Our latest exhibition was launched at the opening of the Livres d’Artistes: The Artist’s Book in Theory and Practice conference. It showcases the generous donation of artists’ books from Ron King and the Circle Press, gifted to Special Collections and Archives in 2014. Sample images from the exhibition are featured below, with captions taken from an interview with Ron conducted by Cathy Courtney (1999), which looks back on his career in book arts.
Contracted at this time to create print editions for Editions Alecto, London, I persuaded them to take on this first book [The Prologue (1967)]. On completion of the work with their imprint on the title page and stamped logo on the reverse of the images, they suffered a financial set-back and I was forced to take on publication myself as Circle Press.
I had been working on a series of mask prints, and I knew this was a solution I wanted to explore for the Chaucer rather than attempting to ‘illustrate’ it… The abstract mask provided the opportunity to express the pilgrims through the merging of symbols – symbols taken from heraldry or the Church, for example – rather than caricature. The Parson, for instance, is not just himself but also a symbol of the Church, just as the Knight is the symbol of ruthlessness and (at the same time) vulnerability but also, in heraldic terms, of the Crusade… I used colour to put certain moods across; for instance, the Knight is grey, black, and silver and rather rusty, whereas the Squire is bright and gaudy.
There was a room in the Victoria and Albert Museum that was devoted to artists’ books in [the 1960s], and some of them had a deep influence on me. Matisse’s Jazz (1947) moved me tremendously, a revelation in the strength of its colour, the economy of its drawing, the exciting presentation of something that had been worked out in cut paper and reproduced by a hand-cut stencil technique in a way that vitalized rather than diminished it… Miró’s A Toute Epreuve (1958)… had a strong influence on the second book I did, The Song of Solomon (1969)
Bluebeard’s Castle (1972-73) marked the beginning of [my] collaboration with the poet Roy Fisher [and] my first step away from the traditional book format… The extraordinary thing was that within three weeks of my having sent Roy a mock-up of the book, he had written a text in which we only changed one word. I’d never met him… I designed the whole thing, and making it was incredibly masochistic. Absolute hell. The difficult thing about a work like Bluebeard’s Castle is to translate the dummy into something that can be manufactured or constructed in an edition. I remember sitting at a desk and just cutting and chopping and gluing and looking at all kinds of different pop-up material until I turned out the first room, the Torture Chamber. Once I got the idea that to make something pop-up you have to have symmetrical folding structure, I began experimenting in various ways.
I was born in Brazil in 1932. The Carnival was a three-day event just before Lent and was visually very powerful. I loved the spectacle of the fancy dress, the masks and hobby horses. I spent a lot of times making paper toys and kites. Kites have a tremendous masklike presence, and they have appeared in my adult work; for instance, I used them in my Antony and Cleopatra (1979).
The Left-Handed Punch (1986) and Anansi Company (1992) are the two most elaborate books Roy and I worked on. The Punch is my favourite of all the books I’ve done; it holds together better than Anansi and has more dimensions. Punch’s moveable puppets, on-stage descriptions, the large chunks of the original Cruikshank version of the text, and the drawn Victorian tableaux scenes (spoofs of famous drawings and paintings) all fit together easily, and the photo montages and collages are relieved by the inclusion of the poet’s (Roy’s) handwriting to strong effect.
The Anansi book is more spectacular with its removable puppets made of wire and card – the whole book is like the Brazilian Carnival scene as I knew it, lots of noisy music and revelry coming from all directions.
If I am to criticise other works, I would say that, too often, one look through is enough! That does not mean that I can’t enjoy that ‘one-look’ type of book; not only do I have a large collection of them, but my own wire-printed productions, Turn Over Darling (1990) and Echo Book (1994), are books of that nature… I try to make even those ‘one-look’ books tactile and pleasing to handle and the printing relevant to the content. As in good speech, the message is not enough, the quality of delivery is vital.
Although I was never a wholly traditional printer, I was closer to that stand-point when I began than now, when much of what I do might be described as the work of an experimental book artist. For many years now I have been using materials such as wire, wood, mirror and stone and exploring the elasticity of the book form itself. In selecting slides for lectures, I’m often aware of how my approach to the book form has developed. From the conventional solution of image and text in the format of the Chaucer Prologue in 1967 – through pop-up books, mirror books, wire-embossed books with double images, stone books, sawn and laser-cut ones – to the hollow log which I cut earlier this year into forty sections and bound in the inner ring to make four quarter-circle books that fit together into the original log form, is a long way.