• 15 Apr 2015

Each time the Librarian and I spend a day working on the Peter & Renate Nahum collection off-site, our hard work seems to be rewarded with wonderful discoveries. Through the process of logging the items, we have re-acquainted ourselves with many interesting books and journals in this special collection. We are very excited to have these publications join the library collection. The highlight of our last visit to the store was logging a very rare copy of Elizabeth Rivers' first book This Man published by The Guyon House Press in 1939.

Front cover of 'This Man'

Elizabeth Rivers, Front cover of 'This Man',

Elizabeth Rivers (1903-1964) was an artist who created water colour and oil paintings, stained glass, sculpture and wood engravings. She is perhaps best known for her wood engravings. These were often created to illustrate others' literary works, such as Lord Tennyson's The Day-Dream (1928), Connemara Journal by Ethel Mannin (1947) and Out of Bedlam by Christopher Smart (1956). ((Wheelock, Harriet,. 'Elizabeth Rivers Archive PD4246TX', Prints & Drawings Dep. of NLI, 2008, p.1 http://www.nli.ie/pdfs/PDLists/ElizabethRiversPD4246TX.pdf )) On the subject of illustration, Pat Donlon - former director of the National Library of Ireland - upheld Rivers as commanding 'a significant place in the history of the book arts in Ireland', along with her contemporaries - Nano Reid, Norah McGuiness and Sophia Rosamond Praeger. ((Donlon, Pat,. 'Drawing a Fine Line: Irish Women Artists as Illustrators', Irish Arts Review Yearbook, 2002, vol. 1, p. 91))

Rivers was born in England and studied at Goldsmith's College, where she developed her interest in wood engraving and trained under Edmund J Sullivan, who, according to Donlon, influenced her illustrative style. ((Ibid.; Irish Women Artists : 1870-1970 Summer Loan Exhibition, (Adam's, Ireland) 2014, p. 32))

She then won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools where she studied under Walter Sickert and won a number of prizes. She continued her studies in Paris at the Ecole de Fresque and worked in the studios of André Lhote and Gino Severini. During this period she started producing woodcut illustrations for books as well as for the BBC's Radio Times magazine. ((Ibid.))

Rivers visited the Aran Islands in 1935 and from 1936-1943 lived on Inis Mór, coming back to London in the latter half of the War to work as a fire warden during the blitz. It was whilst living on Inis Mór that Rivers published her first book, This Man (1939) and  worked on the illustrations for her second, Stranger in Aran (1946). (('Exceptional Woodcuts from Elizabeth Rivers', Irish Arts Review, Winter 2006, p. 66))

This Man consists of 24 black and white plates, with the title of each work in red letters above it. The last page in the book shows that this copy is number 91 of 200 printed on Corinthian fine text paper. Five copies were also printed on vellum, these are lettered A-E. The book was printed by Theodore Besterman of The Guyon House Press (named after his Hampstead home). Set up in 1937, the Press was sadly bombed in 1940 and did not survive the destruction. ((Wedgeworth, Robert., World Encyclopaedia of Library and Information Services p.115))

21 of 24 plates in order

Elizabeth Rivers , This Man, 21 of 24 plates in order

It seems likely that the bomb that caused the destruction of The Guyon House Press may well be the same air raid that resulted in most copies and all the illustration blocks for Rivers' This Man being destroyed. (('Exceptional Woodcuts from Elizabeth Rivers', Irish Arts Review, Winter 2006, p. 66)) These circumstances mean that our own copy of This Man is one of only a few that survive. It depicts the style in which Rivers worked during her time on Inis Mór, before the War. Most of her works that survive date from after the war. The titles for the illustrations in This Man and the way in which they are ordered conjure up a journey through life. The use of a book format that requires the reader to engage with one image at a time and in a particular order further enforces the feeling of being swept through life's rites of passage. The works perhaps also reflect Rivers' own experience, away from the city and in the open, loneliness of island life.

The titles of plates 4 to 14 can be read together to form a narrative. Rivers explores in her illustrations life as a child, as belonging to one's parents, before becoming one's own person and the process of being able to make decisions. She grapples with the relationship one develops with others and how is affected by one's surroundings - the landscape in which 'living' occurs. The titles for plates 4 to 14 read: I am a child among children. a woman's son. and son of my father. yet myself alone. I choose my own way. in the desolate places. and the mountains. I discover. in cities. the scope of reason. and its limitations.

Whilst this book seems to be directly related to Rivers' own experience of people, rites of passage and the landscape she experienced living on Inis Mór, Donlon notes how the 'turmoil of the war years' seemed to affect her later work, highlighting in particular her work for Out of Bedlam. She notes that Rivers' darker, more stylised work appears after the war years and suggests 'her graphic work takes on an almost painful mystical edge'. ((Donlon, Pat,. 'Drawing a Fine Line: Irish Women Artists as Illustrators', Irish Arts Review Yearbook, 2002, vol. 1, p. 91)) It is perhaps not surprising that Rivers was affected by the trauma of the war, as the physical loss of work she endured due to it was great. If it were not for the air raid that saw most of the copies of This Man destroyed, this work might be more widely known. As it stands, we have not been able to find any other copies of this publication other than in legal deposit libraries.