Monday, July 09, 2012


Recently, I very happily agreed to help to curate an on-line exhibition of art on an alphabet theme, called Alphabet Soup, at Clive Hicks-Jenkins very wonderful Artlog. This followed the success of the maquette exhibition at the same place (all to be found here), and the enthusiastic interest in Clive's own alphabet primer, a riotous delight from moveable Anatomy, Bird and Cage to Xerxes king of Persia, the Yule Log and Zephyrus.

Visiting the Artlog, as well as seeing the marvel of Clive's own work, one can be led along avenues of exploration of more exciting, original and talented visual artists than you can shake a stick at, and getting involved with this project has already brought me into contact with quite a few of them.  I don't have to even be in their league, just be willing to be sent their work, sort through it and present it at the Artlog in the fullness of time.  Shellie Byatt, whose idea Alphabet Soup was, is also involved with the curating, so I've got some serious back-up.

The idea of the exhibition is to create alphabet pictures, including lettering, you know as in 'A is for apple' or similar.  No need to complete a whole alphabet, but we reckoned a minimum of about five letters of your choice. If we get a lot, which we might, we might just take a selection but will happily provide links to where further work might be seen on-line. The other stipulation, to create a harmonious feel to the final exhibition and to offer a bit of a challenge, especially to artists who love to colour, is that it should be in black and white (and shades of grey between, of course) but each picture should contain one other colour, perhaps as an accent, so for example if 'E is for Eve', she might be holding a red apple.

The deadline is the end of November, with a view to presenting it in the week or so leading to Christmas.  A long way off yet, it may seem, but giving time to develop ideas without rushing busy people too much.  And it's open to all, not just professional artists, so please feel free to join in.  Submissions and enquiries to be sent to me at lucy-dot-kmptn-at-gmail-dot-com.  No rush to send stuff in, but it's nice too know who and how many might be involved.  Again, the exhibition will be at Clive Hicks-Jenkins Artlog (not here at Box Elder). The call for submissions is here.


And suddenly there are alphabets everywhere.  Wondering about the possibilities of something fruit and vegetable or otherwise food based, I went to my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, which was handed on to me very generously by an older friend who said she no longer wanted it, and this particular, English, edition dates from the year of my birth, 1961 (it first came out in 1938).  

Moules marinières - in terracotta on a blue chequered table cloth with a nice glass of wine, what could be better? - adorn the frontispiece, but I also found, which I had never noticed before, that each alphabetical section has a delightful illuminated letter heading, in black and white.  Here's a selection:

It's fun identifying the elements: 'A' is easy, apples of course, and also apricots, artichokes, asparagus, but what is the quarter-circle in 'B', along with the beans, blackberries, and presumably bread, or brioche? I suppose it's a piece of beef.  'E' for eggs is beautifully simple, but is that odd-shaped thing in 'G' Gruyère cheese or what?  It took me a while to work out that the circle under the herrings in 'H' was a selection of hors d'oeuvres... 

The other book I looked out was this one.

This was under the Christmas tree for me the year I turned six, or perhaps seven.  We had had an exceptional (we didn't travel abroad much as a family) holiday in France and Switzerland, and I had expressed a wish to learn French.  I remember its cloth bound spine with the red capital letters of the title visible outside of the wrapping paper - it's a big book and perhaps there wasn't enough paper or something.

It was a very special book, still is.  The quality of the paper, print and binding is very good, and it's all colour, which not many books were then.  I can't imagine it was available in the small town where I grew up at the time and was probably bought in London.

It has a selection of vocabulary in alphabetical order:

again it's fun to try to work out what the pictures show -since they don't always feature in the chapters themselves; the fish, which I thought might be a bony anchois, (anchovy) is I think in fact illustrating les arêtes de poisson, fish bones ( and checking the spelling of that, I find that the same word is used for the beard of barley, an etymological connection nicely shown by the picture.

The green thing in the bottom left of 'B' defeats me,

as does the red bit of origami in 'C'.

Each word used in a sentence, here are a couple of the more lugubriously amusing ones (most of them are nicer)

This apple is bad. [You bet, look at that worm in it!] 
Roland is a bad playmate. [ Not only does he kick his mate in the fesses but he carries a catapult, wears patched trousere and his cap the wrong way round, le petit voyou! ]

I have cut myself, my blood flows. [ Never mind, it can water the furrows.  If it's impure anyway.]

Then there are lovely full page illustrations of different categories:

 Veg and fruit - for an English provincial child of the 60s, raised on Mrs Beaton rather than Larousse Gastronomique, not only the French words but the very existence of celeriac, endives, aubergines and quinces would have been a mystery.

Fish: now Larrousse G says a cod is cabillaud, which is what we buy them as now; morue is salt-cod.  Aiglefin (haddock) is more usually now églefin.  Fish translations continue to exercise me.

I love this illustration of geographical features.

Here's the page for 'K'; I can remember my mother telling me there was no K in the French alphabet.  Alas she was not always right (just annoyingly often).  Indeed, one of the Gallic concepts most detested by red-blooded English traders seeking metric-martyrdom begins with a 'K', that's to say the kilogram!

I would like to say that the book inspired an early epiphany and long standing love affair with the French language which has stayed with me always, but I'm afraid it didn't. In fact it was originally published in France for French children of school age as a 'playtime book', a fun adjunct to learning to read and write their own language (this was in 1963, pre-1968, rather stodgy pedagogic times...). I was no infant prodigy, and without access to spoken French, barely having learned to read and write in English, I found it frustrating and closed to me, and knowing it was a special, precious book added to rather than overcoming this.  I was momentarily impressed with its size and colour, but frankly, at that age I liked naturalistic pictures, preferably of animals - another board-back picture book I had at a similar age, containing photos and called 'Animals Everywhere' I devoured endlessly.  Quaint little French children behaving correctly in incomprehensible language didn't really do it for me.

The book was passed on at some point, and I assumed it was lost, if I thought of it at all.  Then a few years ago, while visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Mayenne, I was browsing their bookshelves and found it again.  It was very worn and battered and had been sadly abused and much scribbled on, it had presumably been given to my niece (she who now makes me laugh more than anyone but who was something of a petit voyou herself when she was small ) to play with.  But they had kept it, and were happy to see it returned to me.  Now I enjoy it very much, and though some of the language is a bit old-fashioned, I find it quite helpful for some areas of vocabulary and construction.

What made me look at it with regard to the Alphabet Soup challenge were the alphabet letter forms on the endpapers, which I can remember fascinating me.

They are entirely constructed with animal forms, in black and white and tinted each with a different single colour.  They look much older than the style of the rest of the book, and the curious thing is the animals shown often don't seem to have much relation to the letter they are forming, in French or English -

The beaver in 'B' might do, but the fish doesn't; the hinds and hounds in 'H' might, but none of these correspond in French, and the marmoset and lobster creatures have no names beginning with 'J' or 'Y' in either language that I know of, so altogether they are a mystery, but an appealing one.

(Apologies for the poor photo quality of these images; the books were both rather too big and cumbersome to scan, and the light wasn't great when I took the photos, but they give an idea.)


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

What a marvellous collection, Lucy!

I think that the half-circle peeking inside the B in the Larousse letters belongs with its other half and together they are probably bétrave/beetroot. The slice of cheese is probably Brie. The capped thing is definitely brioche.

The green thing in the bottom corner of the other B...oh, I know what it is but I can't think of its French name! A toy, something like a yo-yo - you know?

marja-leena said...

I bookmarked Clive's post and now this to remind me to try this project, very unlike anythng I've ever done. Your collection of alphabet images is lovely and hopefully will give lots of inspiration to all! Sends me back to some of my old Finnish primers.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Oh what spectacular photos and, Lucy, you are much too modest about their quality.

BTW, my Larousse is the 1988 English edition.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

I admire your courage using the verb "curate", so easily misunderstood and then where are you?

I have problems remembering certain groups of French words (flowers, trees and - far more important - fish). I had thought to buy myself one of those poisson posters but feared I would look rather clodhopperish unrolling it with a menu in the other hand just because I didn't know what a gardon was.

The subject of alphabets touches on typography and may be of interest to those attracted by your comp (Alas I lack skills in what I believe are called the plastic arts). Very recently a comprehensive paperback on typography, written in a popular style, was available in Waterstone's. I'll provide the title and author shortly since my copy resides on my bedside table and I am up betimes while Mrs LdP slumbereth.

I know it's naff (in fact you may have set a trap to catch the naffers amongst us) but I have to admit to picking up the chanson allusion. I must say puckishness becomes you.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

"Just my type - A book about fonts" Simon Garfield. 352 pp, £10.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

Great post, Lucy. Love the 'bestiary' letters of the endpapers. I'm sure there's much here to inspire would-be contributors to the Artlog Alphabet Soup Exhibition.

I know that toy at the bottom left of B. The ball with a hole through it gets thrown up in the air and has to be impaled on the wooden spike at the top of the handle. A variation on the old cup-and-ball toy, only a bit more lethal to eyes because of the spike. (Ouch!) No idea what it's called though.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh what fun! This takes me back to books in my little library way back when (alas, most of the volumes didn't survive multiple moves). The idea for an Alphabet Soup Exhibition is brilliant.

Chloe said...

Some excellent inspiration for the exhibition here, there are so many possibilities!

Tom said...

Ah! That thingamajig that begins withthe letter 'B', is it not that which is part of your sewing machines, ladies? Surely it's a bobbin, (la bobine)

Mouse said...

wonderful post, thank you!

HKatz said...

Looking through these was a treat (my favorites were the vegetable and fruit illustrations), and I love the website you linked to.

rr said...

Oh the nostalgia! I can practically smell the pages.

zephyr said...

Yay, for Zephyrus!! (even tho i searched in vain for a glimpse of that page in his marvelous folding book)

Love this post.
And i will have fun pondering and looking for imagery to possibly send to you for consideration.

i confess that i sometimes spend great quantities of time (and am tempted to spend the equivalent in $$) perusing illuminated fonts i would love to play with online.

Plutarch said...

A rich anthology of faces. I'm glad to see that you have the earlier edition of Larouse Gastronomique. The more recent one is a washout. And as far as I can remember, for I have only glanced through it, it is visually far less appealing.

Setu said...

I did enjoy that post: for many years I have had the same fascination for such books. During my childhood, they have fed my imagination.
When you was older, I could not help connecting such abecedaries with Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles”:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles, (…)

The strange green thing with a B name is a “bilboquet”. It is an old fashioned game consisting of a short stick linked by a string to a wood sphere. The sphere has a cylindrical hole carved in it. You have to swing the sphere with a dexterous movement of the wrist so that the stick goes right into the hole (if not dexterous enough, you get the sphere bumping your head or your friend’s head).
Rabelais tells us it was one of Gargantua’s favorite games. We were told at school –when history used to be taught in a captivating way– that King Henry III of France (Queen Elizabeth I was ruling England then) was keen on playing that game. I remember my teacher –and my mother, who was a teacher too and a good story-teller after school hours- telling us that when King Henry and his famous “Mignons” (effeminate fashionable courtiers) would take their daily walk, all of them had a bilboquet in their hand. Can you imagine a crowd of men wearing ruffs and ear-rings trying to get the sphere into the hole on their way to a ceremony?
Well, don’t you think a smartphone is a kind of contemporary bilboquet? But I am not sure I would enjoy a contemporary abecedary with S for smartphone…

Fire Bird said...

immersed in nostalgie here too... I too loved Tout en Francais and haven't thought of or seen it for decades

Lucy said...

Thanks all, sorry to neglect things here, a bit busy with visits.

Natalie - hello! Your answer for the toy, which is indeed a toy, is below. The funny thing about the Larousse cheeses is they are all under 'C' for cheese, but are clearly featured under their varietal names...

ML - Hooray, yes, please join in the exhibition!

Cat - thanks! Larousse is a great browse, I can spend hours in it, though some of the things it considers fit to eat are mind-boggling...

LdP - your image of fine-dining, fish chart in hand, made me chuckle. Glad you picked up on the allusion, I never know whether putting a link in is over-egging the pudding or patronising... Thanks for the book info.

Clive - thanks. See Setu's comment for the toy name, and more besides!

R - I lost many things along the way, I don't really blame my parents for getting rid of stuff when I wasn't around or being very helpful. It was a nice surprise when this turned up again.

Chloe - so get cracking! Looking forward to seeing what you and your mum come up with.

Tom - good guess, me dear, never mind, you learn something new...

Mouse - thanks, nice to see you.

HKatz - I liked those pages very much too, glad you enjoyed Clive's site, it's a place of wonder.

rr - they do have a smell!

Zephyr - please do join in. Clive actually had a special post for Zephyrus, I'll send you a link.

Plutarch - yes I was pleased to come into possession of the book!

Setu - you've done it again, a lovelyr esponse! Your presence here is always illuminating, thanks so much! Oh, and did I ever tell you what a sweet little boy you were?:~)

FB - I never knew you knew the book too! Glad to bring it back to mind.

Ucapan Lebaran said...

Hi, I save all your pictures.. Thank you so much..