Friday, October 28, 2016

Leonard Baskin & The Gehenna Press, 1951-1971

The Gehenna Press, founded by Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) in 1942, and located in Northampton MA, was one of the premier 20th-century fine presses in America. Leonard Baskin, a noted sculptor and illustrator, created many of the books etchings himself. This Spotlight, based on our digital exhibit of the same name, highlights the collection of early Gehenna Press books and ephemera that was donated to the library by Maurice and Edith Shulman in 1972. The items in the Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press collection date to 1951-1971, roughly the first two decades of sustained productivity of the Gehenna Press. The web exhibit was made possible by the gracious permission of Lisa Unger Baskin. The copyright to the Gehenna Press books remains with the Baskin family and should be honored accordingly.

About Leonard Baskin

Leonard Baskin was born on August 15, 1922 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The son of a rabbi, he spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn. At the age of 13 he watched a clay modelling demonstration at a department store and knew then he wanted to be a sculptor. He attended Yale on a scholarship, and it was there he discovered the works of William Blake, which gave him the ambition to become an artist, poet, and printer. The idea for Gehenna Press was born.

Baskin left Yale to join the US Navy during World War II. In 1947 he married Esther Tane and in 1950 spent a year in Florence and Paris studying art. This year had a profound effect on him, opening his eyes and mind to the Renaissance artistic traditions and methods. In 1951 he and Esther moved to Worcester, Massachusetts where he taught at the Worcester Art Museum school and began publishing his own wood engravings under the Gehenna Press imprint. In 1953 he began teaching at Smith College. Throughout these years he continued to sculpt and paint along with running the Gehenna Press. Baskin considered himself first and foremost a sculptor. As he once said, "Although it has been my prints which have won me praise, my [real] and profound concern is for sculpture." His body of work is tremendous, with his most famous sculpture being the Roosevelt Memorial bas-relief in Washington DC.

In 1967 Leonard Baskin divorced his first wife and married Lisa Unger. In 1974 they moved to England. Here they could be closer to the poet Ted Hughes, with whom Baskin had a decades long collaboration and friendship. They inspired each other. Hughes would send Baskin poems which would inspire Baskin to create new woodcuts, and these woodcuts would spark new poems from Hughes. In 1981 the Baskins returned to Leeds Massachusetts, where they remained for the rest of Baskin's life. He continued to run the Gehenna Press and create art. He died in 2000 at the age of 77.

While Baskin considered himself chiefly a sculptor, it is his printmaking that has given him the most attention and fame. His study and use of traditional methods and the years he devoted to mastering and developing these skills resulted in an impressive body of work. Baskin avoided abstraction, preferring to work in the tradition of figurative art. This came out of his belief that the human being was the center of the universe as we know it. As he once stated "man is glorious", and while Baskin often had a bleak view of the world, he believed in the final redemptive power in man. And his art was an attempt to communicate that power.

About The Gehenna Press

In 1942 Leonard Baskin founded the Gehenna Press while at Yale (the name coming from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost: "And black Gehenna call'd, the type of Hell."). Inspired by William Blake's example of being both a poet and an artist and bookmaker, Baskin's first printed book, On a Pyre of Withered Roses, was a selection of his own poems. Due to the war (World War II, in which Baskin served in the Navy) and five years of dedicated artistic study, much of it in Europe, Baskin's second book, A Little Book of Natural History, was published nine years after the first.

The Press' books in the early 1950s have an almost naive charm. Either printed on different second-hand printing presses or commercially printed, they show Baskin developing his wood engraving and bookmaking skills. By 1959 Baskin felt that he had begun to "invent typographic structures of originality and sensitivity."

Around the same time Baskin relinquished his role as the sole printer. Starting with the book Thirteen Poems by Wilfred Owen, Baskin partnered with Richard Warren of The Metcalf Printing and Publishing Company, and for Horned Beetles and Other Insects, Baskin began using Harold McGrath as the Gehenna Press pressman. This led to a new level of superb workmanship in the Gehenna Press books, complemented by an increasingly sophisticated and elegant choice of typeface.

Throughout the 1960s Baskin published both books devoted to his woodcuts and to literary works illustrated with his, or other artists, engravings. The 1960s output of the Gehenna Press is diverse, including such stunning achievements as Flosculi Sententiarum and Euripides Hippolytos. In the mid-1960s, due to rising costs, Baskin occasionally designed and/or printed books for other publishers.

In 1974, after selling the Press equipment to Harold McGrath for one dollar, Baskin and his family moved to Devon, England. There, Baskin and Hughes collaborated on a broadside of the Hughes poem "Pike" but had never done a book together. After several years of Baskin devoting himself to other artistic endeavors, he and Hughes collaborated on their first Gehenna Press book: A Primer of Birds.

In 1983 the Baskins returned to America and settled in Leeds, Massachusetts and Baskin began publishing under the imprint of Eremite Press. By 1989,  though, he had switched back to using the Gehenna Press designation. Arthur Larson of Hadley, Massachusetts was a frequent printer of Gehenna Press books at the time, and woodcuts were often printed by Daniel Keleher of Wild Carrot Press, also in Hadley. The Gehenna Press bindings at this time also achieved a new level of elegance, with many of the books now being bound by Gray Parrot of Easthampton, Massachusetts.

The 1990s saw Baskin continuing his close collaboration with Ted Hughes, publishing Capricco and Howls and Whispers. The Gehenna Press printed a variety of books throughout the decade, with Baskin continuing to develop and grow as an engraver, including the incorporation of more color into prints. In 2000, Leonard Baskin died, as did both Ted Hughes and Harold McGrath.

No other private press has achieved anything near its output and longevity, and after over 100 books and 50 years, the Gehenna Press can be called the most successful private press of all time.

Click here to see the finding aid to the Leonard Baskin and The Gehenna Press collection.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Witches, Demons, and Ghosts in Special Collections

Among the items held in the Brandeis University Archives and Special Collections are numerous rare volumes on a subject quite fitting for autumn in New England: the supernatural. Among the topics covered in these books are witchcraft, demons, and ghosts. The field that studies such phenomena is referred to as demonology. The volumes range in date from the 16th to the 20th century and are written by figures from literature, religion, and the history of medicine. Interestingly enough, many of these books are skeptical, rational responses to the rising paranoia caused by Reformation era witch trials and anti-Enlightenment or Romantic era obsessions with the supernatural.

De praestigiis daemonum, & incantationibus ac veneficiis libri sex: postrema editione sexta aucti & recogniti : accessit liber apologeticus, et pseudomonarchia daemonum: cum rerum ac verborum copioso indice, Johann Weyer (1583, originally published in 1563)

The title of this book, written by notable 16th-century Dutch-German demonologist Johann Weyer, translates to On the Illusions of Demons. Written in Latin, Weyer’s book is considered a foundational study in the field of the supernatural, and also to be quite ahead of its time in method and scope. De Praestigiis covers magic spells and potions but its most famous section is Pseudomonarchia Daemonum [The False Kingdom of the Demons], a catalogue of major demons and their supposed rankings in Hell.[1] Weyer wished to address the rampant witch hysteria of his day and he believed that “evidence” of the supernatural could be explained by logical, rational means. His famous index of demons is generally considered an attempt to debunk theories of vast hierarchies of Hell. While Weyer based his research and writing in contemporary theology, he was ahead of his time in proffering ideas that today might be categorized as literary studies, cultural and folk history, psychology, sociology, and medicine. Due to his focus on mental origins of witchcraft and demonic possession, Weyer is sometimes considered a proto-pioneer in psychiatry. The Brandeis University Library holds English translations of this text.

Letters on demonology and witchcraft: addressed to J. G. Lockhart, Esq., Sir Walter Scott (1830)

Sir Walter Scott, famed author of Romantic historical novels, wrote Letters two years before he died, while recovering from the first of several strokes and looking for a change from his typical subject matter. The book is composed of ten letters to his son in law J.G. Lockhart (who suggested the topic) and presents a rational view of demonology and the supernatural. Scott presents these phenomena and the witch trials that followed as resulting from medical causes (much like Weyer) or stemming from early Christians’ misunderstanding of foreign religions (especially Islam). He also noted that as witch trials grew in popularity, the charges were often conflated with political crimes against the state. The book itself is bound in a beautiful red cover embossed with images of typical witch’s items: pointed hats, broomsticks, toads, and cats. Particularly stunning are the ten full-color illustrations, drawn by George Cruikshank, depicting the creatures and figures discussed in the text.[2] Cruikshank was also a noted illustrator for Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, who is in turn connected to the next book discussed below.

The Mystery Revealed: Containing a series of transactions and authentic testimonials respecting the supposed Cock-Lane ghost, which have hitherto been concealed from the public, Goldsmith, Oliver (1928 reprint of the 1762 ed. printed for W. Bristow, London.)

This artifact is a 1928 reprinting of a 1762 pamphlet presumably written and produced by Irish playwright and author Oliver Goldsmith. The subject of the pamphlet is the “Cock Lane Ghost,” the name given to a strange occurrence that achieved widespread fascination in late 18th-century England. William Kent, a usurer from the countryside, moved to London with the sister of his dead wife, with whom he was in a relationship. His lover later died and many thought foul play was involved. Kent and his landlord, Richard Parsons, entered into litigation about money. Some years later, at the building that served as their lodgings in Cock Lane, Elizabeth, the daughter of Kent’s landlord, began to suffer fits accompanied by strange sounds in the building, most notably “knocking” or “scratching” sounds. It was claimed the ghost of Kent’s first wife was haunting the children. This became a something of a national obsession, and was investigated through two séances organized by a committee of noted figures of the day, among them the writer Samuel Johnson. Johnson and others believed it was a hoax to cover up foul play and impropriety, and Parson and several of his supporters were eventually tried and found guilty of conspiracy against Kent. [3]

The pamphlet takes the view that the ghost is real, and was intended to support Kent’s innocence in the entire event. The Cock-Lane ghost remained a cultural touchstone of English life for the next century, giving rise to the popular phrase “One Knock for Yes, Two Knocks for No” used in the popular images of séances. Its impact on literature was especially notable. Charles Dickens, writing in his great novel A Tale of Two Cities almost one hundred years later, uses references to this ghost as a way of developing a sense of the time for the late 19th century in the opening chapter “The Period.” [4]

These are just a few of the fascinating items on occult that are held by the Archives and Special Collections at Brandeis University. And of course, all these items are available for public and scholarly perusal!

For more on Brandeis's supernatural special collections, see this BrandeisNOW article on "Witches in the Archives."


[1] Wikipedia. De praestigiis daemonum.
[2] Edinburgh University Library. The Walter Scott Digital Archive.
[3] Wikipedia. Cock Lane Ghost.
[4] Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.

Description by Matthew Chernick, Masters Student in Comparative Humanities and Archives & Special Collections assistant.