch Book by Henry Moore
London: Marlborough Fine Art, 1967

Limited Edition 80 facsimile collotype, each copy of which contains one specially designed lithograph by Henry Moore, pulled on the hand-press J. E. Wolfensberger, Zurich on handmade paper under the artist’s supervision, signed by the artist and numbered 1 – 180. This is No. 31.
Originally published as a portfolio of loose plates, now mounted and bound together.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), the son of a Yorkshire coalminer, is of course the most important British sculptor of the 20th century. But his expressive drawings of sleeping people in underground stations and air raid shelters during the London Blitz of the Second World War are an equally important part of his oeuvre. Moore produced them when he was appointed official war artist in 1940-42.

'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

In the 1930s Moore had established himself as an avant-garde sculptor, but the horror of war changed the focus of his art. The war’s images of destruction and brutality would provide inspiration for many British artists. Kenneth Clark, then chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, tried to invite Moore to join the scheme. Clark was probably hoping to keep artists he cherished such as Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper in work and prevent them from being killed.  Sadly a few had already died or vanished.  Eric Ravilious was lost at only 39, while flying over Iceland, Albert Richards had died in Normandy and Thomas Hennell in Java.

Moore at first declined, feeling that he had seen enough of war during his spell at the front in 1917. But one night, during an air raid, he was trapped in the London underground. He was very moved by what he saw and began drawing the extraordinary scenes of people huddled together on the platform. The sight had been a revelation. He returned over the course of a year, producing 300 sketches. These would become known as the Shelter Drawings.

Since the Luftwaffe did not generally bomb London by day, Moore would sometimes spend an entire night in the Underground on his visits to London, returning to his Hertfordshire home at dawn, his mind seething with material. He soon became a connoisseur of Underground stations:

“Liverpool Street extension was the place that interested me most.  The new tunnel had been completed, and at night its entire length was occupied by a double row of sleeping figures”
– Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore

Moore also visited and recorded the ‘Tilbury’ shelter, part of the Liverpool Street goods station under Commercial Road and Cable Street. The officially designated shelter area rapidly became full and an adjacent warehouse was requisitioned. This damp complex eventually accommodated up to 14,000 people crammed beneath the railway arches in appalling conditions. As one employee of the government-backed Mass Observation project described it:

“There were thousands of people lying head to toe, all along the bays and with no facilities.  At the beginning there were only four earth buckets down the far end, behind screens, for toilets … The place was a hellhole, it was an outrage that people had to live in these conditions.”

In the early days of the Blitz, assailed by the terrible stench and wading through the effluvia of overflowing latrines, many refuge-seekers could not stand the primitive conditions in the shelters and preferred to return home. (Antony Clayton Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, p.139)

To have openly drawn people dressing or sleeping would have been to intrude on their privacy and also to invite abuse or hostility. So Moore made a few notes in discreet corners. He spoke about the experience in a BBC interview:

“I had to make surreptitious notes in a little note book, and then next day when the sight of the scene was fresh in my mind, I began drawing from the note book.”

If anxious to retain a particular scene, he would walk past it several times, imprinting it on his excellent visual memory.

“What I was trying to show was my reaction to this dramatic suspense, the situation that you get of a tension between people and something about an impending disaster, impending doom, there‘s a drama in silence more than in shouting.”

The shelter drawings were a turning point for Moore. You can see in the drawings the beginnings of the themes that come to dominate his work in the years after the war, the mother and child and the family group. Antony Gormley said:

“Moore… believed that you could make art that talked to people universally, irrespective of creed, language and race and maybe invite them to look at the world in a new way.”

With their strong sense of compassion, these drawings are more than a documentary of suffering endured; rather they portray the ordeals of the victims of war as a whole. The sleeping women and children might be anywhere in 1940s Europe – and because of their actuality, in today’s war-torn Syria, the Gaza strip or Ukraine.

'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

You can view this book in the Art & Design Collection at Westminster Reference Library.


Art Book of the Month, November 2016

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - title page

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection
Corporate Author: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)
Edited: PJP Whitehead and PI Edwards
London: BMNH, 1974. Limited Edition 41/400

John Reeves (1774 – 1856) was an English tea inspector for the British East India Company who spent several years in and around Canton.  His impressions of China were not very favourable (‘…and we have been disputing for months past with the villainous Government of this vile country…’ he wrote to his sister in 1814); but this mood did not last and he soon developed an obvious enthusiasm for collecting Chinese animals and plants, though specimens from all over Asia appear in his collection.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Slow Loris

An early 19th century Sir David Attenborough, Reeves was a keen naturalist.  He took to documenting animals and plants and commissioned Chinese artists to paint them in the Western scientific tradition.

He sent living specimens of beautiful Chinese flowering plants back to England, and was responsible for the introduction of many attractive garden plants to the West, including chrysanthemums, azaleas and wisteria. His name, reevesii, was applied to nearly 30 species of animals, and a plant genus.   .

Reeves’s son, John Russell Reeves, shared his father’s enthusiasm for natural history and eventually became a well-known naturalist in China for scientists in England. On John Russell’s death in 1877, his widow presented the drawings he had inherited from his father to the British Museum’s natural history department.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Scarlet Macaw

Twenty stunning selected drawings from the Reeves Chinese Collection, divided equally between animals and plants, made mostly on large sheets of cartridge paper, are reproduced in high quality in this beautiful volume.  John Reeves lived to see the birth of photography – which made possible the collotype reproduction used here – but it is doubtful that his artists knew about cameras.  Many of these pictures were not drawn from the subject and in some of the most delightful examples too much artistic licence has been taken.  It must have been tricky to capture a realistic likeness while the animals moved about.  In some cases the drawing is a composite of leaf, flower and fruit from three different plants grafted on to the same stem!  Similarly, the insect drawings contain an amazing amount of detail and observation, but the insects are often purely imaginary.  But it is perhaps for these reasons that these beautiful drawings both show what the actual animal looks like and provoke a response in humans.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple and Butterflies and a Dragonfly around Morning Glory

The drawings are pleasing aesthetically and still important scientifically; almost two centuries later, they represent a real tribute to the energy of John Reeves of Canton and the skill of his artists.


Art Book of the Month, September 2016

The History of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The History of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Illustrated by Gustave Doré
Edited: J. W. Clark
London: Cassel, Petter & Galpin 1870(?)

Arguably one of the most important works of literature ever written – it has been called ‘The First Novel’ – Don Quixote, Cervantes’ Siglo de oro novel, is a must for all lovers of literary fiction. Its two eccentric characters travel around Spain on an unplanned journey, towards an unplanned future. They embark on a series of adventures, constantly debating on a variety of issues and finding out about the world, each other and themselves in the process.

Illustration by Gustave Doré, in The History of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

While it may easily be enjoyed solely for its gentle humour (Sancho’s priceless proverbs alone are a constant source of delight), the novel addresses many weightier themes: it is a book about books; about the power of narrative richness and inventiveness on human imagination and about how reading can enrich life. It is a novel of poetry, philosophy and ideas, of the absurd and the fantastic, skilfully interwoven with politics and the stark reality of everyday life. It is arguably a work of satire that questions everything, from politics to morality, gender and class and helps us look at both sides of every coin. Its author dazzles moves and entertains us with his ingenuity, generosity and humour. Its two main characters are completely unforgettable and shall remain iconic for eternity.  In short, I am about to run out of superlatives thus urge whoever has not yet read this masterpiece, to stop whatever it is they’re doing and go read it now.

Illustration by Gustave Doré, in The History of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

As a timely coincidence, ‘Monsignor Quixote’, Graham Greene’s novel written in the early 1980s about an ageing priest and his travel companion, has recently been serialised and broadcast as Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’ and is currently available on BBC iPlayer. It is a joy to listen to and fun to draw up the many similarities, both serious and humorous, between the two stories: Monsignor Quixote comes from El Toboso, his car, an old Seat 600, is called Rocinante and naturally, his communist ex-Mayor companion is nicknamed Sancho. The two break out of their comfort zone, getting into scrapes with the police, while discussing Franco, the Civil War, Faith and consuming vast quantities of local wine and cheese.

The art collection’s beautiful volume of ‘Don Quixote’, probably an 1870 edition, is illustrated by that master of classics’ illustration, one M Gustave Dore, who in his lifetime was commissioned to sketch anything and everything, from the Bible to Dante, Lord Byron to Milton, Edgar Allan Poe to the Illustrated London News!

Illustration by Gustave Doré, in The History of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Dore’s depictions of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance and his inimitable faithful servant and companion Sancho Panza, became so famous that they influenced subsequent readers, artists, stage and film directors’ ideas of the physical “look” of the two characters. This edition of Don Quixote, with a ‘biographical notice of Cervantes’ by Thomas Teignmouth Shore (1841-1911), has approximately two hundred main illustrations and at least as many beautiful, smaller sketches.

“Never look for birds of this year in the nests of the last”

You can view this book in the Art & Design Collection at Westminster Reference Library.


Art Book of the Month, July 2016

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. Front cover

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck
(Translated by Alfred Sutro)
Illustrated by E J Detmold
George Allen & Co Ltd

Illustrated edition 1911

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck is a wonderfully eccentric book written in a variety of genres. It is informed by the author’s years of experience studying the complex behaviour of bees. Yet this intricate factual account is suffused with epic drama and wildly poetic philosophical digressions.
Maeterlinck, in telling the story of the bee, explores the subjects of life, death, truth, nature, humanity, and everything in between.

The story of the bee becomes almost a mystic parable to describe all human experience. It has the added charm of being one of the most beautifully illustrated books in our collection. Edward Detmold’s paintings perfectly reflect the sentiment and beauty of the writing.

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. 'Founding The City', p72

Below I have gathered together some of Detmold’s illustrations and selected a few memorable passages from the chapter entitled, ‘ The Nuptial Flight’ which presents the tragic sex life of the heroic male bee. I hope you enjoy them.

‘Most creatures have a vague belief that a very precarious hazard, a kind of transparent membrane, divides death from love and that the profound idea of Nature demands that the giver of life should die at the point of giving. Here this idea, whose memory lingers still over the kisses of man, is realised in its primal simplicity. No sooner has the union been accomplished than the male’s abdomen opens, the organ detaches itself, dragging with it the mass of the entrail, the wings relax, and, as though struck by lightning , the emptied body turns on itself and sinks into the abyss.’
(Part V THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT 87 –page 166)

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. 'The Duel of the Queens', p126The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. 'The Combs', p198

‘Nor does the new bride , indeed, show more concern than her people, (for the poor male Bee ) there being no room for many emotions in her narrow, barbarous, practical brain. She has but one thought, which is to rid herself of as quickly as possible of the embarrassing souveniers her consort has left her,…She seats herself on the threshold, and carefully strips off the useless organs…’
(Part V THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT 89 –page 173)

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. 'Sphinx Atropos', p188 The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. 'The Queen', p20

‘Prodigious nuptials these, the most fairy-like that can be conceived, azure and tragic , raised high above life by the impetus of desire; imperishable and terrible, unique and bewildering, solitary and infinite. An admirable ecstasy, wherein death, supervening in all that our sphere has of most limpid and loveliest, in virginal, limitless space, stamps the instant of happiness on the sublime transparence of the great sky;…’
(Part V THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT 90 –page 174)

The Life of The Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, 1911. Title Page

You can view this book in the Art & Design Collection at Westminster Reference Library.