Thursday, September 24, 2015


the learned gentleman?

September 24.  The British Library informed me, via facebook this morning, that today is the birthday of Horace Walpole.  We must mark the occasion somehow - why not with words.  But little praise - he disliked it so, and often took his friends (and enemies) to task for calling him intelligent or learned: 

"Pray, my dear child, don't compliment me any more upon my learning; there is nobody so superficial.  Except a little history, a little poetry, a little painting, and some divinity, I know nothing.  How should I?  I, who have always lived in the big busy world; who lie a-bed all the morning, calling it morning as long as you please; who sup in company; who have played at pharaoh half my life, and now at loo till two or three in the morning; who have always loved pleasure; haunted auctions - in short, who don't know so much astronomy as would carry me to Knightsbridge, nor more physic than a physician, nor in short anything that is called science.  If it were not that I lay up a little provision in summer, like the ant, I should be as ignorant as all the people I live with.  How I have laughed, when some of the Magazines have called me the learned gentleman!  Pray don't be like the Magazines."  (Volume III p.288)

He couldn't completely deny, though, that he was in fact smarter than the average bear, simply because he read books.  Often.  And couldn't help picking up something along the way.  In particular his wide-ranging nimble vocabulary, which continues to delight me as a reader.  Serendipity we have already discussed.  Likewise junkettaceous.  Other words he invented deserve mention (or re-mention, if I mentioned them already) and should, I think, become common parlance. Shall we write these first boldly just because we are able to do so?  Yes. It amplifies their singularity and magnificence:






immachinality  (relative helplessness where technology is concerned)

writative (as opposed to talkative)

dogmanity (as opposed to humanity)

turnippery (a country establishment, where turnips reside)

bookhood (Shall we use this in a sentence...?  "...a gentleman, who has a better opinion of my bookhood than I deserve."  Volume V p.390)

robberaceously (Again?  "...the door rattled and shook still more robberaceously." - it was not a robber, but rather an earthquake - Volume V p.362)

betweenity (One more - I can't resist, it feels so pertinent!  "I did not use to love September, with its betweenity of parched days and cold long evenings, but this has been all lustre and verdancy: I am sorry it is at its end." Volume VI p.489)

Some of his words had me reaching for a dictionary, in confusion:


And others I recognize and simply admire - writing them out, both in my diary and here, is a pleasure:


Torpid - what a great word!  O Horace Walpole, I will miss you, when I no longer visit you regularly on the page.  Which time approacheth, for I am still mired deep in Volume VIII of his Letters.  I don't want to finish, so I am putting off the inevitable, and besides, the summer backlog of to-be-read books grows ever more insistent.  Yes, it's true, I have been reading Other Things.  But those are for some future discussion.  For today, happy birthday, friend of letters - I won't say learned gentleman - thank you for your words, alive forever on the page.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


serendipity in action

Do most people know that Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity?  I think it's common knowledge, but I want to mention two - to me - extraordinary examples of serendipity which have befallen my very own self within the last week.  They both involve books.  The first example, just one book.  The second, many.

Instance the first.  Late last week I was a few hours away from home, on my way to hear a well-known painter talk about her work and work habits.  I left early to take my time driving down, and to stop at an art supply store along the way.  After a prolonged visit to the art supply store, I really needed to find a bathroom (tmi?), so I stopped at a nearby bookshop, which I knew had a good bathroom.  Honestly, that was my only intention.  But.  Once inside, I couldn't help glancing around at the books.  Near the bathroom is a table of sale books - you know, publishers' remainders, at reduced prices.  I looked at a few art books.  Then, on a low shelf, the one nearest to the floor, I saw this:

That was truly all I could see of the cover, since it's a very tall book and the top half was cut off from view by the next shelf up.  I didn't even think before I reached down, just something about the manner of the illustration on the cover caught my attention and I had that tug of curiosity to see who the artist was, and what the book was.  Well.  The rest of the story:

I ask you.  Really.  What are the chances of this happening?  Me wandering into a bookshop and lighting upon this particular title, two minutes later? Horace Walpole's Cat by Christopher Frayling (Thames & Hudson 2009), with illustrations by Richard Bentley, William Blake, and (the cover artist I was curious about) Kathleen Hale.  The book opens with a brief chapter on Samuel Johnson's cat Hodge:

And continues with another short chapter about Walpole's dogs, particularly his beloved Patapan:

We then are treated to the complete text, with its variations and history, of Thomas Gray's famous Ode On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, written after the death of Walpole's cat Selima, who indeed drowned one sad day in 1747, while apparently reaching for certain things beyond her capabilities.  The first facsimile edition within is illustrated by Richard Bentley, from his edition of 1753:

William Blake also illustrated the Gray poem in 1797-98 and his illustrations are reproduced here in color:

As is the massive Chinese porcelain tub in which Walpole's goldfish lived, and his cat drowned.  The tub was sold to the Earl of Derby at the 1842 Strawberry Hill auction.  It is still at Knowsley, in the possession of the present Earl of Derby:

Also within are Kathleen Hale's previously unpublished watercolors (from 1944) of Gray's poem.  Her cover illustration is indicative of her great style - she was famous for a series of children's books about Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, and lived to a great age (her obituary in The Guardian is fascinating).

But I love this book not only for its images, since the text is wonderful, too - Christopher Frayling ties together a lot of loose strands, in a charming style.  Truly a pleasure to read and ponder.  I was dumbfounded - thunderstruck really - there in the bookshop, over the happenstance - the serendipity - that helped me stumble across this altogether lovely title. 

I was taking the above photos of this book just a few minutes ago - some are (appropriately?) a little fish-eyed since the book is quite large and I was a little too close to it.  Our cat Hodge (Christopher Frayling also named a cat Hodge, by the way) was sitting in the sun-patch next to me, and I couldn't resist taking his picture too:

He looks pleased with it.  But really, who knows.  The book cost ten dollars, by the way.  In other Horace Walpole-related news, I've been reading his Letters for months now, and am still at it.  I'm halfway in to Volume VIII and the going is slow, partly because I stop to take brief notes as I'm reading.  This is my system:   

As I read along I jot notes on a long index card, with the page number, approximate location on the page (top, middle, bottom) and the word or phrase I want to copy into my diary/commonplace book.  When I fill a card, both sides, or finish a volume or major section, or simply whenever I feel like it, I use the card to go back in the text and find all those quotes and words, and write them into my diary.  Then I start a new card.  The card also serves as a bookmark.  This system works for me and doesn't feel too disruptive as I read along (much less so than stopping every time I want to take longer notes).  Why I do this, I don't really know.  I realize it's compulsive, but I've read books this way for years and years, and I like making notes from my reading.  At the very least, my diaries show me exactly what I was reading when, and what I thought of it, since I'll often write opinions about the quotations I've just copied over.  Anyway.  The other night Ryan asked me what I was going to do when I finished reading this set (which is imminent).  And I had to think for a minute.  Since all I want to do is read more Horace Walpole.  I could do just that and take even more volumes of his Letters out of the local research library (an hour away), since they have the massive Yale set of his complete correspondence.  Or, I could abandon Walpole altogether and start in on the huge to-be-read piles in the book room, which I've been adding to all summer.

Speaking of which.  We finally come to the second example of serendipity I experienced recently.  Remember I said there were two?  Long story but will try to keep it short(ish).  Here goes.  Over the weekend, we took a drive. We live on the coast, and there are wonderful peninsulas nearby that offer even more coast, so we often take drives, usually with no plan other than a certain sandwich shop or take-out, at suppertime, near a beach perhaps.  It's a good plan-less kind of plan and has served us well on many a Sunday drive.  To wit, on a back road on one of these nearby peninsulas, this past Sunday afternoon, we drove by a table of stuff on the side of the road, with a sign on it saying "FREE" - and since my husband is never one to pass up a good look-see at a table of free stuff, we pulled over.  He walked back while I waited in the car, in a pleasant reverie involving the beautiful apple tree across the street, which was full of ripe apples.  (I can often resist the siren call of free stuff.  I already have a lot of stuff.)  Ryan put a few things in the backseat of the car, and called out a "Thank you!" to the woman coming out of her house.  He also said, as an afterthought almost, "Thanks for the books, we love books!" since it was indeed some books that he'd just put in our car, among other things.  She said, "There are more in the house, if you want to look!"  Well.  I awoke from my reverie, and we did.  We looked and looked, in her living room, library, and storage room.  When I first started looking, and realized she had some really nice books, I said, "What do you want for these books, what should we pay you?  I can't just take all these!!"  She said, "If you want to talk about money, you'll have to leave.  The books are free.  FREE."  Her tone brooked no discussion.  However, after filling a box and several bags, and telling her I used to have a bookshop and that I still sell books on the side (full disclosure), I had to ask her the same question again, and again she said, "We are moving, you are doing me a huge favor by taking all these books, they are FREE, take as many as you want." Me, in response, "....." (while thinking Okay then, and thanking my lucky stars in general and this wonderful woman in particular, and getting down to the serious business at hand).

We spent about two hours with her and her books, I think, though it might have been less - it felt timeless.  We came away with four cartons and twelve grocery bags full of books, and I suppose I could have taken more, but I did look at everything twice (which I usually do at friends-of-the-library sales or thrift shops), so I do think I saw what there was to see.  Most of the books were really good solid secondhand books, in the fields of history, literature, art, and classics.  The kind I would have been happy to pay money for to stock the shelves of my bookshop, when I had a bookshop.  The kind I am now very happy to sort through, making my usual stacks as I go - sell, keep, give, read someday, read very soon.

Serendipity.  We happened to drive by, and stop.  Ryan happened to utter a truth: We love books.  She happened to ask us in.  We filled the car, then drove on - to the sandwich shop, and then the beach, to watch the sunset and marvel at the twists and turns of fortune.

Monday, August 24, 2015


the fog days

The end of summer.  Ho hum.  For the past week - or ten days, I've lost count - the sun has emerged so infrequently that I'm starting to forget what shadows look like.  Because around here it's been fog, fog, and more fog, slowing everything down, leaving droplets of moisture on window screens, blades of grass, the cat, us, and all the leaves just beginning to turn from green to... sigh... all those other colors.  Curtains are damp.  Books are damp!  Everything, including my brain, feels a little rusty.  I need to dig up the potatoes in the garden, but am waiting for a sunny dry day, which feels like an impossibility right now.  In short (The Letters of Horace Walpole Volume VII):

"I feel all sorts of feelings, none comfortable..."  (p.43)

However, I did not mean to write today about Horace Walpole, even though my reading in his voluminous Letters continues.  And, need it be said, I would not still be reading them for all these months if I didn't find them utterly compelling, and downright great reading.  But:

"...I will now be methodical, for you want information, not a rhapsody on my sensations."  (p.197)

Instead of more words from Walpole let's mention a few forthcoming books.  Because, for three of my favorite authors, publication is imminent!  An exciting state of affairs!  One that gets my brain working again and even puts a spring in my step, when I think about fall and those most wonderful of all wonderful things, new books.  Lots of links forthwith.

First out of the gate, or rather off the press, is volume one of the new illustrated memoir from writer and artist Susan Branch.  It's being printed as we speak and will be available in a few weeks.  The Fairy Tale Girl (Spring Street Publishing 2015) is available for pre-order right now at a reduced price on her website, and if you leave a comment on her current blog post you have a chance to win a copy.  Volume two of her memoir will be coming out in the spring.  To say I am looking forward to reading this, culled from her voluminous diaries, is a wild understatement.  As I've said here before, her charm factor is off the charts.  She is so charming that she should be totally insufferable!  But no!  Instead, like everyone else who reads her it seems, I adore her - she is real and funny and altogether delightful.  I wrote about her last memoir A Fine Romance two years ago, here.  A self-taught watercolor painter, cookbook author, and writer, great appreciator of wonders small and large, self-publishing her own story in her own way.  I can't wait to read her diaries and find out more about how she got this way.

Next, my other favorite painter-writer Vivian Swift has recently been blogging again, after a long time of not doing so, and her new book is due out in the early spring.  But I mention it now because it too is available for pre-order, and besides, it looks too good not to.  The title alone really gets me - Gardens of Awe and Folly: A Traveler's Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening (Bloomsbury 2016). I loved her other two books (I wrote about her first book here).  In fact I still browse in them, often.  From the glimpses I've seen on her blog, this new one looks equally wonderful.  She too is a self-taught painter, and her blog is full of really good step-by-step tutorials on how she goes about her business.

Finally, this will surely be a huge bestseller because why in the world wouldn't it be - Elizabeth Gilbert's new book is due out in a few weeks.  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead Books 2015).  I read her facebook page from time to time and love many of the long essays she posts there, along with her little snippets from this book.  I'm really looking forward to reading the whole thing, since I've found that books which bolster creative strength are invaluable when you find yourself, oh, say, facing a blank canvas over and over again.  When I just can't face it (it happens, even though I love it), my favorite thing to do is read about how we humans manage to go on, in art and life, and summon the courage to do the work we are surely meant to do. 

All three of these authors help answer that question, and their books are food for the hungry.  Or, should I say, lighthouses in the fog, to return to the situation at hand...

Monday, August 17, 2015


the dog days

Here we are already - shadows lengthening, crickets singing, summer on the wane.  I am doing end-of-season chores such as having the furnace cleaned, attempting to get on the chimney sweep's fall list, and ordering extra firewood.  A lot of what I wanted to do this summer remains undone, and the mere thought undoes me even a little more.  However, at least I do not have a beloved dog who is mortally ill.  As does Horace Walpole (Letters Volume VI, p.490):

"...I must quit my joys for my sorrows.  My poor Rosette is dying.... I have been out of bed twenty times every night, have had no sleep, and sat up with her till three this morning; but I am only making you laugh at me; I cannot help it - I think of nothing else.  Without weaknesses I should not be I, and I may as well tell them as have them tell themselves."

Dear Rosette.  They went everywhere together, for years.  As he says in an earlier letter, about preparing to bring her to a princess's country house party (p.244):

"...Rosette is fast asleep in your chair, or I am sure she would write a postscript.  I cannot say she is either commanded or invited to be of this royal party; but have me, have my dog."

She even saved his life one night, as chronicled in another letter (p.232):

"You know I always have some favourite, some successor of Patapan.  The present is a tanned black spaniel, called Rosette.  She saved my life last Saturday night, so I am sure you will love her too."

She barked and barked at the roar of a chimney fire, and wouldn't let up until Walpole discovered what the trouble was, summoned aid, and kept the house from burning down (note to self - contact chimney sweep again).

I haven't even gotten yet to the part in the Letters when his French correspondent Madame du Deffand dies, and leaves him (along with her papers) her dog, Tonton.  Oh Patapan, Rosette, Tonton (the last immortalized on a snuffbox, even).  The pathos!  These, added to the descriptions of the deaths of many of Walpole's long-time human friends, bring tears to my eyes as I read.  It's tragic stuff, truly, as Walpole's heart gets broken again and again, it seems.  But love and loss are inseparable, and besides:

"...the evils of life are not good subjects for letters - why afflict one's friends? why make common-place reflections?"  (p.440)

We shall instead smile again as we look forward to the coming weeks, since:

"...September is a quiet month; visits to make or receive are over, and the troublesome go to shoot partridges." (p.393)

While not planning on hunting game birds any time soon myself, I am still in the thick of art exhibits, prime painting weather, and other sundry activities, and hope to return more regularly here soon.  With more words of my own, not Walpole's?  Well, I'm halfway in to Volume VII, with still a few more volumes to go in this set, so I'm sure his name will crop up again.  Until then, please:

"...don't think I write merely to tell you that I have nothing to tell you." (p.252)      

Monday, July 20, 2015


a tale of two titles

I was recently at my book booth, in the antiques mall where I sell my books, and I came across this little gem.  I said to myself, Self, why did you ever put this book out for sale?  Why isn't this book still at home??  I mean, honestly!  So I brought it back home.  And promptly found the book just to the right in the photograph below, already here on a shelf:

But before I get to that, a brief glance inside the charming edition I brought home, of The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening by Horace Walpole, with an introduction by John Dixon Hunt (Ursus Press 1995).  The jacket flap informs us that "Horace Walpole's delightful essay on garden design is perhaps the most famous and influential piece of writing on the English landscape garden."  I don't know about you, but I read this sentence and immediately think, Tell me more, little book...  I haven't read it yet, but glancing through I see that this edition has a great introduction, footnotes, and a very nice frontis portrait of Walpole, to boot:

Now let's return to the mysterious  book hinted at in the first photograph above.  The marbled paste-paper cover (over boards) reminds me of an aerial map of fields, ponds, rural roads, and gardens, appropriately:

The gently aging paper label on the buckram cloth spine has a lovely little printer's flower, too:

And the title page has a hand-colored portrait of Walpole with palm fronds or perhaps laurel leaves...: well as a hand-colored ornament on the first page of Walpole's essay:

Walpole collector (and editor of the Yale edition of Walpole's correspondence) Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis was responsible for this edition, and he includes his own preface and, at the end, a bibliography about this essay.  Its history as a written and published text is most interesting.  Lewis also gives us this darling colophon:

Obviously, in some book purge (to which I am sadly subject to, as if I suffered bouts of a gout-like ailment and needed blood-letting from time to time... ummm... can you tell I've been reading of Walpole's travails with the gout...?), I jettisoned the newer edition in favor of this older one.  But.  I ask you.  They are both quite dear, and are of a size, and seem to sit well on the shelf together, side by side.  So, for keeps, at least for now.

I have other curiosities that Lewis printed, all Walpoliana, and will share them here in the future.  And, yesterday evening I finished Volume V of Walpole's Letters, which continue to interest and delight me (and even bore me - can't have everything!), so we could talk about that as well.  In other news, I will not mention my own gardening pursuits other than to say that the thistles and witch grass are high in the vegetable garden, since I've been neglecting it to go paint while the painting is good.  Speaking of which, on one recent summer day, Ryan and I spent time in Castine visiting (and attempting to paint!) a visiting replica of a French frigate, Lafayette's L'Hermione.  The date of the original frigate (1780) is very close to the date where I am in the Walpole letters - not to mention sneaking into Patrick O'Brian territory - so it was thrilling to see.  I sat on the docks for hours, sketching the complicated rigging in watercolor, and we stayed long into the evening to see her departure and hear the cannon as she saluted.  Absolutely haunting.  Almost ten years ago I wrote about visiting the replica of the H.M.S. Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, and this recent experience was almost as good as that one!  Ryan made me pose, but I have to say I was a willing subject:

Living history!  Not only in books, but all around, right now!  Get out there, if you can!  Reminds me of Alain de Botton, writing in How Proust Can Change Your Life (p.197), "Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside."  (Though I prefer to lightly toss, myself.)  Wishing you a joyous summer, friends - au revoir! 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


hasty trifles

"To send you empty paragraphs when you expect and want news is tantalising, is it not? Pray agree with me, and then you will allow that I have acted very kindly in not writing till I had something to tell you."

From The Letters of Horace Walpole, Volume V (p.102).  I took it with me on my annual June island painting trip, and worried that I wouldn't have enough to read, so sure was I that I would read at least fifty pages a day, and my island trip was ten days long.  I also brought a book of Mary Oliver's poetry, and Charles Hawthorne's little book on painting, the same two I always bring with me whenever I go anywhere for long.  I did read most of those, for the umpteenth time, but forgot, as I am wont to do, that when I am painting intensively (for this is what my island time is for, looking and looking and painting and painting) - especially this time of year when the daylight lasts so long - that I have little energy remaining for anything else.  (Such a long sentence, sorry about that.  And now, too many parentheses to boot.)  Anyway, on-island, I read from Walpole during just two evenings.  One rainy day, however, I did arrange a still-life of books in a bookcase, Volume V among them, and painted him into my painting.  So I don't regret carrying him along, but I truly thought I would have made much more headway by now.  It's well into July and I am only two-thirds of the way in.  And not reading much else, I might add.  I did find some good books at the local Goodwill last weekend, but haven't started them, and don't actually plan to do so until I finish the Walpole set, whenever that might be.  No local library sales of note, either, and sluggish sales at the antiques mall where I sell my books, so not much to report there either.  Book news I have little to none.  Art news, however... my solo painting show from June is over, and around 30 paintings (!!!) now have new homes.  The gallery has re-hung what's left of the show with some of my new work for the month of July.  In short, my cup runneth over.  Needless to say I will soon be buying more art supplies.       

That's all my news, for now.  Scant post, I know, about not much, written too quickly.  Walpole comes to mind yet again, when he calls his own letters "...the most hasty trifles in the world..." (p.83) and then twits his friend Thomas Gray, the "real" genius, for not writing more.  To which Gray replies (courtesy of a footnote p. 84):

"...whenever the humour takes me, I will write, because I like it; and because I like myself better when I do so.  If I do not write much, it is because I cannot."

Isn't that good practical advice, and a hopeful example, for a writer of any kind?  The same certainly goes for me - trifles or otherwise.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


tug o'war

"This is a diminutive letter, but you excuse duodecimos in summer."  From Volume IV of The Letters of Horace Walpole (p.2).  This post will be necessarily short as well, since I am preparing for one of my annual painting trips.  Art supplies yes, but what to pack for books?  The question looms.  More Walpole...?  This Walpole shelf houses the set I am slowly reading my way through.  As you might guess from this picture, I am in the midst of Volume IV:   

And it is absolutely riveting!  I have no time to get into the details, but will say that the letters amble quietly along for a while, then BOOM, all hell breaks loose!  (Okay, okay - Walpole's beloved cousin gets kicked out of the army and out of parliament, and Walpole defends him, and the ensuing letters and Walpole's own footnotes with all the backstory - very meta indeed - kept me reading late into the night - I know this sounds dry as dust, but not so! trust me!)   But, back to packing for my trip - do I want to drag Walpole off to a tiny island where I won't be doing much reading anyway?  And, then, there is this to consider - the seven cartons of books we bought at the village book, plant, and bake sale last weekend includes the following, which have somehow formed my next to-be-read, or at least to-be-browsed pile:

There are some tempting diversions in this stack - new reads and re-reads both!  Thus I am experiencing an internal struggle - a literary tug o'war - about whether or not to allow any of these books to derail me from the Walpole set before I'm even at the halfway point.  A slippery slope, to mix metaphors.  I'll confess that I've already read one book from the booksale - this shabby charmer:

Round About Chatsworth by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Frances Lincoln 2005), aka Deborah Mitford.  Such a pleasing little picture book, illustrating long walks from the main house to each of the points of the compass, in all seasons, replete with quirky landmarks, outlying cottages and farm buildings, and generally gorgeous English countryside.  The Dowager Duchess has opinions about historic preservation and bureaucracy and doesn't hesitate to share them in her to-the-point text.  Not that she's acerbic, exactly, I mean, look at her, there on the back cover: 

But she does have decided opinions, based on hard-won experience.  Isn't she dear, in the bracken?  I remind myself that reading her book was not, in fact, straying far from Walpole at all, since he himself visits Chatsworth in Volume III, and gossips about the Duke of Devonshire and many other Cavendishes all throughout his letters.  One of his female relatives also married a Cavendish, come to think of it.

Well, I remain undecided, although I'm leaning toward packing Volume V and my diary and calling it good.  The other books will wait for me, I hope.  As I continue to get ready for my trip, I'll close with a bit more from Walpole (Volume IV, p.102):

"I always find it worth my while to make journies, for the joy I have in getting home again."

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