As Old As Your Grandparents
I am fairly sure, although I could be wrong and hope that you will correct me, that receiving such a strange envelope through the post came as something of a surprise to both you and your family. It is by a Japanese artist called Miyuli and he calls it Red and the Wolf which, as I am sure you can well imagine, is a play on the old fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood, but with a very modern flavour added to bring it up to date. As you can imagine, Miyuli creates comics for grown-ups, with very intense themes and a good deal of detail which, as an artist, you will have seen immediately. He is one of many artists that I follow on Twitter, and whose work I try to add to my own collection. I am not an artist like you, but someone who plays with words and creates images through the written word and through writing letters to people in a very old-fashioned way; a style which was used in England before your grandparents were born.
And I should probably say, right at the start, so that there are no misunderstandings: I am probably as old as your grandparents, or roughly about their age, and despite that I am writing you this small letter, and enclosing a few photographs and postcards fully aware that we will never meet, that you will probably not reply to me, but just for the sheer pleasure of sharing something with a young woman who is beginning her letter writing at exactly the right age, as I wish that I had all those years ago. And who, I sincerely hope, will continue to write letters over many decades and gain immense pleasure from this wonderful art as much as from the creative and visual arts.
When I say that this is old-fashioned, I am sure you know exactly what I mean: there are not very many people today who sit down and write letters because they are far too busy checking out their Facebook and Instagram timelines and taking new selfies of themselves to post for everyone else to laugh at. And then checking two seconds later to see whether anyone has noticed their new picture or not. Writing letters takes quite a bit of concentration and certainly a lot of dedication, but it can be a wonderful feeling when a letter goes on its journey across the world, or one comes floating in through the letter box and lands on your own front door mat. Old-fashioned because letters were being written before anyone had even thought that there could be other ways to get in touch with people: the great letter writers of two thousand years ago, such as Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero would never have imagined such a thing as a telephone when they had messengers to carry everything on foot; the letter writers of Victorian England who wrote to each other sometimes every single day, and passed on news of family and friends; Japanese men who, coming home after spending a night with their friends, would send a hand written poem by way of saying thank you for the evening together, freshly written and unique, as soon as they got back home, no matter how late it was, and then go on to sleep themselves, knowing that their hosts would go to bed once they had received the message and not sooner.
Letter writing was very different then, compared to what we are used to now. Many people had their own headed stationery in later years, which we can now produce easily on a computer, but then it was hand printed for them. Even earlier, and here we come to one of my presents for you, people would take paper specially cut for letters, fold them once they’d finished writing, address the outside of the folded page and send this through the post. My small example, which was sent with a stamp from Hannover to a small village near here called Hoyerhagen, is a later example and probably had a small note included. In earlier years the inside of the envelope was the letter, the seal would be broken, the ‘envelope’ unfolded and then read as we would today. If you look carefully, you’ll see that this letter, to a young lady care of the local priest, has a wax seal on the back still but, sadly, no message on the inside.
Earlier folded letters would have had no stamp at all, merely a postmark where the postage had been paid, or would have been delivered by hand or by a coachman specially tasked with the mission. Where we sometimes grow impatient when a letter takes three days to arrive, it used to be considered speedy if a letter across country – from the south to the north, or from London to Edinburg – only took three weeks. When I write to my friends in Indonesia, who live on an island cut off from the rest of the world, it takes a whole month for a letter to arrive, and my friends in Australia and the United States need to wait seven or even ten days before the post is delivered. In country though, when I write to friends in Germany, letters are usually there one or two days later. And look at the wonderful handwriting this person had, something no one uses today, and which many people cannot even read. This was the public or official script used, the private was very difficult to read indeed and even had completely different spelling compared to what we know today. The spelling of words has only really be laid down into its present form for a few decades, it used to be that everyone wrote according to what they believed the spelling to be and, as long as the reader understood them, it wasn’t a problem.
Another big difference in the letters from so long ago, right through into the Victorian times, was that people didn’t just write to one person. Their letters were addressed to the head of the household or his wife – there were strict positions in those days – and might be read out in the evening to everyone who was there, including friends and other visitors, and even copied and sent on to other people in the family elsewhere in the country or abroad. A very slow social network, if you like, where everyone waits for the post to arrive instead of being able to check their smart phone all the time.
Now if you look at the postcard of the Kaiser Wilhelm Denkmal – which means memorial – you’ll see, on the back, the normal handwriting that people in Germany used at the beginning of the last century. This postcard was sent in 1915 and shows both the official, public hand writing style for the address, which – to be honest – is not as neat as it could be, and the private hand writing for those reading the message. Don’t tell any of your teachers this, but it was normal back then for people to write in pencil as well as using ink. No one thought anything of it in a private letter or on a postcard.
And the clothing that they wore then! This, believe it or not, was normal, everyday, go out for a walk and go to work clothing. The younger man fifth from the left is wearing short trousers and long socks, the one to his left is old enough to be wearing a three-piece suit and the one to his right, who can’t be more than three or four years older, has the full set-up with stiff collar, tie, three-piece suit and a bowler hat. And they are all standing there, looking straight into the camera, watching a very unusual sight: a man taking a photograph. Or perhaps a woman, there were many studios run by women photographers from about 1890 onwards, although officially they weren’t meant to, only men could run a business, so they were often run under the name of a man, or as an artist’s studio and not a commercial one. To give you some idea of what it was like for women back then: in 1949 in Germany a woman still needed permission from her husband – or nearest male relative if not married – to open her own bank account. This was still officially the case in 1977 in the United States!
The photograph here took possibly a minute to shoot, depending on Rosenthal’s camera and plates, which is why you can see that the faces of that youngest man and the woman close to him are slightly blurred; they must have moved during the exposure. The chances are that the photographer was using a glass negative plate for his photograph, as the plastic or foil-based films didn’t come into use until a few years later, when Agfa brought out their first film, followed by Eastman Kodak, and the first box cameras made of cardboard and metal began to be produced along with many other forms of camera, much more expensive and not for the ordinary people of the times.
The memorial in this photograph is to Kaiser Wilhelm I, who died in 1888, and was made by Robert Bärwald and stood seven and a half metres tall. At the foot you can see a representation of Brema, the figure representing the city of Bremen, and on the other side would have been a figure of Neptune, as Bremen was a sea city depending on imports through its harbour. And, of course, hardly something which could be left out, a massive eagle, symbol of Germany at the time, and today in a different form.
Speaking / writing about the clothes people wore, and because you also like drama and the theatre, the next postcard could also be of interest. It shows a group of actors in front of the backdrop to a play they were performing in the tiny village of Bruchhöfen. The houses painted on this backdrop would have been normal farm buildings, and many of them still exist in the area today, and the people from a travelling troupe of actors without any homes of their own, rather like circus people used to be, or travelling gypsies. They were performing a three act play called Schulten-Marie in Plattdeutsch – which is a Germanic language normal in northern farming communities and linked with German, English and Dutch languages – written by Karl Meyer-Jelmstorf and published in 1915. And the clothing they are wearing in this group portrait would be a mixture of different styles according to the position of the person portrayed in local society, in the farming community. Live music provided by the accordion player – still popular here – but look at the two men sitting right in the front behind that small table. Both of them are smoking pipes, as are a few other men in the photograph, but what pipes they are! The smaller one on your left could be what is called a Churchwarden’s pipe, which has a long stem and could be rested on a desk while being smoked. What the one on the right is called, which is resting on the ground, I have no idea. I think he must have needed a few strong breaths, or very powerful lungs, to draw the tobacco smoke all the way up to his mouth with such a long pipe stem.
The next postcard is something special to many people from England, especially the older ones: it is a lithograph of the castle in Colditz, which I made a special point of visiting for the first time when the Berlin Wall fell and then again a few years ago. Colditz Castle will probably always have a special place in the hearts of the English as it was used by the Germans as a prison camp for British and some European prisoners of war during the Second World War. It is right over on the eastern side of the country, and was in East Germany, the Russian controlled part of the country, right up until 1989 when Germany was able to reunify. When I was younger, and working in London, I had the great honour of meeting some of the officers who escaped from Colditz, which the Germans had thought was an impregnable, escape-proof camp. Of course they hadn’t reckoned with the ingenuity of the men incarcerated there, not just the British, but also the French and Dutch. Today there is a museum in the building, a music school and a youth hostel – like the YHA – for anyone wishing to stay the night.
The castle is high above the town and seems almost to be cut off from the rest of the surrounding area. You need to climb a long cobblestoned street to get to the main entrance at the front, and the back of the building looks across a deep valley with nothing but greenery. There are many stories about the men who managed to escape from Colditz, by wearing women’s clothing or dressed up as one of the local workers and walking out of the front gate, or by digging tunnels underneath the wine cellar, despite the thickness of the castle’s walls. Perhaps, when you begin your travels, you’ll add it to your long list of places to visit, just out of pure interest, along with the artistic centres of Europe such as Florence and Paris. This postcard is from the 1920s, but not a great deal has changed on this side of the castle since then, other than that it has been cleaned up a little!
Since you are also so interested in art I have two small items to offer before drawing to a close and sending this package off into the wilds of the postal system. The first is taken from the work of Julia Peintner, who you have probably never heard of, and who I had never heard of either. But then, there are so many artists in the world who we will never get to hear of, sad to say, and some of them are very good indeed. Julia is distinguished, however, by having been exhibited, with this work – called Microcosmos – at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, along with about one thousand and ninety other works. I’ve included this image – and the next one which I shall explain in a moment – because it is such a simple but beautiful one, and something that anyone, with time and patience, can try. It is a linocut, which is quite literally a carving into a piece of floor covering used as a printing plate. And, to be honest, it is one of the better offerings at the Royal Academy this year. I went through all of them, and picked out perhaps five or six which I liked, which I could even see a small amount of artistic talent in. Lino-cutting is something that can easily be done at home and, like woodcutting, can produce some beautiful images.
The last is take from Twitter, as I am sure you recognise immediately. This young woman, Leslie Watts, produced a print of a field mouse, as you can see, by cutting the impression into the plastic lid of a salad container, inking it up, and then passing it through a pasta maker as printing press. I have no idea how anyone could come upon such an idea, but there are clearly a few people who see kitchen utensils in a different light to us and take full advantage of it. Sadly she is in Canada, so I wasn’t able to get one of the ten copies, but this photograph of her Twitter entry is a fairly good second best, I suppose. If I was anything of an artist I would give it a go, but, as I mentioned, my artistry is with words. Perhaps you can raid the kitchen when no one is looking: I mean, who uses pasta makers?
Finally a short story a good friend of mine wrote a few years ago, and which I printed for her, just to round the package off. I hope that you’ve enjoyed what I’ve sent, and the explanations of them all, and that you gain some inspiration, and I look forward to seeing your name in years to come, either as a great artist, or as a great actor.