30 January 2013

The Glass Flowers by R. & L. Blaschka at Harvard's Natural History Museum

Panicum boreale: Panic Grass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka
Photograph by Hillel Burger,
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University. 

Remember, no matter what your eyes may tell you, they are not real. 
They are made of glass. From a taped tour of the Ware Collection

Tucked away in the Natural History Museum at Harvard is a cultural treasure: several thousand exquisite flower specimens, perfectly correct in every detail, blown from glass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The story of how these masterpieces of artistic and scientific observation came to be is as fascinating as the pieces themselves. German glass artists Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939) came from a long line of glassblowers. When asked by an incredulous admirer and patron of their work if they had invented specialized tools or new technologies to produce such miracles of craft, Leopold replied:

"Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia, and he lived to be eighty-three years of age. My father was about as old, and Rudolf hopes my hand will be steady for many years yet. I am now between sixty and seventy and very young; am I not, Rudolf?"(Leopold Blaschka in a letter to Mary Lee Ware, 1889)

Echinocereus engelmannii: cactus family by Leopold and
Rudolf Blaschka. Photo by Hillel Burger,
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.

The following is excerpted from "The Glass Flowers at Harvard" by Richard Evans Schultes and William A. Davis:

"The truth, then, is that no secret process ever went into the manufacture of the models. All the techniques employed were known to glassworkers of the period. The only difference was the combination in one individual of the meticulous skill unmatched patience, accurate observation, and deep love of the subject that the two Blaschkas brought to all of their work. These models have been described as "an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art – certainly a more apt observation would be difficult to imagine."

A Blaschka Iris, with buds and faded blooms.
Photo by Hillel Burger, courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.

"On April 16, 1890, father and son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka signed a ten-year agreement to make plant models exclusively for Harvard University. This relationship with Harvard would ultimately span a half century and culminate in one of the most unique and breathtakingly beautiful collections ever created."

Malus pumila Emperor Alexander Apple (affected by apple scab disease), 1932.
Rudolf Blaschka. Photo by Hillel Burger,
Courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.

"The Glass Flowers collection was commissioned by Harvard Botanical Museum Director George Goodale and financed by Boston residents Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware. The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, as it is officially known, consists of 4,400 models that replicate the tiniest details of plant anatomy with astounding precision."

 Nepenthes Sanguinea: Flytrap,
by Rudolf Blaschka. Photo Hillel Burger, 
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.

These works, so beautifully preserving the ephemeral, have been described as   masterpieces, works of art, scientific marvels, and as physical equivalents of Mozart's compositions. The poet Mark Doty described them in this way:

He’s built a perfection out of hunger,

fused layer upon layer, swirled until

what can’t be tasted, won’t yield,

almost satisfies, an art

mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,

how good, before they disappear.
-Mark Doty, “The Ware Collection of Glass 
Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum,” in 
My Alexandria, 1993 

If you'd care to learn more about these fascinating artists and their works, I've included 2 videos here.  The first, from the Corning Museum of Glass, concerns the Blaschkas' lives and their work: http://youtu.be/rHOx5H5vNx4

The second video is a YouTube tour of the Ware Collection with close views of many of the specimens. Enjoy! http://youtu.be/RZZffuyUIKQ

15 January 2013

A Selection of Charming Paper Knives

A few of the antique tools currently in use on my desks, top to bottom:
a 19th century continental sterling letter opener/bookmark  given to me
by my dear husband last Christmas,
a 19th century coin silver pen knife, engraved "Willie" on one side of the blade and "Mamie" on the other,
 a second coin silver pen knife chased with a rose pattern and beaded edging
and lastly, a shortened  but well-loved Clan Stuart Tartanware page turner.

I love to collect objects that are not only beautiful but useful in daily life as well. Today, I've gathered a collection of paper knives and letter openers for you. In days past, these tools were used to open envelopes and slit the uncut pages of books. While books are generally made with clean, trimmed pages these days (I for one am still happy to bind books in the old way-- I love the deckled effect of pages slit by hand after binding...), a beautiful letter opener or paper knife still has a useful place on an elegant desk. 

An early 20th century  gold-mounted jadeite paper knife, attributed to Faberge.
Because of their lovely fitted boxes, many of Faberge's objets d'art have survived
a century or more in perfect condition. 

A fabulous English sterling and tortoiseshell paper knife from Asprey. This
multi-purpose tool can be used as a page turner, paper knife, letter opener and has a perpetual calendar fitted in the handle--wonderful!

The everyday task of opening envelopes can be swiftly and satisfyingly accomplished by a number of antique desk tools intended for alternative purposes. Page turners were designed to help cultivated newspaper readers avoid ink stained fingers. But with their very long and delicate blades, they often survive in a shortened state, making them perfect for the task of opening envelopes.

A diminutive Victorian silver paper knife with a chain that would have allowed
it to be hung from a chatelaine.

Victorian mother of pearl and tortoiseshell paper knife,.
Image courtesy of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

An early 20th century  McBeth Tartanware pen knife 

Early pen knives were used to trim quills, and are similar in design to more modern multi-purpose folding knives like the one above.  Both make excellent desk companions.

A second Russian paper knife with Faberge and Nicola Schepelew marks.
 This one features a jadeite blade, white guilloché enamelwork, 
and the Russian double-headed eagle coat of arms.
I especially love the beautiful gold swan head at the end.

And now for something completely different:  Charles Dickens' eccentric
paper knife, with an ivory blade and a handle made from his beloved cat's paw.
The blade is engraved: "C. D. In Memory of Bob 1862" the year of Bob's death.
I do hope you'll enjoy hunting for similar tools which are easily found in antiques shops, auction houses and on the internet. William Morris famously said, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." A meticulously crafted paper knife or letter opener is a joy to look at and to use, and is a perfect opportunity to put Morris' sage advice into action. 

06 January 2013

Treasured Books, No. 2: Clifton Fadiman's "Reading I've Liked"

My collection of books by Clifton Fadiman and his daughter, Anne Fadiman live
on my coffee table, ready for perusal the moment the fire is lit. You may notice I have 2 copies
 of "Party of One": recently,I found a copy inscribed by the author, but couldn't bear to
part with my older, well-thumbed and annotated volume...perfectly logical.


“And now we welcome the new year, 
full of things that have never been.” 
R.M. Rilke


Happy New Year, Everyone!

I hope the holidays were wonderful for you all. We had a fantastic holiday season at the bindery and send our thanks to our lovely clientele with hopes that you all will enjoy your pieces for many years to come. After a week of family, friends and time in my favorite reading chair, I'm back with you, invigorated and ready for the adventures of  the new year. 

In these Treasured Books posts, I have the great pleasure of sharing some of my favorite books and authors, all of whom continue to surprise and delight me, and I hope, will do so for you. What better way to begin a new year than with an old friend, an author whose companionship I've enjoyed for many years. I came to know of Clifton Fadiman through the excellent writing of his daughter, the essayist Anne Fadiman. One day, while having a browse in a used book shop, I saw the familiar surname on the spine of a book entitled, "Reading I've Liked: A Personal Selection Drawn from Two Decades of Reading and Reviewing Presented with an Informal Prologue and Various Commentaries," by Clifton Fadiman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941). How could I resist?! 

Clifton Fadiman was a man of extraordinary erudition, remembered by many for his work on the radio and television during  the 40's and 50's, but he considered himself primarily as a teacher, or as a  guide to the wisdom of other people. He  believed that the most rewarding of leisure activities is: "the cheerful, unaffected but conscious training and exercise of the mind" ("Any Number Can Play," 1957) and wrote bountifully for that audience on subjects ranging from quantum physics, to  George Santayana to cheese.

After all these years, it took a Google search to discover that my dear Mr. Fadiman has a star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame... very amusing! If you'd care to see a video of Mr. Fadiman at work,
visit the Encyclopaedia Britannica website (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/200119/Clifton-Fadiman)
, where they have posted many videos of classes on literature and the humanities
he recorded for the Britannica. They are of their time and very charming. 

In "Reading I've Liked," Mr. Fadiman introduces us to examples of writing culled from his work as a book reviewer for the New Yorker, with each piece introduced with a generous and beautifully constructed essay describing it. One of the things I enjoy most about reading his work is that he is absolutely dedicated to excellence and fine craft in writing, and is of a time before post-post-modernism and bricolage that was unafraid of assessing the quality of a work of art. His superbly well-formed opinions are shared sincerely, clearly and convincingly. Although one may find a passage here or there that feels dated or exclusionary by our contemporary standards, the more common experience is one of awe in the startling prescience of his views on contemporary life.

Mr. Fadiman received the 1993 National Book Foundation's 
Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
at The National Book Awards Ceremony.

In the introductory essay to "Reading I've Liked", entitled "My Life is an Open Book: Confessions and Digressions of an Incurable," Mr. Fadiman writes: “It happens that you will find in this book biographies, anecdotes, brief fiction, semilong fiction, excerpts from novels, sketches, essays (both familiar and formal), a book review, humorous pieces (including one complete book of humor), excerpts from a dictionary, a judicial decision, reflections of nature, a long letter, an excerpt from a speech, and a collection of epigrams.” There is one constant among all these pieces, he writes: “I believe everything you will read here, if the product of hands other than my own, is of its kind extremely well written.” 

This is one of those wonderful, classic books that lends itself to rereading, along with so many other of Mr. Fadiman's works. He famously said, "when you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before," and I  enthusiastically agree. On these cold, snowy evenings, it's one of my great pleasures to open any of them up to a random section, and sit by the fire with my old friend. I believe that if you come by any of his works, (not such a difficult task thanks to Amazon and ABE Books), you'll be similarly rewarded. 

Clifton Fadiman, 1904-1999