Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.

A Giant, Grade II* Listed Work of Art

  • By Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, and Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

For this year’s Library Fest, we decided to create a tour of the beautiful Leeds Central Library that reimagined the building as a huge work of art. Looking to its many and varied architectural features for inspiration, we drew on the works of artists such as MC Escher and Bridget Riley to reinterpret the familiar stairways, ceilings and tilework that visitors to the library pass by every day. The result was The Library Illusion, a new walking trail that guides explorers through three floors of stunning architecture and six centuries of art history, with an emphasis on visual tricks and deception.

As well as the tour (which took place last Sunday) and trail guide (available while stocks last!) we also challenged three artists to create new pieces in response to different aspects of the building’s design. These have been on display in Central Library throughout Library Fest.

The ground floor is home to Pilot by Jill McKnight, which is inspired by the stone dogs that guard our staircases. As well as being a fabric sculpture in velour, Pilot is an anamorphic perspective illusion, meaning that it requires the viewer to stand in a particular spot to fully appreciate its true form. The effect is reminiscent of the way a mysterious skull appears in Hans Holbein’s famous portrait The Ambassadors (1533) if you approach it from a diagonal angle, such as descending a nearby staircase. We’ll give you extra credit if you recognise the appropriate literary reference in our piece’s title… (Clue: it’s named after the hound belonging to a certain Mr Rochester!)

Pilot (top) and one of the library's heraldic beasts (bottom)

Pilot (top) and one of the library’s heraldic beasts

On the first floor, outside the Art Library, visitors are treated to a particularly spectacular view of the building’s staircases and archways, where the eye is bamboozled by a panorama of dizzying depths and perspectives. It’s here that we located our second artwork, an untitled photo-montage by Will Poulter, inspired by the Dutch artist MC Escher, who was famous for his designs of intricate – and impossible – architecture. Compare Will’s piece, below, with Escher’s celebrated Relativity (1953) and we’re sure you’ll agree that walking between floors in Leeds Central Library can be like stepping into a giant optical illusion.

We think this piece could have been titled Librarynth or Willusion!

We think this piece could have been titled Librarynth or Willusion

Finally, on the second floor, a piece of interactive art called Kaleidodrum encouraged visitors to create moving mosaics using the library’s colourful floor tiles. Inspired by the deceptive ceiling mirrors in Local and Family History (which give the impression of rooms beyond rooms bracketing the space) Lee Noon built a freestanding, free-sliding kaleidoscope that users can peer into and push around. It’s pretty ingenious and produces some striking and sometimes Kandinsky-like effects.

Local and Family History mirrors (top) and abstract art from the Kaleidodrum

Local and Family History mirrors (top) and abstract art from the Kaleidodrum

The art of The Library Illusion will remain in situ until the end of Library Fest, this Sunday 19 February, and we hope to write a version of the trail guide that visitors can continue to follow once the associated displays and artworks have been removed. Elsewhere on the Secret Library, you can read all about our stone staircase creatures and the staircases themselves.

Shakespeare and the Art world

by Adam Barham, Central Library

Many artists have felt compelled to depict the plays of Shakespeare. Some are attracted to Shakespeare’s universal themes and complex characters, which inspire them to produce stirring representations of the plays’ inner meanings. Others appreciate his combination of exotic locations and sparse scene descriptions, which leave them free to create their own vivid and unique interpretations. Leeds Central Library houses some fascinating books with artists’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. To mark this year’s Shakespeare anniversary, we would like to showcase our best examples.

Our first item is an illustrated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The illustrations were painted by Arthur Rackham, one of the leading artists in the early 1900s ‘golden age’ of British book illustration. We are fortunate to have a 1908 first edition of this book, available for reference use from our Information and Research department. A 1977 reissue of the book is available for loan from our Music and Performing Arts Library.

Our 1906 edition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

Our 1908 edition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

Rackham received great acclaim as soon as his book was published. Contemporary novelist William de Morgan, for instance, claimed he had produced “the most splendid illustrated work of the century so far”. Even today Rackham’s illustrations are renowned. New editions of his book are still popular, with the demand stretching to e-book versions. Rackham’s continued popularity is also shown by his influence on modern artists, such as Sandman illustrator Charles Vess.

Bottom, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Bottom, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Rackham undoubtedly deserves the respect. His watercolour illustrations from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are incredibly detailed and striking, bringing Shakespeare’s surreal characters to life in a truly magical fashion. The depictions of Bottom and Titania’s fairy entourage are especially evocative.

Titania’s fairy entourage, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Titania’s fairy entourage, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Our next item is ‘Shakespeare in Art’. This book provides a fascinating retrospective of the different artists who have depicted Shakespeare’s work over the years. Concentrating mainly on paintings, it incorporates beautiful artwork reproductions showing a multitude of Shakespearean scenes and characters. It also includes insightful essays detailing the background story to each piece of artwork.

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (The Tempest) by John Everett Millais, from the cover of ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (The Tempest) by John Everett Millais, from the cover of ‘Shakespeare in Art’

The artists covered in ‘Shakespeare in Art’ include the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, who created vivid paintings of scenes set in natural environments, and Henry Fuseli, whose intense paintings often emphasised the supernatural or tragic side of Shakespeare’s work.

Titania Embracing Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Henry Fuseli, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Titania Embracing Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Henry Fuseli, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

‘Shakespeare in Art’ also features William Hogarth, the eighteenth-century painter and pictorial satirist. Hogarth produced one of the earliest known paintings of an actual Shakespearean stage performance, which can be seen below. ‘Shakespeare in Art’ is available from our Art Library.

Falstaff Examining His Troops (Henry IV) by William Hogarth, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Falstaff Examining His Troops (Henry IV) by William Hogarth, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Our archives also include rare pamphlets and exhibition catalogues relating to Shakespeare and art. One of the most interesting is named ‘O Sweet Mr. Shakespeare, I’ll Have his Picture’. As the title suggests, this pamphlet is concerned with Shakespeare himself rather than his plays. The author traces different depictions of Shakespeare over the years, giving fascinating background details about different portraits and statues. Our pamphlets and catalogues are available for reference use in the Art Library.

Some Shakespeare in Art pamphlets

Some Shakespeare in Art pamphlets

Our next item is the intriguingly titled ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy From the Plays’, illustrated by Walter Crane.  Our collection includes two copies of this title. One copy is a 1906 first edition, which is available for reference use from our Information and Research department. The other copy is a 1980s reissue, which is available for loan from the Art Library.

Our two copies of ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Our two copies of ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Walter Crane was part of the Arts and Crafts movement and another key figure in Britain’s golden age of book illustration. The concept behind his book is both charming and unusual. Rather than illustrating existing scenes or characters, Crane chose to portray human personifications of the flowers or plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. The flowers he portrayed come from a variety of plays, including ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’,  and ‘Henry V’. Our favourites include the bizarre lady who sprouts horizontally from a Hawthorne bush, taken from King Henry’s lines in Henry VI.

Illustrations from Walter Crane’s ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Illustrations from Walter Crane’s ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Our final item is a last minute addition to the blog, only recently discovered in the depths of our archives. The title of this discovery is ‘A Collection of Prints, From Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, by the Artists of Great-Britain‘. The details and background of this item will be the subject of a future blog entry. For now, all we can reveal is that the item is very old, very striking and very, very large……

Collection of prints 1c

‘A Collection of Prints…’ pictured with an everyday object to illustrate its size

 

Collection of prints 2

Introduction from ‘A Collection of Prints…’

Collection of prints 3

Scene from ‘As You Like It’, pictured in ‘A Collection of Prints…’

If you would like more detailed information about Shakespeare in Art, the best place to come is of course the Art Library. The Art Library stocks many books about the artists who depicted Shakespeare’s work over the years, including Richard Dadd, John Everett Millais, Gustave Moreau, William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Romney and William Hogarth. These books are on display in the Art Library throughout April 2016.

The Art Library and the British Art Show: Contemporary Art in the Past and Present

  • There’s still time to catch the eighth British Art Show at Leeds Art Gallery until 10 January 2016, but be sure to check the Christmas opening hours if you’re planning a festive visit! By Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Every five years the British Art Show presents a selection of the UK’s most visionary and exciting artwork. Since its inception in 1979, the exhibition has helped introduce many pioneering stars of British art. Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, for instance, are all past exhibitors at the British Art Show.

BAS Catalogues

A selection of our British Art Show catalogues

Looking back to previous British Art Shows can be rewarding. Experiencing the early efforts of influential artists often provides surprising insights into their work. It’s also fascinating to revisit bizarre yet wonderful exhibits from years gone by such as the rooms made of white chocolate in the ’95 show. Keeping up with current British Art Shows is equally rewarding. It’s always enjoyable to witness art history in the making and try predict which artists are destined for greatness… Fame is surely in store for the 2015 exhibitor who works with fossilised dinosaur droppings!

Landy

A selection of exhibits pictured in our British Art Show catalogues

Here in the Art Library we have a wealth of resources relating to past and present British Art Shows. Our most intriguing items include the official British Art Show exhibition catalogues. Each catalogue features evocative photos and illustrations to help recreate the exhibition. They also include essays by the show curators and short interviews with the artists, which all provide a deeper understanding of the art on display.

Rae

More exhibits pictured in our British Art Show catalogues, including artwork by Fiona Rae

The catalogue for the third British Art Show, which was held in Leeds in 1990, may spark memories for local residents. This catalogue features art reproductions and interviews with several exhibitors who went on to greater things, such as Rachel Whiteread and Fiona Rae. The section on Rachel Whiteread, for instance, gives fascinating insights into her aims and influences (sitting in wardrobes as a child was a major factor). This catalogue is available for reference use in the Art Library.

Simpson

More exhibits from our British Art Show catalogues, including work by Eileen Simpson & Ben White

The catalogue for the eighth British Art Show, held in Leeds from 2015 until January 2016, gives a comprehensive overview of the latest exhibition. This catalogue has beautiful hi-res reproductions of sculptures, paintings and installations produced by all the current exhibitors. The section on Eileen Simpson and Ben White, for instance, highlights the visual diversity of their display of chart records. This catalogue is available for loan.

BAS Journals

A selection of magazines relating to the British Art Show

The Art Library also has magazines and journals with articles about the British Art Show. These include contemporary reviews from magazines such as Modern Painters and Art Monthly. The reviews provide an incisive snapshot of the times in which they were written, helping us understand how critics viewed the British Art Show in its earlier days; apparently it used to be ‘the show you love to hate’. Art Library magazines have features and interviews with British Art Show exhibitors, including older artists such as Black Audio Film Collective and recent exhibitors such as Pablo Bronstein. Staff in the Library have compiled a guide to these articles you may find useful. These provide a great starting point for those wanting to learn more about the more obscure participants in the show. Magazines and journals are available for reference use in the Art Library. Digital copies of some titles are available through our Art Full Text resource.

BAS Books

A selection of books relating to the British Art Show

Finally, as always in the Art Library, we have an impressive collection of colourful, beautifully produced art books covering a wide range of British Art Show exhibitors. A selection of these books can be found below. Most items are available for loan; please check the catalogue links and feel free to borrow or reserve something today!