Saturday, July 4, 2015

In Memoriam Ralph Hyde, 1939-2015

The first time I met Ralph Hyde in person was at the old Woolwich Arsenal train station — itself a vaguely panoramic structure, with curving glass walls and a cylindrical cupola — back in 1999. In those ancient days of the early, mostly non-pictorial Internet, neither of us had any idea of how to recognize each other; fortunately, he’d thought to bring along a copy of his Panoramania! book, and I easily deduced that the white-haired gent near the top of the escalator must be he.

We went over to his home, a comfortable little cottage-like dwelling tucked away behind one of the brick walls of the Arsenal grounds. He and his wife welcomed me, and we sat in the small but comfortable living room, with gorgeous large-format prints of panoramas festooning the walls. Every topic led to another of interest, and the conversation continued at the dinner table. We could very likely have gone on all night, but I was anxious to get back to my hotel in London before the tube stopped running, and so Ralph called a mini-cab, which got me back to the station just in time.

In all my many visits to Britain, he was the only person I ever met who, in a completely natural manner, actually used the expression “jolly good.”

By the time of that meeting, we’d been corresponding by snail-mail for some time. I’d written to Ralph at the suggestion of the pre-eminant Victorianist Richard Altick who, when I told him that I was researching Arctic panoramas, recommended to me as a ‘brilliant young man’ who would surely set me in the right direction (Altick being by then nearly ninety, ‘young’ was a relative term!). And when I wrote, I discovered that this was true in a more exact way than I’d imagined — for Ralph himself was working on an article about panoramas of the polar regions! It was a mark of his unvarying graciousness that he didn’t discourage me from my own researches, shared all that he knew, and celebrated the work I’d done once it was published.

A few years later, along with my son — at that time an avid Civil War re-enactor — we met up with Ralph at Jonathan Gestetner’s home, and saw a small portion of his extraordinary collection. We saw, in person, the famous “London in a Nut-Shell,” along with several miniature panoramas of the Civil War, which we did our best to help him identify. On one wall in the house, a series of photographs showed the presentation of a Gestetner copying machine to each of the modern Popes — a reminder both of the significance of mechanical copying, and of the eventual passing of that technology and its era.

After that, most of our other meetings were at various gatherings sponsored by the International Panorama Council — at Hunter College in New York City and the Yale Center for British Art — by which time we’d switched to e-mail to continue our shared research on many topics. It was through these means that, in 2002, we stumbled together upon the passage in a German tourist’s account of his visit to the Marshall Brothers’ panorama of the Battle of Navarin, which proved — after a careful translation by fellow IPC member Gabriele Koeller — to be one of the most significant accounts of just what a “peristrephic” panorama was: “the canvas is not flat, but stretched out in a half circle. It is slowly moved on rollers, the scenes changing nearly imperceptibly.”

We continued our correspondence over the years, with Ralph often sending along copies of handbills and other documents of polar panoramas. Without fail, he sent a Christmas card every year. More recently, I hadn’t been able to attend several of the IPC meetings at which he presented, but was glad to be able to see his illustrated talks on video, which were unfailingly informative, witty, and wry.

From what I’ve heard, Ralph was pursuing all his usual research passions right up to the moment of his passing — and I’m not surprised. A few months ago, I was delighted to see that his book on paper peep-shows in the Gestetner collection was finally out, and I’d meant to see if I could get Ralph to autograph a copy. It’s strange to be presented with a long series of our archived e-mails, suddenly rendered poignant by the inability of the “send” button to ever reach him again.

One of Ralph’s ongoing projects, which I contributed to in small ways, and drew from in large ones, was his Dictionary of Panoramists. I don’t know what state it might be in — Ralph certainly realized that, no matter what the time and effort, it would always be incomplete in some details. And yet, perhaps now, it might be possible to bring this work to fruition, either as a published reference, or — as Ralph himself had begun to think better — as some kind of online resource capable of continual updating. It would be, in either form, a most fitting memorial for a man whose career, like the paintings he studied, was all-encompassing. He was truly a "jolly good" fellow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When I edited the Eighteenth Century

One of the more peculiar job titles I've ever had, long before I was a professor, was "Editor of the Eighteenth Century." This was my task back in the mid-1980's when I worked for Connecticut-based Research Publications (now Primary Source Media), a company that had the contract for the Eighteenth Century microfilm project, which aimed -- ambitiously, it seemed then -- to film every unique work published in English between 1700 and 1800, based on what was then the ESTC (Eighteenth-century Short Title Catalogue -- now simply the English STC and extended to the birth of print), a database that was, long before Google Books, the key to every such work in any collection around the world.

This letter -- somewhat quaintly addressed to me as "Russell Potter, Esq., Editor, the 18th Century" -- concerned the quest to avoid duplicate titles -- the ESTC had been assembled to catalog everything and a number of duplicates or near-duplicates was inevitable -- because, at that time, it seemed unwise to spend the resources to film such things. With Google Books, though, the aim grew wider -- scan them all, let researchers sort 'em out -- and this, despite the best-laid schemes of the 1980's, turned out to be the way of the future.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Count Curly Wee

There's nothing weirder than other country's comics -- a fact that I've known since, at the age of five or six, I first opened a packet of British comics sent by my mother's UK pen pal, and first laid eyes upon The Dandy, featuring (among many others) Desperate Dan, Dirty Dick, Korky the Kat, and Cuddles and Dimples. And so, a few years ago, when I picked up an old paper from an empty seat while on the Irish Sea Ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, and saw a pair of comic panels, I had a feeling it might be another encounter with the comic otherworld. And it was: Count Curly Wee, originated by Roland Clibborn, ran under various titles in Irish newspapers, as well as the Liverpool Echo. Cliburn's style was unusual; he drew two narrative panels, with a poem in ballad stanzas at the foot of each. The resulting plates were all numbered; this one that I came upon on the ferry is 6685. Clibborn retired after plate 10,274 -- but I've been unable to locate much further information about him; the Irish Times had been re-running his old panels, which was how I stumbled upon them. His sense of humor was, to put it lightly -- unique -- but absolutely distinctive. If you find it to your liking, the National Library of Australia has a complete volume that you can read or download for free.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Invitation to the Exposition, 1876

The invitation was the sort given to important men -- and my great-grandfather-in-law, Mr. Jesse J. John, was such a man. He was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a man who had his copies of Harper's Monthly bound in leather, and carried a gold-tipped walking stick engraved with his name (I have both of these in my home library). So, when the Centennial Exhibition was announced, it was natural that he would be sent a complimentary ticket, along with a map of the speaker's platform (he was to be seated in Section E, two sections over from President Ulysses S. Grant, surely within range of his ubiquitous cigars -- not that he would have been the only one smoking them).

At the exhibition, Mr. John might have taken in all kinds of attractions -- chief among them the Centennial Tower, but also such themed buildings as the Horticultural Hall and the torch intended for the Statue of Liberty. He might also, if he had been so inclined, have visited other exhibits, such as the wax figures of Mr. Moulthrop, which included Chief Red Cloud, the 'Esquimaux' Hannah and Joe, and all the survivors of the Amistad.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mystery of the 1977 Gandalf Poster

It's not an image of Gandalf you see every day -- but I used to. I bought this poster for my bedroom wall in 1977; when I left the next year for college, it came with me, and I've kept it ever since, though it spent the last twenty years or so rolled up in a closet. Today, I decided to take it out of storage and frame it, and it was only then that I started to wonder -- where, after all, did this Gandalf -- pre-Rankin-Bass, pre-Bakshi, and certainly pre-Jackson, come from? My only clue was the artist's name, which was clear enough: "Alvin Hudson." But who was that? There was no artist of that name with any sort of online presence; the only image of another copy was from an old listing on eBay Canada -- that, and the entry in the US register of Copyrights: ""Gandalf the wizard. Half port, of bearded old man from The Hobbit, wearing large hat, holding pipe & walking stick. Painted by Alvin Hudson. Col. reproduction of painting. © Spellbound, Inc.; 30NOV77; K128162."  And who was Spellbound, Inc? The US Patent and Trademark office showed that the company had filed for its trademark in January of 1977, and had been based in Akron, Ohio, not far from my hometown of Cleveland. The trademark had expired in 1985.

So I wonder: is there anyone out there who can tell me anything about Alvin Hudson, or Spellbound? Did they put out other posters? Did they license the names? And could it be -- as seems very possible -- that Ralph Bakshi was influenced, just a bit, by this image in his conception of Gandalf  for his Lord of the Rings movie? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows.

UPDATE 6/11/16: With thanks to my old friend and former student Patrick Robbins, I can report some additional detail on Spellbound, Inc. -- according to an item in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 6th, 1977, the company was founded by Bonnie Anderson and Merrilee Antbe (that surname may be an OCR error), whose ambition was to become "Poster Queens." The article mentioned the popularity of Tolkien's work, and the recent airing of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon. It went on to note:
There are Tolkien posters, jigsaw puzzles, sweatshirts, T-shirts, calendars, games, national fan clubs and posters but not, as Bonnie and Merrilee saw, any made from oil paintings. The first poster from Spellbound is, of course, the Alvin Hudson painting of Gandalf.
Alas, Bonnie and Merrilee were not destined to become poster-making magnates -- but certainly their first was a brilliant one. The article mentions Alvin Hudson as though his name would be recognized -- but he remains resolutely obscure.