Wednesday, 16 May 2012

touching the ephemeral

When I heard that Ashlie of PaintingBliss had chosen 'chapbook' as her theme for the Sketchbook Project 2013, I was intrigued. I had no idea what a chapbook was!

In fact, as wikipedia helpfully explains, the term chapbook encompasses a diverse range of printed ephemera in the form of cheap little booklets: tracts, nursery rhymes, courtship advice, recipes, poetry, songs and random amusements. I was amazed to discover that the one of the most important historical collections of chapbooks was practically on my doorstep, in the Samuel Pepys' Library, in Magdalene College, Cambridge.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the library and look at one of the volumes of chapbooks in Pepys' collection. What was particularly special was to be able to touch and leaf through these ancient pages. There are so few surviving chapbooks, as they were not designed to last and at a time when paper was expensive the pages were re-used in the household (something I also like to do, in different ways, for different reasons).

I wish I could show you photos of the tiny leather-bound volume containing many, many thin yellowing pages of chapbooks, with often beautiful woodcut illustrations. I saw a selection from the "penny merriments" collection: it included palmistry lessons, poetic guides to seducing women, dialogues between squabbling spouses, 'the gentlewoman's cupboard unlocked' (useful recipes), and a particular favourite: 'a new merry book of all fives', containing numerous lists of five things, such as 'five things that are hardly hidden' and, if I remember rightly, 'five animals to avoid on a hot day'!
The image above, taken from a blog post about broadside ballads and chapbooks, is probably scanned from this 1977 edited book of the penny merriments. But - and I shiver slightly as I type this - I have seen, and held, the original.

{from my notes}
I think after this wonderful experience I may have to join Ashlie in choosing this theme for my next Sketchbook Project!

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