Sunday, 20 March 2016

About the Vernal Equinox

The spring equinox has been reached earlier than ever this year, when day and night are of almost equal length around the globe. (see etc.)

Vernal Equinox 1987   David Maccoby   
© the artist, Ben Uri Gallery

But March has a tradition of change, with the Julian Calendar being reformed by Pope Gregory XIIIth in 1582, to keep the yearly reckoning on track, with the introduction of an extra day every Leap year, (except in the years ending in 00, unless they were divisible by 400).

And in Britain the Calendar Act in 1752 cut eleven days from that year to formalise the new Gregorian rules, leading to the urban myth (perpetuated by Hogarth) that the populace were shouting to be given back their eleven days.  There must have been many who felt like that; in addition the calendar was  changed to start the legal year on January 1st, instead of on 25th March, the traditional Lady Day.
In the previous century documents and correspondence were frequently dated with both Old Style and New Style dates for the three months of January, February and March, especially in correspondence with Europe, which had already adopted the Gregorian Calendar.  So John Locke in 1667, writing to Robert Boyle about collecting peony roots, "in April, when Sol is in Aries, and at a plenilunium before the rising of the Sun", dates his letter March 24, 66/67.

And in England we have a further change this month when the clocks go forward for British Summer Time.  No wonder we feel buffeted about at this time.

"O Proserpina
For the flowers now that frighted thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon! daffodils
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty:…"  (A Winter's Tale)

Spring, wall painting from Pompeii  
Archaeological Museum, Naples

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Collectors: desks and other devices

The Month of March (Aries the Ram) - pruning the vines.  Luca Della Robbia 1450-56

Ceramic plaque by Luca della Robbia, Florence 1450-56  © V&A Museum

If you were a princely collector, like the Medici, you could have purpose-designed rooms in which to keep and display your treasures, like Piero de Medici's studietto.  He even commissioned the leading ceramic sculptor Luca della Robbia to decorate his ceiling with a monthly calendar.  Each plaque shows the appropriate  Labour of the Month with its sun and zodiac sign, as well as the average hours of daylight and the phase of the moon, all critical for successful cultivation of your estates.  These 12 roundels, glazed (with advanced techniques) in several shades of blue, covered the barrel-vaulted ceiling of Piero's private study, bringing a sense of the sky into its enclosed interior.

Wealthy Italians were able to have individual built-in writing desks and shelves for their studies, instead of a portable bookrest on a table, as we see in this painting of St. Jerome.

St Jerome in his Study,  Antonello da Messina, c.1475  © National Gallery London

It looks rather like modern flat-pack furniture, but a 1498 Medici inventory describes,  "a large writing desk with boards and a bookrest and with a cupboard with a cornice made of walnut, and compartments decorated with inlay.  Underneath the desk where one puts one's feet is a wooden platform raised up from the ground."*

A century and a half later, John Locke the philosopher customised his desk with ten small compartments four inches high and eleven inches deep, scaled to fit notebooks, papers and small volumes, which he called "pigeon-holes", a useful arrangement which his friends remarked on.

 By the seventeenth century books were more widely owned and collected, so a shelf or table, or a press might not be enough.   Samuel Pepys had his books all piled on chairs, so he called on a ships' carpenter from Woolwich dockyard to build the first known freestanding bookcases for his library, to his own design.  "And then comes Sympson the Joyner, and he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in; they now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs, I lose the use, to avoid the trouble of removing them when I would open a book"  23 July 1666.       His twelve glazed bookcases, along with the books in them, were left to his old college, Magdalene, in Cambridge.

This bookcase in the V&A Museum is one of a pair made for William Blathwayt  around 1695, a nephew of Pepys' friend, Thomas Povey,  and copies Pepys' design.  With adjustable shelves, it can be dismantled for relocating.
The Dyrham bookcase, c. 1695  © V&A Museum

Glazing also became more affordable, and in the eighteenth century, the French goldsmiths and other shopkeepers really developed the vitrine, which earlier was mainly used for displaying holy relics and by scientists for their specimens.  More recently the collector's vitrine has been conceptualised by artists such as Joseph de Beuys  and Damien Hirst.

In the nineteenth century, it was the airtight sealed glazing of Nathaniel Ward's portable cases which enabled botanists such as Robert Fortune and Joseph Hooker to transplant exotic species successfully into other locations and to Britain.    And the special style of box designed by Daniel Solander at the British Museum is still in use today for storing delicate objects of various kinds.

So what will the digital future bring in storage solutions for collectors?  And will we still collect real objects?

*trans. D. Thornton, The Scholar in his Study, quoted in "Building the Picture, Architecture in Italian Painting, National Gallery, London 

Friday, 4 March 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 8: Olga Hirsch

A Wrapped-up Story

Card games were a very popular pastime at the Tudor courts.  Anne of Cleves reportedly entertained Henry VIII on their unconsummated wedding night by playing cards with him.

 Anne of Cleves, portrait miniature by Hans Holbein c. 1539
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Worn and dog-eared cards could be recycled.  Holbein's lovely portrait of Anne, like so many miniatures of the period, is painted on vellum and backed with a piece cut from a playing card.

The printing centres of Germany and then France led the market in early woodblock printed and hand painted playing cards, for which several layers of paper were glued together (i.e. pasteboard).

The Queen of Hearts, from Jehan Personne, 1493
(see The World of Playing Cards)

The last sheet might be folded over the front edges for strength, and some were backed with block-printed decorated papers.  To make full use of their printing blocks,  factories in Germany, Holland and Austria would use the same woodblocks to print fabric, paper, and even to stamp the baker's bread, which would then be wrapped in those decorated printed papers.

But the main uses of printed decorated papers, besides wrapping goods, was by publishers and booksellers.  Books were frequently sold just with protective paper covers, for owners to have bound to their own choice, and marbled papers, introduced into England by John Evelyn, are still the classic choice as endpapers.  Decorated printed papers were also ideal for books of non-standard sizes, such as music scores, and this is how the British Library's remarkable collection of decorative printed papers began.

Olga Hirsch began accumulating antique printed papers for repairing her husband Paul Hirsch's collection of rare music scores and literature*, and then started to collect them for their own sake.  She sought out examples of different techniques -- block printing, metallic, embossed, stencilled and pasted papers - from different countries and periods from the 16th to the 20th century.  Her collection of 3500 decorated papers, as well as many book examples and reference material, was bequeathed to the British Library in1968, outstripping most other international collections.
* Her husband's unique music library bought by the British Museum in 1946.

 Scrotted marbled paper, early 19th century
National Library of the Netherlands

French block printed paper, Olga Hirsch collection

Mid-19th century rococo style, with gold and colour blocking
Olga Hirsch collection

Japanese 19th century katagami (stencil cut) paper
© British Library, Olga Hirsch collection

The Hirsches, like Anne of Cleves and Holbein the Younger, were also foreign migrants from Germany, settling in Britain, and remembered in our national collections.  And it is by the circuitous  influence  of old recycled paper, that an American migrant artist, James Whistler, created one of our iconic views of the Thames, now in the Tate Gallery.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge
James McNeill Whistler  © Tate Britain

Whistler and his contemporaries were inspired by the work of Hokusai, master of woodblock prints, discovered in Paris by Felix Braquemond in 1856.  Copies from Hokusai's sketchbook were being used as wrapping paper, protecting shipments of Japanese export porcelain.

 Mishima Pass,  Mount Fuji,   Katsushiga Hokusai  c. 1830-32
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

March: Migrations -- Extraordinary Journeys

"As the vernal equinox approaches, marking the date when the sun's favours shift from the southern to the northern hemisphere, people all over Britain are awaiting a sign - any sign - that marks the arrival of spring.

In the brains of billions of birds wintering south of the equator, a chemical change is now being triggered - a change that will make them feel restless and uneasy.  It was a German scientist who named this Zugunruhe.  This can be translated as 'migratory restlessness'; the impulse to travel vast distances across the surface of the earth to reach their natal home. …many thousands of miles to the south a mass movement is just beginning.  Even the phrase 'mass movement' seems inadequate, for this is the greatest natural phenomenon on earth.  Not just tens or hundreds of millions, but billions of migratory birds are involved.  Swallows and martins, chats and cuckoos, warblers and flycatchers, are all embarking on their epic journeys, heading back to the vast Eurasion land mass from their winter quarters in Africa.

Like some massive unseen wave of energy, they pulse slowly across the the surface of the globe towards us.  With such vast numbers involved, it is easy to forget that each bird is an individual, undertaking an extraordinary journey; a journey which many will fail to complete.

Predation, cold, storms and sheer exhaustion are just a few of the ways a bird may meet its death while on migration: a falcon powering down out of the blue, sinking its talons into soft feathers and flesh; rain battering onto delicate wings, forcing the bird down into the sea: or simply a failure to get enough to eat, to replenish lost energy resources expended during this epic flight."

from Jacob Lawrence's Migration series, 1941
© The Phillips Collection, Washington DC

Text quoted from Wild Hares & Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss