A portable print room

A while back at a Bethune’s book auction in Auckland I bid on and got an 18th century scrapbook. I was the only bidder for what would have appeared a slightly tatty one-off and the price was correspondingly low. It was a large (470 x 580mm) leather covered album in which someone in the late 18th century had carefully cut out all sorts of images and made up a composite view of the world.

This was a favourite thing for women, in particular, to do: that is, leisured women, those who weren’t lighting fires, washing, cleaning and doing all the work the leisured classes required to keep up maximum levels of decorative idleness (it’s an art of purdah, I guess). So on the long wet and cold winter afternoons English women who needed a break from a feverish attack of embroidery would cut out things and paste them into books – and also onto walls.

This was the time of the print room – when carefully cut out steel engravings check were pasted onto walls. Some of these rooms still survive, odd leftovers from a different time.

Having bought the album it sat closed for over a year. Probably it was awaiting its proper surroundings. Then one night recently, Douglas and I had a fire in the library and I got out a magnifying glass and spent a very enjoyable evening scrutinising the engravings in detail.

In a way it was like being taken inside the head of someone for a voyage into a different time and space. The most accurate dating for the album is after 1789. There is a whole page devoted to ‘Hair styles of 1789’ – all elaborate coiffures.

This places the book during that momentous period of the French Revolution. In fact I found a picture, hand tinted, which is of the storming of the Bastille (more accurately it’s demolition by the mob.)

What I love about scrapbooks are the accidental placements. Right above the busy action of a mob in full flight are two little pictures of elegant racehorses streaming along. To the person cutting out the pictures, both are of equal interest or curiosity: both are facets of 18th century human nature.

Discovery was another motif. There was a picture of Capt Cook (alongside other notable King Edward the Confessor) . There is even a picture of a war canoe in New Zealand based on Sydney Parkinson’s etchings, I think.

I also noted that among the ‘Hair styles of 1789’ was a picture of a tattoed woman or man. I couldn’t work out where the person was meant to come from – the Pacific Islands maybe? There was also a picture of black boy gesturing emphatically alongside Justice Denning.

So the book, which seems to depict a static fixed world, in fact, is all about change.

I could understand why these engravings were so sensational. They have a lovely graphic quality, very intense and precise. Shadows are delivered by extra lines. The graphic quality is both stilted and oddly moving. For example the portraits actually did give quite an individual sense of a face.

I spent several hours looking at the pictures in detail. (A magnifying glass has the effect of changing the still picture into a kind of movie by varying the depth and what area of the engraving you are actually scrutinising … so it rushes into close-up).

In time these engravings would have gone completely out of fashion, surpassed by the changes in technology. I guess this is what makes Print Rooms and this album so touching: it is like a slice of time frozen perfectly and delivered into the present.

I have left the album open on a table in the library. Of course accidents happen … the curious cat-kitten landed on it pretty much immediately and insisted she have a kind of bathing beauty snap taken of her. Soon I’ll close the album and then it will be shut away like a magic box till the next time someone looks at it in detail.


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