Traquair House a Manuscript for Contemplation
Douglas has created a small artist’s book for the Priest’s Room at Traquair. Artists’ books are closely affiliated historically with print in the form of the illustrated and printed book, although they go even further back to illuminated manuscripts. Often, but not exclusively executed through traditional or contemporary, digital, modes of printmaking, as in Douglas’s example, artists’ books have been produced and recognized as an art form in their own right since the late 19th and throughout the 20th century.
Although we generally do not think about it when reading a textbook, holiday thriller, a novel or the biography of a famous person, the book entails distinct kinaesthetic, sensory experiences and ways of looking. Its ‘handy’ size; its colourful and, in the case of hard backs, strengthened cover; the relative thickness and surface quality of the paper; its organisation of successive sheets of paper or pages; the graphic appearance of the design and distribution of the letters on the pages – they all force and enable the reader to use their body in very specific ways of moving and looking. Be it the holding, leafing through, gliding over, even caressing and turning, laying and smoothing of pages with arms, hands and fingers; be it the glancing, skipping, scanning, scrutinising of the page. Furthermore, chronology and time occur not only at the level of the content of the book, but are paralleled in the fanned and spread out pages, the changing duration of time spent with each page or sentence even and the speed or pace with which we move through the whole. Douglas draws our attention to these and other, often overlooked, so-called ‘haptic’7 qualities of the book as an object and our interaction with it. She does this, first of all, by a careful selection of materials (papers and other materials, here actual pieces of fabric), printing methods, size and imagery. Additionally, her intensely layered imagery with its multiple references to the history of the house and its surroundings, symbolically laden details, such as items of devotion and artefacts, almost hypnotically meshes sensory with emotive and imaginative effects. The superimpositions and layering of fragments of photographic imagery parallels the printing process with its pre-disposition to such layering. For example, many screen prints may consist of several different layers of detail printed on top of one another to create the whole image. Such layering also becomes a metaphor for the physical as well as mental imprints of hands and eyes on the book and the book on its reader. Besides, Douglas’s imagery mirrors the physicality caught up in looking at and handling the book by drawing attention to those parts of the body which are involved in our encounter with the book or which suggest touch. Her imagery consists of photographic details of hands and precious objects that are in close contact with the skin, like jewellery or handkerchiefs, all taken from painted portraits, often of women, at Traquair. These hint at the intimacy that a book establishes, the dialogue with the writer, here the artist, and reader or viewer. In the context of Traquair the book becomes almost a metaphor for the house itself which, according to French philosopher Bachelard, grants us intimacy, protection and bliss – at least up to a point!
Douglas’s deliberately small-sized book, potently reminiscent of a reliquary and a souvenir, enhances this proximity to the body and especially the hand, but also alludes to the preciousness of historic books and more importantly, the ability and necessity to hide such a slight, but potentially lethal object in times of religious and political strife. The interspersed passages of texts from the archives of the house in addition to the imagery of objects and body parts and the display of the book in the so-called ‘Priest’s Room’ hints at this history as it played out at Traquair. A book’s physical make-up carries with it metaphorical associations of inside and outside, surface and depth, openness and closure. These add yet another layer of meaning to both the general effect and power of books as well as their distinctive resonance at Traquair. Yet, there is one more layer of hidden meaning or ‘sub-text’: There are frequent intimations in Douglas’s texts and images of the domestic spaces that Traquair as a privately owned and inhabited house still represents. Historically and to a certain extent even today the domestic or private space is associated with the feminine. In that sense the book draws attention to another instance of the overlooked or secret, which is different from the specific historical secrets of the house, namely the hidden ‘imprints’ of labour, both physical and emotional, that women provided and which allowed men to function and be seen as the actors of history.
Douglas’s intensely and pleasurably tactile printed object also calls to mind the current crisis of the printed book which is caused by its relative dematerialisation through its increasingly digital form. The book’s historical nature and crafting is tellingly referenced by Douglas through both imagery of leather bound spines and her book’s material qualities. Pages not only represent photographically the tooling and embossing so typical of spines, but skillfully ‘repeat’ them through textured imprints on the actual paper surface. This is a revealing reminder of our need to touch and be touched, both by skin and eyes. Savvy technology companies recognise this and integrate tactility into their new products to ever increasing degrees. Douglas, in her turn, is no Luddite and fully exploits the possibilities of digital printing. Yet her book object, made from fibre and other organic matter, is an instance and evocation of a certain, older familiarity with things which continues to exist alongside and also meshes with newer, technically ‘up-to-date’ mediated life practices.8 Such material imprinting goes beyond language and the visual at the same time as it contains them.
Born in Galashiels, Helen Douglas grew up on a farm in the Borders and returned to live in Yarrow in 1975, where with her former partner Telfer Stokes, she made and continues to make, print and publish Artists’ Books under the imprint Weproductions. Primarily visual her Bookworks have contributed to the developing genre of the Artists’ Book and are internationally collected, distributed and exhibited in Europe and the US. They have won numerous awards, and in 2006 Douglas was made life member of the Museum of Modern Art, NY in recognition of her work in the book. Gaining a doctorate from Edinburgh University in 1997, Douglas lectured for many years at the former Scottish College of Textiles and there established the Archive of Historical Textiles. She currently is visiting Lecturer in Book Arts at the University of the Arts, London, and is part of a research group at Tate Research/UAL looking into the digital Artists Book. As part of this research Tate Research have very recently made a digital prototype of her scroll ‘The Pond at Deuchar’ for the iPad. With this digital scroll work and the codex Traquair House manuscript Douglas continues to consider and push the boundaries of the book as a place for artistic expression.
My manuscript book has been specifically made to be displayed within the spare simplicity of the window alcove in the Priest’s Room. I was drawn to the hinged shuttered window and table-ledge-flap which suggested an economic quality of bookness in form and purpose, and was - I felt - imbued as a place of subterfuge study, illumination and reverie, within this inner white sanctuary for sacred devotion and hiding. This I felt would be a place for reflective history on Traquair’s past shaped by my own work in the book. In close connected proximity the rich darkened library, with its contrasting displayed, treasured wealth of learning including covered thinking and belief - revealed and hidden behind ornate spines and covers – furnished the corridor link in my mind which once entered upon became part of my understanding of Traquair and markedly influenced my Book Work for the ledge.
My approach has been to tease out history and illuminate aspects of Traquair’s past through focussing on surface and what is embedded within and hidden behind surface. I looked at portraits, clothing, adornment, pattern, textiles and books in the house. In outward display, gesture, in symbol, pattern and intentional coded concealment, all told of a richness in story, which atavistically moved me in some deep way to connect to this history of Traquair, to that of Mary Queen of Scots, the Stuart Kings, and Catholicism. With camera and printed image I have sought to bring this optically and texturally to the paper page, and to explore this in the sequential turning of pages and within the structure of the book and its binding. As a form of visual narrative, this manuscript book without words is to be read. In its archaic form and binding it emphasizes, at a moment of huge upheaval for the codex book, the book as object and what this might mean to the reader.
It has been my intention from the outset that the reader’s hands are drawn and can hold the manuscript book to understand something of the small precious books of devotion in the library. That the reader is encouraged to turn the pages, and with eyes and fingers explore the images of hands, faces, clothing and ornament in the house in a new close up tangible intimacy: to engage with the thingness of Traquair’s history and the thingness of the book. That within this intimacy painted hands interact with the reader’s fingers, and likewise representations of fabric and lace, jewellery etc become curiously tangible. And that books can be actively opened by the reader, as small representations within the book. Embossed covers and different papers reveal in rich optical and textural handling glimpses of inner content while deeper in the narrative they conceal images of Catholicism within their white linen embossed folds. As the pages turn so the reader is led deeper into the corridor of familial relations, the Setons and Stuarts, who looking out to us also lead us back in history to that time of belief in the sacred Divine Right of Kings and the Catholic Faith. The directness of Ann Seton’s gaze is pivotal in directing this path of Traquair’s history and thus drives the book’s narrative to explore through Traquair House the haunting powerful presence of Mary Queen of Scots as Stuart Queen and Martyr for those of the Catholic Faith.
In contrast, and as fanciful profane study, my etching with embossed border, likewise has been inspired by my surface reading of objects and images and the corridor of Stuart Kings spawned from Mary Queen of Scots. Her virginal white bed quilt provides the prelude and imaginary landscape setting for the wild unicorn and romantic landscape that ensues of mountain, mist and glen made from rollicking Stuart locks and curls and flouncing tumbling lace and pearls.
Making this print and learning to emboss under the tutelage of Bronwen Sleigh at Edinburgh Printmakers has been an inspiring experience and this and the chance to work at Traquair on this project has enabled something new to emerge in my making of the Book Work manuscript Traquair House.