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‘Moments of Vision’: The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy

‘Moments of Vision’: The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

24 October 2016–24 February 2017

The Thomas Fisher Library’s latest exhibit, ‘Moments of Vision’: The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, curated by the renowned Canadian Rare Book dealer Debra Dearlove, and with contributions from Keith Wilson, Deborah Whiteman, and Michael Millgate, celebrates what can be described modestly as one of the most substantial literary donations to the Library of the past 25 years: As Interim Director of the Fisher, Loryl MacDonald, writes in her Foreword to the catalogue, “[t]he basis…is the superb Millgate Thomas Hardy Collection, gifted to the Library by Jane and Michael Millgate in 2012 and in 2013…assembled by Michael Millgate over forty-five years” (4). With this gift, which was “prior to its donation…acknowledged as the largest and most comprehensive Hardy collection outside of a public institution” (4), the Fisher Library is “now a leading Hardy repository” (5).

Bringing together 175 items not only from the Millgate donation but from Dearlove’s personal collection, and with reproduced surrogates from five institutions, the exhibition’s biggest strength is in calling attention to the visual traditions and artistry associated with the great Thomas Hardy’s well-chosen words. One tends to think of the Victorian novel as a purely textual commodity, but the exhibit demonstrates this not to be so by describing Hardy’s dealings with the illustrators who brought a visual life to his stories in their earliest instantiation. Anecdotally, the exhibition catalogue discusses how our modern phrase “cliff-hanger” emanates from one of James Abbott Pasquier’s striking, full-page wood-engravings for Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), as printed in Tinsleys’ Magazine (23-24). We learn of Hardy’s especially fruitful collaboration with Helen Paterson, his only female illustrator, for her illustrations of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), one of two instances where his serial illustrations found a second life in novel form – the other being those of his The Hand of Ethelberta (1876; 24-25). The ample discussion of the illustrations is of particular biographical and paratextual significance, because of the author-artist correspondence generated from Arthur Hopkins’s drawings for the 1878 Belgravia serialization of The Return of the Native (27), Hubert von Herkomer and pupils’ illustrations for Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) in the Graphic (32), and William Hatherall’s depiction of “Jude at the Mile-Stone” (1895), for Hearts Insurgent (later Jude the Obscure) in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (34). Hardy is shown to be a vital collaborator in the visualization process by his insightful suggestions to Herkomer et al., his provision of cover art for the first three-volume edition of The Trumpet-Major (1880) – as proved by a personal, holograph letter displayed in its original in this exhibition, and his illustration for his poem “Thoughts of Phena, at news of her death” – one of his 30 illustrations made for Wessex Poems (1898), illustrations that not only “helped to ‘give force to the poetry’ but [are indeed] ‘themselves poems’” (45). Such an exploration of the “History and Identification of Book Illustration” cannot be regarded as anything but providential, given the Fisher’s choice of this topic for their Summer Seminar.

Besides the striking and timely discussions of historical serial and novel illustration, of Hardy’s collaboration not only with engravers and cover artists but painters, the exhibition and catalogue are also strong in their treatment of association copies. Some highlights of association include: Hardy’s annotated copy of the first book of Virgil’s Ӕneid (tr. Locke, 1827), with the end-leaf given to ancillary notes in short-hand, showing him teaching himself the then-practical notational skill of stenography (19); Hardy’s signed and notated copy of George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric (11th ed., 1841), cited by Hardy in explanation of the controversial last paragraph of Tess, “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Ӕschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess” (21); and a prize collection of books from Hardy’s personal library at Max Gate, demonstrating the fascinating historical practice of using book labels to denote relativities of personal connection and ownership: “The simple but elegant Max Gate Library labels were printed in two colours – ‘red for books containing Hardy’s signature or notes in his handwriting, black for the other selected books’” (64). In addition, the exhibit includes volumes of secondary association, colouring instead the contours of Hardy’s biographical, literary, poetical, and theatrical circles. Students of Hardy’s poetry should be especially interested in Hardy’s volatile romance with his first wife, Emma Lavinia Hardy (1840–1912): we have from her library a copy of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton’s The Complete Angler (4th ed., 1844), with “small charming pencil sketches, depicting men fishing, [which] could well have been done during one of the many walks they made in the Cornish countryside during their courtship” (37). Item 72 is a literary gem of incalculable value to students of Great War poetry, which was influenced in many considerable ways by Hardy’s late-life rejection of prose for verse – war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s copy of The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (1st ed., 1919), with inserted materials pertaining to debts of suggestion (50). Hardy wrote only one original work intended from its inception specifically for performance, a one-act poetic drama The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (1923), although the three parts of his Dynasts (1910) and major novels lent themselves nicely for theatrical and cinematic adaptation. One especially charming association volume of the exhibit is a first edition of Hardy’s Famous Tragedy with a presentation inscription made out to the English playwright, critic, and impresario Harley Granville-Barker and his wife, “To Harley and Helen Granville-Barker, with T. H.’s good wishes, November: 1923” (57). In a curious act of professional-amateur benefaction, Granville-Barker, as Dearlove astutely notes, generously advised the “Hardy Players,” an amateur group from Hardy’s native Dorset, on “the need to sacrifice some of the ritualistic evocativeness to audibility” (57; i.e., not to over-voice the words of the drama in regional slurring).

Following suit from the Thomas Fisher Library’s recent exhibition on Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China, which I also reviewed for SHARP News, this exhibit is similarly ambitious in its inclusion of objects of textual production, adaptation, quotation, and souvenirs. Regarding the mind of the author, the exhibit includes a reproduction of one of Hardy’s architectural drawings of the Church of St. Juliot, Cornwall (20), from before he “finally abandoned his original career as an architect and began to think of himself as a professional author” (24); it includes original correspondence pertaining to his composition, such as item 52, an autograph letter to his first wife’s sister, about his late wife’s sudden, unexpected passing and her fragile mental state prior to her death (to be thought of in relation to his poems; 39); and it includes, as a surprise, a Smith Premier portable typewriter that once belonged to Florence Hardy, née Dugdale (1879–1937), Hardy’s second wife and amanuensis (73). Regarding the other miscellaneous objects, the exhibit, which admirably traces the textual and non-textual afterlife of Hardy’s words, includes a “photoplay” edition of Tess, with stills from a lost MGM silent film of 1924 (74); a bottle of “Thomas Hardy Ale” advertised with Hardy’s words from The Trumpet-Major on the label (“It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire…” 80); it includes a pillbox with a picture of Hardy and his dog Wessex on the front casing (81); and it includes a Player’s Cigarettes card with Hardy’s Tess as character 22 of a 25-character set of “Characters from Fiction” (81-82). These non-novel, non-serial objects are related in the catalogue to a cabinet card (31), a postcard (45-46), a beer coaster (80), an autograph card (70), sheet music (87), a thank-you card (72), and even a British Airways 1978 In-Flight Menu from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait & London (81), all with Hardy as a central figure.

This exhibition, pulling together the strengths of the Millgate Thomas Hardy Collection and Thomas Fisher Library Staff, ultimately affords a pleasurable afternoon to anyone casually interested in Hardy’s prose or poetry; or it could provide a spark of inspiration and motivation for any student of Hardy’s unquestionable literary genius. It should not be thought of as the end-stop to Toronto’s long-running celebration of Hardy, characterized by Millgate’s exceptional career as a Hardyan and the Canadian items of the exhibit (items nos. 62, 138, and 158). Rather, it should be thought of as a homage to a literary and poetical great, on the understanding that Hardy’s works should inspire the artistic and critical contributions of generations to come.

Exhibition and Catalogue by Debra Dearlove, with Contributions by Keith Wilson and Deborah Whiteman, and a Biographical Introduction by Michael Millgate. Toronto: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (Printed by Coach House Press), 2017. 94p., ill.

Joshua McEvilla
Toronto, Canada

Published inExhibition review

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