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. Look under Further Reading for more.
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).
Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595/1995) Johann Theodor de Bry Facsimile edition created by Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel as part of the boxed set Alphabets Buchstaben Calligraphy, published by Ravensburger Buchverlag (1998). H275 x W255 mm, 80 pages. Acquired from Antiquariat Terrahe & Oswald, 14 March 2021. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Johann Theodor de Dry and his sons were copperplate engravers, best known for their Grands and Petits Voyages (1590-1634) of 57 separate parts, containing over 500 different engravings illustrating the explorations of the world beyond the shores of 16th and 17th century Europe. While the De Brys’ place in the history of book art might be traced from their illustrations of Hans Staden’s tales of Brazilian cannibals to Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” [Cannibal Manifesto] (1928) and Moussa Kone’s Nowhere Land (2017), their equally strong, if not better, claim rests on the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595) and the Alphabeta et characteres (1596).
The Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet presents the letters of the alphabet adorned with Judaeo-Christian allegorical figures, vegetation, birds and animals, instruments, implements, weapons and regal emblems. An octave in Latin and one in German provide hints for identifying the allegorical and emblematic references. At the end of the De Brys’ alphabet atlas Alphabeta et characteres, iam inde a creato mundo ad nostra usq. tempora, apud omnes omnino nationes usurpat (1596) depicting dozens of alphabets — the Chaldaic, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Slavonic, Hispanic, Latin and so on — another decorated alphabet and an alphabet formed of human figures make their appearance.
Letters R&S and the human alphabet from Alphabeta et characteres, iam inde a creato mundo ad nostra usq. tempora, apud omnes omnino nationes usurpat (1596). Images: Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel reproduce to scale the letters from the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet and present thumb-nail versions of the alphabets as well as the decorated letters from Alphabeta et characteres. Their facsimile is not the first for these works. J.N. Stoltzenberger printed Alphabeta et characteres in translation for William Fitzer in 1628, and George Waterston & Sons published Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet as The New Artistic Alphabet in 1880 (albeit without the original’s text and verses). By juxtaposing all these originals, Kiermeier-Debre and Vogel provide a concentration of what makes the De Brys partial forerunners in the history of book art: images embracing letters (and letters embracing images).
Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel facsimile (1995) of Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet (1595), pp. 12-13. Photos: Books On Books Collection.