Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Collecting’ Category

Philip’s Guide to Seashells (sic), A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various dates)

Number is all, as the Pythagoreans recognized more than two millennia ago, but number is more obvious in some places than others. When you leaf through this book, you’re leafing through a catalogue of mathematical possibility: the endlessly varying shapes, sculptings, colours and patterns of seashells are in fact governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables. The black-spotted, drill-like spiral of Terebra sublata might look very different from the orange-tinged, flattened, scorpion-like Lambis crocata, with its seven curved spikes, but the two species descend from the same ancestor as every other shell on display.

From the same ancestor as shell-less land- and sea-slugs too. But readers should remember that this book is a morgue as well as a museum: rich and beautiful as the shells are, the living animals and their biology are richer and more beautiful still. The living animals are sometimes deadly too: the very beautiful cone-shells have killed humans with their stings.

But the shell remains when the animal is dead, and can be collected and studied in isolation. That’s why almost all of the book is devoted to the more or less snail-like univalves, with the more or less scallop-like bivalves given only a few pages at the end. Generally speaking, univalve shells are much stronger and much more durable. They’re also more varied in both architecture and patterning: anyone who’s played with cascading cellular automata will often find the designs on the shells of cowries and cone-shells startlingly familiar. But they were doing it millions of years before us.

The cowries have a sexual charge too, with their tight, pudendal slits: their generic name, Cypraea, is taken from a title of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The apertures of other genera gape and glisten even more suggestively, imitating the labia of every human race and many abhuman ones. Is that part of the appeal of shell-collecting? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be, because it doesn’t appear in every shell and can’t be seen when the shells in which it does appear are turned over.

And they look better like that: Cypraea caputdraconis (sic), or the dragon’s-head cowrie, looks like unzipped black jeans lying on its back, but like a black, silver-flecked jewel lying on its front. It’s found only on Easter Island too, which is one of the many interesting snippets you can pick up from the short descriptions accompanying each highly skilled illustration.

But the illustrations aren’t, alas, as highly skilled as they could have been: in the reflections on many of them you can see the wooden dividers in the window of the room in which they were painted. That might have been quirkily attractive once or twice, but repeated over and over it becomes irritating. It could have been avoided, or the artist could have set up other reflections: palms, sea-birds, clouds, and even the moon or stars, as though the shells were still lying on a tropical beach.

Fortunately, it affects only the shiny and relatively undistorting surfaces of genera like the cowries and it’s only a minor blemish in a beautifully designed and well-written guide to a fascinating subject. And as always, the scientific names can have an appeal all of their own: we’ve already seen Cypraea caputdraconis, but what about Conus thalassiarchus, the Sea-Lord Cone, or Cirsotrema zelebori, whose meaning I have no idea of?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

Read Full Post »

Rocks and Minerals by Ronald Louis BonewitzRocks and Minerals, Ronald Louis Bonewitz (Dorling Kindersley 2012)

When you read a book, you read your own brain. Somehow the chemicals inside your skull turn electrical signals into conscious experience. Colour is one of the most powerful examples: the difference between the red of cinnabar, the yellow of orpiment and the blue of hemimorphite is ultimately a difference in the firing-rate and strength of nerve-signals. But that’s true of the differences between sight and smell, smell and hearing, hearing and touch, and so on. The nerve-signals are essentially the same: it’s the encoding that changes, but the encoding is quantitative, not qualitative. So how do quanta turn into qualia?

This book brings these questions home very strongly, because its images are so powerful. Minerals can be beautiful or ugly, crystalline or formless, dazzling or dull. Yet all those differences, so sharp in the mind, arise from differing arrangements of the same set of subatomic particles. Smooth blue turquoise has the chemical formula CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8•4H2O; the orange-red crystals of vanadinite have the formula Pb5(VO4)3Cl. Those very different formulas involve different elements, so it’s not surprising that turquoise and vandanite have very different appearances and chemical behaviour.

But all elements are built of three things: protons, neutrons and electrons. On every page of this book you’re just seeing variations on a threme – a theme of three. But “just” isn’t right for the vastness of what’s going on. The differences between minerals are numerical: the three particles are arranged differently and come in different quantities. Of course, there are sub-atomic forces involved too and smaller units at work in the three particles, but the fundaments of matter are far simpler than the shapes, colours and textures that can be produced by mixing those fundaments in varying proportions.

As you’ll see here: variety is the spice of this book. The geologist Ronald Louis Bonewitz discusses basic chemistry, crystallography and collecting techniques, then works his way systematically through the many families of mineral: native elements, sulphides, molybdates, arsenates, and so on, plus organics like coral and amber. Then there’s a shorter section on rocks: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary, plus meteorites. Each distinct mineral and rock has an individual page with a colour photograph, a formula, a key of its identification features, and a short text discussing its name, chemistry and uses:

Scorodite FeAsO4•2H2O3

A hydrated iron arsenate mineral, scorodite takes its name from the Greek word scorodion, which means “garlic-like” – an allusion to the odour emitted by the arsenic when specimens are heated. Scorodite can vary considerably in colour depending on the light under which it is seen: pale leek green, greyish green, liver brown, pale blue, violet, yellow, pale greyish, or colourless. It may be blue-green in daylight but bluish purple to greyish blue in incandescent light; in transmitted light it may appear colourless to pale shades of green or brown. Crystals are usually dipyramidal, appearing octohedral, and may have a number of modifying faces. They may also be tabular or short prisms. Drusy coatings are common. Scorodite may also be porous and earthy or massive. Scorodite is found in hydrothermal veins, hot spring deposits, and oxidized zones of arsenic-rich ore bodies. Associated minerals may be pharmacosiderite, vivianite (p. 157), adamite (p. 160), and various iron oxides. (“Minerals: Arsenates”, pg. 165)

There’s a lot here to delight the eye, stimulate the mind and twist the tongue, but chemistry always makes me think of consciousness. It’s a fundamental science and it’s been spectacularly successful in both explaining and altering the material world. This book is a triumph of chemistry both as an object and as an exposition.

But chemistry isn’t all-conquering: it’s helpless to explain the mental aspect of the world. My brain is made of the same basic particles as both this book I’m reading and the minerals it’s describing and depicting. But I’m conscious and they’re not. Science has absolutely no idea how to cross the chasm between matter and mind.

This book wasn’t intended to raise that question, but it does for me. And the better it succeeds in its obvious purpose – portraying, describing and explaining matter – the more strongly it knocks on that stubbornly closed metaphysical door.

Read Full Post »

Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

Read Full Post »

Plates from the GreatShots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18, Richard Holmes (HarperPress 2008; paperback 2010)

Math for the MistressA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

Sinister SinemaScalarama: A Celebration of Subterranean Cinema at Its Sleazy, Slimy and Sinister Best, ed. Norman Foreman, B.A. (TransVisceral Books 2015)

Rick PickingsLost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature, Rick Gekoski (Profile Books 2013/2014)

Slug is a DrugCollins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave (HarperCollins 2012) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Read Full Post »

Lost Stolen or Shredded by Rick GekoskiLost, Stolen or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature, Rick Gekoski (Profile Books 2013/2014)

In her hilarious hatchet-job on her departed idol Susan Sontag, the lesbian academic Terry Castle describes the “relentless quizzing” she underwent in the “early days” of their friendship:

I almost came a cropper when I confessed I had never listened to Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek. She gave me a surprised look, then explained, somewhat loftily, that I owed it to myself, as a ‘cultivated person’, to become acquainted with it. (‘I adore Janáček’s sound world.’) A recording of the opera appeared soon after in the mail – so I knew I’d been forgiven – but after listening to it once I couldn’t really get anywhere with it. (It tends to go on a bit – in the same somewhat exhausting Eastern European way I now associate with Sontag herself.) (“Desperately Seeking Susan”, London Review of Books, 17th March 2005)

In other words: Sontag was a gasbag. And is there a sulphurous whiff of antisemitism in the phrase “Eastern European”? I fear so. I also fear that this book tends to go on a bit à la Janáček and Sontag. Which was a disappointment. I would like to have read it properly, but I couldn’t: like The Hitch, Rick Gekoski, who has a D.Phil. on Joseph Conrad, doesn’t use English as though it is his mother-tongue. Which is a pity. There are some interesting topics here, from the “carbonized” but still legible papyri in an ancient library at Herculaneum, which were bequeathed to posterity by the eruption of Vesuvius, to the richly jewelled cover of a “bookbinding executed in 1911” for Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was lost with the Titanic. Plus the alleged “wanking fantasies” in Philip Larkin’s diaries, which were destroyed on Larkin’s own instructions after his death.

There are also some Guardianista topics: the book is based on a series on BBC Radio 4, like Gekoski’s earlier (and better) Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books (2005). And so there are constant references to the Holocaust and to white man’s inhumanity to non-white man, like African blacks and the Māori. There is also a lot about giants of European culture whom I don’t like: Joyce, Mahler, Kafka, Conrad and so on. True, I agree with Gekoski when he says, in the chapter about the looting of Iraqi antiquities, that Donald Rumsfeld was “indefatigably loathsome”, but I’m rather worried that I do. And I don’t like that way of putting it. Christopher Hitchens might have put it like that, though not, in his later days, about Rumsfeld. Gekoski is a successful book-dealer and knows a lot about art and literature. I just wish he could convey what he knows more elegantly and concisely.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Doll by Peter Sotos and James HavocDoll, Peter Sotos and James Havoc (TransVisceral Books, 2013)

Peter Sotos and James Havoc are undoubtedly the two most transgressive authors on the planet. They’ve been flagellating the frontiers of ferality, exterminating the envelope of extremity, for over three decades. And when – at long last – they collaborate on a book, you can expect them to deliver something pretty darn special to their slavering armies of fetidity-fanatics. Doll is exactly that: special. I have never read any book before that so fearlessly eviscerates forbidden territory, exploding sacred cows with cerebral scalpels of clandestine commitment and viral volatility. TransVisceral Books are to be congratulated on spotting the performative potential of an interview conducted by Cor.tex Journal with James Havoc a year ago in a Cambodian café in Bangkok. The interview is used as an introduction to the book and, to rip the lid off Doll, I can do no better than reproduce part of it right here:

Tina Robinsey: Well, James, what’s the best way to put this? We’re here to talk about your passion for under-sized females.

James Havoc (laughing): Yes.

Tina Robinsey: And it’s a long-standing passion, I believe?

James Havoc (laughing again): Yes. Very long-standing. I’ve kept it up for decades.

Tina Robinsey: And there are few better places to pursue this passion than Bangkok, I guess.

James Havoc: Yes. Very few.

Tina Robinsey: Because they’re available on street-corners, aren’t they?

James Havoc (taking sip of herbal tea): Well, it’s not as blatant as that. Not nowadays. They’ve tightened up on enforcement of the international regulations a lot, in recent years. But if you’ve got the contacts, yeah, it’s still an excellent place to pursue this, ah, hobby.

Tina Robinsey: And other members of the counter-cultural community have flown in to take advantage of your contacts and local knowledge, I believe?

James Havoc: Yeah. Loads of big names. Pete Sotos, Dave Mitchell, Sam Salatta, they’ve all been over to check out what’s on offer and to admire my harem, as it were. Pete offered me cash on the nail for my best girl, but I turned him down flat.

Tina Robinsey: How much did he offer?

James Havoc: Oh, I’m not saying. But it was a lot, believe me. When you see her, you’ll understand why. Just hang on a sec.

[Unzips the shoulder-bag he has brought, carefully removes cardboard box, opens it, lifts out contents…]

Tina Robinsey: Oh, James, she’s gorgeous!

James Havoc: Thank you.

Tina Robinsey: And that cerise beret! It’s to die for!

James Havoc: Thank you.

Tina Robinsey: Did you make it yourself?

James Havoc: Yes. I make all their clothes myself.

Tina Robinsey: Can I have a closer look?

James Havoc: Sure. But be gentle with her, please.

Tina Robinsey: Oh, but she really is gorgeous! And the stitching is wonderful. So tiny! And so neat!

James Havoc: Thank you. My mum always said I was the best seamstress in the family. Far better than my sisters or my aunties.

Tina Robinsey: And does she have a name?

James Havoc: Of course. Say hello to Tina, dear. [Puts on cutesy ickle girl’s voice.] “Hello, Tina. I’m Belinda Barbie. Pleased to meet you.”

Tina Robinsey: And pleased to meet you, Belinda. Do all your Barbie-buddies have names starting with “B” too?

James Havoc: Yes. There’s Betsy Barbie and Bella Barbie and Beth Barbie and Barbarella Barbie and a whole bunch of others.

Tina Robinsey: Oh, James, she is sooooo cute. I think I’ve fallen in love! No wonder Peter Sotos wanted her so much.

James Havoc: Yes. He’s a fanatical collector too.

Tina Robinsey: And what about Sindy? Do you collect her at all?

James Havoc (shaking head, pulling face, and making gagging noise): No, no, never. Barbie’s the only girl for me. I accept no alternative.

Tina Robinsey: And what about Ken?

James Havoc: No, he’s never interested me. [Starts singing] “I’m a Barbie-boy, in a Barbie world…” A Barbie world, note. Ken can go take a flying fuck at a rolling ringpiece, as far as I’m concerned. (Interview text © Cor.tex Journal, 2012)

Having seen the interview, TransVisceral Books approached Havoc and asked him whether he’d like to collaborate with Sotos on a book devoted purely and simply to Barbie. Doll is the result. Sotos and Havoc trace the roots of their passion, describe their ever-expanding collections and offer low-cost, high-quality tips on customizing Barbie’s clothes and accessories to keep pace with the ever-changing worlds of fashion and popular music. There’s an extensive photo-section too, so you can meet Belinda, Betsy, Bella, Beth, Barbarella and all the rest. Barbie’s appeal has never been so clearly explained or so passionately celebrated, but the book may leave you – as it left me – with one nagging fear. How are Sotos and Havoc ever going to match it in future, whether solo or in collaboration? Quite honestly, I don’t think they will – and from the proud, Barbie-boy grins they wear in the photos, I don’t think they care

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards by Gordon Howsden
Collecting Cigarette & Trade Cards, Gordon Howsden (New Cavendish Books, 1995)

Cigarette-cards remind me of roses. Roses can flourish on dung and decay. Cigarette-cards flourished on death and dirt. Their association with smoking gives them a deadly edge that, like the thorniness of roses, makes them seem more interesting and powerful. This book also covers cards that came with tea or chocolate, but they don’t have the glamour of cigarette-cards. Nor do stamps, partly because stamps aren’t associated with a dangerous habit and partly because stamps are smaller. Stamps look at the world through a peep-hole; cards look at the world through a small window. Some of the cards here aren’t devoted to individual footballers but to entire teams, like those in the “Association Cup Winners” series of 1930: “Tottenham Hotspur 1921” and “Newcastle United 1924”, for example. Headshots and names are all included and there will be extra information on the back of each card. Another card, from Ogden’s “Champions of 1936”, is something a stamp couldn’t be: a full-length study of the golfer A.H. Padgham as he completes a drive against a backdrop of grass and sky. You can see the small details of his clothes, shoes and hair and easily identify the club he’s using.

Well, you might be able to identify the club easily, but I can’t. Is it a niblick or a mashie or something else? I’ve no idea, but it would have had one of the old evocative names, as used by P.G. Wodehouse in his golfing stories from the same era. Names like Ogden and Padgham are evocative too: cigarette-cards can open a window on vanished worlds, like the long-lost England before the war. All the faces looking out from the “Association Cup Winners” series are white, because the cards come from pre-enrichment days and London, the home of the national football stadium, wasn’t then vibrant with stabbings, shootings and gang-rape.

Which isn’t to say the cards are xenophobic or insular: Wills’ “Soldiers of the World” from 1895 is an attractive series showing not just Norwegian and Roumanian soldiers, but Japanese and Moroccan ones too. Yes, the book is written for British collectors and concentrates on British cards, but it also looks at cards produced overseas, including the Americas, Australasia, South Africa and Europe. And “Middle East and Asia”: it reproduces an interesting series of “Siamese Horoscopes” of c. 1916, which features Hindu-esque deities riding on leopards, goats and buffaloes and labelled in the odd but attractive Thai/Siamese script.

On the previous page, there’s a series devoted to whaling, with harpoons and butchery tools; on the following page, there’s a series devoted to “Wonders of the World”, including Venice, St Peter’s, and the Colossi of Memnon at Luxor in Egypt. Almost every conceivable topic must have appeared on cigarette-cards at some time somewhere in the world, so long as it was interesting to one or another group of men and boys.

And you can’t exclude something interesting to most men and boys, because many of the cards must have been near-pornographic in their day, like “Fancy Bathers” of c. 1889, “Beauties – Water Girls” of c. 1903, and “Sporting Girls” of c. 1910. The series are excuses to show nubile young women with bare arms and legs and even a hint of cleavage. I suppose you could call them fume-born Aphrodites. Sex has been selling for a long time, and so has celebrity in its many forms. There are cards devoted to stars of stage and screen, stars of sports and speedway, and literal stars, like the one condensing from a spinning cloud of gas in the “Romance of the Heavens” series of 1928.

Everything stamps can cover, cigarette-cards covered too, but in more detail. Stamps have featured famous mountains and so did cards. But cards went further: one card here features a Japanese stamp featuring Mt Fuji (ch. 9, “Thematic Collecting”, pg. 129). It’s in the Duke “Postage Stamps” series of 1889 and the stamp is actually real. Each card in the series has a picture “in superb colour”, usually “relating to the mail”, and a space for a real franked stamp to be attached. So you could collect stamps by collecting cards. But the series goes even further in its post-weird/weird-post meta-textuality: one of the scenes is of a group of boys comparing cigarette-cards and asking “Got any Duke’s Stamp Cards?”

Siamese deities and proto-stars seem almost mundane after that, but mundanity can become the focus of collecting. What’s more mundane than a mistake? But because manufacturers try to eliminate mistakes, they can acquire rarity or novelty value. I already knew that applied to stamps, where small misprints can add great value, and I learnt here that it applies to cigarette-cards too. With more room for detail, the artists working on cards also had more room for interesting errors:

Possibly the most famous error concerns card no. 43 in the Player’s series of DANDIES. This depicted Benjamin Disraeli in 1826, standing in front of Westminster Bridge, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben behind him. Unfortunately, the artist had overlooked the fact that Big Ben had not been built at that date so a second printing was made with the clock tower erased. This, however, left a smudge in the background and eventually the card had to be completely redrawn. (ch. 10, “Novelties and Related Ephemera”, pg. 139)

Big Ben seems such an essential part of London that it’s easy to forget it hasn’t been there very long. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s anachronistic “as constant as the northern star”. He puts the phrase into the mouth of someone in Roman times, when the northern star, Polaris, wasn’t at the pole, because it isn’t constant. You can find both Shakespeare and his characters on cards in this book and no doubt Polaris appears on one or more cards somewhere else. The card might note its wandering nature too, because cards didn’t differ from stamps just by having more detail on the front. They had room for short texts on the back, like this one from “Fishes of the World” of 1903:

THESE PICTURES

OF

FISHES OF THE WORLD

Streaked-Gurnard

(Trigla lineata.)

About forty species of “Gurnard” are known from tropical and temperate seas. The three finger-like appendages under the pectoral fins, are used by the fish for walking on the bottom, as well as for organs of touch. Its fins are beautifully ornamented, especially the long pectorals, which, when the fish is floating on the water, are spread out like wings. The grunting noise made by the Gurnard when taken out of the water, is caused by the escape of gas from the air-bladder. Length 12 to 14 inches.

ARE ISSUED BY JOHN PLAYER & SONS

BRANCH OF THE IMPERIAL

TOBACCO CO. (OF GREAT BRITAIN

AND IRELAND), LIMITED.

(ch. 4, “The ITC [Imperial Tobacco Company] Giants”, pg. 50)

That’s natural history, but cigarette-cards didn’t just draw on or depict real history, they became part of it. The Carreras company named its Black Cat cigarettes after a cat “apparently famous for making his home in the Carreras shop window in the 1880s” (pg. 77). But the packets didn’t offer cards until 1916:

The first card series to appear was the dramatic and controversial RAEMAEKERS WAR CARTOONS. This long series of cards can be collected with either Black Cat or Carreras Cigarettes printed on the front. These vitriolic sketches on the barbarity of the enemy so infuriated the Germans that they put a price on the Belgian artist’s head. (ch. 6, “The Independents”, pg. 77)

Carreras went on to produce less controversial “Figures of Fiction” and “Highwaymen” series, but they were issued in shorter runs and are probably cheaper to collect. The “War Cartoons” series is labelled “J, set of 140”, which meant, when the book was published in 1995, it cost “£100 to £150” to acquire the full set. Prices will have increased since then and I wonder what the record price for a cigarette-card is now. Back then, the record was held by “the ‘Honus Wagner’ baseball card, being one of a set of 524 issued by the American Tobacco Company in the USA between 1909 and 1911” (“Introduction”, pg. 9). The player is said to have objected to being featured, so the card was withdrawn. Although there are rarer cards, “in 1991” a Wagner card “sold at auction for $451,000”. On this side of the Atlantic, the most sought-after cards are in the “Clowns and Circus Artistes” series, which was issued by James Taddy & Co. in 1920. Or rather, wasn’t issued: proofs of the series had been printed when the company suddenly closed down on the point of principle involving a strike (ch. 6, pg. 90).

A card from this series, which isn’t Taddy’s most attractive or best-printed, is labelled “K, per card”, which means each card was selling for “more than £150” in 1995. So were they worth forging back then? Have they become so since? This book is an interesting and detailed introduction to collecting cigarette-cards, but there must be much more to tell. I’d like to know about the psychology of cigarette-card collecting, for example, though I already know, without being told, that it must be overwhelmingly male. But how does card-collecting differ, psychologically speaking, from the overwhelmingly male hobby of stamp-collecting? I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap, but what snobberies and rivalries are there? Do people start with stamps and then move onto cigarette-cards? Are card-collectors more extrovert, less obsessive? Does the association with tobacco make it a more macho hobby?

You can ask related questions about all forms of collecting, but cigarette-cards aren’t functional like stamps or tram-tickets, and aren’t complete in themselves, like watches or walking-sticks. They were a gift with another item and they referred to the wider world. But, like stamps, they didn’t start as art. Stamps were originally utilitarian and not very decorative. They began to use proper images of the world later, from butterflies to moon-landings. Cigarette-cards began even less promisingly:

The companies that first put brand names on their cigarettes originally sold them loose or in flimsy paper packets. To stop the cigarettes from getting crushed a small piece of blank card was inserted in the packet and before long someone had the idea to use the card to advertise the company’s products. This card was known as a stiffener and is still so referred to by the tobacco industry even today. (ch. 1, “Tobacco and the Cigarette Card”, pg. 15)

But “Who issued the first picture card will never be known for sure.” It was an ephemeral item and nobody could have guessed the riches of illustration and education that would come later. You can glimpse a few of those riches here: roses, ostriches, chess champions, sun-dials, sea-planes, fudge wheels, clan tartans, Palissy vases, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Turkish sabre-hilts, Tom Brown, palmistry, optical illusions, herons, Gulliver’s Travels, shrubby magnolias, running forehand drives, Glamis Castle, Eastern Proverbs (“Look the other way when a girl in the tea-house smiles”), the Victoria Cross, preparation of geranium cuttings, Harold Lloyd, pumas, Alice in Wonderland, and “Il Tabacco di Virginia” on an Italian series of 1909.

“Il Tabacco” is where it all began: without tobacco, no cigarette-cards, with all their fascination and beauty. And much less lung-cancer too, with all its foulness and horror. But, as I said, that association with tobacco adds extra interest to cigarette-cards. I’m not going to begin collecting them, but I’m glad to have seen so many and learnt more about their history here, from Carreras’ black window-cat to Taddy’s point of principle.

Read Full Post »