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29 October 2014

Language and the making of nations

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On 14 November the British Library will be hosting a study day  ‘Language and the Making of Nations’, organised by the Library's European Studies Department and examining the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe and the creation of national literary languages

The creation of a unified language has been significant in the formation of the nations of Europe. Part of the process has been the compilation of standard grammars and dictionaries, an initiative often followed by linguistic minorities, determined to reinforce their own identity. This seminar will look at the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe, the role of language in national histories, and the creation of national literary languages. Specialists in the history of the languages of Europe will explore these issues in relation to Czech, Georgian, Italian, Serbian and Ukrainian, as well as Catalan, Dutch, Frisian, Silesian and the Norman French of Jersey.



10:30  Registration; coffee

10:50  Welcome

11:00-12:00   Donald Rayfield (Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary, University of London), ‘The tongue in which God will examine all other tongues — how Georgians have viewed their language.’

Marta Jenkala (Senior Teaching Fellow in Ukrainian, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), ‘Ukrainian language and nation: a cultural perspective’.


12:10-13:10   Mari Jones (Reader in French Linguistics, Cambridge University), ‘Identity planning and Jersey Norman French.’

Peter Bush (Literary translator), ‘Josep Pla and the making of contemporary literary Catalan.’


14:10-15:40 Giulio Lepschy (Hon. Professor, UCL, London, School of European Languages, Culture and Society), ‘The invention of standard Italian.’

Prvoslav Radić (Professor, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade), ‘The language reform of Vuk St. Karadžić and the national question among the Serbs.’

Rajendra Chitnis (Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, Bristol University), 'We are what we speak. Characterizations of the Czech language during the Czech National Revival.’


16:00-17:30 Roland Willemyns (Emeritus Professor of Dutch, Free University, Brussels), ‘The Dutch Congress of 1849 and the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal.’

Tomasz Kamusella (School of History, University of St Andrews), ‘Silesian: a language or a dialect?’

Alastair Walker (Emeritus Research Associate, Department of Frisian Studies, University of Kiel), ‘North and West Frisian: Two beautiful sisters, so much alike, but yet so different.’

The event has received most generous support from NISE (National Movements and Intermediary Structures in Europe), the Polish Cultural Institute, and the international publishing house Brill

Attendance is £25.00 Full Price;  £15.00 for under 18s. To book please email or call +44 (0)1937 546546

There is an additional free event, following the study day, from 18:15-20:00.  Maclehose Press and the Institut Ramon Llull will be launching Joan Sales’ novel of the Spanish Civil War, Uncertain Glory, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush.  Professor Paul Preston (Historian, Director of the Catalan Observatory at the LSE) will be in conversation with Peter Bush.  A wine reception will follow courtesy of Freixenet.

As places are limited, please RSVP to  if you would like to attend the evening event.

27 October 2014

Félicien Rops, Baudelaire and skeleton passions

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Félicien Rops (1833-1898), painter, printmaker, and illustrator, was active in both his native Belgium and in France, where he moved in 1874; his vast and varied output included landscapes, portraits, and, above all, representations of modern life, often caustic and disconcertingly frank. A leading figure of the Belgian avant-garde, he is perhaps best known for his etchings and book illustrations of the 1870s and 1880s which, with their heady mixture of of erotic (or frankly pornographic) and macabre imagery, make him one of the great figures of the late 19th-century Decadent Movement, and an artist whose work often reflects  the themes investigated in the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’.

His friendship with Baudelaire during the two unhappy years (1864-66) the poet spent in Belgium had a profound and lasting influence on Rops, and determined much of his later imagery. Baudelaire went to Belgium in April 1864 to give a series of lectures and to evade his creditors. Already seriously ill, plagued by money worries and a broken man, his despair there manifested itself in ferocious misanthropic attacks on Belgium and the Belgians. Rops was well-known by then as a caricaturist, his lithographs of social and political satires in the style of Daumier and Gavarni published in various Belgian newspapers and magazines, and also for realist subjects inspired by Courbet. Rops was introduced to Baudelaire in May 1864 by Auguste Poulet-Malassis, the poet’s publisher and friend and, like him, in self-imposed exile in Belgium evading his creditors. Rops and Poulet-Malassis were the only persons whose company, in the words of the poet, “lightened [his] sadness in Belgium”.

Images of skeletons are evoked in Baudelaire’s poetry and described in his art criticism (for example Alfred Rethel’s series of engravings Auch ein Todtentanz). They evidently influenced Rops who confided to Poulet-Malassis that he shared the poet’s “…love for the primary crystallographic form: the passion for the skeleton”. He was accordingly commissioned to execute the frontispiece of Les Épaves, a collection of incidental verse by Baudelaire which would include the six censored poems from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du malLes Épaves was finally published in 1866 with the Rops frontispiece illustrating the complex iconographic programme elaborated by Baudelaire. It depicts a skeleton, symbolising the tree of good and evil, in whose feet grow flowers representing the seven deadly sins. Angels and cherubs are flying high above around a medallion of the poet carried away by a chimera.

Rops, Epaves
Frontispiece by Rops from Baudelaire’s Les Épaves (Paris, 1866). British Library 011483.c.19

This was the first of a series of skeletons that would feature regularly in Rops’ work over the next three decades, most of them direct or indirect evocations of Baudelairian themes, showing the lasting effect of the poet’s work. They include La Mort qui danse  (‘Death Dancing’, ca 1865), and the painting La Mort au Bal (‘Death at the Ball’, 1865-75), both of which show a skeleton dressed as a woman and evoke Baudelaire’s poem ‘Danse macabre’. Mors Syphilitica (1875) shows the grim reaper masquerading as a prostitute in a doorway whereas La parodie humaine (1878) shows death hiding behind the elegant appearance of a young fashionable woman (another syphilis warning).

CM ROPS Fig.4 felicien rops death at the ball
Félicien Rops, La Mort au bal. (1865-75) (Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum)

 CM ROPS Fig.6 La Parodie humaine~1
Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878) (Namur, Musée provincial Félicien Rops)

Satan is also sometimes depicted as a skeleton, as in the two versions of Satan semant l’ivraie (‘Satan sowing seeds among the wheat’), one pastoral and one urban. The earlier of these images (1867, below left) shows Satan dressed as a peasant sowing the seeds of discord, in the later print (1882, below right), a gigantic Satan is crossing Paris, his right foot resting on the towers of Notre-Dame; in this case the seeds of discord, sown with his right hand, are women (a typically misogynistic image of woman as the instrument of the devil).

CM ROPS Satan semant l'ivraie x 2
The two versions of Satan semant l’ivraie (Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur)

Finally, skeletons appear in various guises in Rops illustrations to literary works by, among others, Joséphin Péladan’s Le Vice suprême (1884). Curiously, Rops never illustrated a work by Edgar Allan Poe, whose prose works would have been known to him through Baudelaire’s translations.

CM ROPS Fig.9 Peladan La Decadence latine
‘Le vice suprême’ from Josephin Aimé Péladan, Études passionnelles de décadence. Le vice suprême (Paris, 1884) Tab.603.a.29.

Postscript: It was while visiting the baroque Jesuit church of Saint-Loup in Namur on 15 March 1866, in the company of Rops and Poulet-Malassis, that Baudelaire had a seizure which led ultimately to aphasia, paralysis and, the following year, his death. His collapse occurred as he was praising the elaborate confessionals of the church the interior of which he had earlier described as a “terrible and delightful catafalque” and as a “catafalque embroidered in black, pink and silver”. Four years earlier Baudelaire had an ominous warning, which he described in his diaries in apocalyptic terms – “I constantly suffer from from vertigo, and today… I felt pass over me the wind of the wing of imbecility”; he must have now realised that the end was imminent.

The Church, a masterpiece of Belgian architecture, has recently been deconsecrated and is currently being restored. A stone’s throw away, the Musée provincial Félicien Rops, houses a rich collection of the artist’s  work. Its façade is adorned with a street sign showing Pornokratès, Rops’s most famous work, its rather curious putti bearing a distinct resemblance to those of his frontispiece of Baudelaire’s Les Épaves, an appropriate reminder of the poet in this neighbourhood redolent with baudelairian associations.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès (Museum Félicien Rops, Namur)


Charles Baudelaire, Les Épaves: Pièces condamnées – galanteries – épigraphes – pièces diverses – bouffonneries. (Brussels, 1866). 011483.c.19.

Félicien Rops, 1833-1898, lithographies, gravures, dessins, peintures. (Namur, [198?]). YA.2000.a.15029

Michel Draguet, Rops. (Paris, 1998). LB.31.b.17754

Bernadette Bonnier, André Guyaux, Hélène Védrine, Autour des Épaves de Charles Baudelaire (Antwerp, 1999) YA.2001.b.1454

Bernadette Bonnier, Véronique Carpiaux, Museum Félicien Rops (Oostkamp, 2003) YF.2006.a.5513.

Bernadette Bonnier (ed.), Le Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur (Brussels, 2005). LF.31.b.2064

24 October 2014

Person from a portrait: Ira Frederick Aldridge, the first black Othello

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Growing in a provincial town in Soviet Ukraine in the 1960s, when the world was less globalised and foreign students were present only in main universities, I had very little opportunity to meet a black person in flesh.  The first black person that I, aged 5, became aware of  was ... Ira Frederick Aldridge! The portrait of a very sympathetic man, with big eyes and moustaches, adorned every book about the national poet of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko (my parents had a very good library of Ukrainian literature). It was painted  in black and white Italian pencil and finished by Shevchenko on 25 December 1858 (see the  portrait below  from Wikimedia Commons).


 On 10 November 1858 Aldridge played Othello in one of St Petersburg’s theatres for the first time, and Taras Shevchenko, keen reader of Shakespeare and an ardent theatregoer, was in the audience, together with his Russian friends (the family of Count Fyodor Tolstoy and others). He was very excited by the acting and reduced to tears. 

Ira Aldridge as Othello, frontispiece from Leben und Künstler-Laufbahn des Neger Ira Aldridge (Berlin, 1853; 10881.a.1)

On November 12 Shevchenko met Aldridge personally in the house of Count Tolstoy where Shevchenko was a frequent guest. They became great friends (Aldridge called Shevchenko “an artist” finding difficult to pronounce the Ukrainian surname). Two young daughters of Count Tolstoy, Katya and Olya, often served as interpreters for them. On 6 December Shevchenko sent a letter to his Russian actor-friend (a former serf, like Shevchenko himself) Mikhail Shchepkin, full of admiration about the talent of Aldridge, “who does miracles on the stage”. “He shows live Shakespeare”, wrote Shevchenko.  Friend of Shevchenko artist Mikhail Mikeshin made a satirical sketch of  Shevchenko in awe before Aldrigde and Shevchenko himself added “My mute awe before Ira Aldridge” (picture below).


In 1913 Leonid Pasternak made his drawing of Aldridge and Shevchenko which is reproduced in books about them. The original is kept in the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow.

In 1861-1866 Aldridge visited many places in Ukraine: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Zhytomyr, and Elisavetgrad. He learned Russian and German and successfully performed using these languages too. His performances attracted large audiences everywhere. The well-known Ukrainian dramatist Ivan Karpenko-Karyi walked miles from the village of Bobryntsi to Elisavetgrad to see his performance.

The biography of this extraordinary African-American actor (especially famous in Shakespearean roles) is fascinating and continues to attract well-deserved attention. His bicentenary in 2007 was celebrated in many countries and the proceedings of a seminar about him were published in Germany in 2009: Ira Aldridge 1807-1867. The Great Shakespearean Tragedian on the Bicentennial Anniversary of his Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009; YD.2009.a.9405).

In 2012, Red Velvet, a play by Lolita Chakrabarti about Aldridge and his taking the role of Othello (published as a book; London, 2014;  YK.2013.a.13939) was premiered at the Tricycle Theatre in London, with Aldridge played by Adrian Lester. (The play returned in 2014; see excerptss here). More and more people are now discovering  Aldridge's extraordinary life  (see a blog on the website of U.S. Embassy in Kyiv from February 2013  here).

The British Library holds books about Aldridge in various languages. The oldest English booklets date from the 19th century, when young Ira, after leaving New York, was acting in Dublin, Edinburgh, Bath, and London: John Cole, A Critique on the Performance of Othello by F. W. K. [or rather, Ira] Aldridge, the African Roscius (Scarborough, 1831; British Library 11794.g.29) and A brief memoir and theatrical career of Ira Aldridge, the African tragedian. (London, ca. 1855; 1608/4459 - picture below).


The 20th- and 21st-century biographies and critical studies about Aldridge include: Herbert Marshall, Ira Aldridge : the Negro tragedian  (London, 1958; 11799.e.34); Owen Mortimer, Speak of me as I am: the story of Ira Aldridge (Wangaratta, 1995; YA.1996.a.22306); Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius, edited by Bernth Lindfors (Rochester, N.Y., 2007; v.28 8001.250050); Martin Hoyles, Ira Aldridge: celebrated 19th century actor (London, 2008; YD.2007.a.8267); Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807-1833 (Rochester, NY, 2011; YC.2012.a.22286) and the same author’s three-volume Ira Aldridge (Rochester, NY, 2011-2013; 8001.250050)  

Herbert Marshall’s book was translated into Ukrainian during Soviet times by the Mystetstvo (Art) publishing house (Aira Oldridzh: nehrytianskyi trahik (Kyiv, 1966) X.898/2832). Ukrainian authors mainly explored the friendship of Taras Shevchenko and Ira Aldridge, as in Ivan Kulinych’s Poet i trahik (Kyiv, 1964; X.908/1462) where the author collected memoirs of witnesses of this great friendship.

The Library holds the Russian original of a book by theatre historian and critic Sergey Durylin (1886-1954) about the life of Aldridge (Moscow-Leningrad, 1940; 11797.a.32) and its recent translation into English by Alexei Lalo (Trenton, 2014; awaiting shelfmark). A Hungarian-language book was published in Romania in 1969 (Ernő Igeti, Az idegen csillag. Ira Aldridge regényes élete (Bucharest, 1969)  X.989/6820).

This well-travelled and much-loved actor (he also played in Germany, Hungary and Serbia) died while on tour in Poland on 7 August 1867. His plans to return to his native USA after the end of the Civil War there (he was also an outspoken abolitionist) were never realised. Aldridge was given a state funeral in Poland and his tomb is in the Old Cemetery in Łódź.

 Tomb of Ira Aldridge (picture by Jan W. Raczkowski from Wikimedia Commons)

Every October, during Black History Month it is heart-warming to pay tribute to this great life which touched the lives and imagination of other people in many countries and cultures. Taras Shevchenko, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, was one of them.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies