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.

History Has a Scent

Working in a special collections library I’ve often thought to myself, “If I just took a random book off the shelf, I’m sure it would be fascinating somehow.” Here’s a quick post to demonstrate that.

On Tuesday, while preparing for one of our twice-monthly Library architectural tours, I decided to put one of our whaling logbooks on display, so I turned to a shelf and pulled down a logbook I’d never opened before, the journal of the ship Marcus, which set out in 1844. By the time I got to the first page the volume was already proving interesting:

Marcus journal, p. 1

Look closely and you’ll see the page is encoded in some kind of substitution cypher. (According to a cataloging note, it’s a “serenade.” Anyone looking for a challenge is welcome to submit their own decryption in the comments.)

Next, after a few pages of fairly standard logbook entries (wind, weather, etc.), the volume turns into a storehouse for pressed flowers and other plants:

flower1

Some, like this lady slipper, include the plant’s root structure:
lady slipper

By my count there are 42 specimens, not counting the flying fish wings:

flying fish wingsAnd it’s all rounded out with a bit of poetry:

poetry

 

But my favorite part is that the author of this journal apparently included spices. Spices that still retain their scent after 170 years. (I think it might be oregano, but I haven’t gone through them all to find out what the spice is yet.)

Just another reminder that rare materials require the use of all five senses. (Well, maybe not taste. I wouldn’t recommend actually eating 170-year-old plants found in books.)

Remembering the Hurricane

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the immensely destructive hurricane of 1938. You can still see our exhibition on the hurricane in the Providence Journal Rhode Island Room through the weekend. You can also visit our RI Collection blog for an intense account of one woman’s experience of the day.

Arctic Stories

The latest Occasional Nugget was recently mailed to subscribers:

Occasional Nuggets 4.2

(Subscriptions start at $15 / year, and you can even subscribe online, so there’s no excuse not to. Find out more here.)

The second essay in the issue focuses on the Greely expedition, an ill-fated (cannibalism is involved, so it doesn’t get much worse-fated) arctic expedition in the 1880s. When a relief party finally arrived to rescue the survivors, one of the members of the relief party (aboard the ship Thetis) kept a journal of the events, and he transcribed the journal of Roderick Schneider, one of the Greely expedition members who died as they awaited rescue. The original of Schneider’s journal was lost, so the PPL copy is now the best record of his ordeal.

As it turns out, the release of this issue was well-timed to coincide with the addition of some arctic logbooks at the terrific OldWeather.org website. The images now available on the site include the logbooks of the ships involved in the Greely rescue, the Thetis, Bear and Alert. This page, for instance, includes the official record of the relief party’s discovery of the Greely survivors.

Multi-Purpose Massacre x 2

Just a quick note highlighting an image to appear in the next issue of Occasional Nuggets:

bearsAndWhales

This print (from our Nicholson Whaling Collection), depicting a simultaneous, multi-species arctic bloodbath (whales at sea / bears on land) was produced in the late 1790s for a geography book, Thomas Banke’s A New, (Royal), and Authentic, System of Universal Geography, as indicated by the title at the top edge of the illustration. With just a little editing, you have a plate that was used for Charles Middleton’s A New and Complete System of Geography in the 1770s*. The following image is hard to see, but the similarities should be clear (with the exception of the title above the image):

Middleton

And if we move even further into the past, we find the following, from John Harris’s Navigantium atque itinerantium… of 1744**:

Harris

The similarities are striking, especially when you look at it in a mirror:

Harris2

More information about these and many other images of whale-related butchery is available in Elizabeth Ingalls’s catalog of the Whaling Prints in the Francis B. Lothrop Collection.


* Image borrowed from Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

** Image borrowed from the John Carter Brown Library, and available online.

Special Collections under the microscope

Today’s agenda included a field trip to the RISD Nature Lab, a very cool Providence resource that seems to be essentially a laboratory / natural history museum designed for use by artists. It’s the kind of place with stuffed animal heads on the wall:

or, better yet:

 

I was there to chaperon three natural history books from our collections that were going under the microscope:

 

and closer:

 

The purpose of this biblio-magnification is a forthcoming creation by artist (and Special Collections volunteer) Amanda Thackray. Here’s Amanda at the microscope:

 

And here’s a view of a page under the lens:

Even from this distance it’s possible to see the detail of the paper fibers.

Look for future blog posts once the project is complete.

And here, for no particular reason, is a shot of the skeletons at the Nature Lab:

And a giant snake skin above bookshelves with light boxes (by Amanda, as it turns out):

 

 

 

Happy Shark Week

(Yes, it’s almost that time again.)

The image above is taken from Caroline Maxwell’s Feudal Tales (published in London around 1810*). The  illustration is hand colored, and follows page 94 in our copy, accompanying the poem titled “Insanity”, which is not, as you might expect, a ballad about a man eaten by a shark. Instead, it’s a poem about a woman who loses her mind because her lover is thrown overboard from the ship he was sailing on. (The illustration faces a page of text describing his “wat’ry grave”.)

Feudal Tales is available online, from the engraved title page, to “Insanity“, with many interesting illustrations scattered throughout. But if you’re browsing this online copy (digitized from a copy at a University of California library) you won’t find the shark image after page 94. In fact, it won’t be anywhere near “Insanity”; instead it’s found after page 76, the conclusion of the poem “Port Royal Shore: A Ballad”, which outlines the story of William, a man missing his love so badly after a 6 month voyage that he jumps overboard as soon as the ship is in sight of land:

Ah, fatal haste, a shark unseen,

In wat’ry ambush lay;

Who, fast his dreadful teeth between,

Seiz’d William for his prey.

William dies within sight of Janet, his love, of course.

It seems that this poem is a better match for the image, and placing it next to “Insanity” is a mistake, but our copy is a useful reminder that books and their illustrations were often separate, and the binder or the purchaser decided what images and text corresponded.

As it turns out, the wandering shark attack illustration seems to be only one of many such instances in this copy of Feudal Tales.  Images are given new and unusual contexts throughout the book, and whoever originally owned and read this copy might have had an experience unlike that of any other reader.


* 820.7 M465f SpecColl