In The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club (p. 481), Christopher de Hamel reports that Belle da Costa Greene " had a miniature portrait of herself painted in 1910 wrapped in apricot silk like an odalisque of the Middle East, explaining it to [Bernard] Berenson as showing 'the Belle of one of my former incarnations — Egyptienne.'" The artist, Laura Coombs Hills, was an exact contemporary of the real Jeanette Smith, which was enough to interest me in her. For her part, Greene was the great librarian of medieval manuscripts for J. Pierpont Morgan, an endlessly fascinating woman. And then I saw the portrait in its frame! Oh, that frame!
Picturing a World
Little, Big arrives!
My copy of Little, Big (to which I subscribed in 2008!) arrived last week; and, oh, yes, it was worth the wait. The interplay of John Crowley's text and Peter Milton's art is just what they hoped: the illustrations are independent of the text and yet they illuminate. In fact, earlier this week, I woke up and saw out my window a Peter Milton landscape. My bedroom window looks up a field to a row of white pine trees. In the gray light of early morning, light snow had fallen and the scene might as well have been one of his etchings. When a book makes you see through its eyes, well, what could be better?
Dress Diary of Mrs. Anne Sykes
For those of us who love textiles, fashion history, and a good treasure story, who can resist The Dress Diary of Mrs. Anne Sykes by Kate Strasdin? Isn't that swatch in the middle positively Klimt? For the story of how Strasdin discovered an album of textile swatches by chance at a market stall, click here.
What can I possibly say except, Happy Valentine's Day!
Image (BL ms Stowe 955, f. 13) via the British Library.
Almost a year ago, on February 28, 2022, Russian forces destroyed the local history museum in the city of Ivankiv northwest of Kyiv. It was a house museum and held many works by Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Prymachenko. Neighbors and staff managed to save at least fourteen of her paintings. By September 2022, an Exhibition of Rescued Paintings by Maria Prymachenko was held in Kyiv. You can read more about her in Flowers for Peace: The Spirited Art of Ukrainian Artist Maria Prymachenko That is Now Becoming a Symbol of Hope. For the darker undertow in her work, see Cannibalism and genocide: the horrific visions of Ukraine's best loved artist. If only flowers, birds, and the sun were army enough!
There are so many ways you can approach this watercolor of Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which appears in a recent BBC article, Femme fatale: The images that reveal male fears). Start with whether it fits in the long history of the mythological figure, Lilith, Adam's first wife. Examine the symbolism of flowers, comb, candles, red bracelet, etc. Ask how it compares to Rossetti's own oil version of the picture. Expand the art-history approach to examine whether it belongs with other 19th C depictions of women at their toilette, such as Lucy-Lee Robbins' Putting Up Her Hair, Mary Cassatt's Denise at Her Dressing Table, or Edgar Degas' Woman at Her Toilette.
Or, as a writer, consider it as the springboard for a story.
Zadie Smith on how to read history
Essay alert: At the beginning of Black History Month in America, I strongly recommend Zadie Smith's review of an updated reissue of Black England by Gretchen Gerzina. I admit I haven't read the book; but the review by itself, with its probe of complexities, is so thoughtful that it can stand alone.
Yesterday, the Authors Guild, of which I am a member and which hosts this website, sent out an update on its meeting with the Association of American Literary Agents concerning the strike by unionized workers at HarperCollins. We can all hope that federal mediation results in a decent settlement. Meanwhile, you can support the union strike fund by buying books at Bookshop.org.