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New book sheds some light on "The House of Knopf"

By Richard Oram

We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.

Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.

Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.

[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]

 

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Costumes reveal character revelations

By Jennifer Tisdale

As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.

Film curator discusses "Making Movies" exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson elaborates about Making Movies, an exhibition that focuses on the artistic collaboration that is unique to the medium. Wilson shares how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry to illustrate the highly collaborative nature of the movie-making process.

Magnum Photos collection opens to researchers, students, and public

By Alicia Dietrich

The Magnum collection at the Harry Ransom Center, with Alex Webb's GRENADA. Gouayave. Bar. 1979 in foreground (©Alex Webb/Magnum Photos).
The Magnum collection at the Harry Ransom Center, with Alex Webb's GRENADA. Gouayave. Bar. 1979 in foreground (©Alex Webb/Magnum Photos).

The Magnum Photos collection, comprising more than 1,300 boxes of photographic materials, is now open to researchers, students and the public at the Ransom Center.

Dating from the 1930s to 2004, the bulk of the nearly 200,000 photographs from Magnum Photos’ New York bureau are gelatin silver prints, though the collection also contains some color prints.

An inventory of the collection can be found online.

In February, MSD Capital L.P., Magnum Photos and the Ransom Center announced that the collection would reside at the Ransom Center pursuant to an agreement with its new owner, an affiliate of MSD Capital, which had recently acquired the prints from Magnum Photos.

Collection showcases hand-colored tintypes in period frames

By Nicole Davis

The Stanley Burns tintype collection is a remarkable and rare assemblage of unusually large, hand-colored, American tintypes in period frames. With more than 130 items, this is one of the largest collections of its kind.

Portraiture in America has a long tradition. In the colonial era, painted portraits provided a historical record of prominent figures, while miniatures and silhouettes provided more intimate records of family members. As the middle classes prospered in the early nineteenth century, painted portraiture flourished. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the face of portraiture started to change. The daguerreotype required one- to three-minute exposures, which were hard for people to hold, but as other photographic mediums were developed, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, photography began to replace painting as the standard technique for portraits.

Tintypes, like daguerreotypes, are one-of-a-kind photographs. There is no negative, as the image is exposed directly onto the substrate. The word “tintype” is, in fact, a misnomer, as iron, not tin, was used as the substrate. The tintype process was faster, cheaper, and produced a more accurate depiction than a painting, which led to its rise in popularity, especially with the middle and working classes. The necessary equipment and chemistry were portable and thus allowed photographers to travel, providing access to people in rural areas and to Civil War soldiers.

The Burns collection consists almost entirely of portraits, many of which are of individuals, including paired sets of husbands and wives. Additionally there are family portraits, some of which are “composite” images where the photographer reproduced earlier portraits of individuals into one group portrait, a method often used to include deceased family members. There are also many portraits of children, including post-mortem photographs of infants. Portraits of African-Americans and people in trade uniforms exemplify how photography helped democratize art by making it accessible to lower and working class citizens.

The tintypes in this collection are all painted, either with oil paints or watercolor. Some are painted heavily in a folk-art style while others have only minimal colorization. Tintypes were not usually painted, but doing so placed them within the tradition of painted portraiture and thus closer to being fine art. Painting them also made up for the poor contrast of tintypes and could make them appear more life-like. Most commonly, tintypes measured about two by three inches and were housed in paper display folders, but the ones in this collection measure six by eight inches or larger and are displayed in elaborate frames, another practice that helped raise the status of the photograph to fine art.

The frames in the collection are of equal importance to the photographs, and they represent a variety of styles—from the plain to the elaborate—and date from 1840 to 1910. Renaissance revival and federal revival styles are simple and elegant; rococo revival frames include scrollwork and flower motifs. Many frames in the collection are Eastlake style, named for the nineteenth-century British architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake. These consist of ebonized or marbleized wood with incised geometric patterns. Aesthetic style frames, also well represented in this collection, are distinguished by the clarity of their molded designs with motifs inspired by nature. The collection also includes frames in tramp art and rustic styles, which are more simply decorated, carved-wood designs. The range of styles from simple wood constructions to elaborate gilt moldings reveal the social status of each photograph and, by extension, the subjects.

 

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Watch video interviews with novelist Alan Furst

By Alicia Dietrich

‘Spies of the Balkans’ by Alan Furst
‘Spies of the Balkans’ by Alan Furst

Writer Alan Furst, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, is known for his historical espionage novels set in pre-World War II Europe. His most recent novel, Spies of the Balkans, will be released today. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight for a chance to win one of two copies of the book. [Update: This contest has ended, and winners have been notified.]

Furst visited the Ransom Center last fall and sat down for an interview to discuss his writing and his archive. Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Furst discusses why he writes spy novels.

Furst discusses how he develops atmosphere in his books.

Furst talks about what it means for him and his career to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

Fans of Furst can also check out his recommended reading, read his Writers Reflect interview, and listen to him read from his book Spies of Warsaw on the Ransom Center’s website.

Inside a Book of Hours

By Alicia Dietrich

Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation. HRC MS 6, fol. 15r, France, mid to late 15th century.
Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation. HRC MS 6, fol. 15r, France, mid to late 15th century.
Books of Hours were medieval prayer books designed for laymen. Part I of this series outlined the historical context for the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. The current installment takes a look inside a Book of Hours and illustrates some of the more common elements of these books with images drawn from the Ransom Center’s collections.

European popular imagery collection now accessible online

By Peter Mears

Spanning the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Ransom Center’s European popular imagery collection is now fully accessible online via two sources: the Center’s finding aid and ARTstor’s nonprofit digital library.

The Ransom Center’s online finding aid includes descriptive text derived from collector’s notes and a lengthy subject index. Each record in the finding aid also includes a link to the related image. ARTstor’s digital library provides advanced search functions and the ability to group selected images for PowerPoint display in classrooms, with images at high resolution.

The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the resultant cultural phenomenon called “Popular Imagery” is a perfect example of cause and effect. Like printed words, unlimited reproductions of images helped bring about the development of a new visual language in early European society and a burgeoning cultural renaissance. The broad scope of the collection, whose origins include nine European countries, illustrate this fact. Prints make up the bulk of the popular imagery collection, with 686 intaglios (including 17 mezzotints), 115 woodcuts, one wood engraving, and six lithographs. Researchers will find an abundance of subjects, from political satire on kings, rulers, revolution, and war to social satire on gender, marriage, and domestic life; from religious studies and their allegorical themes on vice and virtue to numerous motifs on “The Ages of Man,” and “The Dance Macabre” or “Dance of Death.” Great moments in science and technology are visually well-represented in the collection, as are entertaining designs for buildings, board games, and signs of the Zodiac.

While some of the works in this collection were created anonymously—often to protect the creator from ridicule, incarceration, or worse—the collection also includes imagery by many significant artists of the time period, including Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), Hans Holbein (1497–1543) and Lucas Cranach, the Younger (1515–1586).

 

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Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

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Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography

By Alicia Dietrich

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.

Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.

Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.

At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.