07 June 2010

Owls in Print

As some of you might know, I am a great fanatic of owls. Not just of the birds themselves, it must be said, but of depictions of owls in art and in the culture.. Join me around the samovar as I essay a visual celebration of that wisest of orniths, the owl! Hootray! Hootzah!

The above was a book plate used by the printer Elliot Stock of London. It was printed in the 1770 first edition of the journal of Captain James Cook's first voyage (in which the British Crown sent him to the South Seas to observe the transits of Venus and find the elusive Great Southern Continent populated by Antipodes).

The above illustration is the front cover of an 1886 advertising almanac(k) for Merchant's Gargling Oil of Lockport, N.Y., selling "Liniments and Worm Tablets for Man and Beast." Owls were well-known in nineteenth-century America to be masters of interpreting dreams and acting as augurs to predict the future. They also had an eye for ladies with Gibson Girl style! What is less known is that they were great entrepreneurs, selling all sorts of tonics, toilet waters, and medicinal oils to the burgeoning population of the urban Northeast.

"Hoo! Hoo!" advises the owl depicted on the cover of the sheet music for Arthur J. Lamb and H.W. Petrie's "The Owls Serenade," from a duo perhaps best known for their songs "Dear Dorothy" and "Etc., etc., etc." The "hooting" of popular songs, where the singers mimic the sounds of an owl to carry the melody, allegedly was first promoted by Stephen Foster and, much like the fern, became the rage of the late Victorian parlor. Lamb and Petrie hoped to cash in on this hooting craze with "The Owls Serenade." Yet, sadly, the song failed to find a lasting audience, as hooting quickly became passé as the singing in the manner of the great apes came into vogue as Darwin's provocative theories captured the zeitgeist.

The nineteenth-century English author, poet, and artist Edward Lear drew these illustrations for his poem "The Owl and the Pussy-cat" (1862) Lear dedicated the book that contains these illustrations, Nonsense Books, to the "Great-Grandchildren, Grand-Nephews, and Grand-Nieces" of Edward Stanley Smith, 13th Earl of Derby, and father of the infamously boring horse-race and hat-enthusiast 14th Earl of Derby (later Prime Minister)! With the poem, social realist Lear exposed some of the secret talents of British owls, including the ability to play a ukulele, purchase pies, and their preference for water-based transport. 

The above is the cover of The Owl, a self-described "Wednesday journal of politics and society" run by someone named Minerva and published during the mid-nineteenth century in London. Consisting entirely of stories, poems, and news about our feathered friends, the publication is now famous for recognizing the talent of Thomas Hardy, a young intern who later would write a series of famous novels (including Far from the Madding Owls and Hoot the Obscure) set in a fictional, owl-infested version of Dorchester called Wessex, ruled with an iron talon by a "Parliament of Foules." 

And finally, here is an illustration by Carlo Farneti from a 1935 edition of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du ChuetteModeled, in part, on John Bunyan's seventeenth-century allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, Baudelaire's surrealistic poem follows the journey of an anonymous narrator on his journey through a menacing, barren landscape forever enveloped in twilight and haunted by giant, demonic owls.

Well, those are all I have for now. Owls: dominant force in the last three centuries of print culture? I will leave that weighty topic for another day! Which is fortunate, because I have run out of Lepidendron 'wood' to stoke the samovar. Goodbye, and I hope to see you again for the next installment of the Cabinet.

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