Navigate / search

From the Outside In: “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852

By Edgar Walters

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image captures the dramatic scale of the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international world’s fair. It was the largest glass building at the time, covering 990,000 square feet of Hyde Park in the middle of London, and so tall that it could enclose whole elm trees. The photograph was taken at the end of the exhibition, before the palace was dismantled and rebuilt in the suburb Sydenham, south of the city, as an even grander permanent exhibition space.

 

The Great Exhibition had been envisioned by Prince Albert to show off the wonders of British technology, and the Crystal Palace itself was one of the greatest wonders on show. Designing a building to house the more than 14,000 exhibits of the Exhibition had been a long and difficult process. Until the planning committee accepted Joseph Paxton’s winning design in July 1850, they had rejected every submitted proposal as too expensive to build, in addition to a design that they themselves had created and that had been ridiculed by the press. Paxton was one of the most respected gardeners in the United Kingdom and had ample experience creating large greenhouses. His Crystal Palace design took advantage of a newly invented process for mass-producing sheet glass. Held together by cast iron supports, 900,000 square feet of glass were used to create a modular structure at a cost less than half of many of the other designs. The modular design also allowed Paxton to make changes as needed; the transept in this picture was specially created to enclose a line of elms that otherwise would have been cut down. The final structure was 72 feet wide, more than 1,800 feet (six football fields) long, and up to 100 feet high, but Paxton was able to construct it on budget in only five months, in time for the opening of the exhibition on May 1, 1851.

 

Among its other attractions, the exhibition included one of the first large-scale displays of photographs anywhere in the world: over 700 photographs from six different countries. Photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner was likely one of the people who saw these photos. In 1852, he photographed the Crystal Palace with a large-field camera, creating some of the most dramatic architectural compositions of the Victorian Age. Turner had gained a license to use William Fox Talbot’s calotype technique in 1849, and he preferred to use this method for all of his large-scale 30 x 40 centimeter paper negatives from then on. With his new camera, he was able to capture the Crystal Palace in striking detail, and he became one of the pioneers of photography’s early era.

 

This image forms a part of the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, which documents the history of photography from the First Photograph (ca. 1826) until the 1960s.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Emilio Englade wrote this post.

 

Image: From the original calotype paper negative of “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852.

Summer by the Lake: Travel vicariously through letters and postcards from the Carlton Lake collection

By Edgar Walters

Looking for inspiration this summer, or maybe just some relief from the heat? Take a trip with these authors and artists from the Carlton Lake French manuscript collection.

Carlton Lake (1936–2006), a longtime curator at the Ransom Center, collected a wealth of modern French materials, including manuscripts, musical scores, and art by Paul Eluard, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Claude Debussy.  Below are selected items from his collection. Full-size versions of the thumbnail images can be viewed in the below images.

 

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

By Edgar Walters

The Ransom Center’s archives are full of treasures waiting to be pulled off the shelves.  But once paged from the stacks, some of those treasures prove difficult to handle.

Such was the case with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s enormous 1786 print “Pianta delle Fabriche Esistenti Nella villa Adriana.” The 10-foot wide map of Hadrian’s villa is a popular item at the Ransom Center, but its impressive size complicates the process of sharing it with students and scholars. Now, thanks to treatment efforts undertaken by Ransom Center conservators, the map is far more accessible.

Previously, a complex set of folds allowed the print to fit, attached to a stiff paper stub, inside its book. The setup was not optimal: long-term folds left significant creases in the print, and the stub attachment was unwieldy and damaging.

The conservation team had a better idea. Conservators cut the map away from its stub and carefully unfolded the map onto a large work surface, where it was cleaned of superficial dust and grime. The creases were relaxed by a textile humidifier and then flattened under a weighted drying system. Conservators also mended small tears in the print using long-fibered Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Next, Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, was tasked with creating a modified tube around which the print could be rolled. Her objective was to eliminate the need for folding, thus protecting the item from potentially harmful creases. Given the print’s large size, a standard tube would be too large to house on a shelf within the stacks. Hamilton’s answer was to roll the map onto a flattened, space-saving pad.

The pad consists of four layers. A corrugated board forms the core, which is then wrapped in thick foam. An outer layer of soft, thin Volara foam envelops the interior, which is cocooned by airplane cotton just below an exterior cloth surface. Hamilton used a giant needle to sew through the many layers, ensuring that everything was well-secured.

Finally, Preservation Housing Manager Apryl Voskamp created a custom archival box to house the print and its pad. The new lidded box has a layer of protective Volara foam and a drop front, which allows the print to slide out easily without risk of harm.

The map of Hadrian’s villa is frequently used by classes in the University’s School of Architecture, where students learn the importance of structure and accessibility. Applying those same concepts, Ransom Center conservators have brought new life to the map of Hadrian’s villa.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Mark Twain letter has close geographical tie to University of Texas

By Edgar Walters

When Samuel Clemens—better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain—penned a letter in London in 1900 to the widow of his childhood best friend in Austin, he had no idea that it would be preserved more than a century later in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives just four blocks south. Today the letter resides in a collection of Twain-related materials that features correspondence with longtime friends and others, including one from Clemens to P. T. Barnum.

This letter’s addressee, Mrs. Dora Goff Bowen, lived at 2506 Whitis Ave. in a neighborhood just north of the burgeoning University of Texas campus. The address, now home to The University of Texas at Austin’s hulking Jesse H. Jones Communications Center, has an interesting past. A few years after Clemens wrote the letter, 2506 Whitis became the site of one of the University’s first sorority houses, that of the newly organized Pi Beta Phi chapter. Two lots down the street lay George Littlefield’s still-new Victorian mansion, built in 1893, which maintains a grandiose presence on campus to this day.

Dora’s husband, Will Bowen, had grown up with Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri. Their friendship and escapades along the Missouri River became the basis of Twain’s books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bowen and Clemens engaged in countless hijinks, including, as another letter reveals, stealing dinner from the town drunkard to feed “the hogs in order to keep them still till we could mount them & have a ride.”

Clemens’s letter to Mrs. Bowen begins abruptly: “Yes, I really wanted to catch the measles. I succeeded.” The statement refers to another episode of Will Bowen and Clemens’s childhood mischief. When a young Bowen came down with the measles, Clemens decided to join his friend in bed to catch the virus and “settle this matter one way or the other and be done with it,” as he revealed in a posthumously published autobiography.

But fans will notice in the letter a conspicuous absence of Twain’s characteristic humor and lightheartedness. The turn of the twentieth century was a difficult time in Clemens’s life. Will Bowen, with whom Clemens had been in correspondence for more than 30 years, had recently passed away. Shortly thereafter, in 1896, Clemens’s daughter Suzy died of meningitis. Around the same time, Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy after investing $300,000—worth approximately $8,000,000 today—in the Paige typesetting machine, a dysfunctional technology that quickly became obsolete.

Those hardships are reflected in the melancholy tone of Clemens’s letter: “[T]he romance of life is the only part of it that is overwhelmingly valuable, & romance dies with youth. After that, life is a drudge, & indeed a sham. A sham, & likewise a failure.” He fantasizes an alternate timeline, in which he would rather “call back Will Bowen & John Garth & the others, & live the life, & be as we were, & make holiday until 15, then all drown together.”

Despite his apparently bleak outlook, Clemens insists in the letter that he does not “say this uncheerfully—for I have seldom been uncheerful.” Indeed, in a post-script, he indulges in some characteristic playfulness in his response to Mrs. Bowen’s previous letter: “P.S. What we did to Brown? Oh, no, I will never reveal that!”

Follow the Ransom Center on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From the Outside In: Doodle from Notebook II of Samuel Beckett's "Watt," 1941

By Edgar Walters

Image courtesy of the Estate of Samuel Beckett.
Image courtesy of the Estate of Samuel Beckett.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This playful doodle depicting a man in a hat in the south atrium of the Harry Ransom Center is from the second of seven manuscript notebooks for Samuel Beckett’s Watt. The notebooks are remarkable artifacts reveal Beckett’s process of writing, amending, and editing, but they also contain doodles, drawings, mathematical proofs, and musical notation written in pen, crayon, and colored pencil.

Beckett wrote Watt in Vichy France during World War II from 1940 to 1945; it was the last novel he wrote in English. In the 1920s, Beckett had assisted James Joyce with research for Finnegans Wake, and Joyce’s style had a profound impact on his early work. After the war, Beckett had an epiphany while visiting his mother in Ireland, which precipitated his move to the sparser style of his later works. Beckett began work on the book in Paris, but he and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil had to flee the city when the location of their resistance cell was compromised. Beckett wrote the second half of the novel while living in Roussillon in southern France. The novel was not published until 1953, after the publication of his trilogy of novels (MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable) and Waiting for Godot, all of which were written in French.

Beckett is noted as having said that Watt was written in “drips and drabs,” as a way to “stay sane” during the war, and the manuscript reveals why the published text may seem uneven. The manuscript is “illuminated” with a range of doodles, sketches, and marginal notes, and has been likened to the illuminated Book of Kells, the Irish national treasure located at the Trinity College library in Dublin, where Beckett received his B.A. Like the Book of KellsWatt was created in isolation, is looked upon with reverence, and is abundantly illustrated (at least in the notebooks). Viewing the 945-page manuscript—with its layers of revision, doodles, and drawings marked with different pens and colored crayons—makes the complexity of its writing process apparent. The very structure of Watt is unusual: doors open after they have been discovered to be locked; the narration changes from omniscient to the point of view of an ordinary person, and then back again; a musical score and mathematical allusions are incorporated in the text; and an Addenda section contains items intended for—but not brought into—the main work. The original manuscript offers scholars the opportunity to decipher changes to the text, to interpret when they were made, and to try to see the original intent of the author.

The Ransom Center holds a broad range of Beckett’s manuscripts and correspondence. The Samuel Beckett collection includes manuscripts for more than 35 works, 400 letters, a collection of first editions, critical and biographical works, ephemera, and programs from performances. The library of collector T. E. Hanley comprises the majority of this collection, and the Carlton Lake collection provides a small but noteworthy sample of letters, manuscripts, and photographs. The holographs held by the Ransom Center—six of which were gifts from Beckett himself—include MurphyWattMolloyMalone DiesThe Unnameable,Waiting for GodotKrapp’s Last TapePlayMercier and Camier, and How It Is.

Ransom Center volunteer Sara Childress wrote this post.

From the Outside In: "Horse in Motion," Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886

By Edgar Walters

Eadweard Muybridge. "Horse in Motion," Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Eadweard Muybridge. "Horse in Motion," Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

It may come as a surprise in the twenty-first century to discover that in the 1880s, details of how objects move were unknown. The human eye, unaided, cannot resolve the details of fast motion. Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments with motion photography—such as this series of pictures of a horse’s gait—helped solve this mystery.

Born Edward Muggeridge in 1830 at Kingston upon Thames, upriver from London, he was unsatisfied with life in the small English town, and by 1850 he had left to make his fortune in the United States. Little is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco, California, five years later. In 1855, the city of San Francisco had been settled only six years prior, and it provided the wide-open possibilities for which the young man was looking. After a short time as a bookseller, and a change to the more striking name by which he is known today, he took up photography from a daguerreotypist and worked for the photographer Carleton Watkins. He made coastal surveys, and soon he had gained fame for his spectacular images of Yosemite and Alaska.

His most famous work began in 1872 when he was hired by Leland Stanford (later the founder of Stanford University) to photograph horses. Stanford reputedly had made a bet that for a moment, all four of a racehorse’s hooves are off the ground simultaneously, and he hired Muybridge to take the pictures to prove him right. This was difficult to do with the cameras of the time, and the initial experiments produced only indistinct images. The photographer then became distracted when he discovered that his young wife had taken a lover and may even have had their child by him. Muybridge tracked down the lover, shot, and killed him. When Muybridge stood trial, he did not deny the killing, but he was acquitted nonetheless. Muybridge left San Francisco and spent two years in Guatemala. On his return, Muybridge resumed his photography of horses in motion, this time far more successfully. He set up a row of cameras with tripwires, each of which would trigger a picture for a split second as the horse ran by. The results settled the debate once and for all: all four hooves do leave the ground at once, as the top middle image in this sequence demonstrates.

Muybridge spent the rest of his career improving his technique, making a huge variety of motion studies, lecturing, and publishing. As a result of his motion studies, he is regarded as one of the fathers of the motion picture. Just as Niépce’s First Photograph had, Muybridge’s motion studies showed the way to a new art form. At the end of his life, Muybridge returned to England, where he died in 1904.

The window images show a few of the plates from Muybridge’s collection Animal Locomotion, held by the Ransom Center. The Center also has a number of individual images by Muybridge in the forms of nitrate negatives, lantern slides, and stereoscopic prints.

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

The storied escapes of René Belbenoit

By Edgar Walters

If under some truly unfortunate circumstances you found yourself imprisoned on a penal colony thousands of miles from home and infamous worldwide for its unlivable conditions, a talent for writing might be your best bet for survival. A considerable amount of perseverance and good luck would also come in handy.

Such was the case of René Belbenoit, a native Parisian who, after returning from the front lines of World War I as a teenager, was sentenced in 1921 to eight years of hard labor in French Guiana for a series of thefts. He first arrived at the penal colony in Saint-Laurent du Maroni in 1923 at the age of 24, and after 14 years of misery, punctuated by several hapless escape attempts, an emaciated and toothless Belbenoit snuck his way into Los Angeles.

Short in stature, slight of build, and cheerful by nature, Belbenoit felt isolated among his fellow inmates, many of whom had committed far more violent crimes than his own. But his classification by the administration as “incorrigible,” a distinction that landed him in solitary confinement on the particularly hostile Devil’s Island, was in one sense entirely fitting: no matter what punishment he faced, Belbenoit continued to make escape attempts until he’d secured his freedom. His final count totaled four prison breaks and two illegal escapes as a libéré, a “freed” ex-convict who, despite having finished his sentence, is forbidden to leave Guiana.

Belbenoit wrote about the experience in his memoir Dry Guillotine, which takes its title from the disdainful nickname the prisoners gave to their penal home. The Ransom Center’s René Belbenoit collection contains the book’s manuscript, a 900-page tome including illustrations, an official prisoner booklet, and several flattened cigarette packets with notes written on the back, presumably from the time Belbenoit spent in prison. He began keeping a written record of his time in Guiana in 1926, but many of his early notes were destroyed by prison guards. When possible, he solicited help from the mother superior of a local nunnery to safeguard his writings. He brought them along on every escape attempt, wrapping them in oilskins for protection from the elements, but many were ruined en route. When something was lost, he would simply rewrite it.

Detailed recollections of prison misery constitute much of the first half of the memoir. The backbreaking labor, often performed naked and shoeless, was a traumatic shock for Belbenoit, as were the swarming mosquitoes and sweltering heat of the tropics. The prison administration took no pains to preserve the inmates’ health, as ships full of replacements arrived regularly. According to Belbenoit, of the average 700 annual arrivals in Guiana, approximately 400 would die in their first year. He writes, “The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.”

In addition to his accounts of the prisoners’ suffering and the guards’ brutality, Belbenoit offers unique insight into the social structure of the all-male group of the condemned. Complex hierarchies emerged as the older, more aggressive inmates battled each other to win younger boys as their môme, or submissive sexual partners. Subterfuge became a requisite skill for survival in French Guiana. Bribery was ubiquitous but risky, as the possession of money was strictly forbidden. The most experienced prisoners were also adept malingerers, often smoking quinine to sham fever for a day of rest in the infirmary.

Belbenoit, a charming storyteller and known exaggerator, wields compelling narrative at the expense of incomplete veracity. But even his likely embellished accounts, the most dramatic of which would find a comfortable home in soap opera subplots, are revealing. Foremost among these are the tales of Belbenoit’s affair with a 16-year-old daughter of an administrator, and that of a complicated love triangle involving a prisoner, his môme, and a guard’s wife. Fourteen years of enduring both physical torture and torturous monotony honed Belbenoit’s ability to captivate an audience, winning him a network of friends that was essential to his survival.

 

So while the inmates’ complaints about their merciless treatment fell on deaf ears in Guiana, Belbenoit found an eager readership in the developed world, where headlines announced the departure of penal ships in heavy terms: “Broken Men Sail for Devil’s Island” and “Condemned to a Living Death.” Selling off his notes to visiting reporters turned out to be his most lucrative enterprise, which in turn afforded him a number of unlikely prospects for escape. Blair Niles, a travel writer and novelist, encountered Belbenoit in 1926. She visited with him for several days, buying the notes he had dutifully collected and preserved for 100 francs. Belbenoit used the money to stage an unsuccessful escape, which resulted in extreme, nearly fatal punishment. Niles returned to the United States, publishing her bestselling biography of Belbenoit in 1928, titled Condemned to Devil’s Island. The book, which was adapted into the 1929 film Condemned, was influential in international prison reform movements.

But Belbenoit never succumbed to the discouragement of his previous failures, and in 1935, a similar opportunity ultimately led to his freedom. An American filmmaker, whom Belbenoit leaves unnamed in his memoir, apparently offered 200 dollars in exchange for intimate knowledge of how one would conduct a dramatic escape in the tropics. Despite Belbenoit’s answer that the only feasible strategy would be to leave by the sea, the filmmaker retorted, “This must be an escape through the jungles… combat with fierce animals, snakes, swamps… It makes a better picture.” Perhaps it was from this man that Belbenoit learned the fungible value of an exciting story.

Using the cash to secure a 19-foot boat and some provisions, Belbenoit escaped by sea with five other convicts. They were well-received by the British authorities in Trinidad, “true sportsmen” who opted not to have them deported. Belbenoit separated from the group and made his way to Central America, where he spent seven months capturing butterflies to sell and living with native tribes on his journey northward.

Belbenoit finally reached El Salvador, stowed away on a ship, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. He made his way to New York, where he published Dry Guillotine in 1938, by which time France had stopped sending prisoners to the penal colony. The prison at Devil’s Island was officially closed eight years later.

Though now largely forgotten, Belbenoit’s extraordinary experience captured media attention for the remainder of his life. He appeared on the television series This Is Your Life and in several articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he worked briefly at Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the 1944 film Passage to Marseille. Belbenoit made the most of his compelling story, understanding just how much power it could wield. After all, it had saved his life.

Additional archival materials for Belbenoit are located in the E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records at Syracuse University, in the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California, and in the Ralph Edwards Productions Production Records at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Click on thumbnails below to view larger images.