Friday, December 28, 2018

A Novel Rebus

Green and black transfer-printed plate, ca 1860.
Here at Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, I've been doing my best for the last year or so to shift away from the general line antiques and become more exclusively a rare book dealer. This has been somewhat difficult because I got my start in the business by buying and selling glass and china, and when I see something in those categories that's underpriced, there's always a great temptation for me to buy it.

And once in a while, I run across something that straddles the boundary between general antiques and rare books. The pottery plate shown here is an interesting example. It probably dates from around 1860, and when I first saw it, I assumed it was a typical Staffordshire transfer-ware plate. But the marking on the back identifies it instead as French ("Porcelaine Opaque de Gien"). 

The image on the front, as I realized just as quickly, is a rebus, and (fortunately) the solution is given on the reverse, just above the maker's mark.

The Uncle Tom Rebus
My French, I am embarrassed to admit, is not entirely good enough to piece together the whole rebus on my own. The last line, surely, is de [just visible on the side of the boat] +  lune (moon) + -i- + verre (glass), to give "de l'univers." 

In the line above, the child who identifies the adult labeled "Tom" as "mon oncle" must give us "de l'oncle Tom"; The picture of William Tell (with crossbow and an arrow-pierced fruit) with a capital U must give us "a éTell u", to be read as "a été lu".

The top line of the rebus, then, must give us "Le roman." But while I can see how the townscape is labelled "Ville de Mans," I am not sure which part of that townscape gives the element "ro-" or "-ero-."

Solution to the rebus and maker's mark.
Seemingly, the solution's word "tout" is not actually present on the rebus, unless I am missing something about the boat or the moon. Even so, the broad sense of how the rebus works is clear; an English translation would be "The novel of Uncle Tom has been read by all the world [all the universe]."

Although it is in French, English language examples of Staffordshire transfer-ware pieces with Uncle Tom's Cabin references are well enough known. They were produced, it seems for both the English and American markets, responding to the wild popularity of Stowe's novel with a certain sharp marketing acumen. They also, presumably, allowed both the expression of a kind of popular abolitionist sentiment and employed it in a genre of text that was frequently aimed at children, teaching them, too, to adopt abolitionist ideas.

Indeed, childhood literacy itself was often enough taught or supported through children's tableware: many transfer-ware pieces (cups, bowls, and plates, mostly) intended for children were adorned by alphabets, partial alphabets, or proverbs intended to teach thrift, industry, and other virtues. Benjamin Franklin's proverbs or maxims were widely used on English pottery of this period for such ends. 

The plate I've shown, then, attests not only to a tiny bit of the reception history of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but also to a moment when cheap china cups and plates were used to at least try to inculcate both literacy and virtue in children, a moment in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was literally bringing literacy education to the masses. 

Books, of course, will surely remain at the core of my interests, as a collector and a dealer. But items like this, I hope, may remind us all that books do not really stand as a coherent and isolated category of cultural expression. And sometimes the very nature of libraries as repositories for books and paper materials may unfortunately exclude textual items that might usefully, and even necessarily, be juxtaposed to our books. 

It is useful for all of us, sometimes, to look beyond books.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wisdom is admired. Xeno was wise.

I cannot deny that sometimes I spend (or waste) more time examining a new book I get than, perhaps, it deserves. Today's book is probably one such example.

The book in question is No. 5 from B F Foster's series, Foster's Elementary Copy-books (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1838). This copy was used by a schoolgirl, Mary Livergood, and her name appears on the front cover. The book was filled completely with her writing exercises, and she seems to have had a fine hand on the whole.

Among the innovations of Foster's series of books was that advertised just below the title: "a new and improved Plan of teaching; by which the Trouble and Loss of Time in Ruling Horizontal and Diagonal Lines, and Setting Copies, are avoided." This benefit, of course, was an advantage to the teacher.

Yet the provision of engraved exemplars for students to copy (as above) was surely a useful thing, as was the provision of ruling lines, though the latter are so pale as to be nearly invisible, at least today. Providing these in print ensured that students were not entirely left to the mercies of teachers' willingness or ability to make the effort to provide exemplary examples.

This little book has 32 pages plus the printed wrappers (the front cover is shown in my second image). The interior pages are 8 bifolia, a single gathering sewn onto the wrappers at the center. The bulk of the interior pages feature a nearly alphabetic series of maxims or precepts that students were expected to copy out, moral instruction to accompany their practice in writing. "Nearly alphabetic," I had to write, because, after "Force is repugnant to true liberty" and before "Honour and fame procure praise" we find not an aphorism beginning with G, but "Beware of inordinate passions." 

A quick check confirms what some readers may anticipate: the conjugate leaf of the bifolium where we expect G reads "Grandeur cannot purchase peace": an error in the layout of the individual pages has switched these two pages. In a humble production like this one, it seems the error was left to stand, an example of the hazards of even the most simple imposition of pages.

Mary Livergood, for better or worse, seems to have been a good student, though I think on the following page we can see that her teacher did, on occasion, feel the need to provide a demonstration of the sort of writing that was wanted.

The third of the handwritten lines here, I think, is the teacher's, as it demonstrates more clearly than the student writing that a careful use of the pen can result in attractive shading of the different strokes. The teacher, too, has a fine understanding of the formation of cursive "w" in this style, while, towards the bottom of the page, poor Mary seems to have been writing "Avoid nhatever is unbecoming."

Elsewhere, we see other evidence that the tedium of the task has led to an unthinkingly mechanical performance on the student's part: 

"Death subues every individual," Mary has written twice, before sense reasserted itself.

Yet the purpose of the exercise, as Foster seems to have understood it, was to require the student to practice the strokes and letter shapes: neatness and facility were real goals, alongside accuracy. 

It may be worth noting that Foster's book includes diagrams for proper posture, for the proper holding of the pen in the hand, and for the proper way to cut a quill into a pen. Wikipedia suggests that steel nib pens became popular in the 1820s; here in 1838, a goose quill remains the standard. Likewise, the posture diagrams show women or girls, which may be of interest since books 7 and 8 of the same series are apparently intended for the "teaching [of] mercantile penmanship."

Like many another old or unusual book or manuscript, even a humble student's copybook can sometimes surprise us with interesting features--and the mistakes may be more revealing than the successes, whether made by a professional printer or a student.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Joseph Bosworth book.

Joseph Bosworth's edition
of the Old English Orosius
When I set out to write stories about some of the books that cross my desk, I didn't realize that some of these books would pretty much tell their own stories.

I always have a soft spot for older editions of Anglo-Saxon texts, so I was pleased recently to find this mid-nineteenth-century edition of King Alfred's Old English translation of Orosius. Although modern scholarship has begun to doubt just how much of Alfred's own work may appear in the surviving translation, the book remains a key exemplification of Alfred's educational program, in which rather than merely lamenting the decline in Latin learning, he set out to bring Latin learning to a broader audience by translating key books into English. 

This copy of Bosworth's edition, though, has another story to tell.

Two inscriptions

At the top of the front flyleaf, Bosworth has inscribed the book to its recipient: "The Reverend R. Martindale, with Jos. Bosworth's very kind regards." Below that, Martindale has recounted the occasion of the gift: "This Book was presented to me by the very learned author, the Rev~ Dr. Bosworth, D. D., F. R. S. +c. +c. and one of the Professors at the University at Oxford as he stood by the side of his own carriage which he had lent to me to convey me to Buckingham at my departure for Scotland. At his extreme age we are not likely to meet again. It was his final gift and presented March 9, 1863." Then follows the Latin quotation, "Eheu! quam multo minus cum reliquis versari, quam tui meminisse." (Roughly, "How much less it is to study relics, than to remember you.")

In reading booksellers' descriptions, one often reads of an author's "warm" inscription in a book that has been given to someone. Here, it is the recipient's warm memories of the author that give this book its charm.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Case of Un-Crossing Out

I always love it when I run across something in the world of books that I've never encountered before. Often enough, I've seen a book that has something crossed out; in fact, I'm sure that I've even crossed things out in books before. 

Crossing out is one of the things owners do when a book they have is being used: it's a kind of modification or revision, changing the contents of a book to more closely reflect the owner's interest or understanding or practice. And yet, interests and understandings and practices can change over time, and sometimes book owners are faced with the challenge of excising their own marks of eradication.

That's what clearly happened in this book.

A close look at the picture above will show that thin paper strips have been glued over this paragraph in the form of an X; these strips have letters written on them corresponding to the printed letters they cover up. Though it can't be seen in the image, one of the strips is a bit loose, and I can easily see beneath it that the strips cover over a large ink X that had previously crossed out the paragraph, excising everything above "Item Romae sanctarum", where the underline that accompanied the original crossing out has been left to stand.

Though the illusion is not perfect, the added strips effectively restore the original text, un-crossing it out.

That this book was a well used one is clear from other signs. There are marginal notes (as also shown on the page above) in Dutch, and other text is sometimes crossed out. At two points, manuscript pages are bound in (and one page at the beginning has had a half-page of manuscript deleted by the expedient of pasting in blank paper over it). The latter set of pages, bound in immediately before the printed Index, is thirty-two leaves, some of which have also later been modified or revised. 

The beginning of this lengthy addition, one might note, is accompanied by a vellum tab affixed to the top of the printed leaf that precedes it; this tab was surely useful for a reader who needed to flip back to this section often.

Even when the book was first bound, then, it was modified for usefulness, and it underwent further modifications even after that: this was a working book, and it is grubby and stained and damaged. 

Because it was a working book, its condition is far from perfect. But as is sometimes the case, I think its flaws make it more interesting, rather than less.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Carnegie International 2018

Over the weekend, Rosemary and I went to the members' opening of the 2018 Carnegie International show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It was especially interesting, because many of the works on display were accompanied by a bare minimum of description and accompanying text: to a great degree, one could encounter the exhibits and respond as one would.

In that spirit, I will offer up here just two photographs, from the photographs exhibited there by Dayanita Singh, pillars of pictures of archives

Neither of my photos is perfect, of course, but hopefully a bit of the flavor of this one piece of the Carnegie International will come through. And readers interested in book history, I hope, will find these of particular interest.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

It's not a bug, it's a feature.

It's always fun to take a look at a newly acquired manuscript item and find an interesting feature.

In the case of the leaf pictured today, I was delighted to find that a tiny hole in the parchment had not only been avoided by the scribe (as usual), but attended to by the rubricator, who circled it on one side of the leaf (see the first image, between the words "i[n]ter" and "ones"), and even sort of included it in a bit of rubricated decoration on the other side.

When the vellum had a natural flaw, I guess it was reasonable to call attention to it sometimes, rather than just ignoring it. If your vellum is freaky, then own it, I guess.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Mini-Catalogue 183: Time and Space

It's been a number of months since I've posted a mini-catalogue, but just because I've been busy with other things. At last, however, here's a link to a few mostly new items (with a couple of old ones, I'll admit), loosely linked to the theme of time and space by involving almanacs, atlases, and travel photographs. The items range from ca. 1500 to about 1900.

One of my favorite items from this batch is the cute little 1767 French almanac I've illustrated here, with a truly wonderful embroidered binding. An embroidered binding is one of those things I never thought I'd have a chance to buy, but--amazingly--I did. It turns out, if you watch long enough, and have patience enough, a wide range of things eventually turn up: it's one of the delights of being a collector, I think.

But there are other interesting things among the dozen or so listed. I hope some of my readers here might find something worth looking at.  Here's the link to Mini-Catalogue 183.