08 November 2013

Review of Sylvia Plath: Drawings

Drawing calmed you…
You drew doggedly on, arresting details,
Till you had to whole scene imprisoned.
Here it is. You rescued for ever
Our otherwise lost morning."
-- Ted Hughes, "Drawing," Birthday Letters, 1998: 44.
"...and I was aware of people standing all around me watching but I didn't look at them - just hummed & went on sketching. It was not very good, too unsure & messily shaded, but I think I will do line drawings from now on in the easy style of Matisse. Felt I knew that view though, through every fiber of my hand." -- The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 2000: 554.
The Mayor Gallery catalog of Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings was a wonderful publication, especially for those who were unable to attend the same-named exhibition of Sylvia Plath's artwork when it was on view in November and December 2011. I reviewed the catalog at the time and largely stand by it, never dreaming the drawings would see the light of day again. But, Frieda Hughes, Faber, and now HarperCollins have seen fit to market Plath's artwork to the masses in the recently published Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber: 5 September; HarperCollins: 5 November). The result is a much better book, far better produced, with consistency in typeface, a better introduction and additional text, such as a previously unpublished letter from Sylvia Plath to Ted Hughes from their newlywed-separation in early October 1956. Excerpts from Plath's letters to her mother and a journal entry are included in each section of the book. Additionally, there more images too, including the stunning ink sketch of Ted Hughes that Frieda Hughes withheld at nearly the last moment of the exhibition sale, and a reproduced sketch and portion of an article by Plath from The Christian Science Monitor ("Sketchbook of a Spanish Summer" printed 5 November 1956).

Having too much time on my hands, I compared the Mayor catalog to the Faber edition (and then to the HarperCollins edition). There are several notable differences between the catalog and the new published editions. Both books are laid out the same: "Drawings from England", "Drawings from France", "Drawings from Spain", and "Drawings from USA". However, several drawing have defected to different sections/countries.

Sylvia Plath drew, sketched and created works of art through her life; however all of these drawings were largely done in 1956 and 1957. But the majority are dated or can be dated to 1956 and some are undated. Archival documentation exists that can help narrow down many of these drawings in a way that is more specific than just knowing what cities or countries she was visiting. In the Lilly Library are Plath's small pocket calendar diaries where she notes down myriad things including meals eaten, letters written, movies and plays seen, poems and stories drafted, completed, and submitted, books and articles read, and, if you have not guessed by now...dates of composition of some of her drawings and sketches. Admittedly, some are harder to accurately date because of either the existence of multiple sketches (horse chestnuts and cows/bulls, for example) or because she noted having drawn something and then re-drawn it at a later date. Can we assume the one she kept was the last one she drew? Or did she re-sketch something and then decide the original was better? Hard to know. Here is a paraphrased list of some of the drawings Plath did:

January 1956 (whilst in England):
15th: gables and chimney pots

March 1956 (whilst in Paris):
26th: drew Pont Neuf under arch;
27th: drew rooftops; sketched kiosk;
28th: sketch kiosque in sun;
29th: sketch Tabac du Justice amidst traffic

June 1956 (whilst in England):
19th: drew shoes

August 1956 (whilst in Spain):
13th: sketch alley of cats (i.e. Carreró dels Gats)
15th: drew a bad sketch of Carreró dels Gats;
16th: drew sardine boats which was spoiled by wine;
17th: drew sardine boats on bayside;
18th: sketched fruit stands at market & peasants and a kitchen range;
19th: drawing of cliff pueblos on bayside
20th: re-drew Carreró dels Gats and cliff houses again

September 1956(whilst in England):
24th: in Haworth, drew in the wind

October 1956 (whilst in England):
6th: drew two cows, thistle, dandelions. On the thistle and dandelion, Plath writes in her letter to Ted Hughes included in the book from 7 October 1956, "I drew them both in great and loving detail" (3). Plath also writes at length in this letter, on page 2 in the book, of trying to capture the cows in her drawing. In the same letter, Plath writes that she "did a rather bad drawing of a teapot and some chestnuts" (3). She also mentions later in the letter: "Yesterday I drew a good umbrella and chianti bottle, better chestnuts, bad shoes and beaujolais bottle" (4).;
11th: sketched at Mill Bridge;
15th: drew anemone;
21st: sat under willow and wrote description (possible she did the sketch of the willow then?)

April 1957 (whilst in England):
15th: sketched daffodil & bluebell on the bank opposite Queens College.

The 7 October 1956 letter from Plath to Hughes included in the book was chosen no doubt for its many references to the drawings she was completing. To sum, these include cows, thistle and dandelion, a teapot, and horse chestnuts. In this particular instance, Plath's detailed letter corroborates what she was detailing in her diary-calendars. No doubt in other letters to Hughes or to her mother that Plath detailed some of her other drawing subjects (such as the rooftops and chimney-pots Plath said she drew daily in her 28 March 1956 letter sent to her mother from Paris).

In the "Drawings from England" section, Sylvia Plath: Drawings ('SP:D') includes "Study of Shoes"; "Chianti Bottle"; and "Beaujolais Bottle". These were formerly in the "Drawings from USA" section ("Shoes") and "Drawings from France" section (both "Bottle" drawings). The bottles were both digitally touched up from their printing in the Mayor catalogue to the Faber publication, and the creases were softened. The caption for "Shoes" is mildly annoying. The press at the time of the Mayor Gallery captioned the drawing as being titled The Bell Jar (one example and another). This has been updated slightly to read "Intended for use in The Bell Jar, 1963". But that is not true either as the Heinemann edition (and the Faber as well) does not reproduce any of Plath's drawings. Rather, it was used in Lois Ames' "Biographical Note" in the US edition of The Bell Jar in 1971. This is a technicality, but just the slightest bit of misinformation can take on a life of its own. Especially in this Internet and digital age. But it is clear from the drawing of the shoes that writing of "The Bell Jar #12" is not by Plath and that all the other writing on it is of an editorial/printing nature. The British Press might be excused for not knowing that the American edition of the book prints the shoes and other drawings, but a little fossicking would have helped. The "Drawings from France" section of SP:D includes the sketch of Ted Hughes. In the "Drawings from Spain" section of SP:D, the drawing of "Carreró dels Gats" looks different: it is longer and I think in better proportion to the original. I imagine, that is, because who knows where the original of this particularly amazing drawing is…. Lastly, in "Drawings from USA", "Study of Corn Vase" was renamed from "Study of Figurine" where it was printed, in the Mayor book, in the "Drawings from Spain" section. "Pleasure of Odds and Ends 2" is yellower than in the former publication, and those unfinished sketches now have a quasi-badly applied and certainly questionable white background versus a black one in the Mayor's catalog.

Throughout Sylvia Plath: Drawings some of the natural age toning to paper has been softened and lightened. The Faber book is a larger format than the Mayor catalog. However, Faber reduced some image sizes inexplicably, where there was likely the space on the page to do the opposite. One example of this is in the drawing of the "Pod". We are missing out on detail as a result. That being said, some of the sketches were actually enlarged, appearing bigger, longer and more proportional, such as the aforementioned "Carreró dels Gats" and many of the USA drawings. The "improving" is never more apparent to me than in the drawing of "Horse Chestnut". The drawing is imperfect, bearing two red pencil marks above and to the left of the lower chestnut. I still wonder who drew on the drawing? Either a young Frieda or Nicholas Hughes? Perhaps Plath herself? Plath's personal papers such as her address book, submissions list, and Letts 1962 diary all feature annotation in red pencil. Or, even Ted Hughes might have done it. Accidentally, I am sure. These imperfections I believe afforded me the opportunity of buying the drawing from the exhibition/sale, it being the last one available with Plath's "SP" on it, which usually indicated she considered the drawing complete. Though the red pencil lines appeared when the drawing was reproduced in the 23 August 2013 Sunday Times Magazine article which printed Frieda Hughes' Introduction and Plath's 7 October 1956 letter to Ted Hughes, they were "removed" from the Faber edition of Sylvia Plath: Drawings and I think that this a shame. In touching up the image, you are not presenting the original in a way that is faithful. As an archivist who does a lot of work on digital projects, representing digital surrogates or printed images that are as close to the original as possible is a particular principle by which I practice and by which I judge the work of others.

All that said, Sylvia Plath: Drawings is definitely a book to own and cherish. It is an excellent companion to 2007's Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual. Plath's other drawings appear in the US edition of The Bell Jar, as well as in many of the articles that she wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in the 1950s. Though some of Plath's drawing that appeared in the Monitor were reprinted in The Bell Jar and now in Sylvia Plath: Drawings, your best bet for seeing all of them is via ProQuest or microfilm. Plath also had drawings published in her high school newspaper, The Bradford, and at least one in her 1950 yearbook, The Wellesleyan. This image was reproduced in Eye Rhymes under the title "Kids fixing car", see page 24.

In her review of this book published on Cherwell.org, Siobahn Fenton writes: "These drawings will not bring one closer to an understanding of Plath’s poetry. Nor are they of sufficient talent to establish a reputation for her as an artist." But I think I disagree on both points: that the drawings should even be compared to Plath's poetry and that her art is not sufficient to qualify her as an established artist. This is a part of the reason why Plath wanted to publish The Bell Jar under a pseudonym: so that her prose and poetry would not be compared (I remember reading this somewhere, I think, but cannot find the source at the moment. I have mentioned it previously on this blog. If anyone out there can lend a hand, I would be most appreciative). Said a different way, Lois Ames writes that Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym because she did not think it was "serious work" (1971, 279). The intimation being that because she published her poetry under her name that it was "serious work". In a rejection letter Plath received in January 1963 from Harper & Row regarding that publishing houses decision not to take on The Bell Jar, Elizabeth Lawrence commented that "There is every reason to believe that you are a novelist as well as a poet and a short-story writer" (Smith College). And, an artist.

Each creative medium requires different tools, different expectations, and different resources (creatively, emotionally, a different use of time, and spark of inspiration, etc.). Apples and peaches are fruits, they are both fruits that grow on trees, but they are different. By extension, both these drawings and Plath's poems are created by the same person but I think comparison really ends there. If anything, and it is still a little unfair, one might look to Plath's own intentions to "do line drawings from now on in the easy style of Matisse" (Unabridged Journals 554). Does the inspiration prove noticeable? Scholars have looked at some of Plath's Colossus poems as influenced by Roethke's "Greenhouse poems".  At least if her drawings and poems must be compared one should look at the precision and economy of her pen-strokes in her sketches and how she is also economical and precise the imagery and metaphor in her poetry. Where Fenton sees "odd, cold studies"; I see beauty and uniqueness. And while Fenton considers Plath's drawing subjects as recording "scattered details of her short life", I see a product of intense focus, scrutiny, and reality. As Hughes writes in his Birthday Letters poem "Drawing": "You rescued for ever / Our otherwise lost morning" and in doing so captured a scene "Just before / It woke and disappeared".


Right Mind Matters said...

Thanks for your devotion to truth and beauty in Plathian context, Peter! I will buy the book.

I am, as always struck, by the number of poets/writers who were artists as well, or at least doodlers.

Today's New York Times has a great article on a Proustian reading about town which includes a photo of a manuscript page from A la recherche du temps perdu with his doodling:


This, in turn, reminds me of James Merrill's similar doodling habit:


Sylvia Plath was not a doodler; but a careful, precise crafter of the seen world. The doodles are diversions that allowed Proust and Merrill to free up their creativity: Plath's drawing calmed her down.

suki said...

I just love the book! Everything about the book is lovely, not just the drawings, but as you say Peter, the set out , the fonts, the thought which has gone into the the colours...
It's beautiful !!!

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.