Social networks — in papercraft and calligraphy
Did you have a friendship album when you were little? My teachers in primary school were mobbed for entries into our ‘poetry albums’, as they were known in German; my father wrote a poem for my album, my mother stuck in a real butterfly which she had brought back from her travels; and I watched with amazement a great-aunt neatly copy out some verse by Gottfried Keller and carefully frame it with a delicate garland of flowers.
But a bunch of sunflowers, so finely embroidered that you take them for painted, or a still-life of minute flowers in a vase and musical instruments which could be put up next to the miniatures in an art gallery? That is another league. Nor did I have princes and princesses signing my book or a John Milton writing in Ancient Greek. Who had such prestigious albums of memories and dedications, and when did people take the time to paint their portraits for their friends, or hire someone to do it?
Most of the albums in the British Library’s current exhibition Friendship before Facebook: social networks in a pre-digital age strike you as stage sets for Shakespeare plays: gentlemen in yellow stockings and dangling earrings, ladies in pumped-up dresses and broad-brimmed hats, courting couples drifting on gondolas, the pomp and ceremony of the royal court…
The tradition of friendship books or alba amicorum started in the 16th century as a custom amongst students and other young men, long before it became the domain of ladies and then of little girls. The gentlemen recorded their good friends and social connections as well as their travels – just as we collect photographs to remember where we went and whom we met… or to prove our social status.
Some people did travel three or four centuries ago: German, Austrian, Dutch albums in the display show destinations in England and Italy, and in the online gallery you can admire more lovely views, including Windsor Castle and Old London Bridge.
The still-life with music, flowers, and food is planned to remind you of all the senses, of life with all its facets, beautiful and ephemeral. Elsewhere, music is included, in the form of musical notation and lyrics, reminiscent of a brief audio or video file, evocative and poignant in its silence.
There is a selection of paper craft: a black flap reveals figures underneath a canopy; some thick brushstrokes of paint turn out to be an intricate collage; a collage of calendar and newspaper sheets, in turn, has fooled you as a miniature trompe-l’oeil, recording the date forever, together with the skill of the maker and the status of the commissioner.
This was the purpose of these solid leather-bound books: they give us a snapshot of times past, and I am sure the owners and their friends would be thrilled to know we dwell on their portraits, their thoughts, and their memories many generations later.
Teachers and parents could be inspired by this exhibition to try out the ideas and techniques employed before photography and digital media with children – from the youngest onwards. Perhaps some of you will start a new fashion for friendship albums?
I found the last ones I spied rather depressing: nothing more than printed templates to affix a photo and record your own interests, basically an annotated selfie for youngsters. Very little poetry and wisdom there, very little variety and creativity.
You could consult your public library or the Newsam Library for books on drawing, paper craft, calligraphy, and poetry writing… or could teach children to use a library for learning new skills! This would fit in with art education as well as creative writing and, I believe, social education.
On the shelves at the back of the entrance level, find paper craft at 745.54, collage at 745.58, calligraphy at 745.6, and art skills in general at 702.8. For poetry, put ‘poetry writing’ or ‘creative writing’ or ‘poetry authorship’ into the search fields of a library catalogue, like UCL Explore.
Also, the Shakespeare aspect has been exploited by the British Library: their online resources offer parallels between certain plays and the images (which you may reuse under their conditions). Just in case a teenager doubted that the yellow stockings or dangling earrings were authentic…
Taken from Twitter (@britishlibrary, tweet of Feb 26th).
Friendship album of Erckenprecht Koler, of Nuremberg, 1588-1612.
© The British Library. Shelfmark: Egerton MS 1208.
Friendship album of Moyses Walens, of Cologne, 1605-1615.
© The British Library. Shelfmark: Add MS 18991