A Wild World, Drawn With Precision

AN ANIMATED ALPHABET

By Marie Angel

David Godine, Publisher

$12.95, paper

Marie Angel remembers learning to read. This English artist - whose long career has encompassed calligraphy, lettering, miniature-painting, and children's book-illustrating - was 3. Her literature was Beatrix Potter of "Peter Rabbit" fame.

What she cannot recall is when she started to draw. "Oh," she says today in an interview, "I always drew."

"I used to get very uptight about some of the drawings, though, because they wouldn't come out the way I wanted them to!"

The precision of her work and its delicate realism have been the remarkable fruit of such self-demanding standards. But you sense that the mature Ms. Angel long ago shed her child frustration; her drawings "come out" exactly the way she wants them to. Things are not left to chance. Easy effects are not her way. Lines, contours, intervals, and spaces, as well as brush strokes and colors, are meticulously judged. "I am not very keen on accidentals," she remarks.

It is tempting to conclude that it was not only the words but the illustrations of the author of "Peter Rabbit" that inspired the nascent artist in Marie Angel. Potter was a lover of animals (like Angel, more fond of cats than dogs); she was a naturalist first and a maker of children's books second. Angel, too, intermingles intricate observations of nature - animals, birds, insects, plants - with her art.

She had to develop her art (after art school) in her family home, a necessity imposed on her partly by long ministration to parental needs. This daughterly constraint has shades of Potter about it, too, though Angel did not find her independence by taking up farming in the Lake District but by buying a succession of two-seater MG sports cars.

She first went to art school (in Croyden, near London) at the outset of World War II. Her mother suggested she go there "just to fill in time" for a year. "Everyone said the war would be over in a year." But neither the war nor her art-schooling ended so soon. She went from Croyden to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. Her most helpful tutors were Dorothy Mahoney and Irene Wellington.

It was in 1960 that the first of two tiny Angel "bestiaries" were published, the start of a reputation that has always been greater in the United States than in her native England. A second bestiary came out in 1964. The instigator was Philip Hofer, founder and first curator of the department of printing and graphic arts in Harvard's Houghton Library.

Despite being softly printed in black and white on a creamy paper that tried to suggest the vellum of her original watercolors, the modestly priced editions were successful, and other collaborations followed: "Two Poems by Emily Dickinson" in 1968, and "An Animated Alphabet" in 1970.

Now this last production has been republished, and in color.

This "alphabet" is really a collection of what Angel (in a book she wrote in 1984 called "Painting for Calligraphers") calls "decorated initial letters." In ways that are entirely her own, she has specialized in such "initials." Their ancestry is in medieval illuminated manuscripts, but as Philip Hofer wrote in 1960, she "lives very much in the present." She does not copy the medieval artists. She has quoted Edward Johnstone, 20th-century doyen of letterers and calligraphers, that "medieval humor, together with its flora and fauna, belong to the past. And our work is only honest when made in our own humor, time, and place."

MENTION the "humor" perceptible in her own adroit interweavings of creatures and Roman capitals (a letter-form for which she has the strongest feelings), and she seems instantly reserved. Perhaps she feels - rightly - that humor may be integral but is spoiled by discussion or analysis.

Nevertheless, exquisite wit is present in the way she "plays around" (her phrase) with relationships between the scaffolding of her artificial letters and the naturalistic movements, balance, scale, and even the playfulness of her creatures. They are never for a moment self-consciously comic. But they are not unlike children on a climbing structure. In her imagination, the initials have become the perfect foil for their lively grace.

"Creatures which move easily," she has written, "especially if they are able to climb, may be deftly twisted and turned through the letters. Birds, too, having a soft and varied flight, may be arranged to fly through counterspaces or uprights and to perch on the crossbars or stems of letters." Her words are only bettered by her works.

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