Percy Shelley: Atheist, Adulterer, Vampire* Poet

Shelley was drawn to water and reflections of light on water; he drowned shortly before his 30th birthday.
He enjoyed telling Gothic horror tales and, essentially, freaking out the ladies...
William Blake seems to me to be a very apt match for Shelley, aesthetically and otherwise. Even the watery quality of his inks and paint seem right. I have no idea if Shelley knew of him or what he may have thought of Blake's work.
(Katie Sokoler/Gothamist)
Shelley paid to publish his "Declaration of Rights of Man" then sent a number of them aloft in homemade balloons...

photo of Lake Geneva by Damon Winter
"a bright planetary spirit enshrined in an earthly temple."
"a misunderstood nature, slain by ungenial elements"...
NB: It occurs to me that some readers passing through might not understand that I am working on the graphic and exhibit design of this show— that is: the typefaces, the colors, the display, light and text projections, banners, posters, etc. The exhibit is compiled and curated by the (very sharp and insightful) head of the Pforzheimer collection, and the equally perceptive visiting scholar from the Bodleian. Please know that my personal research, critical equitability and professional capabilities transcend any lightly tossed "hipster"/vampire comments I may present here.//

I am just starting work (as part of a team of 3) on the design of a small but significant exhibit at the New York Public Library
on the life of Romantic poet and early hipster Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822). These are some of the mood images gathered to inspire the feel of the exhibit design—not necessarily directly representative of the mood of Shelley himself! The show is related to but quite different from Oxford University/Bodleian Library's Shelley's Ghost exhibit and catalog. Some of the items in the show will come from Oxford, but a majority will be pulled from the NYPL’s Pforzheimer Collection, one of the premier collections in the world for the study of English Romanticism.

I'm immersing myself in Shelley by reading two biographies: Richard Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuitand Being Shelley by Ann Wroe. The first a scrupulous and lively epic with tons of great information, the second an intriguing impressionistic collage of details and interpretations. Both books conjure  a fascinating but
(for me) manifestly irritating person. Intense, theatrical and self-dramatizing, he was almost insufferably myopic when it came to interpersonal relations and was definitely seemingly manic depressive.

Shelley has been described as radical, political agitator, atheist, vegetarian, adulterer, apostle of free love, brilliant poetic innovator and, once, *vampire (by his first wife Harriet). Seemingly unaware of his sometimes contradictory nature, he came across as hypocritical and perverse. Generous, he still left a string of unpaid debts (including those to friends) throughout his life. He had such empathy and "a horror of torturing animals it was impossible to express it" (he criticized Wordsworth for writing about the shining beauty of a caught trout), yet his insensitivity to the abandoned and pregnant Harriet contributed to her suicide. Still, even the most casual reader can't fail to be astonished by him.

The magic car moved on.
From the swift sweep of wings
The atmosphere in flaming sparkles flew;
And where the burning wheels
Eddied above the mountain's loftiest peak
Was traced a line of lightning.
Now far above a rock the utmost verge
Of the wide earth it flew,
The rival of the Andes, whose dark brow
Frowned o'er the silver sea.
Far, far below the chariot's stormy path,
Calm as a slumbering babe,
Tremendous ocean lay.
Its broad and silent mirror gave to view
The pale and waning stars,
The chariot's fiery track,
And the grey light of morn
Tingeing those fleecy clouds
That cradled in their folds the infant dawn.
The chariot seemed to fly
Through the abyss of an immense concave,
Radiant with million constellations, tinged
With shades of infinite colour,
And semicircled with a belt
Flashing incessant meteors.
The Daemon of the World (1816)


keep your cool

Snow Cap Burger, Arizona, Carol Highsmith

Iceman at Fulton Fish Market, 1959
ice harvesting in Minnesota, before 1885
Free Ice, New York City, c.1900
Momoyogusa, 1909
snow, December 1949, Eleanor Roosevelt
Licking Ice on a Hot Day, New York City, c.1900


Rockaway Frolics

I like this guy's style
"Ladies Bangs Curled 15¢"
This main drag was called the Bowery
"A frolic at Rockaway Beach, 1903"
Featuring Quail or Squab on Toast, Oyster Omelet and 12 kinds of potatoes
"WANTED 500 men to eat Frankfurters"
Pristine white dresses, that exceptional flourish comme des garçcons and flirty little purses. Love
A disturbing entertainment pavilion, ca.1927
I'd wear this, sans hat.
A truly monstrous architectural concatenation in Arverne, 1900.
Evidently developer-driven McMansion buildings have a precedent.
This establishment was called the Kuloff... Cool Off, geddit?
A couple friends and I checked out Rockaway Beach this past weekend. We went armed with our iPhone GPSs, and New York Times articles charting hipster sightings and boardwalk culinary highlights, and hoping to scope out some appealing bungalow* real estate. We were not complete cultural tourists though since one of us could actually recount Rockaway excursions from high school, and I grew up in Queens, so that counted for something. We did have some street cred.

Rockaway— or The Rockaways—
is the largest urban beach in the United States. It comprises Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, and Far Rockaway which sit along side Neponsit, Arverne, Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, and Edgemere on a peninsula of Long Island (that happens to be completely part of Queens). As Wikipedia winningly points out, Broad Channel is also "psychographically", if not strictly geographically, part of the Rockaways as well.

Once a summer retreat for the well-heeled in the early 19th century, successive campaigns of transportation upgrades (railroad, subway, and then bridges) made the area more accessible—and less exclusive. With Rockaway Playland opening in 1901 the area had its heyday as an egalitarian  recreation spot in the vein of Coney Island around the 1910s.

After WWII city officials thought it was a good idea to raze everything you see above. They put in 13 story housing projects some of which became the Fort Apache—The Bronx kind, some were middle income, all were soul-deadeningly ugly.
A Rockaway housing project
*There is a great-looking documentary The Bungalows of Rockaway, about the vintage 1910s-1920s bungalows of the area that I'd love to see. Its criminal so many of them were demolished for the crap that replaced them.


Class 9 dependence

The stunning images of the night sky, directly above, are by Alex Cherney a "hobbyist astronomer" in Melbourne Australia. They were taken in a national park on the south eastern coast of Australia, in the virtual absence of light pollution. They brought me back to this post, originally from 2007:

When the blackout occurred a several years ago (2003) I was not altogether unhappy with the thought of spending time by candlelight. The street was thrillingly dark that evening (the street light normally filling my apartment with an insistent yellow glare having been temporarily extinguished) and I was rather excited to get out the few candles I had, group them in front of a mirror, and try reading...

In the back of my mind, I'd always wondered about the centuries played out in relative darkness. What would life by candlelight or gaslight have been like? Before gaslight, once night fell, the vast majority of people lived tethered to a small circumscribed orbit of light. A light fueled by a
list of substances that must have been frankly repellent in practice–animal fat, whale oil, bacon skimmings, dried manure, fish oil, kerosene. The smell and the wavering and sputtering flame and...dear God, the smell! An entire room would never never have been fully lit and the ceiling and corners would be perennially in shadow. What about color? Paintings, decor, textile--all had very different properties viewed under pre-incandescent light.

I came across a fascinating exhibit that was produced jointly by Carnegie Mellon and the Van Gogh Museum in Holland in 2001: "The exhibition displays Vincent Van Gogh’s
Gauguin’s Chair (1888), consecutively lit with the spectra of daylight, an open gas flame, gas light with a mantle, and the light of an electric arc lamp, demonstrating how the different light sources alter our perception of the painting’s colors."

Blue, he remembered, takes on an artificial green tint by candlelight; if a dark blue like indigo or cobalt, it becomes black; if pale it turns to grey; and soft and true like turquoise, it goes dull and cold... The pearl greys lose their blue sheen and are metamorphosed into a dirty white; the browns become cold and sleepy... (Des Esseintes ponders the effects of light on color in Huysmans' Au Rebours)
Gas was introduced as public street lighting in London, on January 28, 1807, and it was a revolutionary thing. (Baltimore was the first US city to employ gas, in 1816.) It freed the night. Occasionally, I still notice the stubs of former gas "outlets" in Brooklyn brownstones and wonder what indoor life was like under those hissing fixtures.

An article in the
New Yorker a couple months ago, "The Dark Side", discussed light pollution and the fact that most people, especially in the eastern US, have never truly experienced nighttime darkness. The "perfect" 'pre-industrial' night is designated Class 1 on something called the Bortle Dark Sky scale. That elusive state is described with this striking detail: "certain regions of the Milky Way cast obvious diffuse shadows on the ground." The Milky Way-- which I have never seen-- casting a shadow sounds magical and nearly impossible to visualize. In that setting I can imagine a full moon's light could be stunningly luminous-- which renders the nighttime landscape, above, as not all that fantastical. "The very darkest places in the continental United States today,"according to the New Yorker article, "are almost never darker than Class 2 ... The sky above New York City is Class 9." To see the night sky as Galileo knew it (or as anyone pre-1820s or so would have known it) one would have to travel to the mountains of Peru or the Australian outback....

And what about that evening during the blackout, when I lit my candles and put the mirror to clever use? I'd love to say I found it soothing and meditative. Instead I reflexively kept getting up to turn on a light. I ended that little experiment early and went to sleep feeling slightly claustrophobic with a hint of panic.

Addendum: New York Times reports on the renovated Wrightsman Galleries of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan, which sound amazing...
In some rooms the light is lowered to an almost nocturnal darkness in order to show how Rococo artists used reflective, shiny surfaces — gilded metal ornaments; gold-leafed, carved elements; mirrors; polished lacquer — not only as luxurious objects but also to make the most of candlelight.The darker rooms appear to be lighted only by candles, with realistically flickering bulbs in chandeliers and sconces.
images: Kersting, woman sewing, 1823; Heimbach, man with oil lamp; Degas, Interior, 1868/9; William Stott of Oldham, CMS Reading by Gaslight, 1884; La Tour, Magdalene, 1636; Heimbach, Men in a Studio; Hogarth, Night, 1738; Joseph Wright of Derby, Dovedale by Moonlight, 1784, Heimbach, Nighttime Banquet, 1640; 


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