John Dryden: First Poet Laureate

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Three hundred and fifty years ago this year, Jonathan (John) Dryden (1631-1700), was appointed by Charles II as the first official holder of the position of Poet Laureate. Trinity College has educated two other Laureates since then: Laurence Eusden (1688-1730) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

Dryden was born in Aldwinkle and raised in Titchmarsh, both in Northamptonshire.  Later he was educated at Westminster School and then became an undergraduate here at Trinity between 1650 and 1654. In 1661 he became a Fellow of the College and in 1663, he presented a number of manuscripts to the College Library. These included a volume containing Bishop Robert Grosseteste’s sermons (R.8.16) and the beautiful album of Greek and Turkish Costumes (R.14.23) now known as the Dryden Album.

R.3.10, f.1r

Trinity also owns an early manuscript copy of Dryden’s The Indian Emperour (R.3.10) which was first performed in London at the Theatre Royal, Bridges Street in 1665 and brought him his first real success as a playwright. Trinity’s copy was owned by Elizabeth Newton Puckering in 1665 and donated to Trinity College in 1691 by her husband Sir Henry Puckering (formerly Newton). The play was first printed in 1667.

Plague closed the London theatres in late 1665 and Dryden moved to Wiltshire where he continued to produce new work including a play, Secret Love, the influential essay, Of Dramatick Poesie and the poem Annus Mirabilis which considered two events of 1666: the second Anglo Dutch war and the fire of London. The success of these works, especially Annus Mirabilis, may have been influential in his appointment as Poet Laureate. It became (and remains) the expectation that people appointed to this role write verses for significant national events and occasions. One of the best-known examples is Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Dryden became one of the major figures in Restoration culture but was dismissed as Laureate following the accession of William and Mary in 1689 because, as a convert to Catholicism, he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to them. He remains the only Poet Laureate ever to have been dismissed.

Poetry by Dryden, Eusden and Tennyson as well as many other poets associated with Trinity college is included in the anthology Trinity Poets, edited by Adrian Poole and Angela Leighton, published in 2017.

For other posts which refer to Dryden see A Turkish Souvenir: The Dryden Album and Anglo-Ottoman Contact and  Hail! Bright Cecilia!


Recent Additions to the Wren Digital Library (VII)




B.9.7, S. Athanasii Tractatus

B.9.7, p.1

This volume, written by Emmanuel Bobeni of Monembasia, is the manuscript the Library has owned for the longest time and was given to the college by John Christopherson, Master and Bishop of Chichester who died in 1558 . It was mentioned by Thomas James in Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis as being at Trinity in 1600. Trinity’s manuscript collection was further developed in the first quarter of the 17th century by major donations from Archbishop Whitgift in 1604, Edward Stanhope in 1608, Thomas Nevile in 1611-12 and George Willmer in 1608-14. Together, these four men donated a total of 329 manuscripts.

B.5.1, Bible

B.5.1, f.245v

This 12th-century Bible was once at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire. The featured page shows the beginning of the Eusebian canons. Eusebius was a scholar who lived in Caesarea and who devised a way of comparing the texts of the four Gospels. The system was typically displayed within architectural-style columns headed by the name of the Gospel. Eusebius divided each Gospel into numbered sections and recorded similar passages in parallel across the columns, enabling cross-referencing.

B.1.30, Isidore

B.1.30, p.47

On the page illustrated here from a volume of the works of Isidore, the scribe has written the letter Z backwards. This would seem to be in order to accommodate the rest of the lettering in red (Zacharias & Elisabeth ambo) within the column. It may be compared with the Z for Zacharias, which was written correctly on p. 19 of the same volume.

Fragments of a 10th-century service book were originally bound in with this manuscript. They can be viewed here.

B.2.35, St Iohannes Chrysostomus super Epistolam ad Hebraeos, etc

B.2.35, f. 43r

This 12th-century volume contains a number of folios where repairs made to the vellum are evident. These repairs were made prior to the writing of the text and the scribe has written around them. There are other examples on f.11r and f.51r.

Parchment was made from animal skin (usually cow or sheep). Its production involved several stages: washing and soaking the skins, scraping away excess hair and then stretching the membrane on a frame in order for it to dry. Holes in the skins sometimes split when the skins were stretched. Since parchment was expensive these holes were usually mended by the parchment maker. The shape of the mending holes on this page indicates that the repair was made by the parchment maker (and not the scribe) as the holes made by the needle have been pulled into oval shapes as part of the drying process.

The entire Wren Digital Library can be viewed here.





Bindings in the Spotlight (6)

Suidas Graece, VI.18.25, upper cover

Jean Grolier (c.1489-1565), originally from Lyons, is remembered today as a bibliophile who put together an extensive collection of books with specially commissioned fine bindings. Most of his books were printed in Italy (often Venice) or Basle and the bindings were usually from Milanese and Parisian workshops.

This Milanese binding in morocco, decorated with medallions or plaquettes, was an early 16th century addition to Grolier’s collection. Plaquettes are impressions made in relief. The stamps are produced by casting in a mould from a wax model. The first plaquettes were produced in Italy from the mid-15th century and were used for decorating presentation book bindings, but also for larger items such as furniture.

Grolier was the first to apply plaquettes to book bindings for a private library and his collection contains some of the best examples of this form of decoration. Grolier’s books were also the first to be decorated by medallions made by contemporary artists. The upper cover has Abundance and a Satyr by Fra Antonio da Brescia (1487-1513) and the lower cover has The Judgement of Paris by the artist signing Io.F.F. The plaquettes retain some of their original colouring and are surrounded by a tooled, gilt lozenge.

The volume was given to the Trinity Library in memory of alumnus and manuscript collector, Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1928).

Suidas Graece, VI.18.25, lower cover

John Norden’s Maps of Cornwall

We have recently digitised Speculum Brittaniae (O.4.19) and in so doing were reminded of a piece of historical detective work undertaken in the 1970s.

In the late 16th century, the cartographer John Norden (c. 1547-1625) began a project to produce a survey of every county in England as a series called Speculum Britanniae. The project was never fully completed. Norden presented the manuscript copy of his Cornish survey containing maps and descriptions to King James I. This manuscript (now catalogued as Ms Harl 6252 in the British Museum) has long proved an enigma: bound within it is a series of engraved, printed maps. These maps were a later replacement for the original manuscripts maps, but the whereabouts of the original manuscript maps was unknown. In the 1970s this puzzle was solved by William Ravenhill of the University of Exeter.

At some point after 1642 – probably during the Civil War – the manuscript presented to the King was removed from the Royal Library and the maps were separated from the text. The antiquarian, Roger Gale (1672-1744) later purchased these maps and kept them together with another early manuscript copy of Norden’s survey that he acquired around 1696.

In 1728 William Pearson, working for the bookseller Christopher Bateman, produced a printed edition of Norden’s survey of Cornwall. He used as his basis the royal manuscript (Ms Harl 6252), but because the maps had been removed and were by that time in the possession of Roger Gale, he borrowed them from Gale in order to copy them and produce a series of engraved maps for the printed edition. A contemporary, Thomas Hearne (1678-1725), of the Bodleian Library, wrote:

The mapps in Norden’s Cornwall, lately printed, Mr Bateman borrowed of Roger Gale, Esq. They were returned to Mr Gale again … These Mapps without doubt belonged originally to the MS. That Mr Bateman hath and printed from …

Four copies of the printed edition were made on vellum, as well as 200 other copies on paper. Trinity College Library possesses one of the vellum copies (X.15.51 [1]) as well as two copies of the edition printed on paper (X.16.47 and Grylls 5.108).

Bateman then had a set of the engraved maps coloured and bound with the original manuscript (Ms Harl 6252). As part of a large bequest in 1738, Gale presented his composite copy to Trinity College. It was this manuscript that William Ravenhill, following various leads over 200 years later, realised contained Norden’s original manuscript maps.

Hundred of Penwith

Further Reading:

William Ravenhill, ‘The Missing Maps from John Norden’s Survey of Cornwall’, Exeter Essays in Geography (1971)

Trinity Lends to the Royal Society

Isaac Newton’s Astronomical Ring Dial

A new exhibition – Science Made Visible: Drawings, Prints, Objects – is open, free of charge at the Royal Society 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG until December 2018. The exhibition looks at how visual representations were used in the conduct of early modern science. It includes sketches, drawings and prints of subjects as diverse as botany, astronomy and mechanical engines. Trinity College has loaned a number of items to the exhibition including Isaac Newton’s astronomical ring dial, a parallel rule and drawing instruments, as well as woodblocks used for the printing of the Principia Mathematica.

For more information see here and for an online exhibition see here.

Uncompromising women: the fight for the vote

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act; a law which gave the vote to certain women in Britain, as long as they were over 30 and met a property qualification. Ten years later, women achieved the same voting rights as men. We are also celebrating the 40 year anniversary of female undergraduates being admitted to Trinity College. To honour this landmark year of anniversaries, we have compiled a display highlighting a few of our items relating to women’s suffrage drawn from the Pethick-Lawrence Collection.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Vehement socialist, Emmeline Pethick met Trinity alumnus, Frederick Lawrence in 1900.


After Emmeline denied him marriage a number of times due to her deeply rooted socialism, Frederick began to move left in his political view. The pair married in 1901, combining their names, and soon became major figures in the fight for women’s suffrage.

The Pethick-Lawrences got involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters in 1903. However, the WSPU tended towards an extreme and violent approach to attaining the vote for women, which led to the incarceration of both Pethick-Lawrences.

This letter from Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to the WSPU, written from Holloway prison, emphasises her pride in the union, and describes how comforting it is that her prison uniform is green and white, and her library card “faintly purplish”, the same colours that represent the suffrage movement. The choice of these colours for the organisation is attributed to Emmeline.



Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (known as Constance Lytton) was an influential British activist and writer in support of suffrage, prison reform and birth control. She is best known for revealing class prejudice in the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes.

Lady Constance was well treated in prison, but when incarcerated under the pseudonym ‘Jane Warton’, a less wealthy suffragette, she had her teeth broken, and was forcibly fed to the point that permanent damage was done to her heart.


This note written by Lady Constance highlights her passionate opinion on the necessity of violent protest.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and political leader, who was recently immortalised as a statue that faces Westminster Palace in London, was pioneering in the fight for the right to vote. At 20 years old, Millicent was deemed too young to sign the 1866 petition, but went on to dedicate the rest of her life to attaining votes for women. She died in 1929, only a year after women achieved the same voting rights as men.

In this letter to Lady Constance, Millicent suggests that she is trying to enlist the help of influential men in her campaign for suffrage, such as soon-to-be Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.



Christabel Pankhurst

Daughter of known radical Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst wrote this letter to Lady Constance, criticising various powerful men for not doing more to help the cause. She comments on the indignation of suffragettes being incarcerated and abused for such things as “inciting speeches”, while the militant movement in Ulster cost thousands of lives, but the men responsible were walking free.

Christabel’s final words of this letter embody her lively and forthright personality, and confidence in the suffrage movement:

“Thank-goodness we can win without [men] anyhow […] Women winning their own freedom. Glorious thought!”


Bindings in the Spotlight (5)

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Jean de Gonet (1950-) is one of the best-known modern French binders.  His work represents a revolution in traditional modern binding featuring visible sewing structures and the use of unusual materials, including metals, rubber and plastic.  On display are a number of examples taken from the Kessler Collection.  As an example of an unusual material, the bindings for Ulysses and Appogiatures use ‘revorim’, de Gonet’s own purpose-designed moulded plastic for book covers.

Nicholas Kessler (matriculated 1958) both bought and commissioned bindings by de Gonet, with whom he had meetings on several occasions.  In notes made by Mr Kessler at one such meeting, de Gonet explains his binding method:

  • Book to open properly
  • Leather or other material on spine separated from cover so that repeated opening of the book will not destroy the join between cover and spine
  • Make the bands on the outside of the spine functional

Mr Kessler recounts their first meeting in 2004 in his own inimitable style, referring to himself as NEK:

‘A meeting was therefore arranged at 3 o’clock on Monday April 26th in Paris.  His studio, in the basement of a building in an inside courtyard, is locked but visitors are instructed to “frappez fort”.  NEK did this.  No reply.  Uncertain, in case JdeG had reverted to the recluse mode, NEK struck the glass portal again and the door opens.  NEK introduces himself and a welcoming smile crosses the face of the door opener who also introduced himself.  “Sorry”, he says, “but there is a psychiatric clinic next door and our door is constantly having to be opened to their patients who mistake our studio for the clinic.  Hence the locking”.  NEK said that he was mad enough to buy expensively bound books but had otherwise, at least to date, not been certified.[!]’



A Botanical Watercolourist at Trinity: Clarence Bicknell

Trinity College has seen many notable botanists pass through its doors, perhaps most famously John Ray and Francis Willughby, whose magnificent busts by Roubiliac adorn the entrance to the Wren Library. A small exhibition running until 4 July 2018 celebrates the botanical paintings of Clarence Bicknell, a student at Trinity in the 1860s who spent most of his working life in the Italian Riviera, where he died 100 years ago on 17 July 1918.

After graduating from Trinity, Clarence Bicknell followed a familiar path into the church, serving as a curate first in Newington, Surrey then Stoke-on-Tern in Shropshire, where he joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit. This semi-monastic community was founded by another Trinity man, Rowland Corbet, a leading light of the Oxford Movement whose beliefs were contrary to those of the Unitarianism of Clarence’s father. In 1878, perhaps inspired by Corbet’s own visits to the Italian Riviera, Bicknell accepted a one year appointment as deacon of the Anglican church in Bordighera.

Clarence came from an artistic family: his father Elhanan Bicknell, whale oil magnate and art patron, collected works of art by renowned British artists such as Turner, Gainsborough and Landseer, while his mother, Lucinda Browne, was the aunt of Phiz, the illustrator of Charles Dickens’s books. In 1878 Clarence gave up his role in the church to concentrate on botany. He developed considerable skill as a botanical artist: within five years he had painted over 1,100 botanical watercolours and had published Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera. He donated over 3,300 of his botanical plates to Genoa University and another 1,100 are in other museums and collections. Clarence was a driving force in a network of many of the leading botanists of the day such as Emile Burnat in Switzerland, Augusto Béguinot in Genoa and Harold Stuart Thompson in the UK, with whom he exchanged samples and correspondence.

Bicknell’s Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera (1885) beside his copies of kaleidoscopic versions of the same flowers (c.1910)

Clarence started going up into the Maritime Alps behind Bordighera in the 1890s to extend his botanical research from coastal specimens, and also perhaps to escape from the stifling atmosphere of the summer heat and the vie mondaine of the summer visitors on the coast. From 1897 onwards he became more and more absorbed by the study of the prehistoric rock engravings that he had been told existed in the Mont Bégo area, now in the Parc du Mercantour, a French national Park about an hour’s drive north of Nice. He and his helper Luigi Pollini discovered, logged and made rubbings of 11,000 rock engravings and published in 1902 The Prehistoric Rock Engravings in the Italian Maritime Alps.

Clarence’s artistic talents flourished when he could let his creative and design skills come to the fore, when he was not restricted by doing meticulous botanical and archaeological recording. This manifested itself in the creation of hand-painted vellum-bound albums that he did for friends and relations. His niece Margaret Berry gave him a blank album every year which he then returned to her completed. The albums represent the height of Clarence’s artistic talent with a delightful blend of Victorian whimsy and design skill, clearly influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. At least fourteen are known to exist, seven of which were donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1980 and two of which are on display in the Wren Library.

A Children’s Picture Book of Wild Plants is carefully designed and colour-coordinated, with four plants illustrated on the right often with a frame, and on the left a description of each plant. Clarence, in this and many of the albums, delighted in taking the colours and details of flowers as motifs for the frame and for decorative capital letters.

A Children’s Picture Book of Wild Plants, Bicknell family collection

The Book of Guests in Esperanto provides potted biographies of several of Clarence’s friends in Esperanto. His notes are on the left page with their initials illuminated and a flower in a matching border on the right. Clarence was a great believer in the universal language Esperanto and felt it could be a formula for world peace. He attended international congresses, taught it to friends and wrote poems and hymns. There are pages ranging from eminent botanists and archaeologists to three dogs in the family. This page is for his nephew Arthur Berry, lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge and sometime Vice-Provost of King’s College.

The Book of Guests in Esperanto , Bicknell family collection
Signatures from the Casa Fontanalba Visitors’ Book, Bicknell family collection

The Casa Fontanalba Visitors’ Book was created for Bicknell’s home in the mountains, the Casa Fontanalba, which he built in 1906, adorning it with frescoes of mountain scenes, wild flowers, friezes, initials of visitors and proverbs in Esperanto. The visitors’ book has a wild flower in an arts-and-crafts border on the right and signatures of about 250 visitors, including famous archaeologists, botanists, writers, Esperantists, soldiers and politicians.



A new film about Clarence Bicknell is available here

See more of  Clarence Bicknell’s paintings in the exhibition ‘Floral Fantasies’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 9 September 2018

Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell by Valerie Lester, a new biography, is published in June 2018. For more information see



Wifredo Lam : Livres d’artiste [2]

Giorgio Upiglio, Wifredo Lam and Ghérasim Luca working on Apostroph’Apocalypse, Milan, 1965

In an earlier post we looked at Wifredo Lam’s collaboration with Antonin Artaud and Aimé Césaire. Here we consider his work in producing books with the writers Ghérasim Luca, René Char and Jean-Dominique Rey.


Apostroph’Apocalypse, title-page, designed and printed at Giorgio Upiglio’s studio, Milan, 1967 (Milan: Grafica Uno, 1967) (copy no. 73 of 135)

Wifredo Lam’s grandest and most complex book is the remarkable Apostroph’Apocalypse, a collaboration with the poet Ghérasim Luca (1913–94). In 1952 Luca had fled his native Romania via Israel to Paris, where his work was already known in Surrealist circles through his pre-War publications and his correspondence with André Breton. His poems often involve sophisticated word-play, and Apostroph’Apocalypse is based around the conceit of an apostrophe which breaks words into atomic particles and thereby causes apocalyptic destruction.

Apostroph’Apocalypse, the first page of text with forebodings of nuclear desctruction

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 provides one of many backdrops to this publication, which was eventually completed in 1967.

Apostroph’Apocalypse was recently described in Le Monde as ‘one of the finest books of the twentieth century’.

Wifredo Lam and Ghérasim Luca travelled to Milan to work on their ambitious publication, in order to take full advantage of the skills available there. The paper was specially manufactured for this edition by Filicarta of Brugherio, with a watermark consisting of the title of the book. Luca’s text presented considerable complexity for its typesetter, Luigi Maestri, in the placement and format not only of each word, but even of individual letters within a word.

The greatest sophistication, however, was reserved for the 14 plates which Lam contributed to the book. In this work he was greatly aided by Giorgio Upiglio, the greatest Italian art printer of the second half of the century. Upiglio devised a method to allow Lam to draw freely on bitumen powder spread on copperplates, which were then heated to fix the drawings before they were bathed in acid. This novel technique enabled a heightened granular texture to the impression of the plates, which gives a more visceral appearance in direct light.

René Char

René Char (1907–88), the great poet whose name is associated as much with the Surrealists as with the Résistance, first discovered Lam’s work at the Galerie Pierre in 1945. The initial shock of the violent forms of Lam’s paintings and the life represented in them was mitigated by the warmth and refinement of the artist’s personality when they met the following year. Their first formal collaboration came in 1953 with Le Rempart de brindilles (The Battlements of Twigs), a brief meditation on the nature of poetry to which Lam contributed 5 etchings.

Char and Lam worked together on a grander scale many years later in Contre une maison sèche (Against a Dry House), a book presenting 17 aphoristic verses by Char alongside 9 large etchings by Lam. The images are in dialogue with the poems, intended not as illustrations so much as ‘illuminations’. Char’s concise texts aim for the re-establishment of ‘a sovereignty within language’. Each page confronts stark images of a freedom present within the material world with enigmatic reflections on history and the corruption of human consciousness. Lam’s plates meanwhile convey explosive movements, fulgurances or metamorphic bolts of lightning.

René Char, Contre une maison sèche, eaux-fortes de Wifredo Lam (Paris: Jean Hugues, 1975 [1976]). (copy no. 46 of 175)
As with Apostroph’ Apocalypse, Lam worked on the plates at Giorgio Upiglio’s workshop in Milan. The book was published in Paris by Jean Hugues in a luxurious edition on vélin de rives paper in a raw silk-covered folder and slipcase. The typeset portions were printed at the Imprimerie Union in Paris before the sheets were taken to Milan for the printing from plates. The plates are etchings with aquatint in colours, and unusually are cropped to fit the already large pages (380 x 550 mm): the copperplates used for the publication extended a little beyond the edge of the page.

A mock-up of Contre une maison sèche was first displayed in 1971, but it was not until 1976 that the publication was eventually completed. In 1972 Char wrote to Lam to encourage him to finish his work, looking forward to the publication of the book and writing that otherwise the ‘dry house’ of the title would not only dry out but also (financially) ‘dry him out’:

Il serait bien pour moi que tu achèves notre livre. Cette “maison sèche” va, sinon, completement sècher et me sècher!

In a pamphlet issued for the exhibition of the publication of Contre une maison sèche in 1976, Char explains some of the inspiration that lay behind Lam’s vivid plates. He describes his first sight of Lam’s paintings, in the Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris, in 1947 or 48:

Deux toiles noueuses, agressivement surgies de terre, dégageaient leur violent et lancinant arôme de forêts réconciliées avec personnages imminents (pieds et mains y tentaient une apparition) [. . . ] Les couleurs des cubistes étaient les seules qui convenaient à leurs ouvrages ; les seules couleurs aussi que les œuvres superbes de Lam exigeaint ce jour-là.

 Two knotty canvases, aggressively erected from the ground, released their violent and haunting aroma of forests reconciled with imminent characters (feet and hands were trying to make an appearance) [. . .] The colours of the Cubists were the only ones that suited their works; the only colours as well that the superb works of Lam required on that day.

L’Herbe sous les pavés

At the end of Wifredo Lam’s life he formed a new collaboration with the poet, art critic and writer Jean-Dominique Rey (1926–2016). Their joint publication L’Herbe sous les paves was Rey’s first collection of short stories, a genre in which he was to become well known, and was Lam’s last work, published only weeks before his death.

Jean-Dominique Rey, L’Herbe sous les pavés, eaux-fortes de Wifredo Lam
(Paris: Imprimerie Mérat; Milan: Giorgio Upiglio, 1982). Kessler.a.68 (copy no. 35 of 122)

The title of the collection, L’Herbe sous les pavés, refers to a saying from the revolutionary events of May ’68, ‘there is grass growing under the cobbles’. This was later adapted more famously as ‘sous les pavés la plage’, a reference to the piles of cobblestones forming barricades placed on sandy ground. In both forms there is a direct resonance with the underground movement.

Each of the five short stories in the book is accompanied by an etching. The final plate, a very simple etching in three colours with three dogs, accompanies a story beguilingly entitled L’Aube et puis… (Dawn, and then…). Lam drew on the copperplates in his apartment in Paris. The plates were heated in his kitchen oven by Giorgio Upiglio and then etched at the studio of George Goetz. The text was printed in Paris and the plates in Milan. Lam signed all the copies in July 1982, and a notice of his death (on 11 September) was added in a second colophon.

The exhibition Wifredo Lam: livres d’artistes closes to the general public on 12 June 2018 and to members of college on 14 June, but the collection of books illustrated by Lam remains available for consultation by readers in the Wren Library.

Further Reading:


Wifredo Lam : Livres d’artiste [1]


Wifredo Lam with Pablo Picasso, Vallauris, 1954

The Cuban-born artist Wifredo Lam (1902–82) was a pioneer in incorporating non-Western ideas into his creations. A special exhibition is on display in the Wren Library until 14 June 2018, which celebrates Lam’s collaborations with several of the leading French-language poets of the twentieth century to produce livres d’artiste.

Of mixed African, Spanish and Chinese ancestry, Wifredo Lam quickly developed a distinctive style influenced by Cubism and the Surrealist movement, often involving elaborate hybrid figures. His work with the poets Aimé Césaire, Ghérasim Luca and René Char led to a series of editions printed to the highest standards in very limited numbers, and in most cases the copy in the Wren Library is the only known example in the UK. These special editions were recently presented to Trinity College by Nicholas Kessler (1937–2018).

In this, the first of two blog-posts on Lam’s collaborations with writers and poets, we examine some of his works with Antonin Artaud and Aimé Césaire.

Behind the Mirror

Derrière le miroir, N° 52: Lam (Paris: Maeght, February 1953) Pam.a.95.12

Derrière le miroir was a monthly publication which served as the catalogue for each exhibition at the Galerie Maeght: 253 numbers were published between 1946 and 1982. This issue was published in February 1953 and consists of a single folded sheet reproducing three new lithographs by Lam, together with a list of his exhibited paintings and a collection of endorsements of his work by notable artists and writers including Pablo Picasso, Herbert Read, Aimé Césaire, René Char, Georges Braque and André Breton.

Lam’s drawings had been used as illustrations in books in earlier years. His first experiment in printmaking was an etching produced in 1945 to illustrate a book by Pierre Loeb, Voyages à travers la peinture, published in 1946. The prints of Derrière le miroir are among his earliest works to employ the lithographic technique, and use bold blocks of colour in a manner which he was soon to abandon.

Artaud in Mexico

Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) was a major figure in the theatre of the avant-garde. After staging various notorious but financially compromising productions in Paris in the 1920s and early 30s, in 1936 he travelled to Mexico, where he investigated local forms of spirituality, recording details of his travels and of his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. While in Mexico he wrote Le théâtre et les dieux, an attack on the present state of theatre, asserting that the day of surrealism had passed and developing a new urgency for his formulation of théâtre de la cruauté, the Theatre of Cruelty.

Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et les dieux, eaux-fortes de Wifredo Lam ([Paris]: Aubry-Rueff, 1966). Kessler.c.58 (copy no. 61 of 110)
The colophon to this edition is signed by Lam and by the publishers










Lam immediately saw the implications which Artaud’s text on Mexico held for his own exploration of the complex cultural history of his native island, an encounter which was by this time creating in his paintings a great metamorphic theatre of sensuous animal-gods. Artaud’s text also contains a message to which Lam must have been sensitive, when he writes of Balthus, ‘He paints like someone who would know the secret of lightning’.

The essay was reprinted in May 1966 in an edition by Aubry-Rueff for which Lam produced 5 etchings, each with aquatint in colours. The aquatints were printed by Georges Leblanc in a studio first established in Paris in 1793.


The collector and financier Robert Altmann (1915–2017) fled Nazi Germany and established himself in Havana in 1941, where he met Wifredo Lam. Soon after this encounter he set up Brunidor Editions, which published lithographic prints to a high standard in New York and later in Paris, where Altmann became closely involved with the Lettristes. Lam contributed to Altmann’s first portfolio in 1947, alongside Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others. His third portfolio was published in Paris in 1961, and includes one of Lam’s brightest and most explosive lithographic prints alongside the work of four other artists. Among these is an arresting piece by Isidor Isou, the founder of Lettrism, and a rare lithograph by Ghérasim Luca, the poet of Romanian origin with whom Lam would later collaborate on his largest book project, Apostroph’Apocalypse. A rare set of these lithographs has been lent for display in the exhibition by Archiv AcquAvivA, Berlin.

Aimé Césaire

Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire in Havana, 1967

Aimé Césaire, one of the great poets of the 20th century, published his masterpiece, the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) in 1939 in Paris, before returning to his native Martinique. Wifredo Lam, who was sailing with André Breton towards the Americas, met Césaire in Martinique in April 1941. Lam was deeply moved by the poetry of Césaire and they became friends. In 1942 Lam drew the frontispiece for the first edition of Césaire’s poem in book form, published in Cuba in a translation by Lydia Cabrera, with a preface by Benjamin Péret. In 1945 Pierre Mabille published a long study of Lam’s massive painting La Jungle in Tropiques, the journal published by Aimé and Susanne Césaire in Fort-de-France.

Césaire’s Cahier was first published in 1939 in the magazine Volontés. The exhibition includes the original offprint of the magazine printing, in one of very few surviving copies, inscribed ‘To Wifredo Lam, in token of friendship and admiration, this poem of our revolts, our hopes, our fervour—Fort-de-France, May 1941, A. Césaire’. Lam was so struck by the power of Césaire’s text that he determined to have a Spanish-language edition published in Havana. The illustrations Lam provided for the 1943 Havana edition, translated by the anthropologist Lydia Cabrera, included an anthropomorphic horse figure. These illustrations act as the first published commentary on Césaire’s long poem.

Also on display are the autograph manuscript and signed typescript of Césaire’s poem ‘Simouns’, dedicated to Lam. This poem on the desert wind, Simoom, conceives the fires of liberation in an imagined Africa. The manuscript of an essay by Césaire, ‘Wifredo Lam et les Antilles’, records that ‘painting is one of the rare weapons left to us against the sordidness of history’.

‘passages’, from Annonciation (1969, 1982)

Lam and Césaire spent many years in planning a collaborative publication. In 1969 Lam had created a series of nine etchings richly coloured in aquatint, and in 1979 he showed them to Césaire. This inspired Césaire to write a set of ten poems, which were eventually published in a portfolio together with seven of Lam’s etchings in 1982, shortly before Lam’s death.

A second blog-post will discuss Lam’s collaborations with Ghérasim Luca and René Char.

Further Reading: