Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed

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Frances McDowall, who died on Friday morning, has been much on my mind. Twenty years ago Frances played a significant role in bringing the Old Stile Press edition of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd to fruition. Every time I open my copy of the book Frances is present in it, our work together literally bonded into the pages.

Nicolas McDowall had been taken by examples he’d seen of the printmaking technique known as Heliography, and asked me to produce images for the Barnfield project by those means. He felt the process might be an interesting way to capture much of what he’d been so attracted to in my drawings. As I proceeded with the work I discovered there were endless difficulties that Nicolas hadn’t identified at the outset, and as I struggled to originate drawings by his suggested technique of scratching into emulsion-coated sheets of glass, Frances began the epic task of making the paper for the entire edition of 200 books.

Below: a surviving fragment of a glass plate and the image as it appears in the book.

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Frances was heroic. It took forever to complete the vast amount of papers required and the processes were painstaking and physically exhausting. Later Nicolas too ran into problems at the press, so it might be fair to say that on The Affectionate Shepherd we all three suffered for our arts. (For a couple of years I was never without elastoplasted fingers because the thin glass plates persistently shattered under the pressure of my styluses. By the end of the project I had broken approximately eight glass plates for every one brought to completion.)

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Though the journey was fraught with problems at every stage and it’s a fact that we never again made a book in that particular way, somewhere along the pathways of agonising frustration, wrong turns and undependable techniques, the magic began to happen. Today when I look at the book, Frances’ ravishing sheets, striated and wrinkled and patterned with the marks of the organic ingredients and the drying processes, make a wonderful ground to the meanderings of my lines impressed into their surfaces. In a raking light the marks of my hand and her craft merge into a book the like of which I’ve never seen before or since. Sometimes the ink lines look almost like dark hairs looped and curved and trapped into the paper.

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In the colophon at the back of the book, the paper is described thus – perhaps by Nicolas or perhaps by Frances:

“All the paper used in this edition (including the endpapers) was made by Frances McDowall. The furnish used consisted of a mixture of Abaca and Jute, with an admixture of reeds and irises for the endpapers.”

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It’s a crisp and matter-of-fact account of a process that was fuelled by energy, passion and the overwhelming imperative by all of us to create something beautiful to frame Barnfield’s poem. Published originally in 1594, the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Affectionate Shepherd available in the UK to view is at the British Library, which is where I went at the outset to examine it. ( I had an alarming encounter there that nearly scuppered the entire enterprise and that you can read about here: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

To my knowledge the Old Stile Press book published in 1998 is the only illustrated edition of the poem.

 

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Below: pencil study made in preparation for The Affectionate Shepherd

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‘The odds are high in the making of any book: here the choices entailed a far greater than usual amount of experiment and work by the artist, paper-maker and printer. The result of their collaboration is a triumph.’

Jeremy Greenwood for Parenthesis Magazine.  1998.

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Edward Carey’s ‘Little’

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Among the contributors to the short story anthology that’s being published by English Heritage this month, is Edward Carey. When I saw his name on the list of writers responding to some of the English Heritage sites with mythic/folkloric associations, I recalled reading a glowing review for his novel Little. I duly acquired a copy and read it.

Edward is both a writer and an artist. He makes images to accompany his novels. Little, illustrated throughout with many drawings, is a staggering feat of research married to imagination, a compelling, page-turning history of Anne Marie Grosholtz, better known today – thanks to waxworks attractions around the globe bearing her name – as Madame Tussaud.

The book nailed my attention. Here was a writer who’d uncannily entered the mind of a known eighteenth century woman, channeling her into a first person account with her character fully formed and vibrant throughout the narrative. The Marie of Carey’s Little feels utterly real and present. Moreover he magnificently and dreadfully sets her down in that bloodiest period of civil unrest, the Revolution. A clammy sense of dread pervades the second half of the book as Paris sinks into malign chaos. The aristocrats and their supporters may have been the first to be rounded up and executed, but in the ensuing upheavals of rival factions, civil dissolution and score-settling, you could go to the guillotine at the whim of a jealous neighbour because you’d violated a dress-code. The world had turned in on itself and gone mad.

It’s been said that in later life – and with her waxworks a famous attraction in London – Marie Tussaud’s published account of her early life may have stretched the facts to better make a story. She claimed to have been a teacher of art to the King’s young sister Elizabeth, living for nine years by invitation of the royal family in the palace of Versailles. She claimed to have known the King and Queen. Later, back in Paris in the cataclysmic turmoil of ‘la Terreur’, the story goes that she was forced to take plaster casts from the decapitated heads of people she had once known in order to make wax effigies of them to be displayed and ridiculed. Whatever the truth of that, Carey makes the idea viscerally plausible, and his accounts of what it must have been like to carry out such grim work are convincingly and startlingly detailed. If Marie Tussaud – a great show-woman and self-promoter – did partially manufacture her history, adding a darker lustre to justify the more outrageous elements of her waxworks attraction, then Carey has done a magnificent job of adding flesh to the bones. She owes him a huge debt of gratitude, because she’s now going to be better known as the Marie of Little, than as the Madame Tussaud of her biography. He’s even made her portrait for the book in a pastiche of her times, which will now be the one I feel most truly represents her.

 

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Ed’s short story for the English Heritage collection gave me wonderful inspiration for the illustration I made to accompany it. A few weeks after I’d completed and submitted it, the editor Katherine Davey told me that he’d asked her to pass on how much he liked the image, and enquire whether I’d agree to be contacted by him. We started e-mailing each other almost immediately, and we’ve been e-mailing ever since. We’ve exchanged drawings. I’m now the owner of a delicate pencil image he made for Little, one of many in the book which are supposed to be the work of Marie’s hand. By way of exchange Ed has the drawing of a ‘goblin child’ I made for his title story of the English Heritage anthology, These Our Monsters.

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It’s a wonderful swop. I particularly like that the drawing I have is of a model of Marie created – in the novel – by the young man she loves. It’s a rather grotesque wooden doll that could be mistaken for Mr Punch’s Judy, so it couldn’t have been better chosen for me given my passion for puppets. What a happy experience working on this project has been, and what a lovely drawing transaction.

 

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