Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Much Travelled Mr Bartlett

Visit any shop selling topographical prints and it is almost certain that before long you will find a steel engraving with the name of W H Bartlett on it. Indeed so ubiquitious is this name that it seems impossible for one person to have travelled so far to draw so many views, particularly since this apparently frenetic activity was compressed into a relatively short working life. Unlike some other artists (including Turner) who 'improved' in their studios drawings made on the spot by others, Bartlett drew the scenery that he saw and his views could be directly used by the engraver. This gives his illustrations the benefit of his actual observation of the scene, but entailed a burden of travel that eventually took its toll.

William Henry Bartlett was born in Kentish Town in 1809 and died in 1854 returning from one of his many overseas trips. His life reveals the almost intolerable pressure put on working artists by publishers anxious to meet the rapacious demand of the public for topographical views during the 1830's and 1840's, an age well before photography rendered such depictions of scenery obsolete.

Yet the result of this activity is a series of wonderful books, embellished with finely produced steel engravings, that form a valuable record of much of the civilised world in the early years of Victoria's reign.

An excellent survey of steel engraving is contained in Basil Hunnisett's 'Steel-engraved Book Illustration in England', which describes how the introduction of improved mechanised printing processes in the early years of the 19th century enabled mass production leading to a boom in the production of books containing steel engravings in the period 1825 to 1845.

William Bartlett served as an apprentice to the famous draughtsman John Britton for the seven years up to 1829 and then found employment with George Virtue, who had established a publishing house in London in 1819, moving his offices to the Paternoster Row area in 1829. It is probably fair to say that the partnership between Virtue and Bartlett made the former's fortune as, in this period, Virtue issued over 100 illustrated books and produced some 20,000 engravings, using many of the leading artists and engravers of the day. However, of these artists it is Bartlett who must claim pre-eminence.

Bartlett's early work for Virtue consisted of illustrations for two county histories - Irelands 'Kent' and Wright's 'Essex'. However, his first commission abroad, in the company of the writer and doctor William Beattie (who became a close friend), led to a spell in Switzerland in 1832-3 where his drawings form the 108 plates in the two volume work (one of Bartlett's best) published in 1836.

In Switzerland, Bartlett suffered a fever due following a cold caught working in the mountain snow and was nursed by his young wife, Susanna.

1834 finds Bartlett in the middle east providing illustrations for 107 plates for a 3 volume work on Syria and the Holy Land, then in early 1835 he is sent to Piedmont for illustrations to Beattie's 'Waldenses', which contains some lovely depictions of southern France and northern Italy. Later that year he is drawing for Van Kempen's 'Holland and Belgium'.

One of Bartlett's most famous books is 'American Scenery', with text by N P Willis, the illustrations for which Bartlett produced in his stay in the New World from mid 1836 to mid 1837.

In this period, in addition to the usual eastern sights, Bartlett and Willis visited Niagara and toured Wyoming.

No rest for the wicked, as immediately on his return, Bartlett was despatched to the middle east to illustrate Julia Pardoe's 'Beauties of the Bosphorus', another lovely book published in 1839.

Most of 1839 was spent in Canada drawing for Willis's 'Canadian Scenery', published in two volumes in 1842. Bartlett's activities now become frenetic back in Great Britain as he provides illustrations for Beattie's 'Scotland Illustrated', Finden's 'Ports, Harbours and Watering Places of Great Britain' and Coyne and Willis's 'Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland' (1842).

A further trip to America was followed by a journey up the Danube to the Black Sea in 1842 to illustrate Beattie's 'Danube'. This trip culminated in a visit to Jerusalem where he provided illustrations for his own book 'Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem'. Bartlett was back in the Near East again in 1845 to collect material for another of his books, 'Forty Days in the Desert, on the Track of the Israelites' (1848).

After this came a calmer spell as he sought to recover his impaired health, with spells at home and tours of Wales and Yorkshire leading to him becoming editor of 'Sharpe's London Magazine', a post he held from 1849 to 1852. He did, however, make further trips to the Meditteranean (1850) and Sicily (1851) resulting in his 'Pictures from Sicily' and his most popular work 'Footsteps of our Lord and his Apostles in Syria, Greece and Italy' (1851).

Bartlett made his fourth visit to America in 1852 to prepare material for his historical work 'The Pilgrim Fathers'. Then it was Jerusalem in 1853, leading to 'Jerusalem Revisited' (1854).

In 1854 Bartlett set off, reluctantly, on what would be his last trip, to explore Asia Minor. He reached Smyrna in August, but left in the wake of a cholera epidemic. Setting off for home (with 50 drawings completed) on the French mail steamer Egyptus he became ill, dying on 13 September and being buried at sea. His wife and children were saved from absolute poverty following the publication of 'A Brief Memoir of William Henry Bartlett' by the faithful Beattie in 1855 and the granting of a pension by the Prime Minister for Susannah.

Bartlett had led a life of unremitting effort, suffered greatly from depression, and considered himself inferior to his contemporary landscape artists, such as Crome, Cox, Cotman and Turner. However, he shared their passion for the picturesque and sublime and was familiar with the works of the romantic poets. His illustrations owe much to the wildness of Salvator Rosa, but also to the idealised forms of Claude and Poussin.

In his excellent essay on Bartlett, Alexander Ross, draws parallels between specific Bartlett illustrations and the works of these earlier masters. Bartlett's Scenes are often populated with local people, in appropriate peasant costume and both grand and vernacular architectural features are depicted. Perhaps his most lasting legacy, however, will be the scenes of America and Canada, that contributed to introducing the New World to the Old World.

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Sunday, 19 February 2012

My Kind of Town

In an interview for the Paris Review given in 1997, the great travel writer Jan Morris was asked why she called Chicago the perfect city. Her answer was that among twentieth century cities it came nearest to the ideal of an aesthetically perfect city, with a fine logical shape and magnificent buildings. After our two stays in Chicago, I can understand her enthusiasm. The city is indeed beautiful, with buildings the equal of New York and a layout more logical than Boston.

This is no accident; from its modest beginnings in the early 19th century to its triumphant arrival as one of the world's great cities at the turn of that century, it had the benefit of the vision of some of the greatest architects and city planners ever freed to impose their imagination on an urban landscape. Its magnificent situation on the south shore of Lake Michigan gives it a head start, but it takes a more than ordinary people to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and hence stop the pollution of the city's lake drinking water by its own citizens; a more than ordinary people to suffer the heart of their city to be consumed by the great fire of 1871 and start right over to build an even better one and a more than ordinary people to found a University, whose scholars have been awarded more Nobel prizes than any other university on earth.

But this blog is not meant to be about the city, but about the books of the city, of which, fortunately there are many. Sadly, whereas years ago Chicago could boast of many fine antiquarian bookshops centred in the Printers' Row area on the south side, at the time of our visits only one now remained there, the excellent Printers' Row Fine and Rare Books. Of new bookshops there are many, including Powell's, and Barnes and Noble, and it is from these (and the much lamented Borders) that our modest Chicago collection has been formed. And then, amongst the elegant university buildings in Hyde Park, you will find the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, one of the best in the world.

If you were to read one history of the city, then it could well be Donald L Miller's 'City of the Century' (1996), a magnificent study that begins with the Jesuit Missionaries Joliot and Marquette in 1671, exploring routes to the Mississippi from the Great Lakes, but focusses primarily on the period of rapid expansion from a fur-trading post in 1830 to one of the world's great cities by 1900. In this period the great engineering works that reversed the Chicago River and raised the city from the prairie were completed. Miller also tells of the great architects whose vision shaped the city.

A sympathetic study of the building of Chicago is given in Daniel Bluestone's 'Constructing Chicago', where the laying out of its parks, its waterfront, its civic buildings and skyscrapers is examined. Bluestone shows that in contrast to the city's role as a vast industrial and commercial centre its buildings and parks present a visually rich experience, reflecting the aesthetic ideals of its planners and architects.

Amongst the many great architects who shaped the city, three in particular stand out. The first of these is Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) who came to Chicago in 1873 and after a spell in Paris, in partnership with Adler created some of the earliest skyscrapers using the new steel girder construction methods. His dictum of 'form follows function' became a mantra for later generations of architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright who studied under Sullivan. In Chicago some of his great buildings remain, including the Auditorium and the Carson Pirie Scott store.

Excellent photographs of some of Sullivan's buildings can be found in John Szarkowski's 'The Idea of Louis Sullivan' (2000).

The next two (Daniel H Burnham and John Wellborn Root) formed one of Chicago's greatest architectural partnerships, that of Burnham and Root.

The former is the subject of a biography by Thomas H Hines (1974). Not only Chicago, but other cities benefitted from Burnham's genius, notably New York where the Flatiron building is one of his most iconic designs. In Chicago, the partnership's work can be seen everywhere - the Monadnock Building - the Rookery, built in 1888 and at the time the tallest building in the world, with its magnificent inner court and staircase by Frank Lloyd Wright, at one time an employee of Burnham and Root - and Marshall Field, the original Department Store with its Tiffany glass dome.

But Burnham is perhaps best remembered as the driving force behind the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, won by Chicago against strong challenges from Cincinatti and New York to mark the 400 years since the Columbus landing. Burnham's 'White City' rose from the swampy south shore of Lake Michigan some miles south of downtown, replete with classical palaces, waterways, gondolas and the lovely 'wooded island' set in the landscaped gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Not much now remaims above ground, but a wealth of photographs are provided in the book by Bolotin and Laing. Some 28 million visited the Fair during its 6 months of operation in 1893, the visitors having the chance to enjoy the world's first Ferris Wheel.

A bestseller in Chicago bookshops and a highly readable book is Erik Larson's 'The Devil in the White City'. This book skilfully weaves the story of the Exposition with that of the mass murderer Dr H H Holmes, who entrapped visitors to the fair (mostly young unattached women) in his guest house, beneath which was a whole system for disposing of the bodies.

In 1909 Daniel Burnham published his magnum opus on city planning, 'The Plan of Chicago'. In this book he discussed the concept of the City Beautiful, drawing on Paris and other European cities as examples and proposed major changes to Chicago, including many social reforms affecting classrooms, hospitals and even day-care centres. Sadly, as in the case of John Wood before him at Bath, only a fraction of Burnham's vision was realised, but this included the laying out of North Michigan Avenue at a high level from the North Bridge and the consolidation of the ban on development of the lakeside. Princeton Architectural Press published an excellent facsimile of the Plan in 1993.

Any visit to Chicago should include the Chicago Architecture Foundation shop on South Michigan, where there are many books for sale and the chance to book an architectural tour. Perhaps the best of these tours is the River Cruise, the buildings seen on the cruise being described in 'A View from the River', published by the Foundation.

Perhaps the least interesting aspect of Chicago's history (albeit one of the best known) is its notoriety as a centre of crime during the prohihition era of the 1920s. Herbert Asbury's 'The Gangs of Chicago' (1940) tells the tale of how the gangs developed and of the famous gangsters such as Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Chicago became increasingly violent during the 1920s, culminating in the St Valentine's Day massacre in 1929 on North Clark Street when the South Side Capone gang shot it out with the North Side gang headed by Bugs Moran. Seven were killed that day and bus tours of Chicago faithfully take tourists to the site of the garage where it happened.

This is all a far cry from the Chicago of poetry and literature, which brings me to Chicago's most famous poet, Carl Sandburg, whose 'Chicago Poems' of 1940 contained its famous opening:

"Hog Butcher of the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:"

Out of the many novels set in Chicago, there are two that must be mentioned.

Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' (1906) exposed the brutal conditions in the Chicago stockyards at the start of the 20th century. These stockyards, slaughterhouses and meat packing factories located on the south side were considered a marvel of mechanisation and ingenuity and attracted wealthy visiting tourists, but in Sinclair's book this part of the American dream is brutally exposed.

The other novel is Theodore Dreiser's 'Sister Carrie' (1900), which chronicles in detail Carrie Meeber's struggles to survive in late 19th century Chicago, with a wealth of topographical detail of the city. The wealthy Hurstwood leaves his wife and flees with Carrie after stealing money from his firm and his downfall is brilliantly written. Carrie, as a typical child of the big-shouldered city, of course survives.

Finally, a different sort of writer: Vincent Starrett was the quintessential bookman, writing a number of wonderful books of essays and stories about books, collecting, bookshops and writers. As the book columnist on the 'Chciago Tribune' (now sadly no more), he had an unparalled knowledge of the world of books and ready access to the writers of his time.

His autobiography 'Born in a Bookshop' (1965) looks back at his life in Chicago and the literary world he moved in.

Out of his many books about books I have selected 'Bookman's Holiday' (1942), which contains his famous essay 'Persons from Porlock' and one of the best short stories set in a bookshop 'Folio Old Calf'.

Finally, three must-see things in Chicago:

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House at Hyde Park.

The Henry Moore scupture to mark site of the first man-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction achieved by Enrico Fermi and colleagues in the Squash Court of the University of Chicago on December 2nd 1942.

Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' in the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Musings from the Daughter of a Mad Book-Collector: Books for Babies

Finally last week I found the book that I’d been scouring the charity shops along Cambridge’s Mill Road for. All I needed to do was part with 30p and Tristan would be able to add ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’ to his burgeoning book collection. I had been looking along the shelves and rummaging through the boxes in stores run by the Salvation Army, Arthur Rank Hospice, Cat’s Protection (the money I have spent in this particular shop must have saved many tens of cats by now), and the rather amazing charity shop which raises funds for Romsey Mill, a Christian charity supporting young people in the area, for as long as Tristan has been a presence in our household. The former was a particular favourite haunt as at the back of store there is always a trolley brimming with books all only 5p each. After each visit I would usually buy 5 or 6, obviously keeping an eye out the Judith Kerr classic, as well as anything with flaps or touchy-feely pictures. The trolley was most often full of obscure annuals though and dog-eared Harry Potters so I had a job finding story books for bedtime reading. I rarely found a ‘classic’ and, when they suddenly decided to up the price of each book from 5p to 15p, I stopped going as regularly. (They have now reduced the price back to 10p a book so I assume I wasn’t the only one who felt this price hike was unreasonable in these straightened economic times.)

I have found extraordinary things in both Arthur Rank and Cat’s Protection – nearly new Dr Seuss for 20p or 30p, a pile of brand new Julia Donaldsons for 30p each, (including ‘The Snail and the Whale’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’) as well as a few weary, but still very readable, Ladybird books. Tristan now has a book collection to show off to his baby friends, and he has sat contentedly through ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Cat in the Hat’, and ‘Bears in the Night’ – the latter a present from his auntie Deborah and, alas, the kind of book which I am certain that you would never find in a charity shop as you can never to be too old to enjoy the anticipation of creeping up Spook Hill and being terrified by the hoots of a giant owl.

Nowadays Tristan is quite a challenge to read to – mainly as he insists on grabbing and chewing on everything that I am holding, from TV remotes to my indestructible mobile phone. So for now we have to give up on reading to him and, instead, we go to bed each night with one of the ‘That’s Not My …’ books.

I am a huge fan of these colourful books (I am yet to come across one in a charity shop) and Tristan never seems to tire of feeling the prickly ears, bumpy buttons or squashy feet before he eventually gets to his robot with the sparkly antennae, or his teddy with the furry tummy. However I thought it would be useful to compile a list of the books which I think Tristan will eventually come to love, and which I already have built up an affection towards. So, I think every baby should own the following:

Margaret Wise Brown Goodnight Moon (1947): this book has spawned endless imitations including Goodnight Bush, Goodnight America and Goodnight Goon
Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham (1960): debatable which Dr Seuss to add to the list as they are all brilliant, but this is probably my favourite
Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are (1963): I didn’t quite see the attraction of this book until I looked closely at the illustrations, and realised how they related to Max’s nightmare
Judith Kerr The Tiger who came to Tea (1968): finding this for 30p was like having all my Christmases come at once. At the moment I am getting quite a bit more pleasure from it than Tristan though.
Eric Carle The Hungry Caterpillar (1969): this book comes in endless formats – to attach to the buggy, large format paperback, small and dumpy board book
Stan Berenstain Bears in the Night (1971): out of the shelf, through the door, on the bed …
Julia Donaldson The Gruffalo (1999): the loveliest book to read to a baby, and surprisingly easy to find in charity shops
Campbell Books Faces (2002): babies love looking at black and white contrasts and faces in equal measure so this book was popular from the start.
Lydia Monks Aaaarrgghh, Spider! (2007): a Christmas present from the grandparents with the most wonderful illustrations, and a brilliantly horrifying ending!
James Mayhew Katie and the British Artists (2008): actually a present from my parents to me, but a lovely way of introducing babies to the great artists

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