Books On Books Collection – E.N. Ellis

An Alphabet (1985)

An Alphabet (1985)
E.N. Ellis
Terracotta card slipcase, casebound sewn, quarter terracotta cloth and red patterned paper covered boards with white-paper label stamped in red, colored endpapers, Velin d’Arches paper. Slipcase: H138 x W108 mm; Book: H135 x W107 mm, 32 pages. Edition of 75, of which this is #31. Acquired from David Miles Bookseller, 30 September 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

An Ashmolean exhibition called “Scene through Wood” (10 August–15 November 2020) featured the work of Edwina Ellis among others in a century overview of wood engraving. Here is the exhibition’s description of Ellis and her work

Born in Australia in 1946, Ellis is a pioneering artist responsible for ‘some of the most technically elaborate engravings ever made’. Her work is held in international collections around the world. Her treatments of mundane objects like pieces of paper are virtuoso achievements, so realistic they take on surreal dimensions.

Less concerned with realism or surreality, her wordless alphabet reveals a sly humor: U for an upside down unicorn and X for a Dodo, and animal anatomy drawing attention to letter parts (for example, tails).

With Ellis and her humor, the traditional tension between text and image in artists’ books falls into reveling with entwining letters and even hiding them with their animal associates and striking the balance just right.

Also on display is her appreciation for predecessors: a hint of Johannes Lencker on the title page while squeezing the tools of the trade in between an armadillo and zebra, and a nod toward Aldus Manutius and his dolphin and anchor trademark.

Distinguished abecedarians and typographers have an interesting history with the black and white coat of arms and title piece atop the masthead of The Times of London. In 1953, it was Reynolds Stone; in 1966, Berthold Wolpe; and in 2006, Edwina Ellis.

The last word on this work of book art belongs to the artist:

The blocks and the book are significant to me now on a number of counts. They almost began my wood-engraving career, I worked with a seminal printer and also bonded with Stanley Lawrence over the course of the engraving. The wood-blocks increased in quality over the course of their engraving as my ability and our mutual respect grew. I had no knowledge of letterpress printing, so the initial letters and animals tightly fit each rectangle: this gave Michael Mitchell of the Libanus Press enormous headaches, as he had to carefully measure and pack the blocks differently. He was, meanwhile, teaching me to print. I often still think of the dodo makeready: a revelation. (Correspondence with Books On Books, 22 October 2021)

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Poster artwork; London’s new architecture, by Edwina Ellis, 1996“. London Transport Museum. Accessed 29 October 2021.

Driver, David. 20 November 2006. “After 221 years, the world’s leading newspaper shows off a fresh face“. The Times. Accessed 29 October 2021.

Stone Reynolds. 1974. An Alphabet. London: Warren Editions.

Hall, Alistair. 29 September 2017. “The Wolpe Collection.” We Made This. Accessed 29 October 2021. Wolpe was also a scholar of typography, One of the works with which he was involved is in the Books On Books Collection: Johann David Steingruber’s Architectonisches Alphabeth (1773/1972).

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