… good general life advice you might think, but in Victorian Britain’s arsenic-imbued green-wallpapered rooms it could literally save your life to hold your tongue. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley is a beautifully designed book (just like those luscious wallpapers) with death at its heart. The Victorians (of a certain, moneyed class) never met a new, vibrant colour that they didn’t like, or immediately apply to their households and themselves. Meanwhile the other classes, made (in atrocious conditions, no need to lick anything, just breathe the air around you) and sold the goods that were so desired – and so deadly.
Scheele’s green and schweinfurt green, pigments created using arsenic, were used to produce the startling green wallpapers that became immensely popular. Designers and manufacturers (William Morris described the ridiculous fears of those worried about the worrying papers as the ramblings of those “bitten by witch fever”) were dismissive of the potentially fatal effects of covering your walls with arsenic-imbued paper (cigarette companies anyone?). Heating rooms with fire and gas is thought to have created a miasma of the awful compounds: it wasn’t the tight lacing of corsets that made Victorian maidens swoon, it was dancing in clouds of nasty contaminated air.
One of the theories about why Napoleon died when he did, is that he was poisoned by his fashionable Scheele’s green wallpaper in his lonely St Helena bedroom, as he sat out his final exile. Mind you, arsenic was everywhere: in bread – an excellent whitener, eaten as a medicine, used in quantities to rid houses of vermin. A number of the big Victorian poisoning murder trials hinged on trying to prove that the victim hadn’t just ingested the fatal dose just going about everyday life – a lot of the time, looking back at the evidence presented, it is fifty-fifty if evil or stupidity was afoot. We can thank the prevalence of the use of arsenic in all sorts of industrial processes, and the manufacturers’ refusal to not use it, for the introduction of regulations and laws protecting consumers and workers from the ill-effects of using ingredients and chemicals that can injure and kill you really, really easily.
The book it very beautiful, with is lovely green cover, the text is on pages sliced in half vertically, nestling between breathtaking images of wallpapers on full size pages. These are so lively and stunning and exquisite – that you can see why people wanted them on their walls despite the danger – a bit like eating fugu, for the frisson of dancing with death and a slightly numb tongue. Best all round really, to keep your tongue in your cheek.
We are very much enjoying these two clever board books: from art publishers Phaidon is Before & After by Jean Julien, My Pictures After the Storm by Eric Veille, is from Gecko Press.
You probably get the idea of the main theme, the plot as it were, of the books but they are delightfully illustrated, with sophisticated examples that will draw a smile from old and young alike. Before & After looks simpler:
but introduces some interesting philosophical ideas:
My Pictures After the Storm shows a page of pictures before something happens to them, like a storm, or a playfight, or a trip to the hairdresser, and then the effect on the pictures:
My favourite might be after the elephant, here in the original French (elephant/éléphant the effect is the same…
…amorous, affectionate, fond , fierce or nasty, have shaped the artistic world for better or worse. Thankfully here is the book The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon – with handy visual links between the players – to tell you who did what to/with whom, and then who else they did something with, oh, and what was done to them after that. It is a big chaotic, over-emotional mess, and sort of amazing anything got written, painted, filmed sung, created at all in the 20th century – unless of course, these various entanglements are the rocket fuel beneath the creative wings…
As the blurb says, this is “Lovingly researched, playfully prurient and cleverly intertwined…”, it is beautifully illustrated and great fun, and makes you wonder quite what this lot would have got up to with all the opportunities afforded by the internet.
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen is the third in his hilarious and edgy picture book series, that is a masterclass in humanistic ethics – and sharp lessons in crime and punishment – for three-year-olds. So funny you laugh until you cry, while at the same time poignant and deeply satisfying, it is the tale of two turtles who find a hat, together. They do everything together. They share. The hat is lovely. It looks good on both of them. But there is only one hat. There are two turtles. What to do? Is it fair to share? What if one doesn’t want to share?
The wanting and needing that ensue, the plotting and betrayal, the fantastic – and unexpectedly lovely ending (this series, including I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat has a very dark edge usually, so I was expecting retribution, if not death) – are all brilliantly conveyed by the expressive eyes of the otherwise impassive turtles.
Remember when you were very small and you wanted what you wanted so much you could burst? This taps right into those primitive MINE! feelings, and the clever plotting (and justifying of your bad actions) that you indulged in to achieve your aim.
At the moment, what I really, really want is this book – you will too, just look at the book trailer. Good thing there is more than one copy.
We have been enjoying the intricacy and skillful paper engineering of two new pop-up books:
Creatures of the Deep: The Pop-Up Book is a gorgeous exploration of images from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899 book Art Forms in Nature. It is a real treat, breathtaking and slightly impossible looking; perfect for scientists and artists…
The Walking Dead Pop-Up Survival Guide by David Hawcock is an essential guide for those planning to survive the zombie apocalyse; those of us just planning to give up at the beginning, due to not wanting to deal with all the various socio-political-ethical issues thrown up by mad-as-cut-snakes survivalist alive people, let alone the wandering dead ones, can just enjoy the cleverly made gore and horror…
We all know honey bees are in a precarious position, which is awful, not just for them, but for humans, who depend on them for the polllination of so much of what we eat. So the new book by Piotr Socha, The Book of Bees, from art book publisher Thames & Hudson is truly a delight. Gorgeous to look at, stuffed full as a hive with honey, with facts and fables about bees and their lives with – and before – humans, it fairly hums with life. Whether your thing is bees or beautifully designed books, this book hits the sweet spot.
And, while we are on the topic, hooray for the lovely new jacket (the original, right, is not bad either…), from Vintage Classics, of The Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson’s story of his passionate drive to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee, once commonly found in the marshes of Kent, and driven to extinction in Britain by intensive farming practices, to its native land. The cover is designed by Timorous Beasties, the Scottish studio famous for their designs inspired by the natural world, Vintage has got them to do several in their Birds & Bees range of natural history classics…
The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a rather lovely novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the 19th century British ornithologist and bird artist, John Gould. Being a good Victorian scientist, he killed and collected thousands of specimens – and Elizabeth, an outstanding artist, gave them rather wondrous life in a number of monographs and plates.
The purpose of her work was to show the scientific points of difference and interest between all the ‘new’ bird carcasses – and occasional live specimens – flooding into England from collectors in South America and Australasia, all engaged in the great project to name and catalogue the world – exciting stuff at a moment when Darwin’s preposterous theory was beginning to be taken seriously. But Elizabeth’s birds also have a liveliness and charm that lifts them above scientific usefulness. The novel explores what her life may have been like, engaged fully with the great project but still expected to take a backseat to the great men and be a proper Victorian lady, stoically birthing and losing children, and creating a family life, while deeply enjoying her art.
Beautifully written, this is a quiet but fascinating book, and Elizabeth springs from the page like one of her pretty birds. Have to say, this may be the most exquisite cover on a novel this Christmas – the palest blue dust jacket is attracting people in the shop and then, when you show them what is on the cream cover underneath the dust jacket… and the endpages also feature her work… it makes you feel all fluttery!