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...:


...as 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."

Thursday, June 04, 2015

 

speaking volumes


Last night I made inroads with Volume IV!  Shall I mention a few things from Volume III before we move on?  Horace Walpole to his inquisitive friend George Montagu, in 1756, from Volume III of the Letters (p.35):

"You bid me give some account of myself; I can in a very few words: I am quite alone; in the morning I view a new pond I am making for gold fish, and stick in a few shrubs or trees, wherever I can find a space, which is very rare: in the evening I scribble a little; all this mixed with reading; that is, I can't say I read much, but I pick up a good deal of reading."

His life as a country gentleman is appealing, no?  How about this, from the same to the same, on May 5, 1761, describing a spring evening in the country (p.399):

"...at Strawberry, where my two passions, lilacs and nightingales, are in full bloom.... Gray and Mason were with me, and we listened to the nightingales till one o'clock in the morning."

This period in his life is so interesting - in his early 40s he's withdrawing from politics while still observing them closely, spending more time in the country, and visiting other country houses, while building his own and furnishing it.  He's taking up correspondences with a few women, and will spend the next several decades writing to them, along with the men he's already been writing to for twenty years (and he pitches his letters to the specific recipients so well, regarding topic, tone, and word choice).  He's straying into Patrick O'Brian territory, too, with talk of naval battles and expeditions, and it's fascinating to read such similar language, yet not from a historical novelist, rather from a contemporary, as Walpole's time begins to overlap with the world O'Brian describes. 

I keep taking notes as I read - to what end I'm not sure - but it's an old habit and I enjoy it, so here we are.  More great words from Walpole, scattered throughout Volumes II and III of his Letters; it's a pleasure to write them out:

countenance
impertinence
insolence
fustian
churl
buffoonery
nostrums
dropsy
bon-mot

laconically
tawdry
higlepigledy
junkettaceous
profligate

The end of Volume III is particularly verbose, as Walpole pulls out all the stops to describe to his far-flung friends the coronation of King George III and the weeks of hoopla surrounding it.  When it's all said and done, however, he says (p.443):

"Well! it was all delightful, but not half so charming as its being over."

Not being a fan of spectacle myself, I empathize - lilacs and nightingales for me too, please.  As the painter Renoir famously remarked:

"Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls."

Painting of course being on my mind, what with my solo show opening tomorrow evening.  Which I know I've already mentioned here twice, but these things do not happen often and thus bear repeating.  The next morning is the village book, plant, and bake sale, so that will be a wonderful thing to wake up to on Saturday.  And the lilacs - a huge old lilac hedge lives just across the street from our house.  It's in full bloom right now and the scent of it fills the breeze.  But no nightingales - they speak only in books in this part of the world.  We do hear hermit thrushes, though - one of my favorite sounds in the world, their song - and many other visiting beauties, at this time of year.  Ryan and I take long walks in the evenings, listening.

Friday, May 29, 2015

 

song of myself?


"After some silence, one might take the opportunity... to revive a little correspondence with popular topics; but I think you are no violent politician, and I am full as little so; I will therefore tell you of what I of course care more, and I am willing to presume you do too; that is, myself."  (Volume III, pp.161-162)

I'll take a cue from Walpole and proffer some news from Planet Sarah.  My painting show opens in a week and I am still allaying wayward anxiety with the soporific of these beloved books.  At the halfway point in Volume III of The Letters of Horace Walpole (my 1906 reprint of the Peter Cunningham edition of the 1850s), I am thinking that I will definitely be reading this set for the foreseeable future.  As if there was ever any doubt!  Nothing else has distracted me since I began and I just cleared away the few lingering hopefuls from the future-reading pile on the bedside table.  I'm going to keep on with the Letters for very simple reasons - they are highly entertaining on many levels (personal, historical, general, specific, literary, social, all of everything!), the prose is lovely, and the cast of characters is fascinating.  They are full of humor and pathos and all states of being in between.  And I care.  What more could I want in my leisure reading?  Not that everything I do isn't leisure reading, but you know what I mean.  So, as summer approaches and my blog posts become necessarily fewer, since I'll be outside painting as much as possible, it's safe to assume that my Walpole-reading will carry on.  Five and a half volumes remain as yet unread.  I find this fact quietly exciting.  Please know that I will continue to write here when time permits.

Before I sign off this evening, though, I will mention how comforting I find the Letters.  I've often written about books as comfort food, and they are all the more so during difficult life transitions.  This is on my mind because tomorrow we attend the memorial service for my cousin.  She died of cancer this winter, at age 34.  I did not know her well, but she was the next cousin, after me and my sisters, in this particular branch of our family tree, and her death remains a shocking inescapable fact.  An epitaph that Walpole wrote contains these lines (p.108):

     "The Grave, great teacher, to a level brings
      Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings."  

That says it all, doesn't it.  Why am I reading about all of these people I never knew, so long ago, their lives and deaths, I ask myself sometimes, when I pause, in the Letters.  I answer myself, I care.  But I can't leave on that note, it's far too sad.  I offer this instead, a little sparkle on the surface of Walpole's great sea of words (p.187):

 "...I have writ enough.... by what I have writ, the world thinks I am not a fool, which was just what I wished them to think..."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

 

town and country


As I transition slowly from Volume II into Volume III, I can't help but think that reading Horace Walpole's Letters is a pastime that could keep me happily occupied for the entire summer.  I don't recall ever attempting to read such a huge series at this time of year - for the last decade my long reading projects have all taken place during the winter months, when being indoors coincides with a need for increased concentration and perseverance.  At that time a sustained reading project feels, in short, worthy.  But I have jumped the fence somehow and find myself in the middle of this one, after an extra long winter spent in the company of ancient authors.  And I must say it's a lovely place to be, like a wide field out in the open.  The experience is certainly helping to alleviate some anxiety about personal events looming on my immediate horizon, including an upcoming solo exhibit of my paintings.  Reading is, after all, my anti-anxiety medicine of choice!  So calming!  Keeps me busy (as does writing) so I don't worry as much!  And besides, it's been fascinating in its own right to see Walpole's transition from town mouse to country mouse, as he settles in at Strawberry Hill, and works on his house, gardens, and prospects.  Of course he goes back and forth between them constantly and his correspondence reflects that too.  I love watching his life unfold, and I love his turns of phrase. More quotes from Volume II (before I set sail with Volume III): 

"You deserve no charity, for you never write but to ask it.  When you are tired of yourself and the country, you think over all London, and consider who will be proper to send you an account of it.  Take notice, I won't be your gazetteer; nor is my time come for being a dowager, a maker of news, a day-labourer in scandal.... The town is empty, nothing in it but flabby mackerel, and wooden gooseberry tarts, and a hazy east wind."  (p.283)

"The town is empty, dusty, and disagreeable; the country is cold and comfortless; consequently I daily run from one to t'other, as if both were so charming that I did not know which to prefer." (p.383)

"...the times produce nothing: there is neither party nor controversy, nor gallantry, nor fashion, nor literature - the whole proceeds like farmers regulating themselves, their business, their views, their diversions, by the almanac.... I, who love to ride in the whirlwind, cannot record the yawns of such an age!  (p.384)

"Do you get my letters? or do I write only for the entertainment of the clerks of the post office?" (p.436)

His friends must have shouted with laughter as they read.  I smile and take notes, which is more my style.  One more letter I'd like to quote from at length describes his attempted capture of a robber, in the middle of the night.  Again thanks to Yale, I will instead point interested parties to the entire letter.  Just so good.  He has great comic timing.  Can you imagine being the recipient of such a letter!  Well, I suppose we all are now, thanks to the publishing arts. 

As I read along, I love to take note of how Walpole sees himself.  He is a gazetteer, an almanac, historian, socialite, watcher; he describes himself to his friends often, usually in a comic mode.  At one point he says:

"The present journal of the world and me stands thus: ..."  (p.363)

One letter begins with the place and date written at the top, during an unusually cold May:

"May 4, as they call it, but the weather and the almanac of my feelings affirm it is December." (p.436)

The almanac of my feelings.  How wonderful.  That phrase reminds me of nothing so much as Frank O'Hara's long poem In Memory of My Feelings (one of my favorite titles of anything, anywhere), which begins:

"My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
 and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
 He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals."

And this in turn reminds me of Horace Walpole.  Who we will be talking about again soon, I feel quite sure.  Meanwhile this country mouse will continue to enjoy reading about his forays into town and back again.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

 

hiding in plain sight


What led me into this Horace Walpole madness, anyway... I found myself wondering this afternoon (nearly finished with Volume II of his Letters).  Oh yeah, it was that charming David Cecil book I read many weeks ago, Two Quiet Lives.  The second Life in the book describes Horace Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray.  My examination of Gray led to my reexamination of Walpole, which may continue indefinitely.  But back to Gray for a moment.  I would have sworn I had nothing else by or about Thomas Gray in this house, unless it was his most (his only?) famous poem, the oft-quoted and -misquoted Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, perhaps contained in some fat English poetry anthology.  But I would have been wrong.  For today I was rifling through some books I haven't looked at in ages, namely a section in my shelves devoted to printers, printing, and fine press books of interest.  Many of these are thin, and once tucked into the shelves, near-invisible.  I pulled out one such, a diminutive hardback, about forty pages long:     


Isn't that a nice paper cover?  The black cloth spine has the gently faded title spelled out in gilt, but inside, the title page is much more readable.  In fact, it's a lovely piece of typography altogether, almost a hymn to legibility:


An Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard by Thomas Gray, printed at the Southworth Press in Portland, Maine, in 1930.  Number 91 of 990 copies printed.  The introduction by famed bookman John T. Winterich takes up half the book, and speaks much of Johnson and Boswell and briefly of Walpole, who loved this poem and first ushered it into print for his friend.  Fred Anthoensen's fine presswork continues inside, with little block illustrations (woodcuts? they don't feel like engravings...) in varied colors throughout:



I see from my bookseller's code inside the back cover that I bought this book in 2006 for six dollars.  And then promptly tucked it into my scant accumulation of admired books by Maine printers and promptly forgot about it.  Well, tonight I'm going to do what this little book is me asking to do - set aside Walpole's Letters for a few moments - the book is so slender that's all the time it will take - and read it.  Of course the other thing this book is asking me:  What else on those bookshelves have you completely forgotten about...?

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