Best Wishes for Xmas, (signed) James Joyce

The early weeks of December often bring a welcome variety to one’s mailbox: Christmas cards.  These envelopes, a nice respite from the usual junk mail and bills, reflect a long-held tradition of exchanging postal pleasantries at Christmastime.  The Weeks family, who built Salisbury House in the 1920s, kept this custom as well.  Our collections here at the museum contain a few samples of the Weekses’ own Christmas cards, and other cards and holiday greetings penned by well-known artists and writers of the twentieth century.

The exchange of Christmas cards was a practice first established in the mid-1800s.  A British businessman, Sir Henry Cole, is typically credited with producing the first commercial holiday card in 1843.  One of the Cole originals sold at auction in 2001 for over £22,000.

800px-FirstchristmascardSir Henry Cole’s Christmas Card, c. 1843

By the turn of the twentieth century, this December ritual had taken hold in Europe and the United States.  Indeed, a young Carl Weeks had his own Christmas cards printed around this time.  The card pictured below is undated, but the fact that the text includes only Carl’s name – and not Edith, whom he married in 1907 – suggests the piece was printed sometime around 1900 (though, as we will see, Carl did not uniformly include Edith’s name on the family Christmas card even after their marriage).

Just Carl undated

After the completion of Salisbury House in 1928, the family home often illustrated the Weekses’ Christmas cards.

Color CEW undated

CEW BW Xmas late 1930s_1940s

The Weeks boys also appeared in the annual Christmas card from time to time.  A handwritten date on the back of the card pictured below indicates that it was sent “around 1938.”  This is curious, given the inscription: “Holiday Greetings from the Three Bachelors of Salisbury House.”

First of all, the only unmarried Weeks man around 1938 was Lafe (the youngest son, standing in the image below).  William was married in 1935.  Carl, of course, was married to Edith.  Perhaps “Three Bachelors” was meant as a joke…but one wonders if Edith or Margaret (William’s wife) found it particularly funny!

Bachelors Reverse says ca 1938

In addition to sending out holiday cards, the Weekses also received them from a variety of friends and acquaintances.  Joseph Stella, a prolific Italian-American artist of the twentieth century, maintained a long relationship with Carl and Edith.  Correspondence over the years between the Weekses and the Stellas often included a Christmas greeting.

 More broadly, though, Carl and Edith were important patrons of Stella’s work.  Stella inscribed a 1926 photograph of himself in the process of painting The Apotheosis of the Roseone of his major works, with thanks to the Weeks family for supporting his artistic endeavors.  The Rose now hangs in Salisbury House.

Stella combined

The Weekses and Stella remained in touch.  From Paris in 1931, Stella penned the following letter:

Stella 1931 note

Paris – Dec. 14 – 1931

Dear Mr. Weeks,

For Christmas I send to you and to Mrs. Weeks my best wishes.

Cordially,

Joseph Stella

Another holiday greeting, addressed to Carl at his office, came from the writer Maurine Whipple in 1942.   Extant correspondence between Whipple and Weeks was quite extensive, and suggested a unique relationship that was reflected in her 1942 Christmas card.

Whipple 1942

Salt Lake City

Dec. 17, ‘42

Dear Bro in the Gospel:

Just a word of cheer and Season’s Greeting before I go back to my corner of the Lord’s vineyard.  Indeed I am blessed to have a corner to go back to! Since the invasion of the gentiles into our City of Saints the weather has turned so foul that truly I think the Lord is pouring out His wrath.  At any rate, I have had four wisdom teeth out and am completely recovered from last fall’s accident and am now ready to work fifteen hours a day for the Arizona Strip, of which you are slated to receive the first autographed copy! (If I hear from you someday, that is.  I am worried – Satan is abroad!)

Faithfully,

Sister Whipple

The year prior to this Christmas missive, Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, a novel about the Mormon religion, was published to widespread popular and critical acclaim.  This holiday letter from Whipple to Weeks took place at a time in which she was increasingly well-known on the national stage.

Additionally, the historical backdrop of the early 1940s is apparent within this exchange.  December 17, 1942:  the United States had been engaged in World War II for almost exactly one year.  The envelope that landed on Weeks’ desk advertised for war bonds and stamps:

Whipple 3 env

Yet another singular Christmas card arrived at Salisbury House in December 1948.  Mailed to the Weekses from Philip Duschnes, a prominent New York bookseller, the envelope included an astonishing supplement.  A leaf from a fifteenth-century manuscript, intricately illuminated on vellum, was enclosed in a paper mat.

Duschenes 1948

An inscription inside the card provided additional identifying information:

Dechenes xmas 2

Philip Duschnes became well-known during his career as a bookseller for offering high-quality pieces and also for the practice of selling single leaves from significant works.   Weeks, a devoted bibliophile, was clearly a good customer.

Duschnes often collaborated with Otto Ege, a dean at the Cleveland School of Art and lecturer at (Case) Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  One of their joint efforts, titled Original Leaves from Famous Books: Nine Centures, 1122 A.D. – 1923 A.D. remains in the Salisbury House collection today.  The collection, one of fifty made available for purchase, went on the market in 1949.  Leaves from the “famous books” were placed in a paper mat and included a brief description penned by Ege.

Leaves.1

This leaf came from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Ethics, detailed below by Ege.

Original leaves 4 infor

As Ege notes, a secular writer likely penned this 1365 manuscript.  Compared to the leaf from the Book of Hours included in Duschnes’ Christmas card above, marked differences appear in the production of the manuscripts that suggest the secular versus the religious origins of each.

As amazing as the Duschnes, Whipple, and Stella pieces are, however, there is yet another object in the Salisbury House collections that takes the cool quotient up a notch.  The piece initially appears to be a fun, vintage-y Christmas postcard:

Joyce 1

 The back of the postcard reveals just how awesome this piece is:

Joyce 2

Your eyes do not deceive you.  Yes, this is a Christmas card signed by James Joyce and Nora [Barnacle] Joyce.

The massive geek-out does not stop there.  Attempts to date the postcard yielded a trove of information that takes this piece to epic levels of amazing.

We started with the stamp.  Although the postmark date remained illegible, we were able to track down some reliable-looking information about the stamp’s origins.  Issued in 1927 and dedicated to the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot, the commemorative stamp suggests that the postcard probably dates to the late 1920s.

There’s more.  The Christmas postcard is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. James Stephens.

James Stephens, like Joyce, was an Irish-born writer.  According to an article by Richard R. Finneran published in the James Joyce Quarterly, the two men did not immediately become friends.  Indeed, their relationship remained somewhat antagonistic until the 1920s.   Despite this early frostiness, Joyce and Stephens agreed around 1927-1929 that, should Joyce face insurmountable difficulties in completing Finnegan’s Wake, Stephens would finish the work for him.

This postcard, held here at Salisbury House, surely dates to this very time, during which Joyce and Stephens cemented their friendship and struck their agreement regarding Finnegan’s Wake.  

This postcard, held here in the Salisbury House collections, illuminates the story of one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century.

Merry Christmas.

The Picasso on the Shelf

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) was a publishing house founded in 1929 by George Macy in the heyday of the private press movement. The LEC was dedicated to producing small runs of exquisitely made and finely illustrated books, some of them literary classics, and some of them important contemporary works. Generally, the LEC would issue a dozen books each year, with only 1,500 copies of each item printed. They were often signed by the artists, designers, authors, bookmakers or others associated with the titles in question.

Carl and Edith Weeks were charter members of the LEC, and they remained subscribers through 1954, leaving us with a rare complete collection of these important and beautiful books. Carl and Edith had subscription number 589, so almost all of their LEC books have a “589” hand-written in them somewhere, typically along with the autograph of the artists or authors.

Matisse's "Polyphemus" from LEC edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses." (click to enlarge)

Henri Matisse’s “Polyphemus” from LEC edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The two most-widely collectible and coveted LEC books in the Salisbury House library are a 1935 edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse (250 copies were signed by Joyce, but we don’t have one of them — a rare missing item in our otherwise magnificent Joyce collection) and a 1934 edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, illustrated and signed by Pablo Picasso.

Matisse’s illustrations from Ulysses do not depict James Joyce’s Dublin, but rather evoke Leopold Bloom’s one-day odyssey through that city’s streets by making explicit the subtle structural parallels that Joyce wove between Ulysses and Homer’s Odysseus. So while the section paralleling the Cyclops’ tale in Ulysses is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where Bloom is berated by an un-named, anti-Semitic “citizen,” Matisse illustrates the scene with a literal depiction of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus. It’s a powerful piece of art (click the image at left to enlarge it; each of the differently sized blue and yellow sheets are bound into the book), but personally speaking, I find that these images distract the reader from Joyce’s narrative, rather than supporting it. If Joyce had wanted his allusions to Odysseus to be so obvious, I think he would have written the book differently. I wonder sometimes if this is why Joyce did not sign all of the Matisse copies.

Aristophanes died some 23 centuries before Carl and Edith purchased their LEC copy of his Lysistrata, so there’s no telling what he would have though about Pablo Picasso’s illustrations therein — but I love them to pieces, and think this is one of the most gorgeous, well-designed, fully-integrated books produced by the LEC. I share some images below, including Picasso’s signature page. Do you agree that he got it right? (As always, click to enlarge)

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The Bibles of Salisbury House

There are a lot of myths and apocryphal tales about Salisbury House that have taken root in the popular perception of Carl and Edith Weeks’ amazing home. Some of the ones that we hear most often include:

  • “The house was moved intact, brick by brick, piece by piece, from England.” The real story: The house is modeled after King’s House in Salisbury, England, and some architectural elements were acquired in England, while others came from more mundane locations, including cobblestones ripped up from High Street in Des Moines.
  • “Carl Weeks’ father died when he was a young boy.” The real story: Carl’s father and mother separated, and Carl’s father lived for many years afterward, into Carl’s own adulthood, in northwestern Iowa; this myth was repeated often enough that the story of Carl’s father’s premature passing actually made it onto our visitor center signs before recent research proved it wrong!
  • “Carl Weeks collected or tried to collect every Bible ever printed.” The real story: Carl only collected a tiny fraction of the probably immeasurable number of Bibles that have been printed since the first Gutenberg edition in 1454, but among the ones that he did collect are some of the most important and beautiful Bibles ever produced.

Spine from our oldest complete Bible, published in Venice.

One of our conceptual planning ideas for 2013 or 2014 is to curate an exhibition of some of the more incredible pieces from the Salisbury House Bible Collection, most of which spend most of their time locked away in climate controlled, high security rooms. We’re going to be doing some fundraising for this project and perhaps reach out to some area churches as presenting or collaborating sponsors over the next year, since we’ll have some significant costs associated with safely sharing these works with the public, while also conducting the in-depth research required to interpret and present them in the ways that they deserve to be seen.

But until we get there, we’ve been doing a little bit of preliminary research just to get our hands around the holdings, and there are some exciting things that we can share with you now, just to give you a sense of what we’re finding.

In addition to our many Bibles printed with movable type, we also have some earlier hand-lettered and illuminated incunabula from the 13th to 15th Centuries. Our oldest Biblical documents were produced in 1200 and 1225 in England; they are single, hand-illuminated leaves, one from a Psalter, one from a Bible. We also have three illuminated Books of Hours dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Dutch Bible, 1553.

The 42-line Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s, is obviously a landmark work of art and culture, a true game-changer for the ages. There are only 48 substantially complete copies left in the world today, and none have changed hands since the 1970s. In 1921, though, a New York book dealer dismantled a damaged copy and sold individual leafs to collectors; these are now known as “Noble Fragments,” and we have one of them here at Salisbury House. We also have two leaves from the 1460 Gutenberg Catholicon (another seminal early printed work, this one a Latin encyclopedia cum dictionary) and a leaf from the original 1611 King James Bible, among many other fragmentary pieces.

Our oldest complete Bible was printed in Venice in 1483 by Franciscus Renner of Heilbrun. It was clearly a working or study Bible, and many of its pages contain hand-written marginalia exhibiting the distinctive sepia tone of aged iron gall ink. We also have the New Testament from a Douay-Rheims Bible (1582, the first translation of the Bible from Latin Vulgate to English), a complete Dutch Bible from 1553, a 1607 English Bible bound with The Book of Common Prayer and Sternhold and Hopkin’s Psalms of David, a Greek Apocrypha from 1612, and many dozen other Bibles printed around the world up through the middle of the 20th Century.

Bruce Rogers’ massive Oxford Lectern Bible (1935), next to a reproduction of a Gutenberg set, for scale.

In addition to his interests in the Bible itself, Carl Weeks was also fascinated by and hugely supportive of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century, wherein the art of book-making was celebrated in ways that matched the magnificence of a text’s words with illustrations, paper and binding of equal brilliance. The Salisbury House Library features two epic books inspired by this cultural movement: Bruce Rogers’ 1935 Oxford Lectern Bible (we have one of the 200 large format editions)  and the 1903-1905 Doves Bible. Every facet of these books is beautiful, and they are truly great works of art in their own rights.

Five volume Doves Bible, 1903-1905.

Some of our Bibles aren’t important because of the quality of their construction or when or where they were printed, but rather because of who owned them. We have Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament, for example, along with Bibles either inscribed or owned by John Trumbull, James Boswell, William Henry Harrison, and others. Carl’s favored book-dealer was a gentleman named Harry Marks, from New York City, and we often find notes from Harry in our books themselves or letters in our archives providing background or provenance for Carl’s benefit.

C.L. Dodgson signed his Greek New Testament; most know him as Lewis Carroll of “Alice in Wonderland” fame.

While we work to develop a full exhibition of our Bibles over the next couple of years, we are going to be taking one step in the short-term to allow some of these fragile or priceless pieces to be seen, without subjecting them to the rigors of daily exhibitions and tours. In January, we will be launching what we’re nominally calling “The Treasures Tour.” It will be an evening tour, held once per month, to a limited number of people (probably 20), with preregistration required. We are developing a list of items that will be shown each month of this tour (likely including the Gutenberg leaf, along with some of the other Bibles mentioned above), and will also feature a few wild card items each month, perhaps inspired by the season, or happenings in the world around us, or simply by finding something remarkable in our research.

Harry Marks’ notes, Lewis Carroll’s Greek New Testament.

In the early 1990s, when the founders of the Salisbury House Foundation were assessing the true merit in preserving Salisbury House as a historic house museum, they engaged the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct an assessment of the house and its holdings. Their conclusion: “Salisbury House is a nationally significant architectural resource; its decorative arts and book collections are unique to the Midwest.”

I know I speak for everyone on the staff here, as well as our volunteers and board members, when I say that we are all actively committed to working in the years ahead to continually return to and be invigorated by the fundamental principle upon which our organization is built: that Salisbury House is truly, truly special, and its collections are worthy of international recognition.

Objects and Humanity

I spent three days last week in Salt Lake City at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting, to accept a national award for an interior preservation project that was planned and executed long before I actually started working as Executive Director at the House. I was delighted to be there, of course, and even more delighted to have our Curator and Director of Education, Leo E. Landis, join me to receive this honor in front of a large and enthusiastic gathering of Leo’s museum and history colleagues from around the country, since he’s the person who really deserved it. The trip also gave Leo the chance to do some original research at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, where we learned some interesting things about Carl Weeks’ days in “Mormon Dixie” (Southwestern Utah) as a young man, but we’ll save those for another blog post later!

I participated in various plenary and breakout sessions during the AASLH conference, one of which had to do with the importance (or lack thereof) of objects when it comes to interpreting history. There was a healthy discussion about whether historic objects have intrinsic value in and of themselves, or whether they need to be linked to specific people or places to gain historic resonance. I really sit on the razor’s edge in this argument, as I sense that some objects are intrinsically valuable simply because they are beautiful or haunting or cool or unique, while some objects gain value only when they are connected via specific personal or physical associations. I guess the real challenge, for me, is figuring out which object are which, and why. And I would probably defer to the philosophers on that one.

As part of the discussion in Utah, I suggested in our group that connecting objects to people and places in history may sometimes be a pointless enterprise if those objects, people and places are not also somehow connected to relevant contemporary concepts, understandings and ideas. At Salisbury House, we’re trying to use our social media initiatives to accomplish this past-to-present connection via objects in our collections. At staff meeting every Monday, we look at what’s going on in the world around us, and then try to tap our collections to find unique Salisbury House-specific objects that link our founding collectors (Carl and Edith Weeks) with current issues of impact and import.

My last blog post here about Banned Books Week was one such attempt to frame a story with modern relevance, using specific objects that were once considered taboo, that were collected by specific people at a specific time in years gone by, and that remain in our collection today, for the cultural and educational benefit of the public. During the course of the week, Leo and I found various banned or suppressed books and posted about them on our Facebook Page . . . which you should follow, if you aren’t already!

While it was really neat for us to find and share some truly incredible art works and early editions of banned, bowdlerized, censored or suppressed books, the most meaningful find for me last week was Carl Weeks’ copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, not for the book itself, but because of Carl’s penciled notes within its margins. The text of Man and Superman clearly meant a great deal to him, as the book is filled with exclamation points, underlines, checks, brackets, and other notes attempting to distill the deeper meaning within and beyond the words on the page.

I provide a visual sample taken from Carl’s copy of Man and Superman, which bears his signature in its inner cover, and the date “8/17/04,” presumably when he purchased it. (This was before the play made its actual theatrical debut in May 1905). The page in question is taken from the controversial and often-censored third act, and it is worth noting that Man and Superman was not performed in its uncensored entirety until 1915.

Sample page from Carl Weeks’ annotated copy of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” circa 1905.

In 1904, Carl was a 28-year old single man, actively courting his wife-to-be Edith (who had far more formal education than he did) and working with his brother at his mother’s family’s drug company. He had experienced some misdiagnosed health difficulties and some painful surgeries as a result (that’s what led him to Utah). I see, in his marks on these pages, a young man at a particularly tumultuous time in his life, seeking to better understand and make sense of both the seen and the unseen worlds around him. I feel I know him better, even though he died before I was born, for having seen these and so many objects that he purchased, protected and passed on in his lifetime.

I am reminded, in seeing this particular facet of Carl’s collections, of a quote I have always loved about the study of the humanities:

Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. — “The Humanities in American Life,” Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities (1980).

I am fortunate to come to work daily in a building that houses the most extraordinary collection of primary humanities-based objects with which I have ever had the chance to interact . . . which is really saying something given some of the amazing collections I’ve worked with in years past. I believe one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Salisbury House Foundation must be to use this collection of objects to help others — scholars, students and non-academics alike — make “moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of [the] world” by deploying these resources to the teaching and celebration of the humanities as a vital pursuit for our city, state and nation. Through his objects, I can see a young Carl Weeks trying to answer that big humanities question — what does it mean to be human? — and I relish the thought of having his collection assist generation after generation in their own efforts to understand.

Toward this end, we are in the planning phases of a collaborative program with several other humanities-based institutions around the state of Iowa, and will soon announce a Spring 2013 event that will serve as a pilot/kick-off program for a state-wide celebration of the humanities, centered at Salisbury House. We hope you will follow this blog and our Facebook page to keep abreast of this exciting project as it develops, and to learn more about the many incredible objects (and the places and people with which they are associated) at Salisbury House, and how they give meaning, substance, perspective or resonance to so many important topics today.