Don’t lick the wallpaper…

… 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.

Advertisements

Entanglements…

…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 have been enjoying the intricacy and skillful paper engineering of two new pop-up books:

haekel01

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…

haekkel02

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…

zombie01zombie2

Buzzzzzz Buzzzzzzz

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.

beesbees02

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… bees01

 

 

Feathered Things

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!

birdmans-wife02birdmans-wife-04

 

Covered

We love book covers, and to be honest, often judge a book by them, despite the warnings not to… Publlishers spend a lot of time and money working out just what to put on the cover to let you know very quickly if it is something you want to read, or even pick up.
Two of our favourite books at the moment are all about the covers – not their own, but the ones they detail inside.

Writer, artist and designer Audrey Niffennegger has written a foreword to Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover, edited by Paul Buckley, a lovely book of iconic Penguin covers that have inveigled their way into popular culture. It is amazing how many of them are familiar even if you haven’t read the book. Penguin Classics started in 1946 and they have always been known for their clever and innovative book design – it is a real pleasure to see the best of them collected here, so that you can compare and observe and work out what you like and why things work.

Arthur Gackley, meanwhile, has taken the idea of cover art, and one’s attachment to it,  and run with it: Bad Little Children’s Books: Kidlit Parodies, Shameless Spoofs, and Offensively Tweaked Covers is clever, nasty, very funny and deeply satisfying. It is fun to spot the classic children’s book covers you know and love and enjoy the irreverent but affectionate tweaking. I like the book’s own cover – look at the skulls, guns, nooses and bats (rather than flowers, chicks and teddy bears) in the iconic Little Golden Books-like gold spine strip.
Some of these tweaked covers give you quite a shock which often makes you laugh out loud, and makes you realise how the books you read as a child are deeply embedded and attached to all sorts of emotions and memories – messing with them is clever and funny but also has a slight edge; you might not appreciate the fiddling about with your own favourite book, in a way that could surprise you.

bad-little

 

A Game of Thrones…

Have to say, fiction and TV have nothing, nothing, on the Romanov dynasty. Struggling to hold on to their God-given Russian throne this family is as mad as cut snakes – but you know, in a dynastic, glorious, utterly cruel, unusually large way that warrants 784 pages of startling and absorbing history. A little more mad than the usual moments of madness every family has, when a Romanov sibling is jealous or mildly annoyed with another, heads get cut off (after some seriously horrible torture) as opposed to just thumping them and telling on them to Mum. In this family, sometimes Mum holds the axe.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs is a masterly history of the family and Russia. The autocratic family and its storied scions, like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, ruled Russia and its empire in a stew of murderous ambition, nationalistic over-identification, Gormenghastian-like rituals, clever but sometimes very stupid, political machinations, sycophantic, fanatic and terrified courtiers, and personal charisma – or lack of it – all underpinned by an absolute, unquestioned belief in their God-appointed right and duty to rule and an aristocracy that depended on the crown for land and serfs. Those that gained the throne through political savvy and luck often ended up exibiting seriously questionable mental health by the end of their tenure. Monetefiore identifies the stress of the pretty much impossible role of the tsar with all its absolute power (and we all know what that does to a person) and the fact that the thing that topples tsars is instability and being perceived at capricious. You can be as sadistic and scary as you like but you need to be so consistently. Unfortunately the world changes which requires new thinking and approaches – just what the last of the line, the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II, had been bred to avoid.

Montefiore is such a good writer and has amassed a staggering body of research. He revels in all the madness and glory, and shows how the family is Russia. This is just a great read, fascinating, repellent, thoughtful and revealing. It explains a lot about the Russia that has developed since the Romanovs fell. Montefiore invites you to wonder and shudder at the excesses and appreciate just how magnificent the successful (in the sense of waging wars they won, destroying all internal threats, improving Russia’s standing in the world) tsars were. I particularly enjoyed all the Russian names, rolling over you like a tidal wave like they do when reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sometimes you lose track of who is who and when it is all happening as the names, and many of the nasty deeds, repeat through the centuries and generations.

Romanovs