Wednesday, November 2, 2016

When an intern stumbles onto Sappho

Come to me now thus, Goddess, and release me
From distress and pain; and all my distracted
Heart would seek, do thou, once again fulfilling,
            Still be my ally!
-        From “Ode to Aphrodite” by Sappho, translated by John Myers O’Hara

When I first started my internship at ‘Antiquariaat van der Steur’ I was happy to discover that they had a large collection of Classical Literature.
These books are still such an important part of today’s literature, so I was glad to examine these books. The first few works I focused on were already very interesting: the first one happened to be a fable book with beautiful binding, but my eye was caught by book. At first sight, it was not the most special book on the shelves at ‘Van der Steur’, but this work contained some overwhelming poems. These poems are written by Sappho, one of my favourite authors in Classical Literature and as it appeared also one of the favorite authors of Arine. This surprised me, because her name is not well known in general. 

Sappho was a Greek woman of whom's life not much is known for certain. Everything we know is from her own poetry, but this is not necessarily biographical. What we do know though is that she was from the island of Lesbos and was probably born into an aristocratic family. Today, most of her poetry is lost. Only fragments remain on papyrus, or as quotations in other ancient works. Sometimes a whole poem has survived and sometimes as little as a single word. The oldest surviving fragment of Sappho is the Tithonus poem, found in 1922. The only poem that has survived completely is Ode to Aphrodite. It was preserved in ‘Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ On Composition’, where the writer quoted the full text of the poem as an example of “smooth” or “polished” writing. The poem was also partially preserved on a second century papyrus roll, discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. 

Sappho’s poetry is known for its clear language, simple thoughts and use of direct quotation. She also uses unexpected word-play quite often. An example from fragment 96: 

“Now she stands out among Lydian women as after sunset the rose-fingered moon exceeds all stars”

This is a variation of the Homeric epithet “rosy-fingered Dawn.” 
In antiquity Sappho’s poetry was highly admired and she was referred to as the “tenth Muse”. She influenced other ancient poets, such as Catullus and Ovid, who wrote a poem as a letter from Sappho to her supposed love Phaon. Even in modern literature Sappho is of great influence for other poet. For example Housman and Tennyson, who re-wrote the Tithonus poem of Sappho. 

In the 20th century however, Sappho was not known for only her poetry, but she became a symbol of homosexuality, although her sexuality is still debated. She wrote a lot of poems about unrequited love for other women, who she taught at school, but she also wrote her poems for men. There are still a lot of controversies around her life. Her poetry though is written so thoughtfully and with such grace, that her sexuality is of minor detail. This feeling of unrequited love is universal and I believe that this is the main reason why so many people are influenced and touched by her poetry.

'Les Poesies d'Anacreon et de Sappho' at ‘Van der Steur’ has two parallel columns: one for Greek and one for the early French translation by Anne Dacier. The French translation of her poems are very delicate.

Anne Dacier was not an experienced translator when she translated this work, but after this work she translated quite a few Greek and Latin texts, including the Illiad and Odyssey by Homer, Greek tragedies, Latin comedies and the works of Horatius, Callimachus and Aristophanes. 
This book initiated a stellar career for Anne Dacier. 

This book has a special place in our collection because it has been of great importance for Classical Literature, but also of great importance for Anne Dacier and it is one of the few versions that was actually printed in Greek. This book will always be special.

Sterre van der Sijde

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Illustrated Storybook, part II

Innocence illustrated: Early British Children’s Books

The industrial age brought a new worldview to the British Empire. A small group of wealthy Victorians called the shots while the large majority of the population led a less glorious existence. They may have had jobs, but the circumstances in which they lived were far below standard. The arts also suffered under the overwhelming power of industry. Inventiveness was hard to find.

 A Romance of the Three R’s (1886)
At the end of the century a group of socialist artists felt it was time for a change. ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement’ was founded under the leadership of designer and philosopher, William Morris (1834-1896). The Movement believed that the conditions of the working class would improve if they got acquainted with aesthetic objects. The movement’s goal was to bring art to the common people.

One of the first and most influential followers of the movement was the illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915). Crane was a student of the socialist engraver W. J. Linton (1812-1897) and dedicated his life to idealistic illustration, design and the applied arts. Crane got his inspiration from a broad spectrum of existing styles like Japanese prints, Medieval/Renaissance prints and the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. The latter is beautifully displayed in the faces of Crane’s figures.

A Flower Wedding (1905)
The children’s books by Crane were extraordinary because he did not divide the book into text and illustrations. He combined these two to make one piece of art, a synthesis of the arts, a picture book in the modern sense of the word. This meant that Crane designed every part of the book himself. A beautiful example of this skill can be found in the book A Romance of the Three R’s (1886), in which the search for the metaphors of reading, writing and arithmetic is depicted. Another illustration of this expertise is shown in A Flower Wedding (1905). Here Crane characterizes the guests of the wedding party as if they were flowers and plants. Crane always signed his works with his initials and a small drawing of a crane (bird). For his children’s books, Crane frequently collaborated with the talented wood engraver and colour printer Edmund Evans (1826-1905).

Another illustrator who also collaborated with Evans was Crane’s female competitor, Kate Greenaway (1846-1901). Greenaway was not directly involved in the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’, but was seen more as a follower of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Aesthetic movement’. Her illustrations were based on her own childhood memories. She drew innocent children playing outdoors, dressed in ‘Victorian’ Regency clothing. These costumes, invented by Greenaway, became so popular that a London manufacturer started producing them and are now referred to as Victorian, although they are not in principle. Greenaway’s illustrations are wonderfully soft and endowed with child-like virtue and charm. Her most famous book probably is Under the Window (1878) in which her illustrations are accompanied by sweet rhymes. But one of her most wanted works is The Language of Flowers (1884) which was meant as a handbook for pious Victorian women that made floral arrangements.
The Language of Flowers (1884)

Marigold Garden (1885)
Under the Window (1878)
Crane and Greenaway are key figures in late 19th century book illustration because of their break with tradition. They and the British illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), were the first to start working with black outlines and soft flat colours instead of the more sketchy style of contemporary illustrators like John Tenniel (Alice in Wonderland). Crane and Greenaway stood at the dawn of the modern picture book.

Has this blog sparked your interest for book illustration and children’s literature? Please check out our newly released catalogue The Illustrated Storybook at or through the following link

Sanne Hansler 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Study material, the old textbook examined

As you may know we, at Van der Steur, live amongst the mysterious history of more than 40.000 books and prints. Logically we are unable to read each and every one of them. This is why it can be very refreshing when a new intern stumbles upon an object that tells a greater story than just the one that is written inside. When our intern Sterre van der Sijde took a book from the shelf in our section dedicated to classical literature she noticed immediately that the book in her hands was special. This beautiful work, titled Fabulae Aesopi Graecè & Latinè is not bound in linen, leather or blank parchment as could be expected. Oddly enough it is bound in a parchment manuscript page with rubrication (sentences in red ink) and decorated initials. 
When opened, the book shows that it concerns the 1672 version of the fables of the Greek slave Aesopus (600 BC) and those of the Latin poet Avianus (400 to 500 AD), written in Greek and Latin in parallel columns. 

The book concludes with the poem ‘Batrachomyomachia’ or ‘Battle of the frogs and mice’, attributed to Homer. This book was first published in Amsterdam in 1626 as a study book for Latin and Greek scholars. The particular edition was provided by the academic Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655) from Leiden and copied at least eleven times without any major changes. It appeared to be in use for this purpose until 1727. 

Can you remember how your study books looked after toiling with them for a year? If they looked a bit like mine I find it astonishing that this small fable book survived this well for almost 350 years.
The fables in this book feature exquisite woodcarvings by the Swiss/Dutch woodcutter and engraver Christoffel van Sichem (1581-1658). Van Sichem made prints after portraits by his father, Christoffel van Sichem the Elder, and leading artists such as Bloemaert and Goltzius. For this fable book he made forty-one beautiful illustrations. The clearness of the cuts gives a modern feel to the plates. The illustration on page 73, ‘the fox and the goat’, is the only woodcut left that shows the monogram of van Sichem.

Besides the unusual binding, function and decoration there is definitely something else to talk about. On the recto of the first flyleaf, in between the stamps of institutions that previously owned the book, is an indication present of two V.I.P. from the past. The handwritten text: “Ex libris Joh: Conradi Zwinglij. Ao: 1693” and “Martini Usterii 1780”. The first name 'Johannes Conradi Zwinglij (Zwingli)' sounds familiar because the surname Zwingli was made famous by the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). Whether Johannes Conradi is a distant relative is not clear. The second name mentioned is Martini Usterii, better known as Johann Martin Usteri (1763-1827). 

Usteri, who was 17 when he signed this little book, was a famous swiss poet and engraver who was best known for his romantic idylls and historical prints. It's quite interesting to imagine to what extent an artist like Usteri could have been influenced by the fable illustrations he saw in his youth.
If there is one thing that we have learned from this little work of art, it is that our collection is like a treasure chest waiting to be discovered. 



Sanne Hansler

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On the move, finding pearls: a love story

Moving pearls: A love story
Eeuwigduurende liefdes almanak by Philomúsus Philokaus (Albertus van Twist) and Philander Mirtillo, 1721
It was only until the end of the eighteenth century that the ideals of Enlightment became generally accepted. Almanacs changed as a result, the astrological predictions made way in favor of other features. Increasingly the compilers of these almanacs replaced the weather forecasts and similar incongruity, in the words of Amsterdam based publisher Theodorus Crajenschot ‘soortgelyke ongerymtheden’, by something more meaningful ‘iets wezenlyks’. For him that was ‘een korte Schets van De kragt der liefde’, a short text about the power of love, written in his Nuttige en aangename staatsalmanach from 1787.
                   Ever since, love has been a rich source of inspiration for the makers of almanacs. Many flirts have been celebrated, first mainly in short verses which accompanied the calendars and later royally in long poems. In nineteenth century almanacs one can speak of a real ‘romantic story’-boom. Most of them illustrated with beautiful idyllic prints. But there is only one that is way out in front: the Eeuwigduurende liefdes almanak from 1721.

                   The Eeuwigduurende liefdes almanak is one of the first alamancs that is playfully aimed by the writer and publisher who called himself by the antique name Philomúsus Philokaus, admirer of muse and beauty, and thus puts himself in the mythological tradition. This cheeky man placed elements from traditional calendars in amatory/amorous context, like the twelve months of the year of love ‘de twaelf maenden van ‘t jaer der liefde’. Visit is the first month, Hope the fifth, the eight month is called Connection, Regret the eleventh which is followed by Indifference. Also other elements of life and cycles from the year of love are described in the same style as noted above. 
             Back to the frolic author of this richly illustrated work, who hid his real identity behind the pseudonyms Philomúsus Philokaus and Philander Mirtillo from Cyprus (which is known as the place where the Roman goddess Venus first touched land after she was born on open sea). Revealing the person behind the almanac became an obsession short after its publication in 1721. Contemporaries tried to light the veil of mystery by spreading pamphlets. This quest ended at the student Albertus van Twist, who aimed to immortalize his impossible love for Johanna Susanna Alensoon. Van Twist, born in Hulst in 1696, registered as a law student in Leiden in 1718. If the pamphlets are right, he paid more interest about lessons of love than the actual law classes. These pamphlets are written by fellow students and other witnesses of Van Twists flirts. The Eeuwigduurende liefdes almanak is thus a key almanac, there are real people behind the fictive names in the poems, which makes this book extraordinary amid other Dutch almanacs. Besides the unusual content, there are more reasons for this book to be very special. Already in the early eighteenth century, right after publishing, this book was rare, concluding by the fact that in later years the author himself bought copies of the book. During all centuries the almanac has always been appreciated. A small note which is found in the book tells one that on November 12th 1931 the book was to be sold at the price of 25 gulden, a little fortune at that time (comparable with 500 euros nowadays).

                   You might want to know what happened to the romantic Mister Van Twist. Luckily everything turned out well for him. He promoted in 1721, the year of publishing, and moved back to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, where he got married twice, gave life to a lot of children and finally made it to bailiff.

Note to all Dutch readers: on the website of the Digitale bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL) one can find an interesting article about the Liefdesalmanak. Please find attached a link to the article ‘Een Leidse student op vrijersvoeten’ by Bianca Nesselaar:

Click here for more information about the book. 

Benthe van Houtum