Whaur’s Scots academic scrievin?

Ilka bodie kens there’s academic scrievin in the Gaelic – jist keek at the wark o Aonghas MacCoinnich or Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart.  Folk may speir an croup it’s no accessible tae Anglophones, but that didnae stop a Gaelic scholar yit.  Wha’s keerious, though: ye maun scrimge hard tae find the like in Scots.  Wha’s mair keerious: a thrid o folk in Scotland, includin mair than ane dominie I ken, can speik the leid, whilk is a guid sicht mair than micht say the same aboot Gaelic.  Sae whaur’s the academic scrievin in Scots?

There are, I think, a couple o reasons fer this absence.  Fer Gaels, scrievin in their native leid is a foundin pairt o their identity as an embattled minoritie group and a strang jeve agin Anglo-normativity; in short, there’s a dunch towarts scrievin academic prose in Gaelic if yer a Gaelic scholar.  On the ither haun, fer Scots there’s historically been a dunch awa fra scrievin scholarly wark in their ane leid.  Leavin aside the emphasis on learnin Inglis to gang aheid in the Empire in former generations, Scots has historically been seen as a rude chiel’s leid, a dialect, a vernacular no ganelie for “sairious” wark.  Een when it was revertit (or inventit) be Hugh Macdiarmid an co., that was for explicitly literary purposes an there were few Scottish historians o that or succeedin generations wha would hae conceivit o scrievin their buiks in Lallans.

Dae ye hae this in yer buik kist? It is, av coorse, scrievit in Inglis . . .

Noo that Scots is finally beginnin tae be kent, baith as its ane leid and as ane o the major leids o Scotland, there are still factors wha dackle its use be academics.  A lack o journals or buik series is a pairt, but mair fundamental, I misdoot, is scholars’ ane uncertainty in their use o the leid.  Fer sae lang, Scots has been the tongue o the hame and o freends – somethin tae be avoidit in the schule – and that kind o codin is difficult to change oernicht.  If yer no a native speaker, sik concerns matter less mayhap, but the challenge o navigatin a flude, complex leid and findin the words an concepts tae express scholarly thocht is nae easy (and I’ve nae doot that ye could pick mair than eneuch holes in this laboured prose).

But nane o these factors are sufficient reason no tae attempt some academic Scots.  If we care aboot the leid and want it tae continue tae thee, we should put it tae the test in all walks o life.  When you next scrieve an article, ask yersel: wha would happen if I scrievit this in Scots?  The warst they can dee is turn ye doon . . . .

Copyricht 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams

A Scottish Regiment in Catholic Riga?

While skimming through Haralds Biezais’s 1957 edition of the church book of St. Jakobskirche in Riga during its brief tenure by the Jesuits (1582-1621), I found an unexpected entry:

None of these individuals appear elsewhere in the church book unless the Albertus Kromeus who witnessed a 1606 baptism is to be taken as one and the same with Albertus Kromme; it would seem their residence in Riga was of short duration. Our one clue comes in the form of John Hill, presumably the same man who was a captain in the Swedish service in 1610 when he was amongst Karl IX’s mercenaries in Russia (he was later in the Polish-Lithuanian service under Sigismund III).

We can, however, make a few educated guesses based upon the record itself. Hill is described as “Capitanaeus scotores militum” – “captain of the Scottish soldiers”, while Boehne and Kromme are plain soldiers (miles), with Boehne further clarified as being a “miles arcen[sis]”, i.e., a soldier belonging to the garrison of the castle at Riga. It seems reasonable to suppose that Hill was the commanding officer of Boehne and Kromme and that all three belonged to a Scottish regiment which was in Polish-Lithuanian service in 1607 and which, based on Hill’s later service record, temporarily entered Swedish service before returning to that of the Commonwealth. We might even be tempted to imagine that Boehne and Kromme were Patrick Ban and Alasdair Graham, suggesting a potentially Gaelic-speaking origin for at least some of the regiment’s soldiers.

This is all conjecture and no such regiment is immediately identifiable in Peter Paul Bajer’s Scots in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but it is tempting to imagine that what we see here is an early example of the flood of Scottish soldiers who would come to play such an important part in European history during the Thirty Year’s War.

(c) 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams

A Mysterious Box, Part V

After decades of separation, I am tremendously pleased to write that Dr. Alfred Huhnhäuser’s photograph albums are now once again in the same archive – the University of Stirling’s Special Collections – as his other papers!

The photographs finally reach Stirling Special Collections and are greeted by archivist Rosie Al-Mulla.

And that concludes this series on the “Mysterious Box”, which turned out to be more remarkable, implausible, and serendipitous than I could have ever predicted when I first began to explore its contents.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

Probative Quarters in Cupar

The final post in the series on Alfred Huhnhäuser’s photographic archive is coming soon, but in the meantime here’s a lighter one – the fruits of some field work in Fife over the weekend.

Part of my preparatory work for the first volume of the Scottish Corpus of Carved Stones (which may or may not have exactly that title in final form) has been to undertake a visual survey of every early modern carved stone in the kingdom of Fife. This has resulted in all manner of wonderful discoveries, such as this recumbent slab currently propped against the side of the kirk in Cupar:

The inscription can be reconstructed with the assistance of a reading taken in 1933 (characters in brackets represent text legible at that time but now unreadable):

A recumbent slab with an inscribed border is probably the single most common form of early modern Scottish funeral monument, but what sets this stone apart from the ordinary are the nine coats of arms in the central panel. The scroll to the left (the viewer’s right) of the heraldic helm reads “THE MOTHERS SYD” and an equivalent inscription headed “THE FATHERS SYD” can be presumed to have once been present on the companion scroll.

What we’re seeing here are the deceased’s “probative quarters”, the arms of their eight great-grandparents. The legal and cultural practice of recording noble ancestry for a given number of generations – usually back to great- or great-great-grandparents – was common on the continent, especially the German lands, but only intermittently practiced in Scotland (for another example, see my blogpost here). In Fife it seems to have had particular currency in the early modern period, but this stone is still exceptional for dramatising its subject’s ancestral nobility in such a striking fashion.



Visible on the left hand (paternal) side are the arms of: (1) Crichton of Cranston Riddell, (2) Corstorphine of that Ilk, (3) Forrester, and (4) unreadable. On the right hand (maternal) side are those of: (5) the Earls of Buccleuch, (6) Beaton of Creich, (7) the Earls of Roxburgh, and (8) the Earls of Erroll. Any heraldically literate viewer would have been acutely aware of Thomas Crichton’s illustrious pedigree and his kinship to a series of powerful noble families across Scotland.

It is a distressing evidence of the rapid deterioration of these monuments over the course of the twentieth century that the inscription on the Crichton memorial, almost fully legible in 1933, should now be fragmentary, and that the closest analogy to this stone, the 1734 monument to John Melville in nearby Kilmany, should be completely lost, though fully legible as late as 1896. These irreversible erasures of Scotland’s artistic heritage make me all the more determined to do as much as I can to make the Corpus of Carved Stones a reality before it’s too late.

The only surviving record the Melville monument at Kilmany, reproduced from R. C. Walker’s “Notes on a Heraldic Monument at Kilmany, Fifeshire”, PSAS 31 (1896-97): 94-98.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams

A Mysterious Box, Part IV

This evening I’ve been sorting through the remaining photo albums in advance of handing Dr. Huhnhäuser’s collection over to the university. There are so many volumes I haven’t even mentioned here and so many wonderful photos, like the Christmas family group above or the interior shot below, that I haven’t touched on.

Interior of the Huhnhäuser home, 1930s.

Of the remaining albums, two struck me with greater force than the others. One early album from 1915 is full to bursting with photos of Heidi as a baby. Perhaps it’s because I’m soon to become a father myself, but I found something entrancing in the love and intimacy of these photos and in Dr. Huhnhäuser’s delighted awkwardness.

I admire the doctor’s style, though it is, perhaps, ill-judged for his present purposes.

The other is unique amongst the albums by virtue of itself being carefully housed in a smaller cardboard container marked “Slettestrand”. Slettestrand, if you don’t know it (and few English speakers would have occasion to do so) is a small village and something of a tourist spot on the northwest coast of den Nørrejyske Ø, the island which makes up the farthest northern portion of Denmark. Separated from the mainland by a massive storm in 1825 which brought the sea thundering across the Agger Tange, its coast is an empty space of dunes and sky. Nothing but ocean lies between it and Aberdeenshire.

‘Slettestrand’

The album dates from 1941, by which time Germany had already occupied Denmark and Melms, the doctor’s wife, was working there as a translator. Both husband and wife seem to have had many friends in Denmark, but the photos of this wartime beach holiday are ghostly with absence. Instead, a vast welter of gathering clouds oppresses each photograph and dwarfs the few wanderers amongst the beach huts at Slettestrand.


It is difficult not to read some degree of artistic or intellectual intention into these photographs, so different from the holiday snaps of the thirties. More likely, though, I am reading meaning into what is simply the bricolage of four lives, lived, mostly happily, in a time both tantalisingly close and unimaginable distant from my own.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

A Mysterious Box, Part III

Last week I was reading Jo Catling’s translation of the late W. G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.  In it Sebald writes that:

I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time . . . the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum . . . dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.

I am a Humean in my approach to coincidence, naturally inclined to shy away from webs like those which Sebald so seamlessly weaves across borders and centuries.  Yet there are moments in which seemingly fragmented parts of experience can align and slide together with startling precision. 

My search for the inhabitants of Rizzastraße 7 had led me to other years of the Koblenz city directories, in none of which did I meet with the Arzt (medical doctor) I had expected.  Dr. Scherer the lawyer and Dr. Göcking the school inspector were joined by an ever-increasing cast of the Koblenz bourgeoisie: Philipp Hambach, the owner of a wood-working factory, Herr Witte the governmental buildings officer, Dr. Riffart, the district court judge, and more.  If my doctor – as I was beginning to think of him – had ever lived at Rizzastraße 7, he was either absent from these directories or had pursued a different profession than I had first supposed.

The doctor enjoying a beach holiday in 1930.

It was, I thought, more likely to be the latter and so I prepared to work my way through a list of the building’s inhabitants, seeing if I could find any who had links to Davos, daughters named Heidi or Inge, or any other points of similarity to the mysterious family into whose life I had had such a strange and tantalising glimpse.  The first name on my list was the resident, in 1930, of flat 3: Dr. Alfred Huhnhäuser, a school inspector.  I was, at first, surprised to find a small Wikipedia entry then transfixed as I read that he “hatte die Tochter Heidi (* 1914) und Inge (* 1917)”.  This was surely my man!

Inge and Heidi looking very prim and proper on a visit to their grandmother’s house.

Moments later I discovered that in 2000 a thesis had been written on Dr. Huhnhäuser: Memoir and Memory: The Papers of a Pre-War German – Alfred Huhnhäuser, 1885-1950 by Caroline Martin.  It made extensive use of the doctor’s papers which I realised were now in the archives of . . . my own institution, the University of Stirling!  Heidi, it proved, had married a Scot and her husband’s nephew – who, in a further freak of coincidence, I had met socially some years before – had lectured at Stirling, donating the papers of his aunt’s family to the university in the 1990s.  The photographs, it would seem, had become separated, detached from their context, and anonymous, until – by chance – they came to me.  A phone call later and their future is, I hope, now secured as a new accession to Stirling’s existing Huhnhäuser archive.

Dr. Huhnhäuser, nattily dressed in frock coat and Stresemann.

And so, over the course of a morning I had gone from the mysterious world of the doctor, his wife, and his daughters, to a richly populated family saga in which Dr. Huhnhäuser, his wife Melms, Heidi, and Inge, picked their way through the dangerous shoals of the twentieth century.  The doctor emerged as a complex figure, a highly literate and literary man, a scholar, an opera critic and amateur musician, and a Nazi administrator who played a key role in occupied Norway.  But reading his autobiography, as edited and discussed in Martin’s 2000 thesis, it was impossible to cast him in the role of Nazi comic-book villain.  Instead, his repeated claim to be apolitical and out of step with his time, balanced against his cautious but determined attempts to improve the plight of Norwegians under German rule, and his altogether ambivalent attitude towards 1930s Germany’s Aryan dream make him one of those grey and difficult figures who populate the annals of that generation: neither wholly good nor wholly bad, caught up in a tide of events, and somewhat bemusedly participating in a greater horror.

Photograph of a portrait of Dr. Huhnhäuser. The whereabouts of the original are unknown.

I also learned that I had not been entirely wrong in seeing some prolonged connection with a sanatorium on the family’s part.  It was not, however, through the doctor’s work – which lay solidly in the realms of literature and education – but in the melancholy fate of Inge, who died just short of her nineteenth birthday in 1936, having suffered from tuberculosis for some years.  The family’s time in Davos was because of her and, as Heidi’s husband recalled in an interview towards the end of his life, her sister had even gone to a school in Davos for several years so that she might be near Inge. 

After the war, Dr. Huhnhäuser was washed to and fro, from Norway, to England, and back to Germany, where he died in 1950.  “Melms”, Else (Schulze) Huhnhäuser, lived into the sixties, and Heidi died as recently as 1992, a resident of her adopted Scotland for over fifty years.  There is something poignant and sad about so suddenly learning the fates of all four, as if one had skipped to the end of the novel and learned, too soon, the conclusion to a story long in the telling. Soon, I’ll pass the Huhnhäusers’ photos on to the archive here at Stirling, where they can rejoin the doctor’s papers, but for a moment – and now with my eyes open – I’ll continue to record what I see.  I’ve only just scratched the surface of the no-longer-so-mysterious box and, I confess, I find myself wanting to learn still more of the details of these lives, rescued so fortuitously and so serendipitously linked to my own.

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

A Mysterious Box, Part II

Today I have returned to the box of photograph albums (see my previous post).  The first album I open is another snapshot of the family at Davos: photos of snow, laughing young people, and warm hostels.

There is a wonderful candour and freedom about the photographs here and elsewhere in this collection.  When one thinks of the photographic practice of earlier generations, one thinks of stiffness, order, and decorum, but these could not be further from such a stuffy ideal.  One series is of a group of young people – amongst them at least one of the daughters – flung down in poses of happy exhaustion midway through an alpine trek.  There is something tremendously vibrant and happy about the half-turn of a shoulder and the hobnailed boots dug into the grassy sward.

But I am also attracted to another image, one of the few which depicts neither landscape nor people.  It must, I suppose, be of the breakfast room in someone’s hostel.  Flowers (and ashtrays) are neatly set out, the chairs are drawn up, the newspapers folded in their rack, and there is a mid-afternoon hush, a still pause as the room awaits its next use.  It is, in its own way, an exquisite photograph.

Nor can we forget the doctor, who reappears in walking gear amongst the mountainous landscape: happy, crook-necked, and oddly fragile alone in the snow.

 The next album is different in shape from those I’ve looked at so far.  It is smaller, bound in sturdy buckram, and as soon as I open it I see it dates from decades earlier.  The clothing suggests about 1910, give or take a few years, and though I can’t be sure, I think this might be the doctor and his wife’s honeymoon. 

They are much younger, smiling broadly, and seem to be somewhere in the country, by a lake or maybe the sea.

Most striking of all is the final photograph in the album, followed only by blank pages.  The doctor’s wife lies on a bed, or perhaps a chaise longue, staring back at the camera.  Returning her gaze feels almost too much, the emotions contained within it were surely meant for the photographer alone, and to peer into the depths of her eyes is a strange and uncomfortable act of transgression.

I shut the book, a little hurriedly, and turn to another, this one bound with once-green, now brown, silk tassels and with a postcard of the Koblenz Schloß pasted onto its front cover.  Below the postcard is an inscription: Unserer lieben Omi zu ihrem 70. Geburtstage | als Erinnerung an am Besuch in Koblenz | Inge und Heidi.  1928 (“for our dear Grandma on her 70th birthday as a reminder of visiting Koblenz”).  Could Inge and Heidi be the daughters, I wonder?

The first few pages contain pasted-in picture postcards of Koblenz, but soon we move on to photographs of the family.  Yes, Inge and Heidi must be the daughters for they appear again and again in these pages.  There are also pictures of the interior of their house – Rizzastraße 7, I learn – replete with the bourgeois comforts of the early century.  I am captivated by a distant prospect of book-lined shelves which can just be seen over the shoulder of one of the girls, posing soberly in front of a grand piano.  Is it the doctor’s study, I wonder?

The little book for their grandmother gives me an idea and a few Google searches later I see that Rizzastraße 7 still survives, albeit now with far more plate glass than in 1928, and houses lawyer’s offices, a used bookstore, and other businesses.  It also shows up on a list of historic buildings in southern Koblenz, which notes its construction in 1911 by the architect Fritz Thalwitzer.

At this point I think: surely I can find out who they are from this?  Surely there is an address book of 1920s or 1930s Koblenz which will tell me the residents of Rizzastraße 7?  And so I find myself on the website of the Rheinland-Pfalz digital library.  There are fifty-odd address books for Koblenz, as early as 1794, as late as 1940.  I know with certainty that my mysterious family were living at Rizzastrasse 7 in 1928 so with a faint catch in my breath – for I love this sort of detective work with all my heart – I turn to the 1927-28 edition of the Einwohnerbuch der Stadt Koblenz des Landkreises Koblenz und Umgebung (Directory of Inhabitants of the City and District of Koblenz and Environs). 

But all is not so straightforward.  I should have realised that the imposing building would be divided into multiple flats.  The lawyer Dr. Hubert Scherer is in flat 3, the engineer Heinrich Hambach is in flat 1, the school inspector Dr. Wilhelm Göcking is in flat 2, and the building officer Waldemar Hinsmann is also present (in the basement, I think).  Have I missed something?  Is the doctor no doctor after all?

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

A Mysterious Box, Part I

Several years ago, I moved into an office being vacated by a professor close to retirement.  Our areas of interest were a few hundred years apart, but still close enough that he kindly gave me various books and runs of journals for which he no longer had any use.  Along with these he also gave me a battered cardboard box.  It had been given to him, he said, by another retiring professor some years before but he knew nothing of its previous history.  Within it were perhaps two dozen photograph albums, dating, it would seem, from the first half of the twentieth century.

Not long after I received this strange bequest, I moved house, then moved house again, and it was only this weekend, as the Historian and I were emptying some boxes left over from our last move, that it came once more to light.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts about the mysterious box and its contents, beginning today with the first two albums I picked – more or at less at random – from the top of the pile.

Both are long rectangular albums, secured with cord and the first one I open is bound in printed paper with a sort of tan and purple primitivist motif – something from the thirties, I imagine, as I gently remove it from the box.  My guess is broadly confirmed by the neat inscription in silver ink on the first page: Schweizerreise vom 9.-28. August 1928.  Somebody, a German speaker, on holiday in Switzerland.  The pressed flowers are entrancing, but I tear myself away from them and begin to leaf through the pages.

The protagonists soon make themselves known: a husband and wife, and their two daughters, young teenagers.  The photos are often not very well exposed – I imagine the brilliant Alpine light defeating amateur photographic attempts – but have an air of happiness and intimacy about them. 

The family are busy, hiking to Reichenbach Falls and descending by metal walkways into the depths of the nearby Aare Gorge.  Intermixed with these snaps are picture postcards of sites in the region: the Wetterhorn, Kurhaus Rosenlaui, Interlaken, and more. 

One picture towards the end strikes me especially.  It is captioned Im Zuge von Bern nach Basel (on the train from Bern to Basel) and shows the Husband and the more serious of the two Daughters sitting in their compartment, both reading the newspaper.  Something about the intent concentration of the Daughter, her eyes downcast towards the page, reminds me of old photographs of my own Russian-German grandmother. 

The final photograph shows the Wife and Daughters standing in the porch of a rather grand apartment building and is captioned Wieder in Koblenz.  Our protagonists would seem to hail from Koblenz in the Rhineland.  Loose with this album is an older photograph – nineteenth century – of a husband and wife.  I think they look a little like the Husband, but the photographer’s studio is in Neubrandenburg, far in the northeast.  Perhaps the family had not always been in Koblenz?

The next album is the same shape, but with a different paper binding, this one imitating the texture of woven cloth.  A label in the back proclaims its origins in the shop of August Kreutzer, Löhrstrasse 82, Koblenz – more evidence for our protagonists’ residence.  Five years have passed: the first group of photos here are dated “Waldeck 1933”.  The family are here as well, the daughters now young women, but most of the photos are of a large group of young people, evidently having a ball at “Haus Waldeck”.  My eye for faces is poor, but I think I see the daughters amongst them.

The latter half of the album is in a different key.  It is headed “Davos 1933.-35.” and its enigmatic opening page contains two pressed flowers, two cut out photographs of younger men, and, in the centre, a portrait of the Husband. 

He is sitting at a desk, books behind him, and wears a white hospital coat beneath which his immaculate tie and stiff collar can just be seen.  Was he a doctor at the Magic Mountain? 

The following pages are full of smiling men and women on excursions in the snow, but also of scenes from a sanatorium: doctors on their rounds down the aisles and someone – is it one of the daughters? – lying in bed. 

Over her stands one of the young men from the half title page, her husband, I suppose.  They are smiling, but I wonder if I fully understand what I am seeing.

Other things have changed as well since the family’s trip to Switzerland five years before.  A postcard pasted in amongst the snaps shows a building, perhaps the sanatorium, and flying over it the Swiss cross and the Nazi swastika.  Already I seem to know surprisingly much and yet still tantalisingly little about these people.  What will become of them?  Who were they?  And how did these time capsules of their memories and emotions, frozen in the exposure of film, reach me, nearly a hundred years later?

© 2019 Kelsey Jackson Williams.

The Scholar as Collector

I am always entranced by other academics’ bookshelves. Whenever I have the occasion to meet someone in their office, I find my mind wandering from the conversation at hand as I squint at the titles of their books and inwardly commend this or that especially intriguing-looking volume. Most often, the books I see are pragmatic collections, built out of necessity and convenience: this oft-cited monograph, that standard edition of a key primary text, and the inevitable drift of fifteen-year-old incomplete sets of the Scottish Historical Review or Past and Present. Their existence was informed by their owners’ research, not the other way around.

Sometimes, though, you come across a different kind of library altogether: one assembled by a scholar who is also a collector. This is not to suggest the parodic image of a hoarding bibliophile, lost amongst teetering piles of precious volumes, but rather that of a scholar for whom books have – at some point – ceased to be simply tools and become objects of fascination in and of themselves. For me, this is the most interesting collection insofar as it displays the fertile interchange between a writer and their books. Looking at their shelves you see the obscure nineteenth-century edition they made such good use of in an article or the long run of foreign state papers, published in Stockholm or Helsinki at the beginning of the last century, which underpinned one of their more groundbreaking monographs. This sort of collection not only preserves a record of their research, but, viewing it, you can sense the ways in which it continues to influence and direct their thinking: the books themselves have become subjects, interlocutors, who are the subject of and define new research.

The scholar-collector’s library: a different kind of research tool?

Such scholars remind me of some of our nineteenth-century predecessors, David Laing (1793-1878), for example, whose collection of books and manuscripts surpassed that of many national libraries and now – even in fragmentary form – makes up a substantial part of Edinburgh University Library’s manuscript collection. For someone like Laing the acts of scholarship and collecting were inextricably entwined with research leading to new acquisitions, just as new acquisitions in turn inspired further research. What many of us now would think of as the separate purviews of a research-focused academic and a special collections library were fused into a single, dynamic act of historical and intellectual recovery.

Sir William Fettes Douglas, Portrait of David Laing (1862), National Galleries of Scotland.

I wonder if we miss something by not imitating Laing. No longer can we expect to assemble, say, a collection of early modern manuscripts to rival his (unless our purses are deeper than those of most modern academics), but there is still a wealth of material relevant to so many of us which has not found its way into public collections but instead floats and jostles on the sea of the antiquarian market. Would those of us who study early modernity and its successor ages do well to spend slightly less time in libraries and slightly more in bookshops and auction houses, or even in our chairs at home, browsing eBay? I think so. We needn’t discover an unknown edition or catch a priceless manuscript for the act of collecting to transform our research. Even the simple fact of possession can be enough for us to see something different, exceptional, and worth studying in the most mundane book and that, in turn, can lead to avenues of research and discovery we could never otherwise have expected.

So, as strange and old-fashioned as it may seem, I salute the scholar-collector. They view their field from a subtly different vantage point than do many of their colleagues and that shift of perspective can result – and has resulted – in some of the most exciting scholarly work of our time.

© Kelsey Jackson Williams, 2019.

Letterpress: Art or Craft?

Anyone who has spent much time in the world of visual and material culture will be familiar with the so-called “art vs. craft debate”.  Rooted in early modern and modern western European distinctions between (fine) “art”, e.g., Michelangelo’s David, and (not so fine) “craft”, e.g., a Toby jug, this perceived duality continues to echo through the contemporary art world despite repeated attempts to destabilise it, recalibrate it, or simply ignore it altogether [1].

As a printer, I only began to think about where letterpress might fit into all of this last year when a glass maker of my acquaintance asked me, did I think of myself as an artist or a craftsman?  At the time I off-handedly said “craftsman”, but in reality I don’t think the answer can be quite so simple.

The problem is that both “art” and “craft” come with their own cultural baggage.  When we think of the “artist” (or, perhaps, the artiste) we imagine a very different figure from the “craftsperson”.  One connotes genius, high culture, and the creation of prestige objects; the other, skill, low culture, and the creation of well-made but essentially ordinary objects.  If we think in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, the artist possesses cultural capital in a way the craftsperson does not.

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Art or Craft?

But it doesn’t take much effort to begin poking holes in this dichotomy.  Indeed, this seems to be yet another case where humans’ inherent love of binaries gets in the way of understanding what is actually happening.  Yet we cannot ignore the binary either, because – like it or not – it defines how much of our culture perceives the skilled production of material objects.

So where does letterpress fit into this?  The traditional letterpress printing of a pre-1970s print shop would seem to fit solidly within the remit of “craft”: its skills replicated through apprenticeship, its function as a relatively low social status paid job, and its mass-production of what were, from the eighteenth-century if not earlier, incredibly widely consumed material goods (i.e., books).  But it’s also easy to recall cases where such a definition seems questionable, if not absurd.  How many people would pigeon-hole the Doves Press Bible as “craft” rather than “art”?  How many more would object to either term as insufficient to describe what they see on the page?

Doves Bible

Craft or Art?  The Doves Press Bible (1902-1904).

Whether we define the letterpress productions of a jobbing print shop as either “craft” or “art” is less relevant to the present day, however.  Printing with lead type is no longer a mainstream profession or an essential means for the dissemination of knowledge.  Instead we are all collectively reinventing ourselves as something different, something possibly more like “artists” than “craftspeople”.  Certainly the small print runs, careful attention to aesthetic appearance, and high brow subjects of much modern letterpress seem to place it squarely in the art world even as the proliferation of small businesses selling personalised letterpress wedding stationery or party invitations would seem to suggest a revival of letterpress as “craft”.

For me, I increasingly define what I do as “art” for pragmatic reasons.  Most people, when they see a sheet coming off the press, exclaim, “oh!  That’s easier than I thought!” and most academics and other professionals tend to treat a letterpress workshop as a fancy version of a photocopier (“could you run off a hundred of these tomorrow?  They’ll look so good for the conference”).  Defining letterpress as “art” pushes against these assumptions and returns the very real mental and physical labour of producing handprinted objects to centre stage.

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The artist at work?

And that seems to me to be the most important thing.  If, as the entire art vs. craft debate seems to suggest, both terms are now so baggy and almost meaningless that most creators could happily define their work as one or the other, I choose “art” as a way of emphasising the challenges of creation and the value of the object created.  Whether the larger world will agree with that remains to be seen.

 

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

 

[1] Some examples of manifestations of the debate from recent years can be read here, here, and here.