Mythic heroes of the Irish – December exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The December exhibition in the Art and Design Library is a tribute to some of the people who inspire the Irish according to Scottish-based Irish artist, Greag Mac a’ tSaoir. “Mythic Heroes of the Irish” is a series of 14 oil-painted portraits of such luminaries as Elvis, John F. Kennedy and Sinead O’Connor. Greag’s pantheon is a broad church, and the subjects might raise some eye-brows! 

Here is how Greag himself describes the exhibition:

“The starting point for these paintings was a previous body of work that dealt with memory and loss. I looked at a lot of photographs of Irish homes in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and noticed that these often featured pictures of cultural icons. That got me thinking about how people choose their heroes because many of the icons weren’t straightforwardly heroic. They were often flawed characters, and even failures. For me a hero, at least in the Irish sense, is someone who has succeeded against the odds, or failed. It’s the journey, not the destination.  This group of 14 paintings is an extract from a continuing project.”

Here is a little taster of the works, with the artist’s own descriptions:

Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien wrote unabashedly from a young woman’s perspective at a time when Ireland was still in the chokehold of conservative political forces and the Catholic church. She was banned in her own country, the ultimate accolade to the prophet she undoubtedly was. She held her nerve and kept writing stunning works which still have a rare emotive force. A visionary and a hero.

Edna O’Brien by Greag Mac a’ tSaoir

George Best

George Best was good looking, stylish and a supremely talented footballer but he blew it all, drinking his way through two liver transplants and fizzling out before he got old. Deep down, quietly and in secret many of us probably acknowledge that we would have done exactly the same. He has an airport in Belfast named after him though.

George Best by Greag Mac a’ tSaoir

Samuel Beckett

If the possibility of failure is central to the notion of heroism, then Samuel Beckett is John the Baptist preaching its gospel in the wilderness. ‘Fail again, fail better’ is the mantra of the existentialist hero. That craggy demeanour and ineffable cool make him a perfect subject too.

Samuel Beckett by Greag Mac a’ tSaoir

The exhibition runs throughout December, in the Art and Design Library, finishing on New Year’s Eve. We hope to see you there!

Celebrating the Art and Design Library Artists’ Books Collection

Central Library are excited to invite you to the new exhibition on the Mezzanine: a showcase of the Artists’ Books Collection held by the Art and Design Library. The Art and Design Library Artists’ Books Collection comprises over 200 artists’ books and is part of the library’s contemporary special collections.

Artists books display on the Mezzanine at Central Library

The collection includes a significant range of works by Scottish artists, and artists working in Scotland.

The Art and Design Library began collecting artists’ books in the 1990s and has been gradually adding to the collection, with a more recent focus on the Scottish holdings. The Scottish artists represented include Douglas Gordon, Elaine Fullerton, Joanna Robson, Susie Wilson, Kate Whitford, and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.

A selection of works by Susie Wilson
“Dr Jekyll and My Hyde” by Joanna Robson

The collection also includes many international contemporary artists’ books. Some of the earliest examples in the collection are those produced in the 1960s by the renowned Pop artist Edward Ruscha and celebrated Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Indeed, many sources cite Rusha and LeWitt as pioneers of this art form. The Library’s collection contains a range of examples of their work, some of which are simple collections of photographs in a book form. Other prominent international artists represented in the collection include the Abstract Expressionist painter, Helen Frankenthaler, and the Conceptualist artist Joseph Kosuth.

“Every Building on Sunset Strip” and “Some Los Angeles Apartments” by Edward Ruscha

As you will see throughout the display, artists’ books are diverse in form and concept. This diversity makes them difficult to define, although typically, these books are printed on a small scale and with limited editions. Sometimes they are produced in a conventional book-type form, but some can be produced as scrolls or concertinas, and even paper sculptures handcrafted in unique editions. They can feature unusual materials: glass, tree bark, ceramic, and textiles. The display showcases the wide variety of forms contained in the Art and Design Library collection and runs until the end of December 2022.

“Mysterious Ink” by Li Huang

It’s tapestry month this November at Central Library

Golden Threads reawakened – weaving a legacy

Central Library are delighted to be displaying through November an amazing community woven tapestry, Golden Threads, created by a group of amateur weavers based in Edinburgh. Find this beautiful display in the main staircase cabinets at Central Library.

The tapestry has a very interesting story taking its name from the golden threads it uses that were collected by the German Jew Hedwig Philip and that have not seen the light of day for some thirty years. Hedwig and her husband left Berlin in 1941, narrowly missing the Holocaust, travelling to join family in Pennsylvania.

Photo of Hedwig and the contents of her needlework box not opened for 70 years

Hedwig was a skilled needlewoman: she collected golden threads and embroidered a Torah Mantle for the local synagogue. In 1951 Hedwig travelled with all her belongings to Britain to join her daughter in Newcastle, dying not long afterwards. Hedwig’s box of threads, unopened, was passed from her daughter to her granddaughter, Cathie Wright.

Photo of Golden Threads tapestry

Cathie wanted something purposeful and interesting to be done with the threads. This secular tapestry pays homage to Hedwig’s story using her historic golden threads woven together with contemporary red and gray yarns. The tapestry Golden Threads is divided into sixteen panels designed by the sixteen amateur weavers Judith Barton, Sandra Carter, Sarah Clark, Barbara Clarke, Sylvia Davidson, Jackie Grant, Elspeth Hosie, Joan Houston, Kirsteen Kershaw, Joan MacLellan, Irene McCombe, Francesca McGrath, Lindi McWilliam, Serena Naismith, Anita Nolan, Hilary Watkinson and Ann Smuga. Together the panels pay homage to Hedwig’s story but the quantity and beauty of the threads, the heritage and the journey travelled, called for something more. The result is a modern, secular tapestry incorporating these historic golden threads, drawing on themes of Jewish heritage, refugee travel and survival, conflict avoidance, building bridges and seeking a better world with hope for a brighter future.

To quote from Cathie,

“This is a community enterprise that takes the threads from one spiritual tradition to universal themes that celebrate life and survival”.

The tapestries are woven with contemporary materials (wools and cottons) supplementing the old golden threads. They are joined with an overlay of golden braid which also came from Hedwig’s box. The overall size of the composite tapestry is 30 inches square. Thanks also to professional tapestry artists Joanne Soroka and Jo McDonald.

Supporting the display of the Golden Threads tapestry are books on tapestry weaving from the Art and Design Library.

Art of Tapestry author talk with Helen Wyld

If you enjoy looking at the Golden Threads tapestry and want to learn more about the art of tapestry come and hear author and Senior Curator of Historic Textiles at National Museums Scotland, Helen Wyld, deliver a free illustrated talk about her new book The Art of Tapestry. The book explores the National Trust’s collection of historic tapestries and brings new perspectives to the history of tapestry across Europe.

The Art of Tapestry with Helen Wyld will take place on Tuesday 22 November from 6:30 to 7:30pm in the George Washington Browne Room at Central Library.
Book your free ticket via Eventbrite.

Over and under the sea: Art and Design Library exhibition for October 2022

The October exhibition in the Art and Design Library is “Over and Under the Sea” a group show by the Hillside Visually Impaired Art Group based in Edinburgh.

Image by Alex MG

Here they describe their work in their own words:

Hillside Visually Impaired Art Group is a group of blind and partially sighted people from all over Edinburgh. We meet at the RNIB’s headquarters once a week to pursue our love of creating artworks in all sorts of forms, shapes and sizes. We manage to achieve some wonderful works of art with the fantastic help of our volunteers and, of course, our experienced tutor, whose help is invaluable, in trying out different techniques and ideas.  Some of us like to paint, mostly in acrylic, others like to model in clay and use a variety of textured, and hence tactile, materials. 

Image by Susan Ballam

One technique is using waxed string.  This was developed as a creative activity for children, but we have found these to be incredibly useful in helping to draw lines that can be adjusted to achieve the desired image.  Clay is a great material too as it can be used in different ways.  There are many types to choose from, some of which are more suitable for certain activities than others.  One type will be used for straightforward modelling, another used as a base for plasterwork, and some are suitable for using straight onto a picture.

Image by Alan McIntyre

This time as part of the exhibition, the group has come together to produce two projects.  One is a series of panels, each one created by a different member.  They were challenged to produce an image based on the theme of the sea.  Each person has completely different ideas which have come together to create a fascinating display.  For the second project everybody has created at least one papier maché sea creature ranging from a terrifying piranha to chunky starfish which form a whole aquarium of fish.  The remainder of the exhibition consists of a diversity of individual works created by the members.

The exhibition runs until 31 October in the Art and Design Library. We’d love to see you there!

Image by Dorothy Cunningham

Dreams by Molly Kent – September exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The Art and Design Library are thrilled to have rising star of the contemporary art world, Molly Kent, as the September exhibitor with an exhibition of tapestry and weaving entitled “Dreams”. 

Dreams by Molly Kent

Based in Edinburgh, Molly is a recent graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, where she received a Master of Arts with First Class Honours. She worked throughout her college years as a Library Adviser in the Art and Design Library, so the exhibition also marks a homecoming of sorts!

Molly is a textile artist concerned with representing notions of mental and physical health through mediums such as rug tufting and weaving. She portrays contemporary existence regarding social media and internet living and the effects this has on our perception of self. This stems from her personal experiences of her mental health condition CPTSD but also reflects on wider anxieties and fears that have come to attention as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When will we be free? by Molly Kent

At the beginning of 2021, after experiencing an episode of ill mental health, Kent’s work shifted towards a new project Dream Weaving. Dream Weaving is a multi-award winning body of work that records dreams and nightmares experienced by the artist as a result of her mental health condition. This series of work features recurrent themes of falling, extreme weather and digital anxieties and offers a critical insight into how dream psychology can tell a lot about the inner workings of a person. The work is inspired by symbolism, mysticism, myths and legends alongside personal symbols of the trauma she suffered that led to her diagnosis. The Art and Design Library exhibition features work from this series.

Paranoia by Molly Kent

Molly has exhibited internationally, having contributed to exhibitions such as WORD OF MOUTH at the Venice Biennale 2019, which then toured to Australia, as well as various exhibitions across Scotland and the UK.

Her artwork is held in public and private collections worldwide, including the University of Edinburgh’s Art Collection, and the National Museum of Australia amongst others. She is represented by newcube, and if you are interested in learning more you can contact them at info@newcube.art

“Dreams” opens on 2 September 2022 and runs through the month in the Art and Design Library at Central Library.  We look forward to seeing you there!

What now? by Molly Kent

Join the Children’s Art Club!

Are you aged between 8 and 12 years old? Do you like to make things?

If so, then please be in touch! Send us an email at:
central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk
or give us a ring on 0131 242 8040.

We’re hoping to restart the sessions on a fortnightly basis, on a Saturday morning from 10.30am – 12 noon at Central Library.

Term time sessions to begin on the 10 September 2022.

Our plans are for a free programme of creative play and learning – a time to explore art-making – build and foster curiosity, care, and consideration – and hopefully an ever more creative relationship with the world around us.

We look forward to hearing from you!

“I didn’t know Robert Motherwell made prints” – July 2022 exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The July exhibition in the Art and Design library is in full swing.  “I didn’t know Robert Motherwell made prints” is an exhibition of unique prints by Dilal Singh, an Edinburgh-born art student.

Untitled by by Dilal Singh

Dilal is in his 3rd year studying Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. He has been exploring a variety of traditional printmaking techniques in recent months and the exhibition is the culmination of this work.  Featuring prints made using Chine Collé, screen printing, waterless lithography and woodcut printing, the exhibition explores ideas and metaphors that mark Dilal’s evolution as an artist. He originally trained and worked as a gas fitter for 10 years, and in his own words, he states:

“This series of images evoke a very personal journey of self-realisation after the Covid-19 pandemic and a reflection of my journey to art and the freedom it has given me. The more abstract prints are inspired by the metaphor of a smashed mirror and my journey of becoming the person I want to be rather than what I thought society wanted. My evolution as an artist began with three years of life drawing evening classes taught by Paul Muzni and Claudia Petretti and some of the prints on display include human features and figures layered over abstract prints. As I progress through my degree, I plan to continue working with printing techniques alongside my painting practice, which is influenced by Kandinsky, Matisse, Joan Miro, Banksy and more. The title of the exhibition is a reminder of how much I still have to learn in the world of art.”

The exhibition is on display for the whole month of July and is well worth a visit to the Art and Design Library to see. 

Untitled by Dilal Singh

The Art and Design Library hosts 12 exhibitions a year within its beautiful space.  If you would like to learn more, please get in touch: central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

The Central Library Children’s Art Club is back!

Are you aged 8-12 years old? Do you like to make things?
If so, then please be in touch! Send us an email at:
central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk
or give us a ring on 0131 242 8040.

We’re hoping to restart the sessions on a fortnightly basis, provisionally on a Saturday morning from 10.30am – 12pm at the Central Library.
Term-time sessions to begin on the 10 September 2022.

Our plans are for a free programme of creative play and learning – a time to explore art-making – build curiosity, kindness, and wellbeing – and hopefully foster an ever more creative relationship with the world around us.

We look forward to hearing from you!

We’re also running three summer workshops at the beginning of July:

5 July, 2 – 4pm – Printmaking with paper: the seashore!

6 July, 2 – 4pm – Constructing castles: modelmaking with recycled materials

7 July, 2 – 3.15pm – Funky plant pot découpage

Please book a free place online for these summer sessions via www.edinburghreads.eventbrite.co.uk.
If you have any queries, please contact the Art and Design Library by phone on 0131 242 8040 or email central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

New drawing and art books for children

For this month’s blog from the Art and Design Library, Jen reviews a few of our 

NEW DRAWING/ART BOOKS FOR CHILDREN.

They’re exciting additions, and we have more to come. We’re planning a collection of travelling stock to send out to our community libraries – so do keep a look out for some smart new books on our shelves.  

For this year’s spring/summer exhibition, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art are showing a Barbara Hepworth show at Modern Two. It opened on 9 April and will run until 2 October 2022.  

Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin therefore seems an apt title to begin with. Laura Carlin is an illustrator and ceramicist based in London, and the book feels so fresh. It’s a wonderful introduction, for anybody, to thoughts about form and shape. About what is it that we do in front of a sculpture; about how learning to see is a bodily thing; about how feelings and shapes collide; and how shapes talk to each other.  

I always love seeing the insides of books, so here are some sneaky shots. 

Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin
Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin
Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin

As you can see, Laura Carlin’s illustration work is a fantastic medley of mixed media-collage-drawing/everything work. And as well as being about Barbara Hepworth and her sculptures, the book also includes prompts for how you might make your own sculptures inspired by the natural world.  

Some extra links – to the Hepworth Wakefield gallery and Barbara Hepworth’s biography page (great photos and snippets of inspiring thoughts); and her sculpture garden and museum in St Ives if you’re ever that end of the map.  

Laura Carlin won the prestigious V & A Book Illustration Award in 2011 for her illustrated edition of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man. And one of my favourite books of hers’ is A World of Your Own. On play and creativity, it just sparkles.   

There are more in this series. Tate Publishing is the publisher, and the series is called Meet the Artist. As with the Barbara Hepworth, Tate have commissioned a contemporary illustrator to respond to an older artist. Lizzy Stewart has made one on Turner; Rose Blake on David Hockney and Andy Warhol; Nick White on Giacometti; Hélène Baum-Owoyele on Frank Bowling, Helena Perez Garcia on the Pre-Raphaelites.  

They encourage observation and imagination, and they are brilliant creative introductions to art history, and to artmaking. 

(A further peek – these next couple of pictures are from the David Hockney book.)  

David Hockney by Rose Blake
David Hockney by Rose Blake

Another exciting little cohort in our new stock collection are several books by the French artist and educator Hervé Tullet . Art Workshops for Children; Draw Here; I Have an Idea!; andMy Stencil Kit: Draw, Colour and Create Your Own Stories.For sheer joy, energy, and a perfect explication of what it means to play, I totally recommend these books.

Here’s a look inside for you: 

Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Art workshops for children by Hervé Tullet
Art workshops for children by Hervé Tullet

I find it endlessly interesting watching my toddler with his felt-tip pens. His compulsion and delight, the variety of things that need to be done to and with a felt-tip pen. Whoever knew. I can see the process of him learning – how do I hold this object; what can it do; it’s a tool, oh wow – and with that, comes his discovery of all kinds of concepts… His drawing is totally process-based, he’s busy exploring stuff (until suddenly he’s not!) but mostly he is, and it’s fun for him. What I love about the Hervé Tullet books is that he takes this boundless curiosity and intuitive need to create that all children seem to have, and he plays with it. It’s the visual equivalent of handstands or cartwheels, or just lying on the grass wiggling your toes. The books contain activities and workshops that are adaptable for pretty much any age group. It’s easy to forget how to play, and these books are a bundle of fun and cleverness that remind us how important it is.  

On this workshopping topic I’d just like to mention a couple of other books we have: Drawing Projects for Children; and Make Build Create. Both are by the artist-educator Paula Briggs.  

And here’s an endorsement for the Drawing Projects book by Quentin Blake – “A beautiful book, full of ideas and a vivid sense of materials – truly appetising and stimulating.”  

It wets my appetite too. The book is a collection of simple exercises and activities about making thoughtful and meaningful marks in all kinds of media. I find more each time I go back to them. There are also helpful notes for the facilitator/parent of an activity, and one of the tenets behind the books is that the facilitator need not be a specialist at all.  

Paula Briggs has also set up a charity called Access Art which is a treasure trove of resources for children’s art activities, both for Primary and Secondary age groups.  

And one more picture from some of our new children’s stock:

If you’re at high school reading this, or you’re the parent of someone who is, I thought I’d include a few gems from our stock – some personal gems anyway, from my personal canon, as I’m sure everybody has their own. 

The writer and illustrator, Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast, wrote a little treatise on drawing called The Craft of the Lead Pencil. Originally published in 1946, it is full of the essence of what drawing is (or should be). It is a simple telling, just a few pages long. We have it compiled in another book, Mervyn Peake: Writings & Drawings. 

Similarly, Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw, is a wonderful (old) how-to book. It is a year’s schedule of drawing that looks at the components of making a drawing – gesture, line, form, feeling, the materials you are working with… – and always with an eye on artists working in the past.  

Also in the 1970s, John Berger (1926 – 2017), artist, art historian, and writer, wrote his influential Ways of Seeing to accompany the BBC TV series of the same name. And in the early 2000s, he wrote a little book of essays and fragments on drawing. It begins,  

For the artist drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true. It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations… “

This is illustrated so well, I think, by the artist Sargy Mann in an introductory essay to a book on Bonnard’s drawings. It is about how the very best drawing is discovery, and about how we see. 

We have a lot of books on drawing, of course; on artists’ drawings and artists’ sketchbooks. Come and look at the golden oldies. (How does Rembrandt draw? How did he draw so much heart, I’d love to know that. And Hokusai – he draws with so much facility, so much life – we have his Manga sketchbooks in one of our stores. Originally published in 1814, they are a handbook of over 4,000 images. They contain drawings of everyday life, people, expressions, architecture; drawings of the natural world and animals; myths and stories.) 

And here are just a few extra pictures I pulled off the shelves from our drawing section to entice you: 

Drawing and Painting by Kate Wilson
Drawing and Painting by Kate Wilson
Drawing water by Tania Kovats
Drawing birds by John Busby
Drawing books from the Art and Design Library collection
Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller
Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller
Anatomy for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Anatomy for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Botany for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Sketching books from the Art and Design Library collection

What I mainly want to say though, is, we have lots and lots of great books. Please do come into the Art and Design Library and explore! 

Aleksandra Zawada – Ceramics display

A new exhibition of ceramics by Edinburgh artist Aleksandra Zawada opens on the main staircase at Central Library running from 5 April to 28 May.

Aleksandra Zawada studied Painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She lives and works in Edinburgh. Aleksandra creates hand-built, creature-looking sculptures. Her work is focused on simplicity of forms and yet is playful. Borrowing from an artist’s imagination as well as surveying ancient and oriental ceramics, she creates deliberately irregular, at times rough, works with a distinctive sense of style (and often humour!)

Aleksandra’s pieces are hand-built from mainly raku clay and bisque fired. They are hand-painted using oxides and glazes and then fired again. The artist’s love of colour makes her work not shy away from using strong tones. However, she often uses ones that reference historical glazes. Her sculptures are unique, escaping straightforward categorisation.

Aleksandra writes, “My work is inspired by Ancient; Oriental, Japanese and Outsider ceramics, and colour comes from my training as a painter. I respond to clay in the process of making. I have always had an affinity for simple materials and for works that are tactile. 

I do not make many pieces. 

My work is immersed in a dialogue with all the sculpture that has inspired me regardless of their origins and times they were made. Subconsciously, I am making my own museum collection.”

A selection of books on ceramics complementing Aleksandra’s work from the Art and Design Library at Central Library are included in the exhibition.

For more information on the artist go to www.aleksandrazawada.com, or follow on instagram at www.instagram.com/bertola_fruitz.

Pathogenesis – artworks by Cordula Marks Venters in the Art and Design Library

A new exhibition opens in the Art and Design Library, Central Library, running from 19 March to 26 May featuring artworks by Cordula Marks Venters.

Cordula Marks Venters is a German-born, Edinburgh-based artist and illustrator. In her work, she explores a broad range of themes and subjects, including the microscopic world, dinosaurs, mythology and nature. She finds inspiration on the forest floor, in the night sky, in the rocks below her feet and the prehistoric life-forms that fill her imagination.

St Corona by Cordula Marks Venters

The exhibition of artwork is entitled Pathogenesis. Viruses, bacteria and a motley crew of other characters inhabit the world of Pathogenesis.

This exhibition came out of the Covid pandemic. Viruses were the unseen threat, occupying our everyday lives and terrifying us – as diseases have done throughout human history. Yet, when these viruses and other pathogens are viewed under the microscope there is undeniable beauty. On examining their shape, form and functionality, we can also appreciate their enormous adaptability and resilience. They are survivors, just as we try to be.

Playing with the concept of pathogens in human or animal form offers wide scope for the artistic interrogation of a key question: who are the real dangers in our world?

All works by Cordula Marks Venters.

To find out more about Cordula’s work, upcoming events and to sign up to her mailing list, please visit cordulamarksventers.com or find her on Instagram @cordulamarks.

The Art & Design Library encourages applications for exhibitions from local artists and community groups. To find out more and apply email central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk or drop in and see us in the Central Library. 

Bestiary – what is it?

This month’s blog from the Art and Design Library is on the

Bestiary.

Today, the word bestiary, is loosely defined. Pretty much any collection of animals – descriptions of animals, or stories about them – can be understood as a bestiary. But more specifically, what was a medieval bestiary? (And what is it that is so compelling about bestiaries; why do the pictures and the stories sit so strongly in our imaginations?)

The relationship between humans and animals is as old, complex, and interwoven, as time. All people everywhere, throughout history, have thought about what that relationship might be: the hows, the whys, the whats, of looking at animals. What are we looking at when we look at an animal? What do we see, what do we feel and think? How do we value animals, and how then do we act towards them (or how do we not act?)

All big fat questions, especially in an age where the natural world is so threatened, and the climate crisis so real…

To think our way back into a medieval mind and a medieval conception of how animals sit in the world, is, of course, a difficult thing to do. So what can bestiaries tell us about that medieval mind, or the mind of a medieval somebody who was aristocratic or royal. (The medieval somebody would need to be aristocratic or royal, to be able to own an expensive and elaborately decorated book like a bestiary…)

What is a bestiary?

A bestiary is a medieval encyclopaedia of animals – of sorts. It was both a natural history text and a religious text. Animal symbolism was very important in the middle ages, and the central question when encountering an animal (or a rock or a plant; some bestiaries included these too), was: 
How is this animal significant to your inner moral world? And how does its behaviour and characteristics throw light on your understanding of the Christian faith? This hedgehog here, the one the picture is making you think about, curled up, bundled up, the wind blowing as you watch it. What does it tell you about God?

British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(The balls on the hedgehogs’ spines are grapes (or maybe figs or apples). The story goes they carry them away at harvest time to feed their young. Other stories: they curl up when people approach and creak like a cart. A cooked hedgehog could be made into medicine; and when the north wind blows a hedgehog will close the hole to its lair.)

Bestiaries were also extremely popular. They were full of religious allegory, but they were light and comic too, they were entertainment.

The real and the fantastical

Bestiaries contain entries on animals that are both real and fantastical. The unicorn sits alongside the lion which sits alongside the owl which sits alongside the griffin. No distinction was made between the real and the fantastical.

If a medieval prince looked at our lives, steeped as they are in technology and an online world, would they find the real life/fantastical relationship we lead equally as strange as we find theirs? Perhaps.

The origins of the medieval bestiary

There are a number of sources for the bestiary. One principle source is a Greek natural history text called the Physiologus which was written in Alexandria between the 2nd and 4th centuries (and by the late 4th century, a Latin translation was also available).

Other thinkers significant to bestiaries were Saint Ambrose, Isidore of Seville, and Rabanus Maurus. And so what developed in 12th century Europe was a large compilation of different texts. The texts were not set in any way, and the order and number of animals would change from bestiary to bestiary.

And for some beasts and stories…

The Lion

The lion is the king of the beasts, and it’s one of the animals with the most stories. Here are a few of them.

When a lion’s cubs are born, they’re born dead, but three days later they are brought to life by the mother breathing on them and the father roaring at them. That lion’s mouth is a fearful thing – breath, life, roooooarr! We learn to roar like a lion as toddlers. Our conception of the importance of lions (and similarly dragons) starts early. This story is, of course, about the crucifixion and the resurrection. All bestiary stories come with meanings.

Other lion tales.

When a lion is in the mountains and notices it is being hunted, it rubs out its tracks with its tail.

It always sleeps with its eyes open.

A lion is frightened (not unsurprisingly) by hunters and spears, and so looks at the ground. Lions are afraid of the sound of creaking cartwheels, fire, and seeing a white cock.

There are more…

The Whale

Two Fishermen on an Aspidochelone in a bestiary, about 1270, unknown illuminator, possibly made in Thérouanne, France. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 89v.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Unknown French illuminator, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The whale is so enormous it can be mistaken for an island. It can lie on the surface until plants grow on its back. When sailors land on a whale, and when they light a fire, the whale feels the heat, and then – splash – down it dives, deep into the sea, taking the sailors with it.

When a whale is hungry and it opens its mouth, the smell is so sweet that little fish are drawn towards it. They swim inside, and the whale swallows them down.

The Christian allegory follows. The whale, tempting and luring, represents the devil, which drags those he deceives down to hell.  

Here’s a link to a great little animation. (And a lot of other interesting things.)

The Unicorn

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.
British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The unicorn is a wild creature. It is strong and fast, and resembles a small goat or an ass or a horse. It has a long straight horn in the middle of its head with a spiral groove running up it. To capture a unicorn, a young virgin girl must sit by herself in a forest, and the unicorn will come and lay its head on her lap. Sometimes it suckles from her breast. Then, out of the wings, come the hunters, and they kill or capture it.

The horn of the unicorn can be used to detect poison. If you dip a unicorn horn in a poisoned drink, it purifies it. Powdered unicorn horn is also an aphrodisiac.

And the allegory? The unicorn represents the incarnation of Jesus in the virgin Mary’s womb – and his subsequent capture and death. Its fierceness and wildness is the inability of hell to hold him. The single horn represents the unity of God, and the unicorn’s small size, Christ’s humility in becoming human.

The Kingfisher

There are kingfishers in the Botanic Gardens. I always look out for them, and I always find seeing them an amazing thing. They are streaks of blue that dash low over the water. Their call is a soft rapid high-pitched squeaking.

In the bestiaries, kingfishers lay their eggs in the middle of winter, when the storms are at their strongest. They lay them in the sand, and for seven days they hatch them. They then look after them for a further seven days. All the while they are nurturing them, the sea remains calm, unseasonably so for the time of year. And because (one of) the Latin names for a kingfisher is halcyon, sailors call this time the “halcyon days”.

Incidentally, other phrases we use that come from bestiaries are “crocodile tears”, as a crocodile always weeps after eating a man. And “licking into shape”: bear cubs are born shapeless, and are literally licked into shape by their mothers.

How many are there?

Lots. In 2019 the J. Paul Getty Museum put together an exhibition, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World and it’s still possible to explore it online. Many bestiaries were made! See the Wikipedia list here.

What is it that is so compelling about a bestiary?

Who knows. They are about wonder, they do all the things that a picture and a story does – wonderful things. The animals we meet in bestiaries are animals that sit in trees and on mountain-tops, but they also include animals that don’t; fantastical animals. The real animals sit side-by-side with the fantastical animals. The fantastical feels real, and the real fantastical. And that feels pretty wonderful.

Some further links I came across researching this blog:

Some blogs from the British Library – on the medieval bestiary; and another one of beastly tales (again there are lots). 

A London Review of Books article of the exhibition publication for the J. Paul Getty exhibition mentioned above, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond (Yale University Press; 2019).

A link to a project on the Aberdeen Bestiary.

A compilation of digitised material on medieval bestiaries.

And a few books from the library…

If you’ve enjoyed reading about these bestiaries, please do come and explore our collections.

Browse our catalogue or come on into the library. (And of course, we have many books on many things… Please do come and take a look!)

LGBT History in the Art and Design Library

Today, we had over to Nicky from the Art and Design Library team to tell us about LGBTQ+ connections found in the department’s collections.

As February draws to a close, I’d like to share my – new-ish, LGBTQ+ member of staff – exploration of our collections using LGBT History Month Scotland’s 2022 theme, ‘Blurring Borders’, of thinking beyond borders and about LGBT community and liberation around the world. Some of my discoveries can be found in this month’s Art and Design Library book display.

Framing the picture

Why does it matter that an artist or designer is or was what we’d describe today as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (including non-binary and genderqueer), queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA+)?

For some artists or designers their sexual orientation and/or gender identity have not been significant to their work. However, for many others, including those selected for the display, making visible aspects of their own life experiences, bodies, minds, feelings, identities, world views and spaces is crucial, and these lives and work often not only blur borders, but push and transgress artistic and societal, sexual or gender conventions and transcend geopolitical boundaries. Collectively, too, the act of making lives and work of LGBTQIA+ artists and designers visible can support community building, can represent shared histories and stories, desires, pain and joy that were previously ignored, censored or silenced by criminalisation and social and moral attitudes, can help counter stigma, and can enable and support activism and campaigns for liberation.

How do we know that artists and designers are or were LGBTQIA+?

Contemporary and 20th century artists and designers often explicitly acknowledge(d) or embrace(d) sexual orientations and gender identities that are or were not heterosexual or cisgender in their lives and/or as subjects of their work and so can be safely included under today’s rainbow umbrella. But, the language we currently use in English to recognise and (re-)claim the rich complexities of human sexual orientation and gender identity is relatively new, is continuously evolving and contested, and would be meaningless to like-minded folk of the past. For example, art created by LGBT+ people is often referred to as ‘Queer Art’, however, the term queer had, and for many people still has, negative and painful connotations, while for others still, myself included, ‘queer’ has been reclaimed as a positive term extending beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, it’s important to consider the historical contexts in which artists and designers of the past lived and worked and, if they left behind any personal writing, how they described themselves or were described by their contemporaries. A film specially made by the National Galleries of Scotland for LGBT History Month 2022 addresses this topic and a resource created by Norena Shopland and Dr Daryl Leeworthy for Glamorgan Archives in 2018 explores the challenges of uncovering in historical documents the lives of people we would now describe as LGBTQIA+.

When considering artists and designers around the world it is also important to consider the cultural and geographical contexts in which they live(d) and work(ed) and the impact of imperialism and colonialism on people we’d today describe as LGBTQIA+ in those locations (more on that below). I also must recognise the position I’m viewing artists and their work from, as a white person educated in the UK with books, articles and interpretations about Western traditions and framings of art, design and architectural history. These themes have been addressed in a recent talk by Dr Churnjeet Mahn (University of Strathclyde) for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Finally, how much does it matter that I’m a queer person exploring LGBTQIA+ artists’ and designers’ lives and work? Does that give me greater or different insights and understanding than a heterosexual person? I’m still thinking a lot about all of this!

The display

Getting to know artists and designers whose lives and work could fit with this year’s LGBT History Month theme and then finding books that were both available and fitted in the display case took quite a bit of work! I eventually settled on a display that highlights three themes: artists and identities in 1920s and 1930s Paris; HIV/AIDS advocacy and connections to cultural heritage; and everyday lives and individual and collective liberation.

1920s and 1930s Paris was the European centre of avant-garde art and literature, and along with Berlin, also of LGBTQ+ life (before it was described as such). Paris-born photographer Claude Cahun, Czech painter Toyen and Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray were all part of that world.

Claude Cahun (1894–1954; originally named Lucy Schwob) chose a new name for herself which suited her attitude to gender: in her book Disavowals, she wrote, ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’ Her own, changing image, her identity and performance were all a focus of her photographic and written work. Featuring in many photos was Cahun’s life partner, Marcel Moore (1909–54; originally named Suzanne Malherbe), who an artist in her own right. They, two Jewish, LGBTQ+ women, later moved to Jersey where, as members of the local resistance, courageously fought the World War Two Nazi occupation of the island and experienced its liberation in 1945.

Toyen (1902–80; originally named Marie Černova) was a painter and member of the Czech avant-garde group of artists, designers, architects and poets, Devětsil, during the 1920s and 1930s. Toyen, like Claude Cahun, chose a gender-neutral name and also used masculine pronouns. Toyen’s surreal and symbolic paintings, subject of a recent exhibition in Hamburg, have been described as composed ‘of unreal beings and strange objects’, ‘materialisations of latent psychic states’, with ‘emotive value’, ‘disturbing impact’ and ‘in many cases these enigmatic objects have a clear libidinous subtext’ (The Czech Avant-Garde of the 1920s and 30s, pp. 74–5.)

Eileen Gray (1878–1976), whose partners included women and men, renovated her own Paris apartment using modern, up-to-date forms as well as materials and accessories that recalled earlier tastes and dark colours traditionally associated with masculinity. Her design choices and style have been described as hinting at the privileged decadent, male homosexual aesthetics of the late 19th century; as a critique of the exclusively masculine world of Modern architecture and design; and of ‘creating an imaginative space’ for ‘a community of kindred spirits’ to make their emerging collective identity, as what we’d now probably describe as lesbian and bisexual women, visible. (Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity, pp. 49–50.)

Beyond the Art and Design Library you can borrow books and read more about Paris’s community of wealthy, immigrant women with women sexual and domestic partners in the 1920s and 1930s in Diana Souhami’s books Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art and No Modernism without Lesbians.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s (1955–89) 1987 photographic print with graphite and coloured pencil, Sonponnoi, brought together personal experience of HIV/AIDS, the skin lesions of AIDS-related Karposi’s Sarcoma and associated stigma at the height of the AIDS epidemic and his Yoruba heritage on his own body. In the figure of Sonponnoi, often also known as Shapona or Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, a Yoruba God of smallpox shunned by other Gods, Fani-Kayode ‘found a resonant symbol of an outcast God: one that embodies infection, carrying the threat of death, yet also offering protection.’ (Alex Pichler, A Queer Little History of Art, p. 99)

The rainbow, red-heart and denim costumes designed by Peter Minshall (b. 1941) for the ‘Sacred Heart’ band,  to ‘play’ at Trinidad Carnival 2006 are featured in the book Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean. The band’s performance showcased creatively political messages about mending the heart of Trinidad and Tobago broken by corporate greed and corruption and tackling stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Frida Kahlo’s (1907–54) powerful body of work, most famously her self-portraits, share many details from her life including her family and her Mestiza and European heritage; her revolutionary, left-wing politics; her marriage with painter Diego Rivera; and expressing the pain and vulnerability associated with her physical disabilities and miscarriages. Kahlo was known to have had relationships with men and women outside her marriage, including with Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, but few of her paintings seem to address this. One painting which has been interpreted in this way is Two Nudes in a Forest (1938): one of the women could be Kahlo herself with her lover. Other, different interpretations for this painting also exist.

The paintings of Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) celebrated everyday life in India and also provided a space for the artist to explore his own sexuality. His 1981 work ‘You Can’t Please All’ is considered his coming-out painting. It features a self-portrait and the re-enactment of a fable which is believed to reflect Khakhar’s desire to accept his sexuality.

In his book From Here to Eternity, Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) documents his everyday life as a gay man, with friends and family, his HIV+ status and his involvement in LGBTQ+ activism in Canada, the UK and India. He includes a photograph of a poster announcing a 2013 demonstration against the Indian Penal Code Section 377. This legislation was introduced by the British colonial government in 1860 and criminalised ‘unnatural offences’ such as ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment for life. Activism in and beyond India and a case at the Indian Supreme Court finally achieved a repeal of the Penal Code in 2018. For LGBT History Month 2022, the Human Dignity Trust has created a timeline showing the history of LGBT criminalisation around the world. In many countries including India, 19th century colonial legislation, such as the Indian Penal Code, imported moral standards that outlawed locally understood and accepted diversity in gender and sexuality. The repercussions of this aspect of colonialism continue to be felt today.

Find out more

In the Art and Design Library, you can find many more books on the lives and work of artists and designers under LGBTQIA+ umbrella and on wider themes:

A Queer Little History of Art (a very useful introduction!)

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lubaina Himid

Tove Jansson (did you know that Moomin’s friends Thingummy and Bob represent Jansson’s relationship with Vivica Bandler and Too-ticky her long-time partner Tuulikki Pietilä?)

Zanele Muholi

Raqib Shaw

Amrita Sher-Gil

The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde

Art and Queer Culture

Decolonising the Camera

Sunil Gupta’s work as a curator in Disrupted Borders

Passions: Discourses on Black Women’s Creativity

A Queer History of Fashion

Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960–85

Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement

Beyond the Art and Design Library and links in the text above, I used the following resources to inform this blog post:

Art UK LGBTQ+ resources

Tate Queer Lives and Art online guide

Association for Art History resource portal on anti-racism and decolonial approaches to art history and visual culture

Disability Arts Online

Queer Migration and Intersectional Activism, London Borough of Newham LGBT History Month 2021 panel featuring artists including Sunil Gupta

Queering Black Britain, University College London

Carissa Chew, Inclusive Terminology: Guide and Glossary for the Cultural Heritage Sector, National Library of Scotland, May 2021

Churnjeet Mahn and Rohit K. Dasgupta, ‘Cross-border queers: how we’re digging up lost histories of LGBTQI+ South Asian migrants in Britain’, gal-dem, 24 February 2021

Arya Karijo, ‘Stop imposing your imperialist Western transphobia on my people’, openDemocracy, 31 March 2021

Kerstin Olsson, ‘Layers of (In)visibility: Remembering Eileen Gray’, Master of Architecture and Planning thesis, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 2021

Many conversations with LGBTQ+ friends, former colleagues, and project contacts at West of Scotland Regional Equality Council, Edinburgh Caribbean Association, Thistles and Dandelions project and Next Step Initiative – thank you!

Alphabet books

We’re starting a new series on the blog for the Art & Design department at the Central Library – and it seems fitting, for a new blog and a new year, to begin with the topic of 

ALPHABET BOOKS. 

I’ve been trying to dredge up some early memories of alphabet books, but I can’t picture any, none at all in fact. My mum was a bookish person, my older brother a bookish brother, my dad was a lover of newspapers; we must have had them… 

When, as babies and children, do we develop the concept of a letter of the alphabet – and all that that letter entails? How do we develop that concept? This is a question that interests me. My son is coming up for two and we’ve read him alphabet books… If I could somehow, miraculously, climb into his fastly developing brain, and take a look at his conception of a letter of the alphabet, what would I find? 

His favourite alphabets so far have been Lowly Worm’s ABC by the ever so wonderful Richard Scarry, and an ABC of the British Museum where each letter is accompanied by an object photographed from the museum’s collections. There is a ceramic cat; a pair of antique glasses; an umbrella (and an index of miniature pictures at the back of the book telling you more about them)…. I wear glasses, the flat upstairs has a cat. My son pokes at my eyes; he points at the ceiling and yells “cat!”. In the Richard Scarry, on the D is for Drawing page, six mice holding horns sit in a car that’s been made out of a pencil. We beep the horns, he beeps the horns, and the book is a success.   

My own memories of the alphabet consist overwhelmingly of an alphabet song. One that I knew I had to learn because the letters within it were a foundational system of organisation. It was like learning to count, or learning the points of the compass, there was a right and a wrong, and nothing in between. I remember where in the house I sang the song. I remember the song floating above me up the stairs: “LMNOP”… I loved the sound of this particular group of letters. They were pastel-coloured, soft and curly. They were lollipops and ice cream. It got steely and angular after that (Q?), the path a little foggy (R?), but “LMNOP” I loved. Even now the rhythms of the letters remain – and as I work in a library, and often find myself putting books in order on a shelf – I pull out this childhood rhyme. “LMNOP”, says my inner ear. There are many alphabet songs. The one I knew is pretty ubiquitous and is sung to the same tune as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which itself comes from the French folk song, “Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman”. The folk song was first published in 1761, and the alphabet song was first copyrighted in 1835 by the music publisher Charles Bradlee, in Boston. 

As a child, letters feel like possessions. The letters of your own name are special, and the first letter, especially special.  

In the 16th century, a child might have had a ‘hornbook’ in the place of an alphabet book. A hornbook was shaped like a small paddle, with a handle to hold it by, and the letters were usually printed onto paper or vellum, and covered over by a very thin layer of animal horn (so that it was see-through). The letters were then fixed onto wood or leather for protection, unless they were incised letters, cut out of metal or ivory or bone. Some were even made out of gingerbread to entice little minds into remembering through their stomachs. Often, a hornbook might have the 5 vowels and a set of syllables on it, and perhaps the Lord’s Prayer – the Bible being the reason a child needed to learn to read in the first place. Education and religion were very much one.   

Crib book in Derby Museums
Mainlymazza, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the 17th century, the Czech philosopher, teacher and theologian, Jan Amos Komenský, also known as Comenius (1592 – 1670), did much to wed together our understanding of a letter with corresponding words, pictures and sounds. The eye and the ear – the senses – were to be used as opposed to tedious recitation of syllable tables. He urged teaching to begin with “the plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living creatures know how to make”, and he called these sounds a “symbolical alphabet”.  

These pages are from his textbook Orbis sensualium pictus, and they are like an alphabet of animal noises: the crow cryeth, the duck quacketh, the owl hooteth…  Orbis sensualium pictus is often thought of as one of the first picture books for children. The title translates as The Visible World or The World Around us, and it is full of pictures from the everyday life of a child. There are musical instruments, books, food, toys, shoes – and animals of course. 

As the impact of the printing press altered history and paper became cheaper, hornbooks developed into “battledores”. A battledore (its name comes from the racket used in an early form of badminton) was generally rectangular in shape, and folded into three parts. Individual letters began to have words attached, and illustrations too.  

The Child’s Battledore, from Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections

And gradually, small books: primers, became more and more popular. This example from the British Library Collections, The Child’s New Spelling Primer, dates to 1799 and contains the alphabet in upper and lower case, an illustrated alphabet, vowels, consonants, short words, and two fairy tales, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Child’s New Spelling Primer; or, First book for children. To which is added the stories of Cinderilla, and the Little Red Riding Hood from the British Library’s Collections 

The prayer or Bible passage is now a fairy story, and as the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, learning the letters of the alphabet becomes increasingly set within a secular context.  

I love the feeling of stumbling over an image that strikes me, right inside, and does something special. It happens every now and then, for whatever magical reason, but my takeaway from writing this blog was coming across the alphabets of the artist, Walter Crane. Walter Crane (1845-1945) was affiliated to the Arts and Crafts movement. He painted, he designed textiles and stained glass, wallpaper, ceramics – and importantly, for our purposes  here – he made books. As a book illustrator he was very influential, and behind his illustration work, was the belief that good art and good design could stimulate a child, and therefore help them to learn. His pictures are a feast of colour, pattern, architecture, and comedy. He sits in the tradition of Jan Amos Comenius. 

We have a small collection of Walter Crane picture books in our Special Collections. Some have been digitised and you can view our online exhibitions on Capital Collections. What I hadn’t realised until writing this blog was that we HAVE AN ALPHABET of his, The Absurd ABC, the very one that I kept stumbling across on Google image searches, that hit me in the stomach and that I loved so much. It’s tucked away in a compendium of his, Mother Hubbard’s Picture Book. 

And here is the “K,L,M,O,P” page: 

“Black!”, “Gold!”. Those two colours fit so perfectly together. The Absurd ABC, first published in 1874, plays with retelling popular nursery rhymes. So ‘C ‘is “for the cat that played on the fiddle, when cows jumped higher than ‘Heigh Diddle Diddle!’”. ‘M’ is “for Miss Muffet, with that horrid spider, just dropped into tea and a chat beside her.” 

Another alphabet book we have from the same period is Kate Greenaway’s Apple Pie ABC. (Please do also have a browse on Capital Collections under Kate Greenaway.) 

“A apple Pie/ B bit it/ C cut it/ D dealt it/ E eat it/ F fought for it/ G got it/ H had it/ J jumped for it/ K knelt for it/ L longed for it/ M mourned for it/ N nodded for it/ O opened it/ P peeped in it/ Q quartered it/ R ran for it/ S sang for it/ T took it/ UVWXYZ all had a large slice and went off to bed.” 

The rhyme is old and has many versions. It’s referred to by a certain John Eachard, clergyman and satirist, in 1671, or at least he refers to letters A-G. In its written form it appears in a 1742 spelling book, The Child’s New Play-thing. And by the 19th century, we know it was a popular rhyme for learning the alphabet. Kate Greenaway’s book dates from 1886 and I especially love the brisk ending of “UVWXYZ all had a large slice and went off to bed”. Incidentally, Public Domain Review have written an interesting article on the letter ‘X’ and the history of problem letters within alphabet books, “‘X’ is for…?” I’ll include the link here.

Today we have all kinds of alphabet books. A single letter might be represented with a single object; or a single letter with many objects. There are alphabet books made for babies; there are board books, touch and feel books… A particular illustrator might make an ABC featuring their own characters. Big publishers, Usborne, or Dorling Kindersley; they, too, make alphabet books, and please do have a look on our catalogue if you’re on the hunt for a child.  

When I asked my partner about his memories of alphabet books, he said he always liked them but he found them slightly bewildering. He wanted a story and some narrative logic, as opposed to an artificial sequence. It was like an acrostic or a literary game where the story is projected onto a pattern. In other words, he said, it’s as bewildering as the seemingly random patterns that real life takes. In terms of stories, a favourite would be Oliver Jeffers’ alphabet books where each letter has its own little narrative to tell. I brought it home and my partner loved it.

We haven’t always structured the world around the alphabet. For most of human history we haven’t, and although alphabetical order was first used in the 1st millenium BCE by Northwest Semitic scribes in the Middle East, organising by hierarchy, or geography, or chronology or category, were preferential for centuries. Here are a couple of links on the history of the alphabet, and alphabetical order: 
a Radio 4 In Our Time on the alphabet; 
a review to a book by Judith Flanders, A Place for Everythingwhich is available for borrowing. 

Thinking about library catalogues though, possibly the first to be arranged in alphabetical order was the Pinakes catalogue which was used in the Library of Alexandria, c. 300 BCE. Callimachus, an ancient Greek poet and scholar who worked there, is thought to have created the system, arranging the scrolls according to the first letter of an author’s name.

Please find books on Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, and a very many ABCs on our catalogue. We also have books on decorated letters, illumination and all things alphabetical, so please do have a browse…! 

Printed people, plants and places – February 2022 exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The February exhibition in the Art and Design Library is a riot of colour from the self-taught Edinburgh artist, Keith Murray Allan. “Printed People, Plants and Places” features bright and expressive line and wash watercolours ranging from flower studies to lively portraits.  

“Porty Buskers” by Keith Murray Allan

Allan’s influences range from Van Gogh to comic book favourite Dudley D Watkins, mixed with what he describes as “the explosion of Punk’s anarchic colours” which marked his coming of age in the early ’80s.  Allan finds inspiration everywhere and loves to delve into collage and photography. The results of this heady aesthetic mix are spirited and vibrant and the Art and Design Library is looking fabulous thanks to his paintings.

“Pink flowers and jugs” by Keith Murray Allan

The exhibition runs throughout February – don’t miss it!

Did you know we host 12 exhibitions a year in the Art and Design Library? Feel feel to drop us an email if you would like to exhibit your art and photography with us – we would love to hear from you. Contact the Art and Design team via email: central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

Metamorphic – January 2022 exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The January exhibition in the Art and Design Library is ‘Metamorphic’, a visual meditation using traditional photographic techniques by members of Edinburgh LoFi.

Metamorphism is a process of transformation through which temperature and pressure cause profound physical or chemical changes.

Blue Seam – Stitched cyanotype on fabric by Ali Millar

This process usually refers to geological changes, but Edinburgh LoFi have chosen this theme for their 2022 exhibition as it seems apt both for the profound changes which have overtaken society in the past couple of years and also to refer to the physical and chemical reactions in traditional and alternative process photography.

The Edinburgh LoFi group was started in 2009 at the Beyond Words photography bookshop to promote and explore film photography. The group is now run collectively.

The Devonian North – detail from a Polaroid 600 installation by Elaine Robson

The group meets regularly to share their photography experiences across traditional, alternative and lomographic formats. They also run events, hold workshops and plan exhibitions. New members are always welcome and regular meetings are free to attend. You can find out more on the Edinburgh Lofi website.

Metamorphic runs until 29 January in the Art and Design Library at Central Library.

The Art and Design Library hosts 12 exhibitions a year and we warmly encourage artists who are interested in exhibiting to contact us via central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk for more information. 

Snow in art

For our December cabinet display outside the Art & Design Library we’re displaying some wintry pictures and this is a blog post to go alongside it – to add a wintry commentary of sorts. Specifically, I thought I’d think about snow in art.

It’s snowing as I write this.

A cold wet snow, that’s falling in big lumps. We’re all chills and fevers in our flat; coughs are racking like boots against the (cold) floorboards. We have clammy skin, drippy noses, we’ve had too much tea, too much toast and soup. There is too little light, and condensation is rolling off the window-panes. It’s winter.

When I think about the Scottish winter and snow, and pieces of art that capture it, I think of Joan Eardley – immediately – of course. This year marks the centenary of her birth, and there have been some wonderful exhibitions across the city; please do have a read of our previous blogpost.

I find her the most beautiful and powerful of painters, for the sheer depth of emotion she conveys. In her painting, Catterline in Winter (1963), a row of cottages slips, like they are being tipped from beneath, off a snowy hillside. Above, unflinching, is a cold grey sky. The night has left its thumbprint in the shape of the moon, and we can feel how it lurks, in a vast forbidding way, all around us. There is a wetness in the snow and a bitterness. The picture is also a portrait of her Catterline home as Joan Eardley lived in one of the cottages, the furthest on the left, number 1 South Row. We can’t reproduce the painting here unfortunately but it’s on display in the left-hand cabinet half-way up the stone staircase to the Reference department.

In art historical terms, Joan Eardley’s work nods towards abstract expressionism, expressionism, romanticism, and en plein-airistes everywhere. But really, as an artist, she is herself, and she paints what it is like to be in the fields, and in front of the sea, in all that landscape and weather that’s happening out there. She moved to Catterline, a small village on the north-east coast from Glasgow. She painted outdoors, weighing down her work with ropes and anchors and stones. She wore oilskins. She got very cold…

As a child my family lived in Germany for a while, and I remember how snow happened properly there, every winter. Or at least in my memory it did. My dad gritted and shovelled the path in front of our house with a fluorescent orange snow shovel, and my parents dressed me in a red snowsuit. Which makes me think about the whiteness of snow – and how light and colour sit in relationship with it. 

Claude Monet was a master with regards colour and light on snow. He too dressed for the cold, in English tweeds apparently. I immediately think of his haystacks but he painted many snow-scenes.

Haystacks: Snow Effect by Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He shows so perfectly how snow covers and transforms the forms within a landscape. The haystack is such a strange lump of a shape; we feel how it sits there right from the middle out.

Another snowy treasure – the Limbourg Brothers’ page for February in the late medieval illuminated manuscript, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s part of a book of hours, a book of prayers to be said at canonical hours, made between c. 1412 – 1416, by three brothers, Dutch miniaturists, Herman, Paul and Johan. Cover the blue parts of the painting with your fingers and the snow feels so different – colder maybe? The blue is so strong. And precious. There’s an interesting blog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Limbourg brothers (mostly it looks at their earlier Belles Heures). And another all about the practical questions on drawing and illumination in the middle ages.

Another painting I wanted to mention was the German painter and printmaker, Franz Marc’s picture of a white dog lying down in the snow.

Dog Lying in the Snow by Franz Marc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The dog was Franz Marc’s own dog, Russi. He paints him (or her?) in non-naturalistic colour; colour-wheel colours, that are pure and un-patterned – the brushwork is less busy than a Vuillard or a Bonnard. And the shapes are very soft and simple. The dog and the snowy ground it lies on are gently modelled and fit together like an interlocking wooden toy. The living creature and its environment are one, and neither seem to threaten.

Franz Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group, an art movement important to expressionism. There was no manifesto to the group, and although the work looked in many directions, it shared a commonality in its desire to express spirituality through art. The Blaue Reiter artists were interested in the relationships between art and music and colour; in medieval art and primitivism, children’s art and folk art. And they had a special interest in how colour might convey spirituality and be imbued with symbolic associations. Franz Marc painted many animals. I find them very dignified and beautiful. The poet Mary Oliver, titled a collection of poems, Blue Horses (2014), after Franz Marc’s paintings –

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us…

To be outside in the snow, and then suddenly inside, in the warm, looking out at the snow… This is a feeling we all feel. We feel contentment and comfort coming indoors after being outside and I associate these feelings very much with memories of winter and childhood.

Jill Barklem’s Winter Story has always sat in my head. It’s part of her Brambly Hedge series, published in 1980, about a community of mice – Mr and Mrs Toadflax and their family and friends.

Brambly Hedge characters,
“Jill Barklem Sneeuw ill pag 4” by janwillemsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The details, the observation, the miniaturised world… each page is exquisite. She even made working mechanical models for the world that she drew; a mouse mill and a dairy. I think of Shirley Hughes too, and how she manages to capture the glow of windows and doorways and inside spaces, while outside, sits the winter cold. That glowing warmth isn’t budging, there’s no way the cold can get in.

Tove Jansson’s character, the Groke, is a hilly-shaped mound of a creature, that appears in many of her Moomin stories. She’s always seeking out warmth, but anything she touches turns to ice or snow or dies. And then of course there’s Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman for childhood snow at its most magical.

I remember listening a few years ago to a podcast on architectural design, specifically air conditioning in fact. The podcast talked a little about the pleasure we feel in moving from one temperature to another – about the cosy inside space, and the cool summer breeze. And design thoughts on creating a thermally fluctuating space to mimic this pleasure; on ideas about how we perceive temperature, and can we see temperature as more of a sense? Do we need to move away from thermally neutral spaces and recalibrate how we cope with, and sense, our thermal environment? You can listen to the 99% invisible podcast here.

And a few extra thoughts.

On snow, and joy, I’d just like to include Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. It works for me every time.

On beautiful book jackets – Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter.

On frost fairs and the little ice age – the opening scenes in the film Orlando directed by Sally Potter. The young Orlando is a page in the Elizabethan court and falls in love with Sasha, a princess in the Russian entourage, as they skate through one of the Thames’ frost fairs.

Also a London Review of Books article on frost fairs by the poet John Burnside.

On ice skating and painting – Hendrick Avercamp!

On snow flurries – Alexander Calder and explore more on Calder by borrowing a book.

On any snowy painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

And lastly, any snowy woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Books on all the artists mentioned are available to borrow from the Art & Design Library, Central Library. Please come and browse or search the Library catalogue online to reserve and pick up from a library of your choice.

A Place to Grow – Art and Design Library exhibition, December 2021

Through December (3rd to 24th), the Art and Design Library, Central Library, presents the exhibition of artwork ‘A Place to Grow’ by local artist C.E. Saunders.

C.E. Saunders, Behind my House

C.E. Saunders writes of her artwork and influences:

“My name is Clare Saunders, I was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland and have been creating and promoting my artwork for the past decade. My influences come from the Surrealists, Pop-Art, the Pre-Raphaelites and Post-Impressionism. The work I create is traditional, drawing, painting and collage and I tend to use water colour-based materials as well as fine liners and acrylic paints. I’m drawn to narrative and stories, film and theatre; this is often presented in the illustrative and bold appearance to my work.

In this exhibition ‘A Place to Grow’, some of the work is nostalgic and aspects of the city I grew up in are present. Lots of the pictures are from just before 2010 when I had left college and was attempting to ‘grow’ in a different direction or a different way. Nature plays a very solid role in this display, being one of my main inspirations, but is often interlaced with fantasy and dreams a homage to stories and stage sets.”  

The Art and Design Library welcomes applications to exhibit from local artists, schools and community groups. Email central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk for an application form and to find out more.

Exhibitions resume in the Art and Design library

The Art and Design Library is very excited to announce that our programme of exhibitions resumes this month. 

The Cool Sax Man by Mhairi Chambers

Edinburgh Photographic Society are displaying their annual exhibition throughout November. A regular exhibitor, the Society was established in 1861, and has close to 200 members.  Their exhibition features an array of different styles and photographic techniques, including intentional camera movement and polaroid transfer. The exhibition includes examples from the spectrum of photographic genres including portraiture, nature, landscape and street photography. The exhibition runs for four weeks from 1st to 27th November 2021.

Ptarmigan In Deep Snow by David Wolfender

The Art and Design Library hosts 12 exhibitions a year and we encourage artists who are interested in exhibiting to contact us for more information:  central.artanddesign.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

Elizabeth Blackadder, 1931 – 2021

Elizabeth Blackadder would have been 90 years old this week, and here in the Art and Design Library, staff have been saddened at her recent passing. She was one of Scotland’s most loved artists and she achieved recognition and success across the UK. She was the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She was honoured with royal recognition too: an OBE in 1982 followed by a DBE in 2003. She was even appointed Painter and Limner to the Royal Household in Scotland in 2002.

Ruby Rose from the Art and Design Team has been spending some time with the Elizabeth Blackadder books in our collections and shares her thoughts. 

The artist at work in her studio by Elizabeth Blackadder, available to reserve and borrow from Your Library

I have an abiding fascination with artist studios, materials and methods, so am particularly drawn to the Royal Academy Masterclass publication, “The Artist at Work in Her Studio” which conveys a sense of her approach to her work as a painter. In this beautifully illustrated book, she describes some of her processes and artistic choices in creating still life and flower paintings. She provides insight and opinions about painting in her own words, and it reminds me that she was a teacher at her Alma Mater, Edinburgh College of Art, for much of her working life. I find a quiet generosity to her commentary, and perhaps some sense of the pedagogical impulse in her straightforward descriptions of elements of her techniques. The book is laced with little snippets: the paper she uses, the colours she chooses, her approach to arranging a still life, even how she uses a paintbrush.  There is a complete lack of pretence, and in a wealth of photographs we get a wonderful insight into her studio and practice.

Morning glory : haiku and tanka by Alan Spence, illustrated by Elizabeth Blackadder, available to reserve and borrow from Your Library

Another favourite of mine from the Art and Design Library collection, is Morning Glory by Alan Spence, a collection of poems in the Haiku and Tanka forms.  This tiny book of tiny poems is exquisitely illustrated with tender drawings and paintings.  Blackadder’s mid-life interest in Japanese culture comes through in delicate drawings such as a Matcha Whisk and blue green Matcha bowl with a wisp of steam rising from the warm tea within. There are Japanese fans and a kimono. These are echoes of her larger work with Japanese themes, and throughout you can sense an expressive evocation of the subjects.  There are several paintings of peacocks, including on the cover as you can see. I find the lively drama in her expressive brushstrokes delightful. Nothing has been overworked or laboured in the illustrations, and they appear almost effortless precisely because of the underlying skill of their creator. There is a resonance here to the immediacy of the small form of the poetry. The deceptive simplicity of the poems hides the process of creation.

This same sense of evocation and expressiveness comes through in one of her (and my) perennial favourite subjects: cats.  She drew cats in pencil and pastels, painted them in oils and watercolours, and they feature in her print work too.  The popularity of her cats was recognised in 1995 with a UK release of Royal Mail stamps featuring 5 especially commissioned cats.

Elizabeth Blackadder by Judith Bumpus, available to reserve and borrow from Your Library

Happily for feline afficionados, several of the published monographs about her reproduce many examples of her cat paintings and studies. These include Duncan Macmillan’s 1999 survey of her career, and the first book dedicated to her by Judith Bumpus features a charming green cat amongst the foliage (“Cat and Orchids”, 1984) on its cover. 

Elizabeth Blackadder by Phil Long, available to reserve and borrow from Your Library

My final favourite is the book that accompanied the 2011 retrospective exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, “Elizabeth Blackadder” written by Philip Long, and reading it feels both appropriate and poignant at this time.  The exhibition celebrated Blackadder’s 80th birthday, and surveyed her entire career.  The book remains a perfect introduction and review of her work as she developed through the decades.  It contains a lush abundance of images ranging from landscapes, portraits and intricate pen and ink city sketches of Italy and Scotland created in the 1950s through the subsequent decades.  It gives an amazing insight to how the artist’s early subject matter evolves and develops, whilst new themes emerge, such as her interest in Japan.  I’m particularly drawn to a duo of detailed shells in watercolour painted in 2011.  Blackadder’s work belongs in many public collections, but she was extensively acquired by private collectors too, and this exhibition gathered together many artworks from private collections.  We are lucky to have the accompanying catalogue to let us have a glimpse of them now.  Indeed, amongst the collection in the library we also have a few exhibition catalogues from her solo shows that are a joy to look at.

These titles and more are available to browse and borrow in the Art and Design Library. Do pay us a visit soon – there’s no need to book.