Natural Language

A few weeks ago Occasional Nuggets subscribers got a bonus issue highlighting a little gem I had noticed for the first time and wanted to immediately send out:

Landscape Alphabet

It’s a small leather telescoping box containing twenty-six little sketches, each one representing a letter of the alphabet as a natural feature in the landscape. Here’s the card for “K”:

K

Rather than do any research to figure out what this thing actually is, I decided just to scan the cards and send them out to the Occasional Nuggets readers, who, it turns out, are pretty smart folks. Within a few days I had a couple responses pointing to an 1830 publication called The Landscape Alphabet, which was produced in two lithographed versions by G. Engelmann, Graf, Coindet & Co. in 1830. One version was done in standard codex form, but the other was done on individual cards (the same size as ours) with embossed borders stamped with the paper maker’s name, “Dobbs” (just like ours). The card version was, in turn, based on a series of pen-sketches done by an artist indicated only by the initials “EK”. (The original cards are now in the collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library.)

Here’s an image from an article by Michael Twyman that appeared in the journal Typography Papers (you can even buy your own copy), where the original pen and ink drawing (top) is compared to the lithographed version published on the cards:

TwymanIt’s immediately apparent that what we have is related, but it’s equally apparent that our version is not in fact the lithographed 1830 publication. Take the scene at the bottom left, for instance:

Litho version:litho-detail

Our version: pencil-detail

They’re close, but not quite the same (note that bundle on the right is sideways to the viewer in our copy and end-on in the lithographed version).

So what’s going on? In his article Twyman quotes a contemporary reviewer of Engelmann’s Landscape Alphabet who declares that “The value of this little work will probably be found to consist in the stimulus it will afford to the very young students of drawing, form exact copies of the scenes here affixed to them….”

Our copy seems to be an example of just that kind of copying: pencil sketches that do their best to mimic the original (25 years after the publication of the original, if the date of 1855 on the box is an indicator of when they were produced).

But that answer just prompts more questions. The cards our anonymous artist used aren’t just similar to the originals, they’re the same size, made by the same company and featuring the same embossing. The 1830 lithograph set was sold in a publisher’s box that seems to be the same size and format (sliding open in the middle) but featured a label that functioned like a title page. Were blank cards and boxes sold for this express purpose? Or was it a standard format before it was used by Engelmann in 1830? If you’ve got the answers, let me know.

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