The Making of In Praise of Libraries (2017)

Expanded notes from an artists talk given by Lizz Tuckerman for the exhibition In Praise of Libraries at Bank Street Arts on Saturday the 14th October 2017.

My own recollections of reading

Recollections when small

My first book

My dad was an agricultural botanist, a keen photographer, very ‘good with his hands’, he made furniture, although the beds he made for my sister and myself were never quite finished. He did the entire decorating and I as the eldest of two sisters was his ‘right hand man’.

He used to bring seed trays home which I used to construct stuff in the garden. My most memorable creation was a ‘cow’. Seed trays for the body, terracotta flowerpot for the head and an old rubber glove formed the udder. A hosepipe from flowerpot to rubber glove meant that if you poured water into the flowerpot you could milk it out of the rubber glove. I visited a friend from childhood recently and she still remembered the cow.

I was read to each evening by my dad. My Aunty Mary sent me a book every Christmas. She was principle of Leicester Teacher Training College so I suppose she knew what was ‘suitable’. I later found out that some of the Narnia books she sent me were first editions, although now first editions in a much thumbed and poor condition.

Aunty Mary’s Books- the ones I remember best.  

The first of the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) by C S Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis was published in 1950. My favourite was The Magician’s Nephew published 1955. It retrospectively describes the origin of Narnia and was published 6th in the Chronicles. Although regarded as the weakest of the series I think I was attracted to the visual qualities especially the description of Aslan singing the trees and animals into existence. This book introduces the idea of multiverses, the portals being puddles in a ‘wood between the worlds’. A jump into a puddle leads to a different world. I’m interested in the idea of multiverses.  A previous work f = degrees of freedom (2000) made following my mother’s death was all about the choices made during a lifetime.

Dr Doolittle Series by Hugh Loftus (1920-1952). Doctor Doolittle is a doctor who shuns human patients in favour of animals, with whom he can speak in their own languages. He later becomes a naturalist, using his abilities to speak with animals to better understand nature and the history of the world. I find animals easier to communicate with than humans. I was a horse mad young person, and my constant companion was my dog. It is no mistake that my first degree is in Zoology.

The Box of Delights by John Masefield (published 1935). Kay Harper is returning from boarding school when he finds himself mixed up in a battle to possess a magical box. The box allows the owner to shrink in size, to fly swiftly, to go into the past and to experience the magical wonders contained within the box.

Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (published 1954). A young Roman officer Marcus Flavius Aquila tries to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father’s legion in northern Britain. Marcus’s hope of seeing the lost legion re-established is dashed, but he is able to bring back the bronze eagle so that it can no longer serve as a symbol of Roman defeat – and thus will no longer be a danger to the frontier’s security. My dad’s family came from the North; I have always felt a connection with the landscape. In contrast my mother’s family were from Portsmouth and Jamaica. I was very close to my mother’s mother. We would sit in her bed before getting dressed, gran with her cup of tea, me with hot orange juice while she recited Brer Rabbit stories with a Jamaican accent.

Grimms’ Fairy Stories, my dad would edit these in a rather ad hoc way in order to make them less gory. I usually noticed.

I can remember lying outside in the sun reading but have no recollection of when or how I learnt to read. Books such as Mary Poppins, The Family from One End Street, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, 1001 Dalmatians.

My first recollection of a library

My first recollection of a library is the one at Impington Village College. The village colleges were created by Henry Morris Chief Education Officer Cambridge (1922 onwards) as inspiring places where local people could learn and socialise. Henry Morris believed in education for life. My dad ran a film club at Impington College mainly showing foreign art films that were not on general release. I designed the posters. The lettering was done with the aid of stencils and Rotring pens, later replaced by Lettraset. The village college model has been replicated all over the world and in this country its legacy is comprehensive education.

By the time I reached junior school I was obsessed by horses – although I rode I really just enjoyed their company. Horses invaded my reading and my drawing, from Black Beauty; via the Romney Marsh series (No Mistaking Corker 1947, Black Hunting Whip 1950 by Monica Edwards) to the Observer book of Horses, plus of course Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven Adventure series of eight children’s novels. These books feature the same child characters: Philip, Jack, Dinah, and Lucy-Ann, along with several adult characters. Jack’s pet parrot, Kiki, is also a standard feature in each novel. Valley of Adventure was my favourite. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Series (1942-1963) 21 books featuring Julian, George (a girl), Anne, Dick and Timmy (George’s dog).  My parents did not really approve of Enid Blyton.

They also did not approve of comics like The Beano and Dandy. I read them at a friend’s house instead in batches of ten.  My parents held out for a long time against having a television, on the basis that television interfered with reading. I was 11 when they capitulated. By that time I was a frequent visitor to next door, they had a TV and no similar reservations.

My secondary education was at a Quaker school in Saffron Walden. Incidentally Saffron Walden library is housed in a rather grand building that used to be the Corn Exchange. Quaker education is very wide and I took art as well as three science subjects in the sixth form. At this time I was mainly painting and making pottery. There was a thriving community of artists in the nearby villages some supported their own practice by teaching school children. I was especially influenced by Ian Auld a potter, who taught both at the Central school and at Camberwell School of art, where he worked alongside Hans Coper (famous German potter). Ian Auld was a big square set man and made powerful slab-built pots inspired by Middle Eastern architecture. I have not worked with clay for a while but hand building remains my favourite method of working.

A landmark in my art development while I was still at school was a summer school at Malham Tarn. We painted outside and to my amazement people wanted to own my work. It was one of the best experiences but did not deflect me from going on study Zoology.

I read a wide range of books in my later teens and was indirectly influenced by both parents. My parents reading choices were polar opposites. My mother was interested in psychology and loved poetry. She had learnt to recite long long poems at school and never lost the ability. In fact she recited The Lady of Shallot (Alfred Lord Tennyson) when she could not sleep. She was a Jane Austen fan (I’m not) but I did read many other books that she recommended, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (published 1847), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (published 1847), and the 1966 prequel by Jean Rhys, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Daphne Du Maurier The Loving Spirit, Rebecca, and she read lots of books about middle class families falling apart (Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner, etc)

My dad had grown up with serious reading matter, such as Tolstoy but when I was a teenager he mainly read controversial American novels. (Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953), Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1964) , Couples by John Updike (1968), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966), Lolita by Nabokov, Naked Lunch by Burrows, Steinbeck ,The Grapes of Wrath. Everyone read Lady Chatterley, but my mum would not have done, on principle.

While I was reading Zoology, I continued to make pottery. I also painted large things that involved a lot of coloured dots and hard lines which I carted from bedsit to bedsit and eventually lost when evicted over one Christmas holiday.

By the time I entered Psalter Lane in 1995 I had produced two children, worked in genetics and reproductive medicine and studied life drawing, sculpture, painting and photography for over 20 years.

Reading Sheffield

The oral history project, Reading Sheffield was founded in 2011. Although I knew Mary I had very little idea what she was doing academically. She had talked about the subject of her PhD; it was about a ‘middlebrow’ author called Warwick Deeping one of the bestselling authors in the 1920s and 30s.  To be honest the more she told me about his books the less I liked him. Deeping was very widely read, but not the sort of author to proudly put on a reading list. I think that this was the origin of initiating a project to find out what books were actually read in Sheffield in the 30s 40s and 50s, and how the readers came across books and first learnt to read. My parents were early guinea pigs in a ‘listing the books that you actually read’ experiment. As far as I can remember it turned out after a bit of prompting that my mum had read quite a bit of Warwick Deeping.

The origins of In Praise of Libraries.  

This piece of artwork is my response to the memories of reading collected by Reading Sheffield.

The Reading Sheffield Project

‘A group of 12 volunteers were trained and equipped to collect audio recordings of archival quality. The key aims of the project were to get a sense of how the reading habit was formed, what was read and to identify the main source of reading material. Each interviewer was briefed as to the main sources of reading material in the 1930s 40s and 50s, a list of popular titles and authors of this period and a set of prompts. Interviewers were encouraged to explore areas which were significant to the reader rather than to collect significant information in a way that could be tabulated.’  Memories of Fiction : An Oral History

The group collected over 60 recordings from Sheffield readers. The readers were now over 70 years old and had all been resident in Sheffield during the 1940s and 50s.

Sometime in 2015 it was decided that sufficient recordings had been collected and that some sort of event was required to mark its ending.

The original idea put forward by Loveday Herridge (Reading Sheffield) was assemble an exhibition to illustrate the Reading Sheffield project. The recreation of a 1940s domestic interior was part of the plan and the work was going to be done with practical support from the Library and the Museums Trust. The Carpenter Room in the Central Library was the proposed venue.

I was asked to join to provide some artistic input as the intention was to apply to the Arts Council for funding.

At the time The Arts Council were offering collaborative grants to encourage libraries to work with artists. So we started to work on a joint application between myself, Reading Sheffield and the Central Library.

The first thing I had done was take a camera and spend a couple of days photographing book covers, flyleaves, illustrations, and quotes from the books in The Readership and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection in Sheffield Hallam Adsetts Library.

I also experimented with audio format.

I visited some of the participants in their homes and photographed them, their books, and old family photographs.


Early floor plan for a Reading Sheffield installation in the Carpenter Room


Early sketch of the initial proposed installation


Early stage digital mock up of the proposed installation collaged into the carpenter Room, Sheffield Central Library.


Before we could submit the application to the Arts Council cuts to local services resulted in a drastic reduction in library staff. This meant that our partners were now overloaded with work and unable to fit in anything extra or worse had been made redundant.

The only thing that I could do was re-jig the application and apply to the Arts Council as an individual artist. The Arts Council had previously funded me to work on art and science on more than one occasion. Disappointingly funding was turned down on the basis that this project did not enhance my art practice.

So we were stuck, but I had become very involved with the books and the audio recordings. For me this project was new territory, which I thought was a rather good thing. I really like old things especially things that have been handled. The less said about my house the better, as it’s full of second hand stuff. I’m not restricted to furniture as I also like and tend to wear old (now called vintage) clothes. If they have a history that’s a bonus.

A New Direction the Reading Sheffield Website.

It seemed a shame that the information collected by Reading Sheffield was not available to a larger audience. So in order to make the audio recordings available to a wider audience, I rashly offered to construct a website. Reading Sheffield raised money from various sources such as the Aviva fund. I have to say that the Humanities Department at Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Town Trust have supported this project throughout.

I’d put a simple website together in 1996 called Articulate. Articulate was a very early online gallery and, much to my surprise, remained accessible on Sheffield Hallam’s site for about 10 years. I later learnt how to use Dreamweaver, but by 2015 all this was obsolete. But, a great advance, producing a website with a packet such as WordPress is now much simpler.

In constructing the site I became much more familiar with the transcripts and audio.

The Framed Pictures

I wanted to show a glimpse into the lives of the readers, through images as well as words, as for me they are quite nostalgic.

The starting point was a photograph of the reader taken either during childhood or early adulthood. I removed the background digitally leaving just the figure or the head.

Then I listened to the audio, then audio plus transcript, (by this time the audio  was up on the web site). While listening I selected any paragraphs that caught my ear. I then pared the selected paragraphs down until only 3-4 paragraphs remained. I imported these into Photoshop, and experimented with the visual effects of various fonts and typefaces.

Listening to the audio gave me clues as to which book to include, but which book I chose also depended on the visual properties of the book.

I layered all three images on top of each other and manipulated them until they looked right.

I collect old picture frames so I used those plus a few more I tracked down. I wanted the frame to be part of the work rather than just a display device. The frames are typical of designs between the early to mid 1900s. Wanting one piece of work rather than a collection of individual portraits I painted all the frames an identical grey, and hung them all on one wall. Although the frames differ slightly in size the aperture and colour of the mounts are identical.

The Book Wall

Most of the books I chose for the wall are from the Readership and Literary Culture 1900-1950 book archive at Adsett’s Library, Sheffield Hallam University. A few are my own. The book photographs were not originally intended to be part of the artwork. However as the artwork progressed from a series of pictures to a whole gallery experience I had a wall to fill.

Book cover design is actually very interesting as it mirrors the design features of each period.

Book covers protect the pages, but also can indicate the content and tell you what the book is about.

Books as physical things reflect the culture that they come from.

They are objects with a personal history where you may find things such as library stickers, notes written in the margins, various ephemera used as book marks, accidental coffee stains and personal flyleaf inscriptions.  A book can be a little history all by itself.

For the wall the photographs were enhanced, and the size was adjusted so that they worked as one piece.

A brief history of book covers    

1900 Around 1900 books in general use tended to be rather plain and without a dust cover. Cheaper versions were bound in cloth the more expensive in leather, with the name of the title and author, sometimes augmented by a picture pattern or design embossed on the front of the book.

For example Micheal O’Halloran, an early 20th-century classic chronicling the adventures of an orphaned newspaper boy in his “hand-to-hand scuffle” battle with life in a midwestern metropolis written by Gene Stratton Porter and published 1917 by John Murray the cover design of this edition is strongly influenced by Art Nouveau.

The story in Woodsmoke is centered on a safari that begins in Mombasa, published by Collins in 1924 the picture on the front illustrates the content.

Gold embossing was typical of special editions.  This special edition of Warwick Deepings Doomsday in gold and black was published in 1932 by Greycaine Book Manufacturing Co. Watford.

The introduction of the loose dust cover allowed multicoloured illustrations and an expanded use of typefaces.

This edition of Royal Regiment by Frankau published 1938 by Hutchinson and Co London shows the influence of Art Deco.

Some cover illustrations have features in common with posters produced by the film industry of the time. For example The Runagates Club by John Buchan published in 1941.

Romantic novels often had a design typical of those found in women’s magazines.


The beginning of modern design.

Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 The Bauhaus School (1919-1933) also known as the International Style, is recognised as the origin of modern design. It is defined by the use of simplified forms, rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit. New text and typefaces were also formed and there was a drive to bring all the arts together.

Coroner’s Pidgin published 1945 (By Mary Allingham) Heineman

Featured ‘gentleman sleuth’ Albert Campion.

This edition of The Wonder Book is typical of repetitive patterns of the 1950’s you can see similar repeat designs on ceramics and material.

Networked computers are gradually replacing printed pages as the primary carriers of information. In response artists, designers, and scholars are beginning to critically re-examine the evolution of print in order to understand the emergence of digital media.

As the paper book loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book’s other qualities—from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty—will take on more importance. The future is yet to be written, but a few possibilities for the fate of the paper book are already on display on book shelves near you.

Mr Pepys in his diary writes about some of his books  ‘which are come home gilt on the backs, very handsome to the eye’. The pleasure he took in them is that which Everyman may take in the gilt back of his favourite books in his own Library, which after all he has helped to make good and lasting.

Ernest Rhys writing about Everyman’s Library books in a short article at the back of my mother’s Everyman Library Edition of North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell. Ernest Rhys was the editor of Everyman.