An Alphabet of Animals(1990) Christopher Wormell Casebound in cloth, sewn, title label on front cover. 272 x 272 mm. 64 pages. Acquired from MacKellar Art & Books, 14 March 2023. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
An Alphabet of Animals has several distinguishing features. Its art and lettering come from handcut lino block prints. Each picture would require multiple blocks. To produce the images and color, each block would be inked and printed separately by hand.
Another distinguishing feature is how Wormell’s art and lettering recall that of William Nicholson’s The Square Book of Animals (1899), Carton Moore Park’s Alphabet of Animals (1899) and C.B. Falls’ ABC Book (1923).
A century after the heyday of Nicholson, Park and Falls, Wormell found himself in an entirely different tradition of alphabet books and style of art: the world of The Sesame Street Storybook Alphabet (1980), the Little Golden Books (1970s/80s) and the Ladybird alphabet of the 1960s.
Alphabets from Sesame Street, Golden Books and Ladybird.
Wormell’s range of color across the animals is also a distinguishing feature as is the color gradient technique. The alligator’s colors are almost murky, the lobster’s electric, and the xenops’ soft in comparison.
Lino printing a color gradient is tricky. More than one color of ink has to be applied to the same block. The gradients achieved by Wormell are genius. In some of the images, the gradation benefits from the texture of the paper showing through, captured in the color separation by scanner and offset printing of the book and demonstrating Wormell’s touch.
Note how the grain of the paper on which the print was made peeks through.
Another distinction — unintentional and for this particular copy only — is the endpaper treatment. The front endpapers — a doublure, one leaf of the end paper pasted to the board and one leaf free — present vintage images of animals, and the back doublure presents the same of birds. The free leaf is not actually free though.
At the front and back, these wallpaper-like leaves are glued to an original separate plain flyleaf in each case, which is detectable at the edges where one slightly overlaps the other.
The style of the decorated endpapers harks back to works like The Child’s Picture Book of Alphabets, published by Thomas Nelson & Sons in 1880 (see below). While the previous owner may have had good reason for adding these endpapers (and did or received a pretty good job of it), the contrast with Wormell’s book block is jarring.
From A Child’s Picture Book of Alphabets (1880), in the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto Public Library.
The upside is that this copy inadvertently provides the student of alphabet books and illustration with a handy juxtaposition of the style of illustration against which Nicholson, Moore Park and Falls were reacting with Wormell’s distinctive revival of their approach, which in turn set his book apart from the late 20th century’s crowd.
William Nicholson’s An Alphabet appeared in 1898. Eighty years later, with access to the original woodblocks (thanks to William Heinemann Ltd, which subsequently placed them with the Victoria & Albert Museum), Whittington Press and Edward Craig found themselves in a position to reproduce this famous alphabet. Craig, the son of Edward (Ted) Gordon Craig, who learned wood engraving from Nicholson, also had his father’s diaries as well as his own memories on which to draw for the booklet that accompanies the prints in this folio box. It provides a rich and diverse background that adds to their enjoyment. Craig brings to life the context and ties of friendship in which Nicholson’s art came on the scene. He even includes prints from three blocks cut by Joseph Crawhall (he of Old Aunt Elspa’s ABC fame) to show the affinities between Nicholson’s lettering and images and those of Crawhall.
The booklet’s inclusion of 28 thumbnails of the reproduced prints is a helpful quick guide to the portfolio, but this particular edition contains 38 prints. Among them are some unused prints — a Quakeress, an Usher replaced by the Urchin, and alternative versions of the Jockey, Lady, Sportsman and Zoologist. Also included is a photo of the woodblock for the Quaker. Alongside Craig’s description of Nicholson’s two preferred courses of design and drawing, the discards and the photo offer a very real sense of Nicholson at work when placed side by side with the final designs:
After some preliminary scribbling … he would convey what he wanted from that scribble to a piece of very thin paper, or tracing paper, by inserting a black transfer paper between the two layers, then, peering into the maze of lines, he would select just those that he fancied and trace them through. …. His other method … was to draw direct onto the block with a brush heavily loaded with India ink, then, when it was dry, to refine the design by drawing over it with great care, using a softish pencil. The lead pencil shone like silver on the Indian ink and added to the excitement when the next process, that of cutting, revealed the beautiful honey-coloured boxwood below.
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Discarded vs final
Photo of discarded block, final design
Craig’s booklet draws on Marguerite Steen’s 1943 biography as well as his father’s diaries, both sources rich in anecdotes and observations about Nicholson, James Pryde (his colorful partner in their J&W Beggarstaff Brothers venture), moments of time and place and the social circles in which they moved. Steen must have had access to Ted’s diaries or heard the tales directly from him. Here are Steen and Craig on a scene at the Denham “Eight Bells”, a defunct pub where William Nicholson, his wife Mabel and her brother James lived (Jimmy came to visit for two days and stayed two years):
Steen: The floor was littered with scraps of brown paper, black paper, red paper, William and Jimmy argued for hours about spacing–for which Jimmy had a great eye. Oddly enough, he was impatient and clumsy-handed when it came to execution…. With the scissors he was completely outclassed by William–who used a knife on glass, and on whom fell most of the execution of the schemes they planned together. … From all accounts, William did the lion’s share of the Beggarstaff work, so it is amusing to find in a published interview of the period Jimmy taking the lead, “telling the tale,” with only an occasional, rather lordly, reference to his partner. (p. 56)
Craig from Ted’s diary: One visit to Denham found Nicholson on the floor pinning out rolls of brown paper. With a brief ‘Hello Ted’, he carried on working at great speed with a penknife, cutting up pieces of black paper on which were scribbled a few guide lines in chalk and arranging the shapes to resemble a huge figure in a cloak. A face and hands from some buff-coloured paper were being produced by Jimmy, who was draped over a chair in the corner; these were ‘floated’ into position, then pinned. They stood on chairs to look down on their work, then added a few extra shapes in coloured paper here and there. Suddenly a figure like one of the Three Musketeers materialised. They seemed pleased enough, and Jimmy remarked that ‘it would be good for something’. (p. 3)
Several sources identify “A was an Artist” as Nicholson’s self-portrait, but might that three-quarters portrait of the Xylographer also be a self-portrait? Or is it his partner James Pryde in a portrait additional to the one of him in “B for Beggar”? Such is the speculation to which the warm color of Craig’s text and the vibrant reproductions created with Whittington Press would lead anyone exploring this portfolio.
Scolar Press redesigned and re-originated the 1900 edition and brilliantly chose this leporello format, which makes one wish that Nicholson had added the book as artistic medium to his toolkit, which besides woodcuts and wood engraving included lithographs, oils, watercolors, tempera, frescos, painting on glass and photography. Given his poster work for the theater and exposure to the stage (the actor Henry Irving was a family friend and source of free tickets, and actress Ellen Terry was the mother of his friend Ted Craig) and given his facility with paper as a medium, Nicholson could have made pop-up and tunnel books of genius. But portraits, landscapes and still life beckoned as Colin Campbell tracks and explores so well in his two books (see below).
In the Books On Books collection, several works provide enjoyable comparison with Nicholson’s art: Carton Moore Park’s Alphabet of Animals (1899), C.B. Falls’ ABC Book (1923), Christopher Wormell’s An Alphabet of Animals (1990), Enid Marx’s Marco’s Animal Alphabet (2000) and Nick Wonham’s A Charm of Magpies (2018).
The Charm of Magpies (2018) Nick Wonham Casebound, cloth spine and paper over boards with specially printed flyleaves from Roger Grech at his Papercut Bindery. H370 x W260 mm. 27 pages unnumbered. Edition of 160 copies, of which this is #98. Acquired from Incline Press, 1 August 2022. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
A long admiration for magpies has always threatened to crowd the Books On Books Collection beyond this beautiful work from Nick Wonham and Incline Press and the relief sculpture in paper by Calvin Nichols below. But one pair of works will have to be enough for joy.
On the Incline Press website, Graham Moss and his team write:
Collective nouns … A parliament of magpies has to be a favourite, especially if you’ve heard a group of them cackling together in the Springtime. But we prefer the alternative, a charm of magpies, which certainly suits this poem better. It is one version of a folk rhyme which has many local variants, all superstitiously foretelling the future through random occurrence.…
Magpies are often known a thugs in the garden, stealing eggs and chasing off their more delicate rivals. As printers, though, we have a fondness for them because of their “ink on paper” plumage and their latin name pica pica, which recalls the printshop unit of measure.
Left to right: Joseph Crawhall (1884), William Nicholson (1898), C.B. Falls (1930) and Christopher Wormell (1995).
As Moss and team point out on their site, the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes does not include the magpies among the counting rhymes, which is odd with so many versions to be had. Birdspot, formerly British Bird Lovers, favors Nick Wonham’s chosen version. For magpies interested in shiny trivia, the site also provides a link to a BBC television program whose theme song was based on the magpie rhyme. It was “composed and played by the Spencer Davis Group under the alias The Murgatroyd Band, just after Steve Winwood had left to join the supergroup Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech”.
And to note just one touch of Nick Wonham’s subtlety, here is the page before the colophon. In all the other images, the magpies are roosting. This one in flight is also the only one in black and white. A brilliant “The End”.
Postscript: In correspondence, the artist has provided further insight on influences and his handling of color:
A note on the colour – the biggest influence on this was Rigby Graham, whose work Graham Moss introduced me to through the Old Stile Press book Kippers and Sawdust. Graham had just printed my first book, which had black and white linocuts, and was trying to inspire me to try colour. It worked; I was blown away by the majestic woodcuts and aspired to create books in a similar vein. Rigby liked an unusually coloured sky, he also liked to position his illustrations through the book so that the colours of prints on adjacent pages contrasted with each other to create dynamism and visual interest, something I have attempted in my book. Correspondence with Books On Books Collection, 9 September 2022.
Wonham also adopts and owns a compositional feature from Rigby Graham’s Kippers and Sawdust: the juxtaposition of the mechanical and the natural. His ownership is particularly apparent in his setting for the rhyme’s seventh verse.