Welcome to visitors who have arrived here via the Library of Lost Books. I have been documenting the development of my book over the past months so I hope that you find this interesting and also have time to visit other posts on my blog.
5th May 2012 – A Package Arrives
The Library of Lost Books is a project curated by Susan Kruse which aims to re-vitalise a collection of old books which have been discarded from the shelves of Birmingham City Library. I am one one of a number of artists who have been sent a book to reform and return for an exhibition to coincide with the opening of the new Library of Birmingham in September 2013.
My book has just arrived, an obscure and obsolete title called “Miracles de Notre Dame”, published in Paris in 1910. I will be documenting the development of my response to the book over the coming months.
A small miracle landed on my front door mat this morning.
The Jiffybag contained a brown paper-wrapped parcel, tied with string, obviously a book from it’s weight and hardness. This was my Lost Book, a book which nobody but me wanted, lost on a dusty shelf, unopened, unappreciated, unread. Untied and unwrapped the “Miracles de Notre Dame” was revealed. This was the book I had spotted on the list and had wanted but not asked for. It had found me.
“Discarded” said the red stamp on the inside cover. Harsh but understandable – who wants to read a book in French whose illustrations are grey and brown-edged, especially in this glossy, bright-coloured age? Art books have moved on since this tome was printed, Paris 1910, the grey-brown city of a cubist still-life. How were they to know what would come next?
The subject is not to everyone’s taste either. Miracles which may or may not have happened in a medieval cathedral, seventy-three miniatures of improbable events. Angels appear to tonsured clerics, devils tear at nuns’ habits, lady’s swoon before altars, page after musty page of unexplainable occurrences. Obscure and remote, little wonder the book was removed from library shelves and condemned to burning.
But by a small miracle of circumstance here it is in my studio, awaiting a new life.
8th May 2012 – On Miracles
I had assumed that the incidents described in the Miracles de Notre Dame were centred around the great cathedral church in Paris but have discovered that the book is about miracles as performed by the Virgin Mary. They were written and set to music by Gautier de Coincy (1177–1236), abbot, poet and composer. The illustrations in the book, reproductions of ‘grisaille’ or grey illuminations, painted by Jean Mielot (d. 1472), are spatially sophisticated and crisply rendered, full of incidental details. It is one of these details which has given me an idea for a possible piece of work.
The medieval cattle grid in the background of this painting reminded me of a 21st century miracle of sorts, an event still to be explained, if it ever happened at all. In 2004 residents of a Yorkshire village complained that sheep had been raiding gardens, eating valuable flowers and veg. It was something of a mystery how the sheep had managed to get into the village from the open pastures as the road in and out was protected by cattle grids, deep pits covered by widely spaced steel bars designed to deter animals from crossing.
Stories began to circulate that the sheep had been seen rolling over the grids thereby gaining entry to the village, a miracle of sheep evolution. It was also reported that similar enterprising behaviour had been observed in other parts of the country, Britain’s hill sheep had passed on the secret of grid rolling!
I haven’t come across any recent reports of this strange natural phenomena. Perhaps the generation of rollers has died out and taken the secret to the grave, or maybe it never happened – like most miracles there is only circumstantial evidence, rumour and conjecture. Either way I have been thinking of ways to illustrate this modern miracle, communicating a sense of wonder and disbelief in a book of images. I have made a start by collecting photographs of cattle grids from around the area.
12th May 2012 – Disection/Re-building
My initial reaction to any altered book project (which I’m sure I share with many) is to shy away away from destroying the book. Books are sacred and shouldn’t be desecrated.
Again my impulse with the Miracles was to leave it alone. It was a decent book, solidly re-bound in 1940, a little grubby but a beautiful book never-the -less. However, it occurred to me that this book had been discarded because it had never opened since it’s re-binding. It treasures had remained closed, hidden away. I realised that it was my task to get people to look at the contents of this book, to open the pages, to explore, discover and wonder.
And so I made the first cut with a view to taking the illuminations out of the cover. I then began to re-assemble the pages as a long concertina, a 3-dimensional re-working of the book. My plan is to re-bind it alongside concertina-ed images of the Miracle of the Grids.
19th May 2012 – Grids
I have been out and about collecting more cattle grids for the book. I say ‘cattle’ but obviously refer to ‘sheep’ so I call them ‘grids’.It turns out that most of the farms on the Raby Castle Estate have grids at their gates so I have been able to track down and photograph quite a few within a relatively small area. All of the farm buildings are whitewashed, which is unusual and highly distinctive for this part of the country where most vernacular buildings are sandstone or brick- built, but it makes them easy to spot. Each is different, some made up of parallel bars, some of diamond grids, some have been filled in with rubble.
The black and white photographs will be be laser printed onto thin Chinese paper, mounted onto stiffer watercolour paper and joined up to form a long concertina which can be pulled out from the book.
27th May 2012
I have discovered that all of the illuminations in Volume 2 of Les Miracles de Notre Dame by Jean Meilot can be viewed online at Oxford University’s Bodliean Library. Just type 374 into the catalogue search. Scroll down the thumbnails to manuscript Douce 374. The site has a zoom function so that you can view all of the incidental details.
9th June 2012 – Storm
I drove over the tops and down into Arkengarthdale and Swaledale in search of more grids. The weather was appalling, an Atlantic storm crashing against the Pennines, with stong winds and horizontal rain. On the way back the ford crossing at Ford Gill Gate (made famous in the opening title sequence of the classic 70’s TV series “All Creatures Great and Small”), was a raging torrent and only just passable.
Whilst battling against the elements to find and record grids I was thinking about John Sell Cotman’s watercolour “The Drop Gate”, painted in 1805 whilst travelling this same area of SouthDurham and North Yorkshire (where he met with similarly unseasonable weather). His ability to find abstract beauty in the most mundane of subjects met with baffled amusement from his friends and patrons. Drop gates are a vertical cattle grid hung over streams to prevent animals straying along the bank and into neighbouring fields. They are are a bit of a rarity, I can think of only one at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire. Cotman’s location has never been identified.
29th June 2012 – Almost Complete
“Miracle” is almost complete. I have recovered the original boards in black cloth and mounted the concertina-ed images in two blocks so that they fold out to left and to right. Inside are two text pages, one reading “Miracle – some believe that sheep can roll over cattle grids” and the other “Miracle – after Les Miracles de Notre-Dame, Jean Meilot 1456”. I have also given the web address of the Bodliean Library where images of the original manuscript can be viewed.
All that remains to be done is the gold tooling on the spine and outer front-board. I took the book with me this week to show to Rachel Grocke, Deputy Curator at Durham University’s Oriental Museum, when I went to discuss arrangements for my exhibition coming up in September.
I also had a very interesting discussion with archivist Xaioxin Li who has selected a number of Chinese scroll paintings to show alongside my work as part of the exhibition. We looked at examples ranging from the 12th to the 18th centuries, all of mountain landscapes to connect with the installation of drawings and books, “Mountains on the Moon”.
I have always been intrigued by the apparent connections between the Chinese approach to landscape and the English watercolour tradition of the 18th and early 19th centuries, artists like Cotman for instance. The Chinese works are evocations of mountains, landscapes of the imagination composed in such a way as to lead the viewer on a spiritual journey, up mountainsides, towards enlightenment – like traipsing around the North Pennines in the rain looking for cattle grids!
16th September – Finished
The bookbinders at the Newcastle Lit and Phil Society have tooled the title onto the front cover and spine and “Miracle” is now finished and ready for posting back to Susan in Birmingham.