The ABCs of B. de B.

You can see the entire collection of alphabet prints at our shop: www.b-de-b.com

The scrapbook is pretty large, about 15 x 17. Each linen page is pasted back and front with scraps of printed woodcuts and engravings hand-colored with watercolor paint.
The whole thing is dirty, creased and coming apart— but its fabulous.
Some of the other offerings in the scrapbook are on the more macabre side.

The Background:
At an Ephemera Fair a couple years ago, Doug, Sam, and I bought a large scrapbook of brightly hand-colored printed illustrations. Culled from a series of British children’s chapbooks, the scrapbook’s most recent image appears to date from about 1837 but many of the images are “cuts” created years, even decades before. All the clippings are affixed to pages of linen edged in red silk and are bound in a disintegrating cover marked “Juvenile Scrapbook” and “B. de B. Russell.” 

“B. de B. Russell”? Was that a business, place, or person?

We discovered what we had purchased in Connecticut in 2012 was a scrapbook created 175 years ago possibly to mark the birth of a little tyke with a preposterous name. It turned out Blois de Blois Russell was born at the very start of the Victorian era, on June 6, 1837, near Birmingham, England. He rowed crew for St. John’s College, Oxford, and, according to a sniffy email response from the Oxford registrar’s office, he was most certainly matriculated as a “commoner” (not nobility or even a “gentleman-commoner”). We also discovered he died under unrecorded circumstances in 1860 just before his 23 birthday. He seemed to have come from compromised stock as his brother and a sister both died very young as well. Whether being saddled with the name Blois de Blois Russell had any impact upon his health is unknown.

About chapbooks:
Stories, ballads, rhymes and popular tales of piety were passed down through the generations verbally. These oral transmissions started to be written down and printed in the 16th century as broadsides, leaflets and booklets called chapbooks. These were popular, cheap, and cheaply produced texts, typically from 8 to 32 pages and sold by itinerant peddlers called chapmen. “Chap” is etymologically related to an old (Middle?) English word for “trade” (see place name Cheapside in London), and by extension, cheap. Chapbooks specifically for children became popular in the mid-1700s. Chaps were sold plain as printed or colored for an extra cent or two. Who did the coloring? Surely women and children. Pure speculation, but what a Dickensian scene: little waifs with their paint pots working in the dim glow of a lamp, so other, more cosseted children, like B. de B. Russell could enjoy their handiwork...

Now, B. de B. and the Chapbook Alphabet Print Series

We were inspired to create prints with what we found in the album’s pages— mixing letters and images for this series of chapbook alphabet prints. So our first offering is generally agreeable subject matter, just slightly off. Next we'd like to plumb the more macabre offerings-- we welcome any thoughts on the matter.

“B. de B.” wasn't our first choice of names—we went through several—but kept coming back to the euphonious, if odd, B. de B. It had become shorthand for the project, and the name stuck. Now, B. de B. has become a growing collection of historically-based designs that rescues ephemera from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and re-imagines it for the twenty-first.

See us at www.b-de-b.com


It Fooled the Cat

Artist unknown
Rack Picture for Dr. Nones, 1879 

Art Institute of Chicago

William Michael Harnett [1848-1892]
The Letter Rack
The Faithful Colt
John Haberle [1856-1933]
A Bachelor's Drawer (and 2 details)
The Slate

I recently did an invitation for the New-York Historical Society for an upcoming lecture called “Trompe L'oeil and Modernity” (see top image here, used on the invite). I'd link to the information but it is already sold out! (but I'm going!) My encore updated post here is very on point:

The book The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum by James W. Cook examines the curious strain in 19th century popular culture of illusionism (the self conscious aesthetic and cultural mode that "exists on the boundary between fact and fiction") and artful deception (which employs illusionism but purports to be real). Illusionism pervaded a range of 19th century entertainment, from Barnum's "humbugs," like the Feejee Mermaid, to Paul Phillipoteaux's Gettysburg Cyclorama, through all sorts of magic lantern displays, wax figures and sleights-of-hand. I imagine Cook could include the rage for seances, mediums and spirit images as well, though he doesn't go into these. In Cook's view, the public's passion for deceptive spectacle was influenced by the new "discourse" of advertising, social hierarchies and the expansion of the middle class, and the scientific inquiries of the time. Why was it though, that in a time of exacting definitions of propriety, when morality was strictly parsed and appearances were de facto comments on pedigree, society was thrilled by the questionable, and the ambiguous?

I was particularly interested in his chapter on trompe l'oeil painting--a genre which relied on spectacle. Numerous notices of the time described audiences that gathered to argue, gape at and dispute the nature of the paintings. Many of these paintings were run-away pop-cultural hits. Art critics of any standing, though, customarily dismissed trompe l'oeil work, likening it to the "curiosities" that garnered crowds at dime museums– vulgar and without merit. The work was easily employed in aesthetic and social judgments: if you like this stuff you are a philistine or a rube.

Harnett, Haberle, and Peto --three of the most successful trompe l'oeil painters–often used commercial packaging and other ephemera in their work (like the Dadaists would do literally 20-40 years later). But they were consummate nostalgia-peddlars (a pretty new idea at the time, the sentimental as cottage industry) who incorporated emblems of the West and cowboy life, Civil war paraphernalia, souvenir images of Lincoln, even recalling the good old days beside Grandma's Hearthstone. (Note that Haberle includes a "newsclipping" in his work The Bachelor's Drawer which purports to recount how Grandma's Hearthstone—his earlier painting!— was so convincing a cat curled up beside it's "fireplace"). These visual panoplies of the stuff of everyday life and the traditional home played to growing anxieties in contemporary 19th century society that modernity was erasing a way of life.

The heyday of trompe l'oeil was essentially contemporaneous with Impressionism, and a bit after. Most people think of latter as the aesthetic break-- edgy and avant garde while the former was populist and easily digested. An idea that intrigued me in the book was that trompe l'oeil, while not leading to Modernism, was never-the-less part of a changing visual mode. These sorts of perceptual 'experiments' lead to visual education and redefined the viewer as subjective participant. Visual doubt, essentially, (exemplified in these popular works) was part of the lead up to modernity.

Also worth noting is the fact that yesterday's avant garde (Impressionism) is today's greeting card art, while the overlooked populist work is the stuff of art historical criticism. 

See also "I'd like to thank the Academy..." my post on Academic art and silent film.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...