Thrown to the Woolfs – John Lehmann

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This book arrived in a box of mixed titles bought on Ebay for about £10 a couple of years ago, all of which were something to do with books or publishing. I must admit that I barely looked at it at the time as I had purchased the collection of fifteen or so books for a couple of autobiographies that I thought sounded interesting so this just sat on the shelf until last week.  I wish now I had picked it up earlier as, for the most part, it was a thoroughly entertaining read. The book concerns Lehmann’s time either working for or later being a partner in The Hogarth Press, a small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf primarily to publish her books exactly as her and her husband wanted them. Now of course even an author of Woolf’s stature couldn’t keep a press going by her own work alone so they also published books by other writers as well and the company was quite successful from its foundation onwards.

John Lehmann knew Virginia’s nephew Julian Bell from their time at university and when he was deciding about working at the press as the manager Julian warned him that managers didn’t last long as Leonard was far too controlling over the tiniest detail, especially money, and he would have a difficult time. The first part of the book, it’s split into four sections, concerns this fairly disastrous first attempt at working at the press in 1931 and 1932.  The descriptions not only of the cramped offices and working conditions in this section but also of Leonard and Virginia set up the tone of the whole book. Lehmann is clearly a great admirer of Virginia, not only of her work but as a person and when he isn’t actually arguing with Leonard he also gets on well with him but Julian was right, Leonard was impossible as a boss and ultimately the only way forward was for him to leave the business immediately at the end of his initial contract. This caused further ructions between him and Leonard and they barely contacted one another for several years.

The second section has Lehmann in Europe in the lead up to WWII, which is where he made a lot of contacts with up and coming writers across the continent which would serve him well in the coming years. He also started, in 1935, a bi-annual book called New Writing, initially published by The Bodley Head this was looking for a new publisher in 1938 and as things had calmed down by then he approached the Woolfs and this time would end up paying £3,000 (£205,000 in today’s money) for Virginia’s share of the business making him joint partner with Leonard in the Hogarth Press.

The third and fourth parts deal with the eight years from 1938 to 1946 whilst this partnership lasted and make up the significant part of the book not only in pages but also in detail regarding the running of the press and the interactions of the three of them. The sections are split at the suicide of Virginia in March 1941 with by far the happier times being whilst she was alive. Not only does Lehmann tell more about the Press but was also get details of Virginia’s working method and home life. Once Virginia was no longer there to provide arbitration between the two men however things started to go downhill and the one part of the book I found more difficult was a long section where Lehmann quotes verbatim letters between them arguing about which books should be printed or not. Apart from that the book was a very quick read I really wanted to know more so just kept going although you know that the final cataclysm cannot be far off.

In the end Lehmann felt he couldn’t continue as the animosity between the two men over the direction the press should take was just too much and he instigated a clause in the original agreement that either partner could ask the other to buy them out at three weeks notice. This was duly done far faster than Lehmann expected and yet another long period of bad blood between them opened up until oddly in the 1960’s they had yet another rapprochement and as this time they didn’t end up working together this seemed to go well until Leonard’s death at the end of that decade.

The book was published by Widenfield and Nicolson in 1978 in the UK and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1979 in America. Neither edition appears to have been reprinted but both are easily available via abebooks and is definitely worth adding to the shelves of anyone interested in books.

Misericords – Philip Sharpe and Andrew Judd

This lovely book wasn’t planned to be a post on this blog because until the 23rd November this year I didn’t even know it existed. On that day I was in Hay on Wye, which is the worlds first book town, and discovered a new shop that I hadn’t seen before. Balch and Balch (also trading as The Story of Books) specialise in books from Private Presses and although the main room was closed at the time as they were preparing for the Winter Festival to be held the following weekend Graeme kindly brought a selection of about eight titles for me to have a look at, top of the pile was this one. Now he couldn’t have known that I have a lifetime fascination with misericords and if ever I am in a medieval church or cathedral always check to see what delights are hidden away there in the choir stalls.

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So before reviewing the book, just what are misericords? The description as given at the start of the King Penguin book on the subject (written by M.D. Anderson and published in October 1954 as K72) is reproduced below.

An intelligent sightseer who wishes to understand the mentality of ordinary people living in the Middle Ages will find a rich reward for even a superficial study of the carvings on Gothic choir stalls, particularly those of misericords. The medieval priests, finding the physical strain of standing through a succession of long services beyond their endurance, devised a hinged seat with a corbel projecting from its under-surface which, when the seat was tipped up, allowed them to combine the comfort of sitting with the appearance of standing. In an age which was lavish in the use of fine craftsmanship it was natural that these corbels, although seldom seen, should be decorated with carvings and the work gave a rare opportunity for self-expression to carvers employed.

As implied there is a wide variety of subjects to be seen on misericords and a lot of the time you wonder what they are doing in a church, real and imaginary animals, people making beer or wine (and drinking it), various domestic scenes, knights in armour or even in New College Oxford a series depicting the seven deadly sins… What is rarely depicted is religious subjects. these carvings after all were intended to be sat on and it was not seen as suitable to have sacred images for that purpose. This brings us to the carvings in St Mary’s church at Ripple in Worcestershire, England which were used to inspire the illustrations in this book. Of the sixteen misericords in the church twelve depict ‘the labours of the months’ and Andrew Judd has produced some lovely linocuts of these to accompany not only a medieval poem but also twelve new works by Philip Sharpe that fill out the story.

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The book is printed in a limited edition of just 50 copies of which mine is number 45 by a private press called MKB Editions about whom I have unfortunately been able to find out very little other than it appears to be a Hereford based collaboration between Sharpe and Judd as everything I can find published by the press involves one or both of them. Of the 49 other copies of this book, two are held in libraries according to worldcat, at the University of Oxford and also, somewhat more randomly, the University of Arizona.

It really is a beautiful book, printed by letterpress on Zerkall paper it is quarter cloth bound with printed boards forming the cover. In total there are fourteen prints, one for each of the months along with one facing the anonymous medieval poem that formed part of the inspiration to the book and a further image making up the final page; all are based on the misericords in St. Mary’s. I admit to buying it for the prints rather than the poetry by Philip Sharpe which is OK but without the images I would not have looked twice at the book. There are several references to the River Severn (which flows roughly 100 yards from my front door) and also its propensity to flood, which living here I am all too aware of, so the verses ring true to my locality. But sadly other than the geographic recognition I don’t have a deep feeling for the text; but I will treasure the book nevertheless for adding to my love of the remarkable misericord and a chance discovery decades ago in childhood that has led to a fascination with old churches that I still retain today.

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Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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White Horses – Eric Ravilious

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Puffin Picture Books, an imprint of Penguin Books intended for children, started in December 1940 and ran until March 1965, although by then you were lucky to get one new title a year. In all 119 titles were published out of 120 that were given numbers, the missing title was 116 assigned to Life Histories by Paxton Chadwick and this was eventually printed by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 under the guidance of Steve Hare. The story of the series appeared to be complete, but there were in the archives references to other titles that never even got as far down the path to publication that Life Histories had. One of these was Eric Ravilious’s White Horses. The beautiful watercolours of chalk figures and hills on the English chalk Downs intended for the book did exist but there appeared to be nothing more.

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Ravilious had been approached by Noel Carrington, editor of the Puffin Picture Book series to produce illustrations for a thirty two page landscape book of Downland figures back in 1939 and he was originally very enthusiastic about the project working of watercolours straight away. By the beginning of 1941 he had produced a dummy which showed the planned layout but by then commitments to the War Ministry left him no time to do more. Sadly on 28th August 1942 Ravilious was killed in an air crash whilst working as war artist in Iceland, the dummy of Downland Man (as Carrington referred to it)  disappeared and the planned book appeared to have died with him.

The story leaps to 2010 and the rediscovery of the dummy tucked away with other papers in the possession of Roland Collins. This critical evidence is now held at The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and it is with their permission to make use of the document that the book I now have in front of me exists. Step forward Joe Pearson, owner of a small printing company in London, book and illustration collector and Penguin Books expert.

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Design For Today has, since its launch in 2015, already built up a reputation for producing fine examples of illustrated books based on Joe’s love of mid 20th century design, either reprints or more often using contemporary artists as inspired by the period as Joe is. As their website says…

Design For Today’s artists’ books are all designed, crafted and printed in the UK, using quality, sustainable materials and printed using the traditional processes of lithography, letterpress, screenprint, or linocut.  Editions are small, from 500 – 1500

Joe had been hinting throughout 2018 that White Horses (as Ravilious titled the dummy) was a project he was working on; with Alice Pattullo commissioned to produce the black and white illustrations needed to complete the artwork as Ravilious had only ever done the colour pictures and Puffin Picture Books are a mix of both. The text of the final book is by Joe himself.

On the 31st December 2018 disaster struck, as the warehouse holding all of DFT’s stock, along with part of Joe’s own book collection and personal items, was burnt to the ground and nothing could be saved. White Horses is the first book to be launched after that loss of all of the back stock from the first years of the business and members of the Penguin Collectors Society are to receive a copy of the standard edition with their June mailing.

My copy of the limited edition version, which also includes a signed A3 print of one of the pictures by Alice, arrived the other day and it is an excellent piece of work not just well printed as I expected having quite a few of DFT’s products already, but entirely in the spirit of the Puffin Picture Book series.

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The double page spread above shows the sort of village that the creators of the earliest chalk carvings would have lived in at about 1500BC and this is the illustration that comes as the print with the limited edition book. The limited edition appears to have sold out already but standard copies of this beautiful book are available for £15 plus postage from Design For Today, anyone who like me loves Puffin Picture Books and/or the works of Eric Ravilious is sure to want one.