Not An Illustration: Livres d’artiste in the Special Collections of St. John’s College, Oxford

“Experience of our age in terms of painting—not an illustration of—(but the equivalent.)” – Jackson Pollock


This is an exhibition of a selection of the college’s livres d’artiste and some other rare books which were produced in the early 1930s, in collaboration with Leonard Lye, a modernist film-maker and sculptor.

In the glossary of French Livres d’artiste in Oxford University Collections, Eunice Martin defines the livre d’artiste as “a book illustrated with original prints in which the text, illustrations, typography (or calligraphy), paper, cover and other features are designed to produce a total work of art”. The criterion for our selection is that the books are illustrated with non-figurative pictures.

The illustrations are not confined to the texts. Seen on many of the pages, they exemplify the decorative effect of the books. Each one is a part of a book, bearing a theoretical relation to a whole. This is the sense in which it is abstract: the word ‘abstract’ is a translation of the ancient Greek word, ‘trachere’, which means ‘drawn-off from’. Many of the prints remain characteristic when they are taken out of the books; all demand our perception of the complete books, which are historically equivalent to—not illustrations of—the artists’ experiences.




© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Camille Bryen

Jules Laforgue. L’imitation de Notre Dame la lune.

Paris: Jean-Pierre Ollivier, 1974.

Laforgue dedicated his collection of poems to Gustave Kahn, the French Symbolist poet and critic. The title, which translates as ‘The Imitation of Our Lady of the Moon’, refers to Salammbô, the Carthaginian priestess whose history Gustave Flaubert used as a source for a novel.

The first of six coloured engravings is printed on the left-hand page, substituting for a preface to the text. Bryen has engraved its lines at different levels of refinement, and designated a particular colour for every level. This encourages us to perceive the relationships which the colours bear to each other. On the right-hand page, both the title and the names of the author and illustrator are printed in capital letters larger than the rest, elevating the two creative contributors to the same status.



By the permission of the artist

Akira Abé

 Robert Marteau. Méchanique celeste.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 1999.

The poem is a response to an astronomical work for which its author, Pierre-Simon Laplace, rejected empirical methods of research, late in the 18th century. Three lines are printed both in the original French and in the translation into Japanese. One of eleven engravings is also printed on the right-hand page, corresponding with the poem at a particular stage in its progression. Abé engraved very fine straight lines and circles into a square copper plate. He used this relatively simple technique, which is commonly referred to as ‘dry-point’, to suggest an intricate geometrical structure. Exposed areas of the white paper contrast against the darkest passages of print, giving depth to the image.




By the permission of the artist

Akira Abé

Robert Marteau. Jeu d’enfant.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 1999.

The title of the poem appears to refer to Jeux d’enfants, the set of twelve miniatures composed for piano duet by Georges Bizet, in 1871. The text and illustrations are miniatures (and ‘children’s games’) made in other mediums, responding to Bizet’s piece of music.

Four lines of the poem are printed both in the original French and in the translation into Japanese. One of seven engravings is also printed on the right-hand page, corresponding with the poem at a stage in its progression. Abé engraved six copper plates, making the printed image continue between the rectangular ‘windows’. The circular lines either stand alone or form very complex lattices; the serpentine lines counterpoint them, forming amorphous shapes. Tiny rows of straight lines produce shadow, contrasting against exposed areas of the white paper. The text does not necessarily condition the drama of the image.



By the permission of the artist

Clemens-Tobias Lange 

‘Shen Jiji’.

Hamburg: CTL Press, 1992.

Lange had found the story in a 1983 edition of Tang Song chuan qi xuan, a volume of selected stories written in the era of the Tang Dynasty in China and compiled by Shen Jiji. He digitally processed the original text, and printed it in red ink. He also translated it into the German text that he has hand-set for this edition. One of twenty-four relief photopolymer prints covers the right-hand page, its image continuing into the next page. The expressive marks suggest an energetic execution. They integrate into a visually cohesive whole.




By the permission of the artist

Clemens-Tobias Lange 

Italo Calvino, Die unsichtbaren Städte.

Hamburg: CTL, 1990.

The novel, English translations of which are titled ‘Invisible Cities’, collects Marco Polo’s descriptions of imaginary cities, Calvino having reinvented the Venetian traveller (and author of Book of the Marvels of the World) as a literary character. A fictional representation of Kublai Khan, a contemporary of Polo who ruled the Mongol Empire and founded the Yuan Dynasty in 13th century China, listens and engages with the traveller in conversations which make up some of the chapters.

Lange printed his illustrations using a technique of mixed colour-relief which involved lino-cutting. Each print corresponds with a different Polo-narrated chapter. Here, the left-hand page carries a print consisting of layers of complimentary colours. Our reading of those layers is arrested in their ambiguity: we can certainly associate them neither with natural forms nor with man-made ones. The image only suggests generic binary oppositions such as those between the light and the dark, between things inside and things outside, and between the superficial and the deep. It is even impossible to refer it to architecture with certainty, since it does not separate a depiction of an architectural structure from a visual representation of the ground.



By the permission of the artist

Geoffrey MacEwan 

Gerard Manley-Hopkins, Ecstasies.

Sóller, Majorca: Sinclair’s Press, 2010.

This book contains eight hand-written quotations from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, a long poem which Hopkins composed in the 1870s – although it was not published until 1918. The poem depicts a shipwreck which killed 78 people, among whom were five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany under the Prussian state’s anti-Catholic Falk laws. Hopkins dedicated it to their memory.

The right-hand page has been turned over, showing two hand-written lines from the first stanza. An etching is printed in umber ink on the right-hand page, the density of the ink varying to give effects ranging between transparency and opacity. MacEwan has bitten the plate with lines which range across a clear spectrum of refinement, leaving it to us to trace his process either forwards or backwards.


McEwan2 McEwan2a

By the permission of the artist

Geoffrey MacEwan 

Guido Cavalcanti, Sonetti.

Edinburgh: The Artist, 1991.

Cavalcanti was a poet and troubadour whose writing made a central contribution to Dolce stil novo, a radical poetic movement of the Tuscan commune in 13th century Florence. The book contains a selection of sonnets which Cavalcanti wrote at an early stage in his career.

MacEwan has printed both the poems and the illustrations from wooden blocks, onto hand-made paper. Traces of red ink surround the text on the left-hand page, recording the mutual contact of the materials. The block left the jagged white lines where it had been slashed by MacEwan. The lines collectively suggest a centrifugal movement. MacEwan carefully orchestrated their structure, organising the spaces between the lines as well as the angles at which the lines tilt – the thickness of the lines and the degree either of their curvature or of their straightness.


Lye2              Lye1

By the permission of The Len Lye Foundation

Leonard Lye 

Robert Graves, To Whom Else?

Deyá, Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1931.

Leonard Lye

Robert Graves, Ten Poems More.

Paris: Hours Press, 1930.

Exhibited above is a copy of the second of two volumes of his poetry which Graves published at Seizin, the press which he and Laura Riding had founded in London in 1927. Graves had published an autobiography, Good-bye to All That in 1929, and he would go on to publish I, Claudius in 1934. He worked with Riding between these two solo publications, co-founding and co-editing Epilogue, a literary journal, and co-writing two academic books which became important points of reference for writers and critics involved in New Criticism. Riding was strongly influencing Graves’s poetry, which was becoming both drier and terser than it had been before his association with her.

Lye, some of whose writings Graves and Riding published at Seizin, produced images both for the covers of their books and for those of his own. He screen-printed a patterned shape, in blue and dark grey ink, onto a silver coloured ground, creating the covers for the edition of To Whom Else? 

Above and on the left is a copy of Ten Poems More – the print of a photograph of a stony ground with a tangled net of wire mesh covering its front and back.


Lye3              Lye4

By the permission of The Leonard Lye Foundation

Leonard Lye

Laura Riding, Twenty Poems Less.

Paris: Hours Press, 1930.

Leonard Lye

Laura Riding, Though Gently.

Deya, Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1930.

Riding collected poems for these volumes at an early point in the period she spent in Deiá, Majorca, where she had moved into a house with Robert Graves. She had become prominent before her association with Graves, being published and praised in The Fugitive, a Southern American literary magazine. She was invited to join a group of regular contributors who became known as the Fugitives. Some of these poets were integral to the foundation of New Criticism, a critical movement which made new claims for the value of literary form in poetry; in general terms, they liked the singularly formal rigour of her work.

Lye visited Riding and Graves in Deiá, and produced various covers for their books, some of which were printed at their press (Seizin). The book above and to the left is covered with a print of a photograph of a constructed relief, and wrapped in brown leather over the spine. Above and to the right is a copy of Though Gently, a sepia reproduction of one of Lye’s drawings covering its front and back.



© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

S. W. Hayter

Paul Eluard, Poèmes d’amour = Love poems.

Bath: 107 Workshop, 1984.

Eluard became friends with Hayter early in the 1920s, in Paris, where Literature, Breton’s journal, was publishing his work alongside that of others in the Surrealist movement.

Eluard published Poèmes d’amour in 1929. He had spent the past winter recovering from his second bout of tuberculosis, and had joined the Communist Party with Andre Breton’s circle in the year before. Parisian critics had very positively received Capitale de la Révolution, his previous collection of poems. This was after the failure of his first marriage and his subsequent disappearance. Poèmes d’amour confirmed his poetic maturity.

This is the last of three colour lithographs. Hayter carefully managed the interaction of the lines, making their colour either ‘stutter’, where he denied their overlapping, or ‘flow’, where he allowed it. This has structured the colour-relationships, determining the way in which the image opens for light in the movement of the lines.



© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

S. W. Hayter

Brian Coffey, Death of Hektor.

Guildford, Surrey: Circle Press, 1979.

This is a copy of the first edition of Death of Hektor, a long poem on the subject of wartime suffering. The poem is an interpretation of the myth of Troy. Coffey was an Irish modernist who worked as a poet and publisher in Paris and England. He was committed to Catholicism; he wrote a doctoral thesis on the idea of order in the writing of Thomas Aquinas, and taught at the Jesuit Saint Louis University in Missouri in the 1940s. Much of his poetry had been published in the previous decade, when he was studying Physical Chemistry in Paris – and became friends with Hayter. Having returned to Europe after the war, he began again to write and translate poems. Death of Hektor is one of the most ambitious poems he wrote in this period.

Several lines are printed on the left-hand page, having been hand-set in Garamond. One of six black and white engraved images lies on the left-hand page, illustrating the chapter headed, ‘The Fall of Troy’. The lines are tonally flat, yet compelling; the image demands both that we trace their movement, and that we pay attention to the spaces they open to us. It proposes spatial possibilities for the interpretation of the text, but does not conclude our search for meaning.



By the permission of the artist

Hector Saunier

Robert Marteau, Aux buveurs de rosée.

Renouval: IAPRESS, 2003.

Some lines from the poem are printed on the left-hand page. Saunier printed the multi-coloured ‘base’ of the illustration onto wet paper – in the manner of the technique commonly referred to as soft-ground etching. His method of intercutting and blurring the areas of colour gave the image a strong visual rhythm. The etched lines both form ‘nets’, barricading the brighter ground, and open surrounding spaces. The shape of their structure balances with that of the multi-coloured pattern.



By the permission of the artist

Hector Saunier 

Robert Marteau, Entre les nuages.

Paris: Atelier Contrepoint, 2000.

Robert Marteau died in 2011. He began his literary career at the age of 37, publishing Royaumes in 1962. He moved to Montreal in 1972, and lived there for twelve years – taking Canadian citizenship. He lived in Paris for the rest of his life. There he published prolifically, producing (at least) a volume-a-year. He won major prizes for his poetry and one for one of his novels in the 2000s.

This opening is one of only seven in the book, and formatted exactly as the others are. The poems are printed in variously coloured inks – here Saunier has used a cadmium red ink. He screen-printed the ground of the illustrative image, giving a range of definition to the shapes which divide the space. He subsequently printed in orange from lines which he had engraved into a copper plate. The orange lines either form spaces for their colour, by hatching, or curve, marking round spaces in the blue-white ground.

2 thoughts on “Not An Illustration: Livres d’artiste in the Special Collections of St. John’s College, Oxford

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: