Sometimes a Poet Sang

Shirley Jones and the Red Hen Press (2013)
Cover of Shirley Jones and the Red Hen Press (bibliography)

79 pp. Illustrated. $25.00

A bibliography by Ronald D. Patkus, with commentary by the artist. This illustrated catalogue of the work of Welsh artist Shirley Jones has been published on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of her Red Hen Press. Shirley Jones' work, featured in this Vassar exhibition, will also be on view in 2013 and 2014 at the University of Vermont, Smith College, and Swarthmore College.

To order the bibliography, contact Ron Patkus at patkus@vassar.edu

There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past;
Brittle with relics.

R. S. Thomas
"Welsh Landscape" (1952)

One of the more impressive geological features of the Welsh heartland is the Brecon Beacons, a range of red sandstone ridges and escarpments in South Wales. Although not as craggy and impenetrable as the wild moun- tains of Snowdonia, the Beacons can seem wind-swept and forlorn. To the American travel writer Pamela Petro, who observed their foggy crests from the vantage of Llyn-y-Fan Fach, they seemed like the "frontier between known lands and the Otherworld," the Annwfyn, where the epic deeds of the Mabinogion took place. Brecon, the charming market town that sits on the northern edge of these Beacons, presides over this threshold or liminal zone that links us to the mythic past. (Well, perhaps all of Wales is a lim- inal zone.) And just outside of Brecon, in the upland district of Llanham- lach, perched on a gently rolling hillside, and overlooking its own green vale, is a lovely stone farmhouse called Byddwn Uchaf. Since 1994 this place has been the home of Shirley Jones and the seat of the Red Hen Press.

Landscape, in all its inexhaustible variety, is the first—and perhaps foremost—of the several leitmotifs that run through all things Welsh. The reason I begin with a description of this folkloric geography is because Shirley Jones was born just south of here, in the Rhondda, a once-green valley scarred by the coal industry in the 19th century. Like most everyone raised in such places, Shirley's character was formed and nourished by the charged culture that arose out of that wrecked landscape and cruel poverty. A trait shared by the entire community was the understanding of—and participation in—the healing power of the arts, particularly lit- erature and music. The deeply-ingrained culture of political activism and male dominance described in the novels of Richard Llewellyn and Gwyn Thomas was also intensely present. Shirley graduated with honors from the University of Wales, Cardiff, where she studied English, including Anglo-Saxon, as well as Latin and Greek. But then, as a modern young adult, she quit the landscape and moved to London, where she taught school and raised a family.

There may have been no more to say about the bookish wife and mother, except that at age forty Shirley reinvented herself: she returned to school as a full-time post-graduate at Croydon College of Art, south of London, and devoted herself at first to printmaking, especially lithog- raphy and etching. Using her earlier literary studies as a jumping-off point, she explored the possibilities inherent in the various graphic-arts techniques and the relationship between word and image. She later stud- ied bookbinding, where she discovered the architecture and expressive potential of the codex form. Her early projects in this area were encour- aged by her external examiner, Tom Phillips, the already-celebrated cre- ator of A Humument, who introduced her to the genre of artist's books.

Another early influence was the brilliant artist and teacher Leonard Marchant, who had revived the neglected art of the mezzotint in the 1960s. This intaglio printmaking process requires physical prowess as well as delicacy of hand in order to conjure radiant light from absolute blackness. If done right—that is, with a great deal of patience—a high level of tonal richness and subtlety may be achieved by the deft engraver. But however tricky—and tedious—the technique may have seemed, the luminous mezzotint was a revelation to Shirley, and her facility with the medium was to have a profound impact upon her artistic practice. In 1977 she set up a studio in an empty bedroom of her house in South Croydon, equipped it with a table-top Hunter Penrose press, and commenced the long series of books, many of them illustrated with mezzotints, that are described in this catalog. Two early works, Windows (1977) and Rhymes for Our Times (1979), were shown in The Open and Closed Book: Contemporary Book Arts, a groundbreaking exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1979.

If this exhibition revealed the wide world of contemporary book arts to Shirley, it also brought her to the attention of cognoscenti in the art market and the antiquarian book trade. One of those attracted to her work was Charlene Garry, the American founder of the Basilisk Press in Hamp- stead, who, over the next few years, acted as an agent and representative. Garry was "immensely encouraging" and eager to show her the work of other book artists. She also sent Shirley to the antiquarian bookseller Colin Franklin, who provided introductions to collectors and institutions in the United States during her first visit there in 1983. Shirley and her hus- band Ken continued to travel to this country regularly for the next thirty years, building long-lasting professional—and personal—relationships with curators, dealers, and private collectors, as affectionately described in Connell Gallagher's preface to this catalog.

We were a people bred on legends
Clinging stubbornly to a proud tree
Of blood and birth.

R. S. Thomas

In 1994 Shirley returned to Wales, to the numinous landscape of her childhood. I began this introduction with an evocation of this place, even before recounting the res gestae of the press, because the Red Hen Press is—despite its origin in a borough south of London—essentially Welsh. However, that's not to say that the books and images printed there are Welsh from a stylistic point of view, since it could be argued that in fact there is no conspicuously "Welsh style" in the graphic arts. Nor is there a long and robust tradition of fine printing in Wales, apart from the well- known Gwasg Gregynog (later Gregynog Press) and the Old Stile Press of recent decades. Instead, the Red Hen Press is particularly Welsh in the same way that the Eisteddfod or chapel singing are: they are the rich and luscious expression of the profound harmony between this people, this landscape, and this history.

Indeed history, actual and mythic, is another leitmotif. The cycle of pre-Christian Celtic tales known as the Mabinogion is immediately present, at the root of the country's understanding of itself, but the later histories of "the age of the saints," English domination, and industrial exploita- tion are also still at hand, lurking just below the surface of the modern nation. To the visitor, this sense of quotidian life concurrent with a bleak and sometimes violent past, "brittle with relics," is almost palpable. Here is where Pwyll defeated Hafgan with a single blow; here is where the coal strike of 1898 was called; and here is where the very ground rose up under St. David's feet. History is everywhere and all-pervasive in Wales, so it's no wonder that Welsh themes, both epic and incidental, permeate the work of the Red Hen Press.

In the works described here the considerations of a particular Welsh landscape and history are given expression by a skillful praxis wrought from long hours and intense concentration. The German-born book artist Werner Pfeiffer once described his oeuvre as an artist's attempt to rebuild a shattered world: art as building, art as construction. Even his earliest training as a typographer (someone who assembles countless tiny pieces of metal into a perfect and explicit creation) corresponds to that definition. For Pfeiffer, who was born in 1938, this definition derives from his childhood experience of a world at war and then later—perhaps even more poignantly—of mankind struggling to emerge from the rubble in the aftermath. In a similar vein Shirley Jones describes the products of her Red Hen Press as an attempt to uncover what is hidden, or lost, or enshrouded in darkness–to bring an obscure landscape, language, and history back to light. Indeed, her chosen medium, the mezzotint, is often called the "dark to light" method. Thus the process of creating a mez- zotint enacts the perfect metaphor for the artist's act of revealing: she burnishes the distressed surface of the copper plate to bring radiance and definition where formerly chthonic gloom prevailed. In this way Shirley, as artist and poet, functions as an illuminator in the strict etymological sense, bringing light and clarity to a nearly-forgotten ethos.

This catalog celebrates a milestone in the history of the Red Hen Press. Since 1975 Shirley Jones has been publishing artist's books to criti- cal acclaim; and for 30 years, since 1983, she has been doing this under the Red Hen Press imprint. But now she is "gently winding down the activi- ties of the press" and, as of this writing, does not expect to undertake more projects of comparable size and complexity.

As a book artist and printmaker Shirley certainly merits more critical notice than she has received; the several reviews and catalogs of her work listed below all acknowledge this. Indeed, in almost every account of her work one finds a remark to the effect that the Red Hen Press is not as recognized as it ought to be. Critics like Dorothy Harrop and Colin Frank- lin have praised the quality and conception of her artist's books, while at the same time lamenting their rarity. And this sense of the well-kept secret is as true today as was in the 1980s, even though her books may be found in more than fifty collections worldwide, nearly forty of them in North America.

The compilers of this publication add their voices to the chorus of devotees who feel strongly that the extraordinarily charismatic work of Shirley Jones deserves to be more widely acknowledged. We hope that this catalog and the traveling exhibition marking her life's work will help rectify the situation. Scop Hwīlum Sang of 1983 was Shirley's first book to carry the Red Hen Press imprint. This lovely phrase, rendered into mod- ern English as "Sometimes a Poet Sang," so beautifully conveys both the hopes of the press in its early days as well as the achievements of the press as it "gently winds down." Her enduring gift to us is this wonderful series of books, choral-like in their harmonies, bardic in their stately intonations.

Martin Antonetti
Curator of Rare Books
Smith College