Books On Books Collection – Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet

Il était une fois un alphabet (1951/2009)

Il était une fois un alphabet (1951/2009)
Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet
Casebound, doublures, sewn block, clear plastic envelope glued to inside back cover holding game cards. H216 x W270 mm. 40 pages. Acquired from Structure Verses Agency Books, 22 January 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the publisher.

Il était une fois presents the mutual discovery of the medieval/Renaissance country of Vowels and the isle of Consonants and their union over a banquet, evening gala and ball to form the alphabet. According to the reissuing publisher Éditions Chandeigne, Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet conceived of “Once upon a time there was an alphabet” in 1939. Its first self-published appearance as a spiral bound book of lithographs was in 1951. Not satisfied with this artistic means of conveying the letters to their readers, Desnoyer and Marquet called on their First World War experience of creating and sending games to the troops and added a board game or rather games for young and old at the back of Il était une fois.

The 1951 edition.

The 2009 edition.

In its reissue of the work, Éditions Chandeigne provides this biographical information about Desnoyer and Marquet and the insightful comment from a friend of Desnoyer:

L’amitié et le monde de l’art unissaient Marcelle Marquet (Boufarik 1892 – Paris 1984), écrivain et conteuse hors pair, et Souza Desnoyer (Georgette Anne Hanouche, dite Souza, Kiev 1901 – Perpignan 1988), illustratrice et miniaturiste, épouses res­pectives des peintres Albert Marquet et François Desnoyer. Comme l’affirme son amie Rose Fortassier, Souza Desnoyer semble « avoir été en quelque sorte programmée pour illustrer un alphabet. Cela à cause de sa vie et des voyages qui la firent ­polyglotte. De famille maternelle française, mais née à Kiev, berceau de la Russie, elle apprit à lire et écrire en caractères cyrilliques. Transplantée à l’âge de six ans en Bohême, elle y découvrit l’alphabet occidental à l’école primaire. Mais il est probable qu’elle eut aussi l’occasion de jeter les yeux sur les caractères gothiques allemands puisque la Bohême était encore autrichienne. Plus tard, quand elle fut installée en France à la suite de son mariage avec le peintre François Desnoyer, elle retrouva ses chers alphabets au cours de ses fréquents voyages en Angleterre, pays dont on sait qu’il a beaucoup fait pour la littérature destinée aux enfants ».

Friendship and the world of art united Marcelle Marquet (Boufarik 1892 – Paris 1984), writer and storyteller, and Souza Desnoyer (Georgette Anne Hanouche, known as Souza, Kiev 1901 – Perpignan 1988), illustrator and miniaturist, wives of painters Albert Marquet and François Desnoyer respectively. As her friend Rose Fortassier says, Souza Desnoyer seems ‘to have been somehow programmed to illustrate an alphabet. This is because of her life and travels that make her polyglot. Of French mother tongue, but born in Kiev, the cradle of Russia, she learned to read and write in Cyrillic characters. At the age of six, she moved to Bohemia where she discovered the Western alphabet in elementary school. But it is likely that she also had the opportunity to see the German Gothic script since Bohemia was still Austrian. Later, when she was settled in France following her marriage to the painter François Desnoyer, she found her beloved alphabets during her frequent trips to England, a country that is known to have done much for children’s literature.‘” (Translation by DeepL).

Other adventures of letters “in character” can be found in Michael Chesworth’s Alphaboat (2006), Jon Agee’s Z Goes Home (2006), Althea Kontis & Bob Kolar’s AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First (2012) and Sean Lamb & Mike Perry’s Z Goes First (2018). The tradition of anthropomorphizing the letters of the alphabet goes back much further and across more than the French and English languages, but how fitting that Desnoyer’s illustrations came so close to the period of this example:


(Hebrew Bible with David Kimhi’s Sefer Mikhlol) MS. Kennicott 1 (1476). 447r. Oxford, Bodleian Library.
Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Further Reading

Marcelle Marquet & Souza Desnoyer“. N.D. Librairie Portugaise & Brésilienne, 19/21 rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques 75005 Paris. Accessed 30 January 2022.

Desnoyer, Souza. 1977. Desnoyer : Sa Vie Son Oeuvre Ses Amis Ses Voyages Racontés Par Lui-Même Montfermeil: Ed. Recherche et Expression Jack Renaud.

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