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The Descent of Ishtar, by Diana White, Eragny Press (1903)

The Eragny Press was an important private press that was founded and run by artist Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944) and his wife Esther (1870–1951), herself an accomplished illustrator. The press was named for the town in Normandy where Pissarro’s father, famed Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, had a home (and where Lucien and Esther had spent 8 months of their honeymoon). Lucien and Esther produced 31 hand-crafted books between 1895 and 1914.

Influenced by William Morris and the illustrators of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pissarros moved to England late in 1890 (settling in Epping) with the objective of setting up their own press. In 1894 they printed their first publication, The Queen of the Fishes, a translation from a French fairytale by Esther’s friend Margaret Rust. This publication was done in conjunction with Vale Press which was run by Lucien’s friends Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon.  This collaboration was very important and enabling to the Pissarros. It continued until 1903 when the Vale Press closed its doors (and Ricketts famously dumped the Vale punches and matrices into the Thames). The press moved a couple times: in 1897 to Bedford Park, and in 1900 to Hammersmith (where it remained until closing in 1914).

As for the overall design and execution of Eragny publications, David Butcher, in the outstanding 2006 Whittington Press publication of Pages from Presses, sums up the style of the press as:

…a unique blend of French and English backgrounds and influences, of Arts and Crafts and Impressionism, of English black-and-white and French colour…Eragny Press books were the antithesis of the monumental and formal productions of Kelmscott, Ashendene and Doves; they were small scale, warm and intimate.

Christie’s, quoting Roderick Cave’s The Private Presses (London, 1971), further elaborates:

…the press’s books are visually united by Lucien and Esther Pissarro’s aesthetic conception: the paper board-coverings, the decorations, the press devices and the majority of the illustrations are their work. In style and subject the illustrations reflect the traditional, rural way of life that both Camille Pissarro and William Morris saw being swept away by industrialisation in the second half of the nineteenth century. In execution, the designs synthesise both the methods of European relief and chiaroscuro woodcuts created by skilled workers in the early centuries of printing (techniques later employed by Morris and his illustrators), and those of the Japanese colour-printed woodcuts made by artists who had been taught by extended apprentiseships to recognised masters, woodcuts which had been fashionable in Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and successfully adapted to a European idiom by Edmund Evans in his illustrations for Kate Greenaway’s books. The remarkable synthesis that the Pissarros achieved, coupled with their understanding of the techniques and potential of wood-engraving and ability to develop them further, produced a series of books of the highest quality, with an original style quite distinct from the books published by other English private presses. The Eragny Press’s books combined the best aspects of both the English and the French illustrated book, whilst avoiding the sparseness sometimes found in the former and the uncomfortable opulence that can diminish the latter, achieving ‘a charm and a freshness quite unlike anything to be found in the work of any other private press […] in the printing of coloured wood-engravings in particular the Press excelled’

The small scale of Eragny productions was largely due to the simple fact that the Pissarros did, more or less, all of the work themselves. In fact, Esther did much of the physical work. Only the binding was done by someone else. This ‘do it all’ approach was mostly driven by needing to keep costs down as, unlike many of the other private press owners, they were far from wealthy.

Up until the closing of Vale Press, Eragny works used Vale type and Vale Press paper (Arnold hand-made paper) and included the imprint of Hacon and Ricketts. After the closing of Vale Press, Pissarro designed his own font, named Brook, which was used on all subsequent Eragny Press books. David Butcher discusses the Brook type, in the aforementioned Pages from Presses, saying that “Although the design was based on the Vale type, the effect on the page was somewhat lighter. A few individual letters were ugly, such as the lower case g with its compressed tail, but the weight of the type matched Lucien’s engravings.” Pissarro, in Notes on the Eragny Press, said of the type that he “made no pretension to originality – my aim being restricted to a fount which would harmonise with my wood-engraving and which would, at the same time, be clear and easy to read.” Based on the few examples I have seen firsthand, Pissarro succeeded on his objectives for the type in its harmonization with his illustrations and decorations. The type was cut by Edward P. Prince, who did punch cutting for Kelmscott Press amongst others.

The Pissarros certainly did produce beautiful work. The works can be hard to come by, especially in near fine or better condition. As you would expect, they are not inexpensive (though often this means $700-$3000 per edition, not in the stratosphere like most Kelmscott’s). About half of the works are printed in French, the rest English. One that is in English, and is reasonably moderate in cost, is The Descent of Ishtar, by Diana White, published in 1903. Diana White was a translator and painter who was a longtime friend of the Pissarros (she and Esther Pissarro studied together at the Crystal Palace School of Art). Esther did most of the work on this edition, including engraving the author’s design. David Butcher states that Lucien “found the engraving too stylised and not in keeping with the Eragny style.” What do I know, as I like it!

The Descent of Ishtar is based on a legend sourced from fragments discovered at the archeological site of the great library of Ashurbaipal at Nineveh (it’s holdings included the Epic of Gilgamesh) now housed at the British Museum. The legend, originating in ancient Mesopotamia, is thought to have been composed at some point of time between 3500 B.C. and 1900 B.C., perhaps even earlier.  Ishtar was the East Semitic Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality (some drawing obvious parallels with Aphrodite). Ishtar’s descent to the underworld, to save her husband Tammuz, is the most famous myth surrounding her. The story is here summarized as:

The gatekeeper let Ishtar into the underworld, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Ishtar had to shed one article of clothing. When she finally passed the seventh gate, she was naked. In rage, Ishtar threw herself at Ereshkigal (Ed: Ishtar’s sister, the Queen of the Underworld, goddess of death and sterility), but Ereshkigal ordered her servant Namtar to imprison Ishtar and unleash sixty diseases against her (Ed: She is killed).

After Ishtar descended to the underworld, all sexual activity ceased on earth. The god Papsukal reported the situation to Ea, the king of the gods. Ea created an intersex being called Asu-shu-namir and sent it to Ereshkigal, telling it to invoke “the name of the great gods” against her and to ask for the bag containing the waters of life. Ereshkigal was enraged when she heard Asu-shu-namir’s demand, but she had to give it the water of life. Asu-shu-namir sprinkled Ishtar with this water, reviving her. Then, Ishtar passed back through the seven gates, getting one article of clothing back at each gate, and was fully clothed as she exited the last gate.

The ending of the story has always been a bit murky due to incomplete texts, different versions and ambiguous last lines, but, until recently, most thought that Ishtar’s descent to the underworld occurred after the death of Tammuz and that her purpose was to bring Tammuz back. However, new texts discovered in 1963 turn that on its head. Louise Pryke, writing at Ancient History Encyclopedia summarizes the current understanding of the story:

The myth of Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld tells the story of the goddess’s journey to the underworld, the home of her sister, Ereshkigal. While numerous reasons have been suggested for Ishtar’s journey, it seems most likely that she is motivated by the ambitious desire to increase her own powers. The goddess travels through the seven gates of the underworld, removing an item of clothing at each gate. Ishtar finally arrives naked before her sister, Ereshkigal, who is the Queen of the Netherworld, and is killed.

The death of the goddess of love leaves her trapped in the underworld and requiring rescue. With the assistance of her faithful companion, Ninshubur, Ishtar is revived through the clever plotting of the god of wisdom, Ea (Sumerian Enki). Ishtar’s place in the underworld cannot be left empty, and the deity rises along with a group of demons to search for a replacement. Following a long search, her consort, Tammuz, is sent to the underworld in her place.

In either case, it is an interesting and influential story and one well worthy of a private press treatment.

One final note on Eragny Press. Similar to what Lucien’s friend Ricketts had done over 40 years earlier with his Vale punches and matrices, Esther, with her nephew, threw the punches and matrices of their Brook type into the English Channel in 1947.

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The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Cover and Spine
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Macro of Cover
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Sample Text – Preface
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Macro of Sample Text – Preface
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Opening Pages
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Macro of Opening Page Illustration
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Macro of Opening Page Decoration and Text
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Macro of Opening Page Initial Lettering
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Sample Text #1
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Sample Text #2
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Sample Text #3
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Sample Text #4
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Colophon
The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, Limitation
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