Emmeline Vyner: poet, psychic, dog-lover

Staff at Central Library have been archiving a box of personal papers, diaries and scrapbooks and in the process, discovering a remarkable life. Emmeline Lillian Vyner was born in Halifax around 1876. She moved to Scotland with her husband and first daughter and stayed here for the rest of her life. She was found dead in her shop in Leith in 1947 by her son.

A mother of five, she possessed a wry sense of humour and a robust outlook on life lived through two world wars. She liked to write poetry and her poems were placed in Edinburgh and Leith newspapers: romantic and natural subjects to start with then moving on to First World War poems, based mainly on the experience of the women and children left to cope at home. She was not afraid to criticise the church and the established institutions of the day and to challenge injustice where she found it with her published articles and in letters to the newspapers. When she felt in a lighter mood, she wrote humorous pieces for magazines, newspapers and lyrics for songs. She had lofty ambitions and received rejection notices from some of the biggest literary agents in Britain. She has pasted one of those rejections in her scrapbook signed by Curtis Brown. He set up the agency which still manages some of the biggest names in the literary world today.

Some of her most interesting pieces are on her activities attending psychic seances in various houses in Edinburgh and Leith in 1942. These circles were well attended by large numbers of participants and, from Emmeline’s accounts, the attendees gained a great deal of comfort from the messages from the mediums. She explains in one article that she has been receiving jealous looks from the other sitters at the number of messages she receives and explains the best way to receive messages from the spirit people. She advises not to eat flesh meat or eggs on séance days, talk to your spirit friends before you leave your house, tell them where you are going and ask them to come with you. Once you are at your circle, sit still and relax and don’t cross the legs, feet, hands, arms or do anything to close yourself up. She writes “Let spirit emanations flow from your extremities and remove your hat if you like.” Always enterprising, Emmeline has typed up these accounts on reused paper (due to wartime restrictions) and has charged between threepence and sixpence for a copy!

It’s her delight in children and dogs that really shines through her journals and scrapbooks. In her work as a cinema pianist, she rails against playing for two hour features with only the shortest of breaks but she delights in the mornings that she played her piano for the children’s features. She loved to hear all the children singing along to her piano and deliberately played tunes they would enjoy although she said that, due to the noise, a brass band might have been a better accompaniment! Dogs she loved, especially old English collies, and her charming article on dogs and their affinity with their masters is illustrated with four photos of Rough, her own example of the breed. She states the reasoning powers of dogs is quite evident and provides several examples of dogs doing just that. The funniest is an Alsatian called Prince whom, upon hearing his mistress’ wish for a fur coat from her husband, promptly went out the door and stole her a mink coat that had been left out to air by a neighbour!

We are glad Emmeline Vyner settled in Scotland all those years ago and left behind so many different types of writing. It has been fascinating to see a glimpse of how an ordinary person dealt with the Great War through poetry and then found support through spiritualism to carry on through the Second World War, brought closer to home by Leith air raids and rationing. We are so glad that we have had a chance to read her papers, her newspaper articles and her scrapbooks and make a connection with such a lively and resilient character.

 

Take a step back in time with Edinburgh Collected to the 1960s National Coal Board Computer Centre

Back in May 1963, the National Coal Board opened a state-of-the-art Computer Centre at Sighthill featuring the latest technology. It’s no longer there but thanks to photographs taken on the day we can see just what that technology looked like, and how much it has changed!

National Coal Board , Sighthill – Official Opening, 1963

The photos show massive big pieces of machinery, churning out reams of paper. Operators sitting in front of machines featuring rows and rows of switches. Computer equipment that is taller than those standing next to it. One thing you do notice, is that most of the equipment is being operated by women.

Staff member operating computer at the official opening of the National Coal Board Scotland Computer Centre

The images have been added to our Edinburgh Collected website where we encourage anyone to upload their photographs. Anyone can share their pictures and memories to Edinburgh Collected whilst contributing to the City’s digital heritage collections.

Although the Coal Board photos were most probably taken by a professional photographer, the bulk of photos on Edinburgh Collected have been taken by amateur photographers. They offer a more personal perspective on the past but can still capture areas of Edinburgh, or perhaps industries, factories and activities that no longer exist.

The images in this scrapbook were all added to the site by The Living Memory Association, who have shared over 3000 images on Edinburgh Collected so far.

Nowadays everyone takes photos on their phones, and that’s where they stay. So why not have a look and put some on Edinburgh Collected?

Jazz Cafe in the Music Library

Starting on Saturday 29 February and running on the last Saturday of every month is the Jazz Café on the Mezzanine at Central Library. Come along, relax, enjoy a cuppa, and listen to jazz.

The Jazz Cafe takes place between 2 and 3pm and is a free drop-in event – no ticket required. We’re kicking off with the jazz quartet After the Rain who play jazz standards and a mixture of Swing, Latin, Funk, Blues and Ballads.

For more information contact the Music Library and if you’d like to play a set yourself one Saturday, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Desert Island Discs – Eamonn from the Digital Team

The latest library staff member to be banished to our desert island is Eamonn from the Digital Team.

We hand over to Eamonn to explain his choices –

1 Vol.4., Ethio jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974

I feel that nothing sounds quite like Ethiopian music. I suppose like many people, I became familiar with the country’s music through the fabled 30 volume CD series called Ethiopiques which focuses on a “golden” period of music in Ethiopia’s cultural history.

The series highlights the time between the mid 1950s and 1974 where a huge wave of outstanding big bands and singers had emerged – sparking off a massive musical explosion, resulting in the production of hundreds of recordings. This was all brought to an end in 1974 during a revolution, which left the country in the hands of a military dictatorship that remained in power until 1991. With rigorous censorship and strict curfews, many musicians were imprisoned, forced to stop playing or escaped into exile.

I love the series – the attention to detail, from programming to design, to notes, to mastering – have defined this body of work which has become virtually the sole representation of an essential musical culture.

Many volumes are worthy of a Desert Island Disc or two but perhaps the best entry point is Vol. 4 – showcasing the man who invented ‘Ethio-jazz’, Mulatu Astatke and devoted to his blend of Abyssinian swing.

2 Life on Earth: Music from the 1979 BBC TV series / composed by Edward Williams

Life on Earth was a landmark television natural history series produced by the BBC and Sir David Attenborough which aired in the UK in January 1979. Surprisingly, for such an influential series, its soundtrack was privately pressed – only 100 copies were ever made and distributed by composer Edward Williams to members of his orchestra. Scarce copies languished in thrift shops for three decades before finally being resurrected (with Sir Dave’s blessing) in 2009.

What surprised me further still was how beautiful the music was – a Desert Island Disc session would not be complete without staring into the sea surrounded by the magical, ambient sounds of science, nature and music for jellyfish.

3 Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble

Phil Cohran was my favourite jazz composer – his ensembles contained one of the most idiosyncratic takes on 60s avant jazz this side of Sun Ra (Cohran was once an early member of Ra’s arcane troupe). He wasn’t just a musician but an inventor of musical instruments – from customised violin-ukes to his most famous creation, his Frankiphone – an amplified thumb piano which rattled spookily around his ragged rhythm tracks. I’d hope with time that I would develop the patience and ingenuity to fashion my own desert island instrument – or at the very least I could always find a shell that made an interesting noise when blown into!

Book: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

I think this book would keep me occupied on the island – Perec’s output is extremely varied in form and style: sometimes bewilderingly so. From crossword puzzles and poetry to palindromes, autobiography and straight narrative – he did the lot and made a rule to never write the same thing twice. In his novel Void, he systematically avoids the letter ‘e’, for an entire novel! He did balance things out though – writing a short story after Void where the only vowel used was ‘e’ (easy peasy lemon squeezy… ok, so it’s harder than it sounds!).

Life maps the interconnecting lives of the residents of a fictitious apartment block in Paris with an unfolding structure that follows the logic of chess moves.

It was written according to a complicated writing plan (thankfully with ‘e’s included this time) and its 99 chapters can be read in any order. Guided by a 70-page index, a chronology, a checklist of 100 or more main stories, an apartment block elevation plan as a 10×10 grid of the building in which the action takes place and a profound interest in jigsaws. This book is the literary equivalent of a sudoku puzzle – one that you will keep returning to and worthy of being stranded with.

Luxury item: Tin of Vaseline (Aloe Vera) – no sense in having chapped lips in the sun!

Blair’s Edinburgh Views

Our current exhibition on Capital Collections is a collection of atmospheric scenes of late 19th century Edinburgh landmarks and landscapes, taken from watercolour paintings by artist John Blair.

The Old Town from the Waverley Bridge

The images are taken from a volume of loose lithographic prints dated 1892 which were printed in Paris and published by Aitken Dott of Castle Street. Many of the pictures contain moonlight or fading light and evocative weather conditions. The views are scenes of Edinburgh’s famous streets populated with typical residents of the time or picture postcard vistas looking from different geographic points towards the city’s famous skyline.

There is one picture however, which sits apart from the rest. It is a view of the Scott Monument looking east along Princes Street. The street characters seem in this view more defined and there are three men walking in a line towards the viewer each wearing sandwich board advertisements. On closer inspection, the signs are promoting a Castle Street exhibition of watercolours by John Blair – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the artist himself and his publishers.

The Scott Monument and Princes Street

View the full set of thirteen plates on Capital Collections.

LGBT history in the Art & Design Library

February is LGBT History Month and, in the Art & Design Library we’ve been looking at some of our books that explore this rich history and its amazing contribution to the visual arts. All are available for borrowing from the Art & Design Library.

A Queer History of Fashion: from the Closet to the Catwalk edited by Valerie Steele, published 2013.
From Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, many of the greatest fashion designers of the past century have been gay. This book looks at the history of fashion through a queer lens, examining high fashion as a site of gay cultural production and exploring the aesthetic sensibilities and unconventional dress of LGBTQ people to demonstrate the centrality of gay culture to the creation of modern fashion.

Art & Queer Culture by Catherine Lord & Richard Meyer, published 2019.
Art & Queer Culture surveys artworks that have constructed, contested, or otherwise responded to alternative forms of sexuality. Rather than focusing exclusively on artists who self-identify as gay or lesbian, the book instead traces the shifting possibilities and constraints of sexual identity that have provided visual artists with a rich creative resource over the last 130 years

A Queer Little History of Art by Alex Pilcher published 2017.
The last century has seen a dramatic shift in gender and sexual identities for both men and women, reflected in a period of artistic experimentation as artists have sought to challenge social conventions and push the boundaries of what has been deemed acceptable. The result is a wealth of deeply emotive and powerful art intended to express a range of desires and experiences but also to question, criticise and provoke dialogue. This book showcases a selection of works which illustrate the breadth and depth of queer art from around the world.

Drawing difference: connections between gender and drawing by Marsha Meskimmon and Phil Sawdon, published 2016.
Drawing Difference’ analyses how both drawing and feminist discourse emphasise dialogue, matter and openness. It demonstrates how sexual difference, subjectivity and drawing are connected at an elemental level – and how drawing has played a vital role in the articulation of the material and conceptual dynamics of feminism.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 edited by Clare Barlow, published 2017.
With a focus just on British queer art, this book has sections on ambivalent sexualities and gender experimentation amongst the Pre-Raphaelites; the science of sexology’s impact on portraiture; queer domesticities in Bloomsbury and beyond; eroticism in the artist’s studio and relationships between artists and models; gender play and sexuality in British surrealism; and love and lust in sixties Soho.

We’ve many more biographies and analyses of works by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender+ identified artists. From Diane Arbus and Francis Bacon to Keith Haring, Gilbert & George and David Hockney, we’ve got them covered. Drop into the Art & Design Library for more information.

February’s Exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The February Exhibition in the Art and Design Library is a group show by two Scottish-based women artists: Barbara Mackie and Rowena Comrie.  Colour in Play is a celebration of their vibrant and striking use of colour to convey landscapes and abstract ideas and emotions.  The exhibition opens on February 3rd.

Rainbow Light by Barbara Mackie

Barbara Mackie is based in Midlothian and first studied painting and drawing at Edinburgh College of Art.  She has participated in numerous exhibitions including group and solo shows at the Scottish Arts Club, Riccio Gallery and West Dean College in London.  “There is both abstraction and representation in my work that I refer to more as ‘settings’ than landscapes. There are traces of skies, coastline, valleys, mountains, farmland and fenland for these are memories carried from the various places I have know or seen, part referenced, part imagined. The nature of my work can be bold and yet restrained in both colour and form.”

Subaqua by Rowena Comrie

Rowena Comrie has worked as a professional artist for the past 30 years; in January 2010 she relocated from Aberdeen to Glasgow where she now works from a WASPS studio in Glasgow’s Briggait. She was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, and in 1982 completed her BA(Hons) in Fine Art at Reading University where she embraced expressionist colourfield painting with confidence and passion.

She continues to develop this dramatic and emotive painting style saying: “I make these works from a specific aesthetic point, that personally expresses sublime elements of human experiences. Over many years I have refined and developed my technique, a process that continues to challenge and intrigue“.

The exhibition is open throughout February and runs until 28th.