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Photo: Swem Library
Art on page edges from
The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. See 22 other examples at Atlas Obscura.

Have you ever noticed paintings along the page edges of old books? According to a 2016 Atlas Obscura article by Eric Grundhauser, they’re called “fore-page paintings.”

He writes, “While you don’t see them very often these days, fore-edge paintings were once some of the loveliest book illustrations around. … A fore-edge painting refers to an image painted or drawn on the closed leaves of a book. …

“Some ambitious, ‘disappearing’ fore-edge paintings were painted on the inside edges of the pages, so that the hidden scenes could only be seen when the page block was fanned in a certain direction. …

“These secret illustrations could be doubled, with an illustration on either side of the pages, revealing themselves depending on the slant of the page block (known as the ‘two-way double’). Some were painted so that if the book was laid open in the center, naturally splaying the pages to either side, two different illustrations could be seen on either side (known as a ‘split double’). …

“ ‘Sometimes the fore-edge paintings corresponded to the subject of the book, and sometimes not,’ says Jay Gaidmore, Director of Special Collections at the Earl Gregg Swem Library. The library holds the 700-strong Ralph H. Wark Collection, the largest collection of fore-edge painted books in America. …

“ ‘Most of the books are 19th century English fore-edges, but there are a few American scenes.’

“Fore-edge paintings can be found on books dating back to the 11th century, with early examples being decorated with symbolism and heraldry. …

“According to the Boston Public Library’s website for their 250+ collection of fore-edge books, for the most part the paintings were made using watercolors, and went unsigned, often being commissioned by a book-binding firm. …

“The technique has even been printed onto some modern books like Chip Kidd’s 2001 novel, The Cheese Monkeys, which was printed with a two-way double, disappearing fore-edge message. If the pages are shifted in one direction, the phrase ‘GOOD IS DEAD,’ appears, while if they are shifted in the opposite direction, the message, ‘DO YOU SEE?’ can be read.”

Tip of the hat to Fort Point artist Karen McFeaters, who retweeted this lead from @michikokakutani. More here, where you can see 22 additional examples.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Two Allegory of Justice figures in the Vatican, once attributed to Raphael’s followers, were identified in 2017 as being by the master himself.

This Artsy report on 2017 art discoveries was pretty cool. Curiously, I had already written about one of the finds — here. It was the Rodin sculpture discovered in a New Jersey town hall.

Abigail Cain writes, “Art history is, by definition, primarily a thing of the past — but each year, some small portion of it is rewritten by those in the present.

“In 2017, we gained new insight on the early years of Leonardo da Vinci and the final ones of Andy Warhol; amateur archaeologists were rewarded with major finds; and several masterpieces were discovered, simply hiding in plain sight. From newly mapped Venezuelan petroglyphs to a long-lost Magritte, these are 10 of the most notable art-historical discoveries of the year.”

I especially loved that volunteers made the find that occurred in England. “A team of amateur archaeologists,” writes Cain, “dug up one of the most significant Roman mosaics ever discovered in Britain.

“The discovery was made in a field outside of Boxford, in southern England, by a group of local volunteers supervised by professional archaeologists. Although the project began in 2011, it wasn’t until August of this year — during the final two weeks of the scheduled dig — that organizers realized they’d found something extraordinary.

“As it turned out, they’d uncovered a remarkably well-preserved mosaic, built as part of a Roman villa that dates to roughly 380 A.D. Not only is it a rare find for the country — experts have labeled it the most exciting of its kind unearthed in 50 years — the subject and style of the artwork is highly unusual for the area. The work illustrates the story of Bellerophon, a Greek mythological hero tasked with killing the Chimera.”

Check out Artsy, here, to read about: the discovery that two figures in the Vatican were painted by Raphael and not his assistants; two ancient tombs in Egypt; the likely identity of Leonardo’s mother; a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens found hanging in a historic Glasgow house; a miniscule carving recovered from a Bronze Age tomb with “detailed handiwork centuries ahead of its time”; the last piece of a lost René Magritte painting found in Belgium; and drone technology that helped researchers map “massive, 2,000-year-old petroglyphs in Venezuela for the first time.”

Doesn’t it make you want to go out and discover some long-lost treasure?

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Photo: British Museum
One of the walrus-ivory pieces among the British Museum’s 12th century Lewis Chessmen is a castle that records the metaphorbíta í skjaldarrendur” (“biting its shield-end,” or fighting on in the face of great odds), a phrase still common in today’s Iceland.

Iceland is such an interesting country. I have enjoyed reading about how everyone gives books at Christmas and how volunteers embrace danger to rescue reckless tourists. Now the Economist explains that although almost no one else speaks it, Icelanders love their language.

“It is hardly surprising that Icelanders have names for the many different fish that abound in their surrounding waters — the various types of cod, herring and so on which they have been catching for centuries.

“It is rather more surprising that they have not just one word for the coelacanth, but three. …

“But Icelanders are keen namers of things — and would never dream of simply adopting a transliterated version of someone else’s word. So they call the coelacanth skúfur, which means ‘tassel.’ Or skúfuggi: tassel-fin. Or sometimes forniskúfur: ‘ancient tassel.’ [You can hear the spoken pronunciation at the Economist.]

“Icelanders are fiercely proud of their tongue and stay actively involved in its maintenance. On Icelandic Language Day they celebrate those among the population of 340,000 who have done the most for it. They love the links it gives them to their past.

“Ordinary Icelanders revel in their ability to use phrases from the sagas — written around eight centuries ago — in daily life. The commentator who says that a football team is bíta í skjaldarrendur (‘biting its shield-end’) as it fights on in the face of great odds, is behaving quite normally in borrowing an image from ancient tales of Viking derring-do. ….

“The result is something close to unique — a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one. …

“From early on [Icelanders] were particularly keen on using it to write things down; much of what is known about Viking culture comes from Icelandic texts. In the 13th century Snorri Sturluson produced the Prose Edda, one of the earliest and most important accounts of the antics of Thor, Frigg, Loki and their kith and kin. …

“Some words do look similar to English ones: bók, epli and brauð are ‘book,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bread.’ …

“Some of these similarities, though, can mislead. An English-speaker who knows that dóm is cognate to the English word ‘doom’ may find the Reykjavik building marked dómsmálaráðuneytid rather menacing. But it is just the ministry of justice: ‘doom’ in English was once mere judgment; only later did it take on first the meaning of condemnation, then ruin.

“It is not clear in quite what way J.R.R. Tolkien meant the word when he named the climactic locale in The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom. But as a philologist interested in Norse and other ancient tongues, and keen on the archaic, he certainly knew his Icelandic.

“The name of the wizard Gandalf is taken from the Eddas. The Tolkiens’ Icelandic nanny, Adda, not only took care of the children; part of her role was to help him practice Icelandic. Mrs Tolkien was not pleased by the attention.”

Wow, that’s interesting because, as we learned in this recent post, Tolkien was orphaned at the age of 12. His early years with that nanny must have made a big impression on him.

Find other curious facts about the Icelandic language at the Economist, here, and listen to more of the pronunciations.

Photo: Gavin Ashworth
Klewicke, “Original Design Quilt” (Corning, New York, 1907), pieced silk, faille, taffeta, and satin, digitized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

Nowadays, it’s not enough for museums to exhibit art that you can go see or read about in a book: they want to be able to share their treasures online. That’s why the American Folk Art Museum in New York City is digitizing the New York Quilt Project, which features more than 6,000 quilts and their histories.

Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, “From a 19th-century block pattern quilt made from a woman’s wedding dress, to a commemorative quilt celebrating the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, the New York Quilt Project contains an invaluable record of the state’s folk art history. …

“Now AFAM [the American Folk Art Museum] is digitizing these materials to make them more accessible. …

“The vast majority of these quilts are not at the New York City museum, but are heirlooms in private collections, whether an attic in the Catskills or a quilt trunk in Brooklyn. … AFAM has so far put about 1,500 quilts online, and expects to finish the digitization in 2019. AFAM also has related oral history recordings that they’re working to digitize.

“Quilt projects statewide were really popular in the ’80s, and people started collecting their histories,” [Mimi Lester, an AFAM archivist and project manager for the digitization] explained.

“The Kentucky Quilt Project, founded in 1981, was the first of these, inspiring a resurgence of interest in the United States. Frequently these grassroots initiatives revolved around ‘quilt days,’ at which people could have their family quilts documented. …

“People would bring their quilts to YMCAs or churches or museums, and we would have registrars there who would help the individuals fill out the forms and take photographs,” Lester said. …

“Details were recorded like family background, religion, where a quiltmaker learned the craft, why they made the quilt, and where they obtained textiles, and a small tab was sewn into the back of each quilt for identification. These stories often chronicle immigration.”

Click here for photos of some lovely quilts — and lovely quilters.

Hat tip: radio show Studio 360 on twitter, @studio360show.

The Turkey Whisperer

Photo: Andrew Jackson for the Guardian
Elin William says, “From the moment I started strumming, the turkeys crowded ’round.”

A few months ago, I told my younger grandson that I had read a story about a woman who plays music to calm down turkeys. I don’t think he quite believed me.

But it’s true. Elin William wrote at the Guardian about her unusual use of music.

“I got my first guitar when I was 12, and it’s been a slow process of self-tuition since then. I also play piano and violin, but I only play the guitar to the turkeys on the Rhug Estate farm in Corwen, north Wales, where I work.

“It began as an experiment. Rhug is an organic farm, and the main principle is to create as little stress as possible for the animals. But the farm is on the side of a main road, so some get spooked by loud noises: the traffic, machinery or sounds from the car park. We started playing the radio to them overnight. We’d put on Classic FM when we were shutting up at 7 pm and leave it on until we returned in the morning.

“The turkeys in particular responded really well. So we started playing the radio all day, every day. Then my boss, Lord Newborough, thought, ‘What if the music was much more up close and personal?’ He knew I played guitar and suggested I had a go. …

“From the moment I started strumming, the turkeys crowded ’round. I got the impression they enjoyed listening to me play. They started pecking on the guitar and plucking the strings. That’s the result of organic farming: you get inquisitive animals, rather than ones that are scared. …

“I’ve now performed in front of hundreds of turkeys. … I sing Welsh folk songs and ones my dad would have loved to hear, like the Animals’ ‘House of The Rising Sun’ – that’s the one I like playing most. …

“I’ve been described as a turkey whisperer. It’s like a horse whisperer, but not as glamorous. I don’t have a magic touch – anyone who played to them would get the same reaction, to be honest. …

“I’m an animal lover and it’s important to me that the turkeys are happy. But I’m not a vegetarian. Getting so close to the birds doesn’t make me think I have to give up meat. Farming is a mega industry, but here the focus is on quality of life. Having worked with them, it’s impossible to imagine turkeys in cages.” Read more at the Guardian, here.

Photo: Elizabeth Hafalia, The Chronicle
Facing a need for affordable housing and arts space, San Francisco’s Mission Economic Development Agency is joining with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers to repurpose this neglected 1919 building.

Have you ever visited San Francisco’s Mission District? A poor, immigrant neighborhood, it is nevertheless a vibrant experiment in people-oriented housing and support for food entrepreneurs and the arts. The creative energy there is tangible.

Moreover, the neighborhood’s community-development folks never stop turning dreams into reality. J.K. Dineen has an update at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“A historic but long-neglected commercial building at Mission and 18th streets in San Francisco is poised to be rejuvenated with a mix of affordable housing, child care and dance.

“The dilapidated 1919 structure, a former furniture store that was remodeled with an Art Deco flair in the late 1930s, has been on and off the market for more than a decade. …

“Finally the Mission Economic Development Agency, a politically powerful group that often opposes market-rate housing, reached a deal to buy it by collaborating with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers, which will open a child care facility there.

“ ‘We are all going in together to do a new model of cooperative living and dancing and taking care of our children,’ said Krissy Keefer, executive director of Dance Mission Theater. ‘It’s going to be very communal.’ …

“Brokers with the San Francisco office of the realty firm Marcus & Millichap … said market-rate developers were scared off by the Mission’s anti-gentrification political environment and that ‘MEDA was very good to work with.’ …

“The building will be the group’s first home ownership project — the others are rentals — and the first targeting middle-income families rather than low-income folks. Mission Neighborhood Centers is providing some of the project funding, along with two nonprofits: Low Income Investment Fund, a financial intermediary that provides capital for community developments, and the Neighbor to Neighbor fund.”

I’m sure everyone has read about the housing crunch in San Francisco, with tech employees pushing prices up. It’s good to hear of anything designed to ease the shortage. More here.

Artist of the Southwest

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Stella McLennan Roca (1879–1954), a painter known for her landscapes and her influence on the arts community in Arizona.

At Christmas, friends in Minnesota sent a letter that included this update: “Out of the blue in the spring, Mariana was contacted by Lonnie Dunbier, an art historian who was searching for information about Mariana’s grandmother, Stella Roca.

“Lonnie was preparing a series of lectures, to be given in Lincoln, Nebraska, about early Nebraska women artists. Stella [had] grown up in Nebraska City before attending the Chicago Art Institute and moving to Mexico, where she met and married Mariana’s grandfather, subsequently settling in Tucson, where she became a widely acclaimed landscape artist. Over a couple months in the spring, all of Stella’s landscapes that we have were photographed and quite a lot of historical information was exchanged, updated and edited, resulting in a comprehensive biography for use in her lectures.”

What a lovely experience! As a person who saves every letter ever written to her, I thought about what fun it would be if someone contacted me for information like that.

And I’m always interested in women artists, so I went to Wikipedia to learn more. I got a little sidetracked fixing typos in the entry, but I figured out that an offer Roca received through the Art Institute of Chicago to teach in Mexico was what led to her meeting her future husband.

I also read that her “work was known for light colored desert landscapes and glowing mountains” and that she served as president of the Tucson Fine Arts Association in 1932 and “was featured in the ‘Who’s Who in American Art.’ ” I search the internet for some of her work and was impressed. Delightful.

As for being sidetracked, do you know that anyone can edit Wikipedia? People will check up on you, of course, but it is ridiculously easy, and as a former editor, I simply had to fix a couple misspellings and a run-on sentence. If I was wrong to do that, Wikipedia experts will let me know.

Art: Stella McLennan Roca