11 February 2012

Sylvia Plath's Horse Chestnut

Indulge: transitive verb
1b : to take unrestrained pleasure in
2a : to yield to the desire of

Indulge. The word is bulbous. It describes perfectly buying Sylvia Plath's "Horse Chestnut."

When I learned that the items comprising the exhibit "Sylvia Plath: Her Drawings" were for sale I nearly passed out. It was the opening day of the exhibit, and I was browsing the Mayor Gallery's website hopeful that the images with which we were teased in the press would all be available for viewing. In all the news stories leading up to the opening, I cannot recall one mentioning that the drawings were for sale. The day the exhibit opened there were, indeed, images on the Mayor's website. I clicked the first image, the one of "Wuthering Heights Today." The image -- which I am familiar with as it was reprinted a few times: on the cover of the 1965 Uncollected Poems and in Lois Ames' "Biographical Note" in the American edition of The Bell Jar -- appeared on the web page but what struck me was the not the beautiful digital surrogate of the drawing but bold "Sold" in red on the left-hand side. I clicked back and then viewed the image for "Cambridge: a View of Gables and Chimney-pots." The same red "Sold" taunted me; distracting me from what I was there to do which was to view the images. My mind stopped. I clicked over to the contact us link and was on the phone with the Gallery before I knew what I was doing. Within a minute I had the price list of the remaining drawings that were unsold. Within a few more minutes I agreed to purchase "Horse Chestnut," which was the last drawing for sale with Plath's initials gracing the paper. It would be shipped the week of December 12th, but the nearly six weeks in-between were interminable.

That is, until the gallery emailed me the tracking number for the shipment.

Two days later - after a brief customs delay - the drawing was delivered. Opening the box at work and unwrapping the layers of bubble wrap and packing tape felt like it took ages. The drawing came in the frame in which it was exhibited. Taped to the back was a photocopy of the back of the drawing, which had Plath's name typed, presumably by Plath herself. In addition, a note by Ted Hughes which reads "by Sylvia Plath" and was accompanied by his authenticating signature. After seeing that, and learning from the gallery that the drawing was not in UV protected glass (which means it could possibly fade over time if exposed to too much light), I decided immediately to remove the drawing from the frame.

It was an ordeal to remove the picture from the frame. It was sealed tight which, from time to time, made me question the decision to remove it. But, after breaking the paper which covered the seams between the frame and the backboard; and after removing the points that went into the frame that kept the backboard down; and after carefully cutting the gummed linen tape that bound the glass to the larger mat board; and after slicing the tape connecting the smaller, island mat board from the larger one; and after ever so carefully slicing through the four adhesive paper hinges connecting the smaller mounting mat board to the drawing itself was I able to hold the most precious piece of paper I have ever owned.

From an aesthetic point of view, I am frustrated that the drawing was adhered in this way: with an actual adhesive substance. It can be undone -- in fact it was undone, by applying methyl cellulose to soften the adhesive on the hinges and then gently pulling up the tape (another option was to steam them off) -- but I don't know why they opted for this rather than, for example mylar photo mounting corners that you can tuck the corners of the paper into to hold it in place. These corners do the same thing: they hold the paper in place, but even better they don't physically attach to the drawing! And, being clear they do not affect viewing the drawing, and do not damage it! It seems to me -- not knowing anything about this artsy framing world -- that by adhering something to Plath's drawing you are actually somehow damaging it. I understand the materials the framers used were supposed to archivally sound, but I just did not like the idea of something sticking to it... You could see the impression of the adhesive through the drawing,and the corners were actually curling in a bit, like there was too much tension in the way the image was mounted.
This was corrected by gently pressing and flattening the paper under a weight for about a week. And lastly, the mat board and the mount board the framers used tested positive for acidity. If you are reading this, and you purchased one (or more), you may want to consider starting from scratch and re-doing it. As a result of all this...the frame and mat boards were tossed.

All that being said, once I was able to hold the drawing in my hands, the object became more real than before. I felt selfish. I feel selfish. It belongs in an archive and one day will. (Actually, it's at work so it kind of is already in an archive!) And now that the drawings are separated by an unknowable number of miles, a line from Plath's poem "The Colossus" seems especially apt: "I shall never get you put together entirely." If you are reading this and were lucky enough to see the exhibit in person, please know that I am very jealous.

The authentication by Hughes was in pencil, which was probably done as pen might have bled through the paper. And who typed Plath's name on it? It "looks" like her own typewriter. The "Sylvia" is typed behind the larger chestnut and the "Plath" off it just above the smaller nut. What about about the two small red pencil marks? Did either of her children - Frieda or Nicholas - make them? Did Plath herself when she was grading a paper? Was it a red-painted nail? I don't know! But while they seem like a blemish and are likely the reason it remained unsold after the preview evening which opened the exhibition, they are, to me, anything but.

After gazing at "Horse Chestnut," and the other drawings from the exhibit in the catalog, I came to the conclusion that the presence of Plath's initials on the drawing means that it was something she considered completed. For me, this makes the piece more special and precious. And for those drawings in the exhibition that look nearly complete or that are unfinished: what happened in Plath's life at the time of composition to distract her from completing the drawing? I suppose we will never know.

Plath describes her sketchbook briefly in her Journals. In the entry written from Benidorm on her honeymoon she writes about "Mr. and Mrs. Ted Hughes' Writing Table": "...a bottle of jet black ink, scrupulously screwed shut, a small sketch book of rag paper atop Ted's anthology of Spanish poems..." (259).

For other sketching references in Plath's Journals see pages 249, 554, 555, 558, 559, and 560. On page 558, Plath possibly describes this drawing when she writes "Sat once more in Tuileries to finish sketch."  On page 559-560, Plath possibly describes this drawing, "Stopped by Seine in sun to sketch a harlequin-style kiosque which had taken my fancy near the Louvre: one of those round poster-stands in green with a mosque-like roof and colored pastel posters all around...I was turning back to finish my little sketch of which I was fonder than any I'd done..." And, on page 560, possibly this drawing, "...walked to Ile de la Citie and sat on a bench before the Palais de la Justice … in gray chill air sketching the Tabac and cafe opposite...heavy and structured in simple shaded geometric forms and designs..."

I scanned "Horse Chestnut," both sides, and you can see here the remaining bits of paper from the adhesive that used to "suspend" the drawing in mount in the frame. These have been removed and I did take a clean scan before having a custom frame made, and housing it on a mat board that is actually acid free, and within UV safe glass.

I love it. I love it more now than I did yesterday or even twenty minutes ago. Ever since I bought it, the lines from Plath's "Lady Lazarus" have been going through my mind...

"And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes."

There is a large charge. But it was a very small price to pay for a one of a kind document created -- with all her heart, thought, creativity, and concentration -- by Sylvia Plath.

If you have not already, please check out Plathery's recent post about "Still Life with Pots and Fruit."

Postscript: Homage to what Sylvia Plath believed

Today is the 49th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. The above was more about me than I am comfortable with, especially in a blog about Sylvia Plath, so I thought I would put down a selection of some of Sylvia Plath's beliefs from her Journals.

"someone believes I am a human being, not merely a name"

"I don't believe in God as a kind of father in the sky. I don't believe that the meek will inherit the earth."

"I believe I have kissed him once. Perhaps twice."

"I accept the idea of a creative marriage now as I never did before; I believe I could paint, write, and keep a home and husband."

"Believe in some beneficent force beyond your own limited self"

"to believe oneself imperfect & others perfect - This is true happiness" (from notes on Saint Teresa of Avila)

"Percy Key is dead...I find this difficult to believe."

In her poetry, Plath used the word "believe" only ten times. Most memorably, perhaps, is from from the incomparable "The Moon and the Yew Tree" : "How I would like to believe in tenderness."


Kristina Zimbakova said...

Peter, the post has blown my mind utterly! And on this DAY.

The adhesive is a very unprofessional way to attach any work into a frame. And you must have an 'outrageously' brave heart to risk undoing it. Well-Done. I wouldn't be able to do basic everyday work things for two weeks, I think, if I had a Plath artwork at home :-).

Kristina Zimbakova said...

P.S. Do not expose to any sunshine any work of art whatsoever.

The Plath Diaries said...

Wow Peter! I'm so glad you purchased one of the drawings!! I admit I, too was very shocked to see the drawings were up for sale. They would have been very worthwhile additions to any Archive!

Enjoy! :)

A Piece of Plathery said...

A wonderful, wonderful post Peter. I know that feeling of seeing the 'sold' stickers and thinking all at once 'Oh no!', 'do I dare?' and 'I must!' then that agonising 3 month wait.

I agree that some of the framing choices were suspect, and my framer as ost scathing. I see 4 adhesive marks on the back of Chestnut, Still life has 8 adhesive hinges, not impressed.

That said I marvel at it everyday.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Kristina - No worries about sunshine, the artwork is at stored at my own workplace, which is quite windowless! A woman I work with did all the technical, minute work such as cutting and then removing the adhesive hinges. She's worked with documents are more important than Plath's "Horse Chestnut" so I was fairly confident that she'd do a great job of it!

Maeve!I do enjoy it everyday I'm at work, which actually makes me dislike weekends - though, not enough to give them up!

Plathery - I had debated writing to the Gallery about the experience, but decided not to. Maybe they'll find this blog post.... It took nearly 15 minutes each to remove just those small remaining bits. Time moved very slowly and I think I breathed only twice...

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Peter! I'm suitably jealous. ~VC

Anna said...

OH! I'm really jealous!!!! :) But really happy for you, Peter! ;)
The chestnuts are a great choice. I would totally die for the shoes! ;)

However, I'm really sad. I have been hoping that there will be a second or a permanent exhibition somewhere. I would have loved to see all of these drawings. :(

Annika said...

Congratulations Peter! Great post, and what a great acquisition for you.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks ~VC, Anna, and Annika! It's strange thinking of congratulations for this kind of thing. Especially considering I can only one meal a day... Oh the sacrifices!


magiciansgirl said...

Congrats Peter! You do remember your promise to adopt me (even though I am older than you) and leave me all of your Plath items? If not, I am now reminding you :-) Re: the hinging - that is a typical way of mounting works on paper, using archival materals always - in this case, as the mat, etc., were not archival, and you were dealing with a gallery - they are appalling when it comes to this type of thing, unlike museums - you did the right thing in re-mounting and framing the print. I hope they at least taped the glass when shipping (?)! Anyway, your purchase is well deserved and the drawing has found a wonderful home - Sylvia would be happy, I think.

Jess McCort said...

Well worth the sacrifice:).

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter !
Finally you have an expensive
SP original, congratulations.
best wishes,

FrankieS, Switzerland

Melanie Smith said...

Wow, just wow.

Carmen S. said...

peter, i saw the drawings in london in november and still remember how mesmerized i was by the horse chestnut and how i just kept staring at it. very glad to know the drawing is in such good hands now. what a treasure you have there!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Carmen - Thanks! I'm at work now, and it's just staring at me and I'm staring back. I like the word mesmerized, it is accurate.

Melanie - Wow indeed!

Thanks FrankieS! I'm still working on that blog post we discussed a couple of years (oh wow, has it been that long!) back.

Kim - you have my heart - you want my Plath stuff too? 46 cheap readers' copies of The Bell Jar.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Great post, Peter. For reasons I am not sure of, I avoided the blog, and even thinking of Plath's suicide on that anniversary. I was ready to come visit tonight. I love how you have honored her--and how lucky to be an owner of an original drawing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • 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 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: 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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.