Thursday, September 30, 2010

Literary Action Figures to the Rescue!

by Stephen J. Gertz

"Dost thou desire a figurine of a man with sublime intellect
and sharp wit? Forsooth, thy dreams have taken shape!
'Tis a 5¼" (13.3 cm) tall, hard vinyl William Shakespeare
Action Figure with removable book and quill pen."

It's been a long, grueling day. Q: How can one take the edge off without intoxicants? A: Get in the playpen with these toys designed with the rare book lover in mind.
First Folio (in left hand) not included.
As accompaniment to the above, want to learn how to lose friends and salivate at the same time? Look no further than:
"Each set includes seven 1" (2.5 cm) tall boxes that look like miniature
Shakespeare volumes. Inside each box you'll find two fruit flavored gum
balls and an eloquent Shakespearean insult printed on the inside.
Sure to offend the intellectuals and confuse the dimwitted!"

"Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous."

"You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!
I'll tickle your catastrophe!"

"Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool,
thou whores on obscene greasy tallow-catch!"

"You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's-tongue,
you bull's-pizzle, you stock-fish."

Of course, when it comes to rapier-wit and the devastating put-down, no one cut deeper than Oscar Wilde.

"Oscar Wilde was a writer and lecturer of great accomplishment,
but he is most famous for his comedic plays, quick wit and eccentric dress.
This 5-1/4" (13.3 cm) tall, hard vinyl action figure is dressed for a party
where Wilde will quickly cut all those around him to pieces
with barbed witticisms. Removable cane included!"

The Wilde One.
Beware the removable cane!

Say hello to the G.I. Joe of 19th century English literature:

"The novels of Charles Dickens captured the essence of Victorian society
so well that the entire period is often described as Dickensian.
To this day, none of his novels have ever gone out of print in England.
This 5-1/2" (14 cm) tall, hard vinyl action figure
comes with a quill pen and a removable hat!"

What appears to be a codpiece is not. Included.
The Case of the Unintentional Codpiece is one best left to the master of literary detection himself:

"Created by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has become an icon of crime
detection and deductive reasoning. This 5-1/4" (13.3 cm) tall, hard vinyl action
figure comes with a removable magnifying glass and deerstalker hat. He even
has a pipe which fits snugly into his mouth to help him concentrate when
working on a particularly difficult case."
 Hypodermic needle and vial of .07% solution of cocaine not included.

Watson! I said magnifying glass, not tennis racket!
Jane Austen didn't get much action during her life. Time to make up for lost time with plenty of action now!

"Jane Austen was one of the greatest English novelists in history.
Despite a rather sheltered life, she was able to capture the subtleties
of human interaction so perfectly that her novels continue to be
 immensely popular to this day. This 5-1/4" (13.3 cm) tall, hard
vinyl action figure comes with a book (Pride & Prejudice) and
a writing desk with removable quill pen!" Zombies not included.
I'm hungry for zombies.
"Wreak havoc on your sister's precious diorama with this
Flesh Eating Zombie Play Set! Each set includes nine
1" (2.5 cm) to 3-1/4" (8.3 cm) tall, hard vinyl zombies,
 complete with blank stares, gaping mouths, open wounds
and missing limbs! Turn off the lights and they glow!
Fantastic undead fun for the whole family!
What collection of literary action figures would be complete without representation by the profession that so often leads us into literature?

"If you just can't get enough of the Dewey decimals or if you
go bananas for books, chances are you have a Librarian Action Figure.
Nancy Pearl's likeness made history as the best selling Librarian Action
Figure of all time, but the true collector needs this Deluxe Edition.
Each 5" (12.7 cm) tall, hard vinyl figure is dressed in a stylish burgundy
outfit and comes in a library diorama with a reference desk, computer,
book cart, multiple book stacks and some loose books. Press the button
on her back for the infamous 'amazing shushing action!'"
"Amazing Shushing Action" or simply "Aren't I cute"pose?
Why would adults want to own literary action figure toys, however literary their action figures into play? Ask the litterateur-analyst:
"Each 5" (12.7 cm) tall, hard vinyl action figure captures Freud
in a pensive pose, holding a distinctly phallic cigar. Put him on
your desk or nightstand to inspire you to explore the depths of
your unconscious and embrace the symbolism of your dreams."
Couch not included.
"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

I'm a grown man so I'm finally throwing out my pail and shovel and moving up to these toys.

"The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground."
G. K. Chesterton

"Play is the exultation of the possible"
Martin Buber

"To live is to play at the meaning of life...The upshot of this . . . is that it teaches us once and for all that childlike foolishness is the calling of mature men."
Ernest Becker - The Denial of Death

"We don't stop playing because we turn old, but turn old because we stop playing"
attributed to Satchel Paige

"Time you enjoyed wasting is not wasted time."
-T. S. Elliot

"Each day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and pure foolishness."
- Mary Satton

All  toys, quoted product text, and images from Accoutrements.

A Rose By Any Other Name...Might Be Extinct

By Nancy Mattoon

Tulipa XXV: Plate 146,
Artist: Unidentified.
Hortus Nitidissimis omnem per annum superbiens floribus sive amoenissimorum Florum Imagines.... Der das ganze Jahr hindurch im schönsten Flor stehende Blumengarten, oder Abbildungen der lieblichsten Blumen... herausgegeben von Johann Michael Seligmann.

Nürnberg, Auf Kosten der Seligmännischen Erben/ Ludwig Wirsing, [1750-] 1772-1786.

(All Images Courtesy of Royal Botanic Garden Library.)

One in five of the world's plant species is in danger of extinction. That's the frightening conclusion of a study released September 28, 2010, and sponsored in part by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The study establishes a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world's estimated 380,000 plant species has been documented. The work relied heavily on the vast repository of botanical information held in Kew Gardens' Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, which includes some eight million preserved plant and fungal specimens.

Narcissus IV: Plate 124,
Artist:Dietzschin, B.R.

Kew Garden's Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, says: "This study confirms what we already suspected, that plants are under threat and the main cause is human induced habitat loss. We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear – plants are the basis of all life on earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we."

Lilio-Narcissus II: Plate 18,
Artist: Ehret, G.D.

A look at the Kew Garden's website reminds us of another compelling reason plant life must be protected: the infinite variety of botanical species is a major source of the earth's natural beauty. The Garden's extensive library documents the history of horticultural and botanical literature, with more than 750,000 volumes, and more than 175,000 prints and drawings of plants. For centuries, humankind has documented the fragile and short lives of plants and flowers for scientific study. Now it seems these rare books are in danger of becoming a catalog of paradise lost.

Martagon I: Plate 26,
Artist: Ehret, G.D.

One of the highlights of the Kew Gardens website is an online exhibition of a "complete virtual copy" of Hortus Nitidissimis Omnem Per Annum Superbiens Floribus Sive Amoenissimorum Florum Imagines (1772-1786). This great florilegium combines the scientific observations of doctor and amateur horticulturalist Christoph Jacob Trew with 180 full color plates by some of the finest botanical artists of the period, including the peerless Georg Dionysius Ehret. Complete copies of this book are exceedingly rare, so the Kew Library digitized pages from volumes held in three separate libraries to create an exhibit of an imaginary perfect text.

Iris III: Plate 28,
Artist: Ehret, G.D.

This online tour of "a year in a brilliant garden of exquisite flowers represented in beautiful pictures," is a ravishing and colorful exploration of the most sumptuous blossoms of Europe. Tulips, hyacinths, ranunculi, carnations, roses, lilies and more are all frozen in time at the height of their glory in this splendid exhibit.

Rosa I: Plate 17,
Artist: Ehret, G.D.

English art critic Sir Sacheverell Sitwell wrote of the great flower books, including the Hortus, in 1956: "Locked away in museums, and to a lesser extent in private libraries, are beautiful and quite unknown albums of flower drawings that are in prison, as it were, and only visited at rare intervals by a mere handful of amateurs and students. This hiding away and seclusion of original flower drawings which is, apparently, insurmountable and an obstacle to the general appreciation which will never be overcome."

Corona Imperialis I: Plate 40,
Artist: Keller, I.C.

Sitwell could not have envisioned the advent of the Internet and digitization, which have miraculously released these "imprisoned" books to the world. But it would have been equally impossible for him to imagine a world where the plants depicted in these illustrations would themselves cease to exist. On a planet where, according to the Kew study, "Plants are more threatened than birds, as threatened as mammals and less threatened than amphibians or corals," attention must be paid before the beauty of volumes like the Hortus becomes no more than a remembrance of things past.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

House of Recycled Books (Art Installation)

by Stephen J. Gertz

Somewhere a Door Slammed ...
1.74 x 1.47 x 1.81
Nettie Horn Gallery, Bethnal Green, London.

Rosie Leventon creates environmental art installations, often from recycled materials.

She "makes sculptural installations, for both indoors and outdoors, using a broad variety of materials from human hair to recycled central heating pipes. She also draws and paints, using ink, pencil, acrylic, chalk, bitumen and other media to create proposals for sculpture and installations. Although often conceived as outline ideas for larger 3d projects these drawings and maquettes represent a significant body of work in their own right.

"Some of Leventon's installations comprise radical interventions into the interior architecture of a building. She has constructed false floors that float on water and which shift under foot. Her outdoor installations sometimes highly ambitious in scale often have a functional, regional element, providing water for animals, for example, or promoting biodiversity and regeneration.

"All of Leventon's work however is grounded in a sensitive concern for the natural environment and how we use it. Leventon sees her work as interweaving a kind of personal archaeology with the archaeology of contemporary society and the physical archaeology of places" (Leventon website).

Of Somewhere a Door Slammed (2009) she writes:

"This recycled installation is made from paperbacks, mainly romantic novels, that have titles like Confessions of a Vicar's Wife and Cold Heart Canyon. They have been formed brick-like into a rectangular tower which stands about 1.82 metres high. In it are regular shaped windows on two sides which allow a view into the interior. The titles of the books are visible on the outside of the walls, and looking through the windows people can see the pages of the books have been roughly carved - softened - so that they may look a bit like flat pieces of stone or an ancient ruin. Living in Central London, we all live in or walk past huge tower blocks every day. But what do we know of the lives of all the people who live in the flats? Peoples complicated lives in which so much joy and sorrow and so many major and minor events are contained. References to archaeology run right through my work, also the act of looking."

With thanks to Nancy Kosenka of Serendipity Books for the lead.

Poetry On Canvas: The Art of E.E. Cummings

by Stephen J. Gertz

Marion Morehouse in Gray-Green
Original oil sketch on cardboard, 8 1/2 by 11 1/4 inches, of Cummings' third wife,
Marion Morehouse. Her fully realized face peers out from gray-green background
and lightly indicated body. LPC #46. Lopez #1105.
While most of us are aware of e.e. cummings as a modern poet, who, amongst other innovations, integrated typography into his poems, many may be unaware of his work as a visual artist.

Marion Morehouse in Gold and Dark Gray
Original oil painting. Oil on canvasboard, 10 by 14 inches.
Portrait of Cummings' third wife, Marion Morehouse.
She is depicted to the waist with her arms crossed in sketchy
 brushstrokes against a dark gray background. Her skin tone
is indicted with lines of pale gold paint. LPC #732. Lopez #1091.
He considered it as important as his writing and devoted an enormous amount of energy to it.

Portrait of Marion Morehouse
Original oil painting. Oil on canvasboard, 10" x 14".
Portrait of Marion Morehouse, Cummings's third wife;
she is nude to the waist and posed with her arms raised
with her hands behind her neck. LPC #731. Lopez #561.
He began to paint at about the same time as he began to compose poems, in the immediate post-WWI years, and followed the avant-garde currents of Cubism and Abstraction. Later, however, he turned his back on the artistic establishment and, while integrating the principles he had explored in modernism, settled into a distinct and highly personal relationship with the representational and human. Yet, he maintained an exuberant and uninhibited approach to color; he had written extensively on color theory and it appears as if his retinas were drunk, their rods and cones guests at a chromatic orgy.

Sketch of Dancing Nude
Original oil sketch. Oil on canvasboard, 8" x 10".
Light brushed sketch of dancing nude woman,
using mostly purple paint. LPC #785. Lopez #880.
"Why do you paint? For exactly the same reason I breathe. That's not an answer. There isn't any answer. How long hasn't there been any answer? As long as I can remember. And how long have you written? As long as I can remember. I mean poetry. So do I" (e e cummings).

Kneeling Nude
Original oil painting. Oil paint on cardboard, image size 6 by 8 1/4 inches,
 matted in board frame, 16 by 20 inches. Thickly painted study of
kneeling female nude in impressionistic forest setting. Dated on the
 verso "Aug 18 1940." LPC #368. Lopez #1136
"Critics have generally divided Cummings' career as a painter into two stylistic phases. The first phase, about 1915-1928, was represented by his experimental large-scale abstracts and his drawings and caricatures published in The Dial. During the 1920s Cummings started to drop out of the gallery scene, and he came to view the art establishment as anti-intellectual. The second phase of his art was from about 1928 until his death; this phase was characterized by representational works: still lifes, landscapes, nudes, and portraits" (Harry Ransom Center biographical sketch).

Sitting Blonde
Original oil painting. Oil on cardboard, image size 8 by 17 inches,
matted in board frame, 15 by 25 inches. Study of seated blonde nude
with her arms upraised. LPC #375. Lopez #1045.
"A distinct throat. Which breathes. A head: small, smaller than a flower. With eyes and with lips. Lips more slender than light; a smile how carefully and slowly made, a smile made entirely of dream. Eyes deeper than Spring. Eyes darker than Spring, more new . . . These, these are the further miracles . . . the breasts. Thighs. The All which is beyond comprehension - the All which is perpetually discovered, yet undiscovered: sexual, sweet, Alive!" (e e cummings).

Standing Nude with Red Scarf
Original oil painting. Oil paint on cardboard, image size 8 by 13 1/2 inches,
matted in board frame, 16 by 20 inches. Study of standing female nude with
blonde hair, holding a red scarf. Dated "3-4-45" on verso. LPC #346. Lopez #1137.
"In viewing the art of e. e. cummings, it's tempting to say he was even more of an artist than a writer, especially inasmuch as his art seems easier to digest than his writings. In fact, indications are, he devoted much more time to his art. cummings was a purist when it came to his art. He viewed representational painting as more of a challenge than abstraction, calling those who worshipped Picasso as "super submorons" who ignored the fact that their hero himself had once declared that there was no such thing as "abstract" painting, crying out instead for artists to "respect the object." Whether painting in a representational or non-representational manner, Cummings rose above even that. He painted more than 'things.' He painted art, and always generously imbued it with the power of reasoned of aesthetics" (Lang, Jim. E.E. Cummings, the Artist. At Humanities Web).

Standing Female
Oil on cardboard Size: 8-1/2" x 14"
Dated: 1945-05-27. Lopez #1164.
"Your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy. Easy? Of course - you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands. I never met him. Who? Everybody. Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting? I am. Pardon me? I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational. Not all painting. No: house painting is representational. And what does a house painter represent? Ten dollars an hour. In other words, you don't want to be serious -   It takes two to be serious" (e e cummings).

Cummings did not enjoy being categorized. Poet, painter, abstractionist, representationalist - it was all the same to him. It was art, and art defies category.

The above is but a small sample of Cummings' artwork; he was extremely prolific as a painter.

Images courtesy of Between the Covers, with the exception of Standing Female courtesy of Ken Lopez. The paintings are currently offered for sale by both dealers.

Bookseller Ken Lopez has established a website-gallery dedicated to the paintings of e.e. cummings.

The Harry Ransom Center has posted their inventory of Cummings' artwork here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chippendale Bookcase, c. 1765, Estimated at $700K-$1M

by Stephen J. Gertz

The Messer Chippendale Secretaire Library Bookcase
99 in. (251.5 cm) high; 79 in. (199.5 cm) wide; 24 1/2 in. (162.5 cm) deep.
Need bookshelf space but Ikea won't cut it? Want to move up into shelving that makes a statement, as in, Lottery Winner!?

In New York, on October 21, 2010, Christies is offering the Samuel Messer Chippendale Secretaire Library Bookcase, a George III ebony-inlaid mahogany art cabinet attributed to Thomas Chippendale, c. 1765, as part of its 500 Years: Decorative Arts Europe sale.

Christies, which originally sold the piece as part of its Messer Collection of English Furniture sale in 1991, estimates it will sell for $700,000 to $1,000,000.

"Of stepped breakfront outline, the central section with imbricated and ebony-veneered swan's neck cresting centered by a platform over a fiddleback mahogany cross-grained frieze, the central door with glazing bars centered by a foliate C-scroll cartouche suspended from husk chairs and within an arch and lozenge tablets, the side sections with pierced hexagon-pattern galleries and later draped urn ebony-inlaid finials over glazed doors of a similar arched and lozenge design headed by a clasp, the three doors enclosing mahogany-fronted shelves, the base with a secretaire drawer fitted with a baize-lined double ratchet easel and two mahogany-lined side drawers (one divided) over three long drawers all mounted with original foliate-cast gilt-lacquered handles, flanked by a pair of cut-corner cupboard doors, the whole inlaid in ebony with stylized foliate scrolls, and broad lines in geometric patterns of cut-corner and circular panels, with ebonized-molded base, the hinges of top drawer stamped H. TIBATS, and labeled G. JETLEY/24, BRUTON ST. BERKELEY SQ. WI, the central platform support and finials later, the underside of plinth with yellow wash over an apparently original red wash" (From Christies' catalog description).

And, unlike Ikea book shelves, no assembly required.

(That catalog note is one of the most  objectively observed, keenly articulate, yet lyrical descriptions that I have read in quite a while. The prose sings, the report enchants,  by the end you're in a trance).

The volumes that could have filled this bookcase in 1765 may likely have included books that were issued in that year, first editions new then but rare books now:

• Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Stern  (vols. 7 and 8).
• The Fool of Quality by Henry Brooke.
• Works of William Collins.
• The Works of Ossian (James Macpherson).
• Commentaries on the Laws of England by William Blackstone.
• A Complete History of England by Thomas Smollett.
• An Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life by  Joseph Priestley.
• Essays by Oliver Goldsmith.
• The Plays of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson.
• A Review of Doctor Johnson's New Edition of Shakespeare by William Kenrick.

But I like to think that the very wealthy gentleman of the Age of Enlightenment who originally bought it was one with an interest in Shakespeare and also owned a First Folio, and a Gutenberg. He had an interest in science and so possessed first  editions of  Copernicus, Galileo. and other greats. Early printing fascinated him; he had an eye for incunabula.

If those books come with the bookcase at the Christies sale bump up the estimate a few million or so.

Degas In The Raw At The Morgan Library

By Nancy Mattoon

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Self-Portrait in a Brown Vest, 1856.
Oil on paper.

(Image Courtesy Of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

A great work of art, whether painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, or play, always appears complete, seamless, and effortless. The spectator knows that the artist spent countless hours perfecting the piece, but that hard work never shows in the end result. The illusion should be that the work is a perfect jewel, polished to a high sheen with no hints of early rough cuts, drafts, sketches, corrections, or improvements. The viewer should see the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, without any glimpses of the man behind the curtain.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Standing Man in a Bowler Hat,
ca. 1870.
Oil paint thinned with turpentine, on brown paper.
(Image Courtesy Of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
The New Orleans Cotton Exchange, 1873.
Oil On Canvas.

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

But seeing the handwritten manuscript, the first draft with strike-throughs and erasures, or the rough sketch can make us appreciate all the more a finished work that has become so iconic it is almost taken for granted. The Morgan Library and Museum has mounted a small exhibition consisting of two rare books of sketches and twenty works on paper by the great French Impressionist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917). This show is an extraordinary opportunity to see a great master in the process of creating his work, although nearly a century has passed since his death.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Three Studies of a Dancer
, ca. 1880.
Black chalk, Conté crayon (?), and pink chalk,
heightened with white chalk, on blue paper faded to light brown.
(Image Courtesy Of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880-1, cast circa 1922.
Painted bronze with muslin and silk.

(Image Courtesy of The Tate Gallery.)

These preliminary studies can be easily recognized as the raw material for some of the artist's greatest and most famous oils on canvas and bronze sculptures. They offer insight into the mind of Degas, the way in which he painstakingly observed his artistic subjects, and his ability to recall and recreate scenes he first recorded years before they finally reappeared in his finished works.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Four Jockeys on Horseback, ca. 1868, reworked ca. 1878.
Graphite, with stumping, on tracing paper mounted to board
(Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
The Racecourse, ca. 1876.
Oil On Canvas.

(Image Courtesy

Degas was always a man apart from the rest of the Impressionists. His sensibility was darker and much more detached. Though as superb in his use of color and light as any of his peers, linear divisions and precise draftsmanship always shaped Degas's canvases, unlike the softly billowing whirls of Monet or Renoir. His subjects were viewed with an almost clinical eye, and exacting observations of human or animal anatomy defined every figure.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Study of a Seated Woman,
Oil paint thinned with turpentine, over graphite, on tan paper.

(Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Interior, Ca. 1868.
Oil On Canvas.

(Image courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

The unbridled joie de vivre found in much of Impressionist art is absent from his work. His interest was in the back-breaking rehearsals of the "little rats" in the corps de ballet, not in the star turns of the prima ballerina. He depicted the tension and apprehension of horses and jockeys before a race, rather than the celebration in the winner's circle. Even his early self-portraits, two of which are featured in the Morgan show, are remarkable for their clear-eyed observation of a young gent with a too long nose and drooping eyelids. Photoshopping would never have been Edgar Degas's cup of tea.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Mademoiselle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs,
Drawn 1877, Revised 1885.

Pastel over lithograph.

(Image Courtesy of The
Morgan Library and Museum.)

Although a small exhibition, the Morgan show, Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks, spans over 40 years of the artist's career. One of the sketchbooks here is from Degas's first trip to Italy as an art student, while the other is from a period marking the height of his fame as an established painter in Paris. The works on paper cover the years from 1856 through 1892, depicting the complete evolution of the artist's work over the years. "As a medium, drawing often provides a more personal and intimate glimpse of an artist’s creative process than either painting or sculpture, and the works on view in this exhibition are no exception," says William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library and Museum.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Sketchbook, ca. 1880 and after. Contains 21 drawings on 43 leaves.
Chiefly graphite, with touches of charcoal
and a few leaves executed in blue chalk; bound in tan linen.
(Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

Edgar Degas was a notoriously secretive man, believing "the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown." Misanthropic and difficult, he never married. He was more than a little snobbish, actively disdaining both Protestants and Jews, and politically extremely conservative. Aristocratic and independently wealthy, he often held back his completed paintings for years, exhibiting and selling them on his own idiosyncratic timetable.

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Sketchbook, ca. 1880 and after. Contains 21 drawings on 43 leaves.
Chiefly graphite, with touches of charcoal
and a few leaves executed in blue chalk; bound in tan linen.
(Image Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.)

It is doubtful Degas would have approved of his raw sketches being displayed in public at all, much less in a museum gallery and an online exhibition open to a worldwide audience. But unlike learning the sleight of hand behind a dazzling magic trick, seeing the plotting and planning behind these great works doesn't spoil the effect. Knowing that they percolated for decades in the artist's mind only makes the viewer marvel all the more at the effortless illusion of Degas's finished masterpieces.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Killer Exhibit From The National Library Of Medicine

by Nancy Mattoon

The last words of a dying penitent: being an exact account of the passages...on which was grounded the first suspicion of his being concerned in the...murder of Dr. Clinch... Written with his own hand after condemnation... Author: Henry Harrison. 31 pp. (London, 1692).
Henry Harrison, the pamphlet's alleged author, was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Dr. Andrew Clinch, who had loaned a large sum of money to Harrison’s friend, a widow, and had evicted her when she failed to repay him.
(Courtesy The National Library of Medicine.)

Axe murders, murder by bludgeon, horrific mutilations, dismembered corpses, torture, impalement of a virgin on a stake, family members with slashed throats and crushed skulls, killings for profit, suicides, incest and child abuse, botched abortions, death due to "female troubles," "irregular" pregnancies, illegitimate children, unfaithful spouses, "womanizers," loose women, prostitutes, pregnant governesses, venereal diseases, perjured testimony, tainted "expert" witnesses, blackmail, crimes to cover up other crimes, poisonings ("strange-looking" dumplings laced with arsenic), clergymen gone bad, insane and "monomaniacal" killers. And let's not leave out these perennial favorites: serial killings (by both men and women), and political assassinations (the British government had failed to justly compensate him for his bad business dealings, so the Prime Minister had to die).

What is this, another day at the local grindhouse? Or are we virtual jurors parked in front of TruTV (formerly, Court TV)?

Nope, it's a remarkable exhibit, Most Horrible And Shocking Murders: "True Crime" Murder Pamphlets in the Collection of The National Library of Medicine (NLM). This online museum of mayhem is derived from an exhibit by the NLM in 2008, and is curated by Michael Sappol.

In Life: Dr. George Parkman, Boston Brahmin, murdered in 1849 by Dr. John Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical College. Webster had taken out a loan from Parkman that he couldn't repay. He used his medical knowledge to disarticulate the body and consign it to the furnace. Alas, Dr. Webster was sloppy: he was done in by, among other things, a brother-in-law who ID'd the corpse due to "its extreme hairiness," and a dentist who recognized the deceased's false teeth. "A Correct Likeness of Dr. Parkman," from Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Doctor George Parkman. Reported exclusively for the N.Y. Daily Globe... 76 pp. (New York, 1850).

Documented on this site are a selection of historical pamphlets that depict humans on their worst possible behavior. The toll and consequences of murder and savagery, and various other crimes, are gut-wrenchingly detailed in a chronological array of pamphlets, published from 1692 - 1881. The pamphlet covers are gorgeously reproduced, as well as selected pages of the actual text.

Many of the authors of these studies in scarlet are quite rightly anonymous, as they reveal shocking details of the case in question, whether from actual court testimony or straight out of their own fevered imaginations. Other authors, especially scandal-mongering journalists, take full credit for their work, their names being prominently emblazoned on the title page. Invariably accompanying the text are drawings and sketches, again either from real life or the artists' imagination, and sometimes bearing little, if any, resemblance to the actual crimes they "depict."

In Death: Scattered about at the scene were various body parts, including a dismembered thigh, the lower part of a leg, a torso crammed into a chest (minus the heart and other vital organs). Professor Webster was found guilty. After the trial, he did, in fact confess to the crime, but plead self-defense. He was hung later that year. "Restoration of Dr. Parkman's Skeleton," from Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Doctor George Parkman. Reported exclusively for the N.Y. Daily Globe... 76 pp. (New York, 1850).

At times these rags also included lurid "confessions," by the perpetrators, typically just before their date with death, and in highly dramatic fashion. These alleged confessions, could include heretofore unreleased and appalling details of the crime or provide an outline of the miscreant's sordid life as a rationale for resorting to murder. They could be wholly made-up fictions, in order to sell a sensational story, or florid apologies to give the document a patina of redeeming value. Sometimes, instead of a confession, readers would be treated to a plea of innocence, even including the identification of "the real killer."

Booktryst has plucked one such juicy story, and leaves it for you to determine its redeeming value (if any).

Exhibit: Patty Cannon

Narratives and confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hung at Georgetown, Del., with two of her accomplices; containing an account of some of the most horrible and shocking murders ever committed by one of the female sex. 24 pp.
(New York, 1841).
A rather fanciful account and in error on several points: Patty Cannon was never tried, thus never convicted or sentenced, and it is very doubtful if she ever "confessed."
(Courtesy The National Library of Medicine.)

Lurid details surround early 19th century American female serial killer, kidnapper, and torturer Patty Cannon. She was nicknamed by some "Lucretia," in homage to Lucrezia Borgia, the notorious Italian Renaissance aristocrat and Machiavellian-style serial poisoner. To others, she was known simply as "Fat Patty." Still others flat-out called her "the wickedest woman in the world." Described in a 1907 newspaper article as "massive of bosom, massive elsewhere," this "Amazonian Paul Bunyan," was foul-mouthed, and "swarthy," all 260-plus pounds of her, and was no shrinking violet . She was said to be as muscular as any man, able to heft a 300-pound bag of grain onto her shoulder with ease. She ran a tavern and was the resident bouncer as well, snatching up unruly customers and pitching them into the street (often while rifling through their pockets for cash or valuables on the way to the exit). Documents at the time reported that she was "of a fierce temperament and homicidal."

George Alfred ("GATH") Townsend, Author of the Crime Novel
The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times (1884).

Very little reliable information exists about the crimes of Patty Cannon, and only scant court records have survived. In truth, much of what is stated as "fact" derives equally from local legend and journalistic exaggerations, as well as from an influential crime novel published several decades later: George Alfred ("GATH") Townsend's wildly popular The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times (1884, and reprinted numerous times). (The full text of which can be found here.)

The Entailed Hat by "Gath" [George Alfred Townsend]. Harper & Brothers, (1884).

Patty Cannon's origins are simply unknown: she was born around 1760, and may have emigrated from Canada, or even Eastern Europe, leading to her being described by the derogatory term "gypsyish." Even her real name is in doubt. She may have adopted an alias to hide her true identity. Patty's first husband, Jesse Cannon, who she married at the tender age of 16, died under mysterious circumstances a few years later. Her tavern, on the Maryland/Delaware border in an area known as the Delmarva Peninsula was the headquarters for the gang she commanded. Here she recruited both relatives (the family that slays together...) and low-lifes from the bar scene to aid in her nefarious schemes.

Often Mistakenly Reported as Patty Cannon's House. In fact, many of the architectural details prove that it is decidedly not, even assuming it was vastly remodeled. Her true house was actually some distance away.

Though she dabbled in standard highway robbery and stolen goods, this big bad mama's forte was kidnapping free blacks and slaves and literally selling them down the river, especially to plantation owners in the Deep South. Trafficking in humans was an especially lucrative business in the early 1800's. In 1808 Congress banned the importation of slaves. Once the supply was cut, the financial value of slaves skyrocketed. A healthy slave could fetch $1,000 or more. Patty Cannon's slave trade in 1819 alone made as much as $25,000. (All in gold coin, of course.)

Historical Marker Erected in 1939. Again, Many Details are Incorrect.
(Courtesy Historical Marker Database)

Patty Cannon's area of Maryland/Delaware included a significant free black population; some historians say that it was the largest concentration of African Americans in the country. It was also smack-dab on one of the routes used by the famed Underground Railroad, which spirited slaves and free blacks to safety. Kidnapping free blacks was less risky for Cannon's gang than stealing slaves from their masters. And greedy property owners in the area were all too eager to purchase any blacks from Cannon, no questions asked.

General Map Showing Major Routes of The Underground Railroad,
Taking Slaves and Free Blacks Northward.

Detailed View of Underground Railroad Routes, Including Maryland & Delaware (Large Red Concentration at Right.) Several Routes are Virtually at Patty Cannon's Doorstep.
(Courtesy Maryland State Archives.)

Local law enforcement was haphazard in dealing with illegal slave trading. On those rare occasions when the authorities did come to the Cannon house and tavern to investigate crimes, gang members would simply slip across the border into Delaware. In one instance, when the Maryland authorities came knocking at her tavern door, Patty brazenly stood her ground and said the very turf she was standing on wasn't in Maryland, but actually one state over, in Delaware. In true Keystone Kops fashion, the police left to verify this. By the time they got back, Patty was long gone.

"A picture of Joe Johnson's Kidnapper's Tavern, as it stood in the year 1883." An Artist's Rendering, Nearly 60 Years After the Events That Took Place There. Frontispiece illustration for George Alfred Townsend's Novel
The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times

Even when suspicions of her illegal activities were finally running high, the Cannon Gang's reputation for extreme violence gave the authorities pause. And some actually suggested Patty may have been a "witch," a "conjurer," or a "supernatural," using magical powers to escape detection. Witnesses said they had seen her morph into a black crow, able to fly from place to place and spy her targets from on high. Naturally, gang members embraced these superstitions, offering to "hex" or "cast spells" on troublesome neighbors for a little extra cash.

Patty's "black contraband" was kept close: hidden for months at a time in "secret rooms" in her house, as well as in the basement and attic, and held in leg irons with manacles around their necks. There were persistent rumors that her victims were routinely beaten and tortured. "Ear-witnesses" reported hideous screams emanating from the house in the dead of night. Ominously, behind the property were several unmarked graves. The gang worked in conjunction with white slavers, using nearby waterways to ship large batches of captives to the South, some to as far away as Georgia. The gang's activities continued relatively unhindered for several years.

This business was also a family affair. The first husband of Patty's daughter (name unknown) was later hung for kidnapping blacks. Her second husband was a whole lot worse. The notorious Joe Johnson, was not just a kidnapper of blacks, but an expert at administering beatings, giving special attention to those captives who claimed to be free. Though he upped the violence quotient considerably, he still couldn't outdo his mother-in-law for sheer mayhem and terror. It was said that Patty herself beat several victims to death, often because they were "troublesome" or "damaged goods," for which she wouldn't get her usual asking price. On one occasion, she plucked a crying young slave from her mother's arms and tossed the child into the fireplace.

"This is not a rare case." An Illustration From the Anti-Slavery Almanac (1836),
Warning of the Kidnapping of "a free colored man," from Westchester Co.,
New York, to be Sent into Slavery.

In 1822, the law caught up--with some of the Cannon Gang. Their crimes had become increasingly audacious and the many local disappearances of free blacks could no longer be explained away or ignored. Son-in-law Joe Johnson was arrested, but got off relatively lightly, considering the enormity of his crimes, with 39 lashes at the pillory. Records do not survive to indicate exactly what happened to him or to the other gang members arrested with him. We can only conclude that there were no further trials. All were apparently freed and immediately resumed their crimes.

It wasn't until several years later, in early 1828, that a local farmer out plowing his fields uncovered what were later determined to be the bodies of three males and one female. One body was rumored to have been Patty's husband, who had mysteriously disappeared. The authorities, however, really perked up when it was revealed that one of the corpses was that of a wealthy slave trader from down South who had been missing for over a decade. This man had apparently been lured to the house by Patty and Johnson, on the promise of a good deal on slaves, a hearty meal, and more than a few tankards of rum. He was said to be carrying a bankroll of $15,000 in gold coin, intending to purchase a dozen slaves. This unlucky fellow was quickly dispatched by the gang, then neatly wrapped in a tablecloth and hastily buried in one of Patty's trunks, along with the butcher knife used to kill him. His money was never recovered.

James McBride, Song Yet Sung (2008). A Novel About a Runaway
Slave and a Determined Slave Catcher, Patty Cannon.

This murder proved to be the gang's undoing. It was one thing to traffic in human cargo, torture and kill blacks, but quite another to kill a white man. When the cops raided her home, the proof of the gang's crimes (or at least some of their crimes) was literally staring them in the face. At the time of Patty's capture, 21 blacks were discovered manacled in her house. As the leader of the gang, Patty Cannon was indicted in Georgetown, Delaware, on four counts of murder by a (naturally) all-white grand jury. More than one gang member ratted her out while in prison. Further eyewitness testimony came from several black victims. In particular, from Cyrus James, whom Cannon had "bought" when he was a small child. James grew up in the Cannon household and was apparently a full participant in some of the crimes.

Patty Cannon, however, had one final trick up her sleeve. Days before her trial, long lines of eager observers, stretching around the block, had cued up for seats in the courthouse. On the eve of her big day, Patty, now around 70 years of age, cheated her audience and certain execution by allegedly poisoning herself. She had apparently previously sewn a vial of arsenic into her dress. Others, though, insisted that this was just another magic act, and that she had in fact escaped, leaving behind a lifeless replicant to take her place. The total number of her victims can only be guessed at, but it may well have been over 100.

Former Dover Library Director Bob Wetherall, posing with Patty's skull in 1997,
for Maryland author Hal Roth's book on the case,
The Monster's Handsome Face, Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact.
(Photo courtesy of Hal Roth.)

Decades later, when authorities were expanding the Sussex County Courthouse and Jail, the pauper's field behind the buildings was excavated, with the bodies to be re-interred elsewhere. Patty's remains were re-buried as well -- minus her head. It seems one of the diggers presented his father with her skull as a "gift."

What happened years later sounds like the storyline of a bad joke, but in 1961, a man walked into the Dover, Delaware Public Library, gripping a hatbox and some papers. Patty Cannon's head had resurfaced and was authenticated by the documents. Would the library like a "donation" for their collections? They took it, where it remained for over 50 years. Dover Public Library's Director, Margery Cyr, whose office has been graced by Patty Cannon's skull for some years, says: "Patty Cannon was not a nice person in life, but [in death] she’s been quiet and respectful."

The Monster's Handsome Face, Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact, by Hal Roth (1997). A Non-Fiction Account of Her Crimes.

This past June, Patty Cannon's skull was taken to the Smithsonian for modern scientific testing, as part of a study documenting life in the Chesapeake area, from colonial times into the 19th century. Dr. Douglas Owsley, chief of the Smithsonian's Division of Physical Anthropology, says: "We’re stepping back, tracking our ancestors, and seeing what their bones tell us about their lifestyles....We’re sweeping broadly across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to study what life was like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.... My focus is not really on Patty Cannon, it’s at looking at her as an individual in a specific time."

Rumors have persisted through the years that Patty and her gang had buried as much as $75,000-100,000 in gold coins in troves throughout the area. Treasure hunters from the 1910's to the 1950's have recovered caches of as many as one hundred coins, some placed in glass jars, and buried a few feet from where Cannon's tavern once stood. To this day, adventurers continue to comb the area. Rumor has it that the locale is haunted by Patty Cannon's vengeful spirit, her restless ghost wandering the back roads she knew so well.
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