Friday, 28 November 2014

The scarlet thread

From The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, illustrated by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine, 1893

"The ring, man, the ring: that was what he came back for.  If we have no other way of catching him, we can always bait our line with the ring.  I shall have him Doctor -- I'll lay you two to one on that.  I must thank you for it all.  I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh?  Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon.  There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.  And now for lunch, and then for Norma Neruda.  Her attack and her bowing are splendid.  What's that little thing of Chopin's she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay."

A Study in Scarlet  [the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes] Arthur Conan-Doyle

Saturday, 22 November 2014


"April 26.  Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind being the best colour), and painted the coal scuttle, and the backs of our Shakespeare, the binding of which had almost worn out.

April 27. Painted the bath red, and was delighted with the result.  Sorry to say Carrie was not; in fact, we had a few words about it.  She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red.  I replied: 'It's merely a matter of taste.'

April 29, Sunday.  Woke up with a fearful headache and strong symptoms of a cold.  Carrie, with a perversity which is just like her, said it was 'painter's colic', and was the result of my having spent the last few days with my nose over a paint-pot.  I told her firmly that I knew a great deal better what was the matter with me than she did.  I had got a chill, and decided to have as bath as hot as I could bear it.  Bath ready -- could scarcely bear it so hot.  I persevered, and got in; very hot, but very acceptable.  I lay still for some time.

On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood.  My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Maadame Tussaud's.  My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring.  My third was,  that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved in the boiling water.  I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East-End theatre.  I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white."

The Diary of a Nobody  George & Weedon Grossmith

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Mark Rothko at the Tate


Mark Rothko   'Light Red over Black'  1957


"  RUBIFICK,  a. [ruber and facio, Lat.]  Making red.  Grew.
   RUBIFORM, a. [ruber Lat. and form.]  having the form of red.    Newton.
   To RUBIFY, v. a.  To make red.   Brown.
   RUBIOUS,   a.  [rubeus. Lat.]  Ruddy; red; not used.  Shakespeare.
   RUBRICATED,  a. [rubrica, Lat.]  Smeared with red.
   RUBRICK, s.  [rubrique, Fr. rubrica, Lat.]    Directions printed in books of law and in prayer books;      so termed, because they were originally distinguished by being in red ink.    Stilling.
   RUBRICK, a.  Red.    Newton.
   To RUBRICK,  v. a.  [from the noun.]  To adorn with red. "

Dictionary of the English Language  Dr. Samuel Johnson

Monday, 17 November 2014

Black or red

"For he was lever have at his beddes heed
Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautry.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre."

Canterbury Tales, Prologue (the Clerk)  Geoffrey Chaucer

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Load of Unicorn

Caxton's Unicorn paper watermark

"In the middle of the workshop stood the press, a great wooden erection secured between two upright posts that ran from floor to ceiling.  Bendy gazed at it, full of awe.  He had seen a press before; the binder who bound books for the Crowing Cock had one of the same shape -- with a heavy board that moved up and down by a big vertical screw.  But the binder's press was tiny.  This was a monster."

" 'Of course the press is no new thing,' said Caxton. 'It is the type which is new.  The old way of pressing paper on to a carved block is useless for books; you need a new block for every page. Now we have all the letters of the alphabet cast in metal, each letter separate, and we build up a page word by word and letter by letter.  When we have printed enough copies we pull the type to pieces again ready to set up for another page.  Come and see for yourselves.'  "

The Load of Unicorn  Cynthia Harnett  (text and illustrations) 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Kelmscott Albion press

Floor model Albion Press No. 6551, made by Hopkinson & Cope 1891, and used at the Kelmscott Press to print Morris's edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Photo detail © Christies Fine Art  (Press sold by Christies at auction in New York, 2013)

"When I first knew Morris nothing would content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he had achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books,  and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to make wonderful rich-looking books and all things he does splendidly -- and if he lives the printing will have an end -- but not I hope, before Chaucer and the Morte d'Arthur are done; and then he'll do I don't know what, but every minute will be alive."

Edward Burne-Jones on Morris, quoted by Fiona MacCarthy in William Morris, V& A Museum exhibition catalogue 1996

Saturday, 8 November 2014

An early printing press

Sala Diaconu Coresi, Prima scoala Romaneasca

This early hand printing press was used for the first Bible in the Romanian language and the first Romanian schoolbook, through the work of Diaconu Coresi.  The school building is now a museum, marked by this plaque of 1946.

"This ancient place of learning, the first Romanian school in all of Greater Romania, was completely rebuilt in stone in the years 1595-97 through the generous gift of Prince Aron of Moldavia and through
the care for learning of the Archpriest Mihai, being built anew in 1761….it served for hundreds of years as a centre of education for youth and adults…"

With thanks to Vasile Oltean, October 2014

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

1984 (in search of razor blades)

"And when memory failed and written records were falsified -- when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.

At this moment his train of thought stopped abruptly. He halted and looked up.  He was in a narrow street with a few dark little shops interspersed among dwelling-houses. Immediately above his head there hung three discoloured metal balls which looked as if they had once been gilded. He seemed to know the place. Of course! He was standing outside the junk-shop where he had bought the diary.

A twinge of fear went through him. It had been a sufficiently rash act to buy the book in the beginning, and he had sworn never to come near the place again.  And yet the instant that he allowed his thoughts to wander, his feet had brought him back here of his own accord.  It was precisely against suicidal impulses of this kind that he had hoped to guard himself by opening the diary.  At the same time he noticed that although it was nearly twenty-one hours the shop was still open.  With the feeling that he would be less conspicuous inside than hanging about on the pavement, he stepped through the doorway.  If questioned, he could plausibly say that he was trying to buy razor blades.

'I recognised you on the pavement,' [the shopkeeper] said immediately.  'You're the gentleman that bought the young lady's keepsake album.  That was a beautiful bit of paper, that was.  Cream-laid, it used to be called.  There's been no paper like that made for -- oh, I dare say fifty years.'  "

Nineteen Eighty-Four  George  Orwell

Monday, 3 November 2014

London river

London River
For John Minton

"The world ends at  the pier, the purple snake
of the river vanishing into sunset, though
somewhere beyond, locked like a secret, another
existence begins -- with laws of its own
and a brotherhood because of no other, begun
when the coast is shed in the wake like a skin.

But, tied to the riveted stakes of habit, barges
copper as souvenirs of Egypt, pull and return
with the tide on a backspring, lazily large
for a day at their moorings, with money to burn
in the pockets of dockers, or sailors living
a one-night week, the rest an endurance.

It depends on the night, for nothing is lasting --
neither profit nor pleasure, which flare up
like a fire and founder as damply at leisure
--and unless you were there and looked up
catching the spark in its diamond of laughter,
nothing would remain to witness it later.

For sailors and waterfronts like Chinese boxes
hide away in layers behind unsmiling secrets
and carry different faces on Sundays
and Mondays, their surfaces ambiguous as foxes,
who snarl at themselves in a pool when frightened,
afraid of the trick that might prove them a fool.

Life here, as its environs, is precarious--
a world built up like a matchstick warehouse,
a mixture of spices and sawdust, timber
and sacking, that grows dormant at sunset
or lights up at sunrise its debris of history,
but where never a stable perspective is lacking.

Poems   Alan John Ross (1922-2001)

Rotherhithe from Wapping,  John Minton

© Royal College of Art,  Photocredit Southampton City Art Gallery