The TORCH Heritage Partnerships Team, working closely with the University of Oxford Careers Service, set up this micro-internship with the Oxford-based project, Hidden Objects, which aims to enable the sharing of Oxford Colleges' collections with a wider audience.
Over the Summer Vacation I partook in a weeklong Micro-Internship with the Hidden Object Project, a group of curators and researchers based in Oxford who seek to unearth the untold stories of the University’s collections. The focus of their current investigation, and hence my internship was Oxford’s collection of artist’s books. Largely unknown, yet resting on the surface, the Bodleian Libraries' assortment of artists’ books map both the perimeters of its collections and the edges of text itself. Over the course of my micro-internship, I became particularly interested in how artists’ books rest in the space between literature and art, their content shifting between language and mark, and how this can draw the observer's attention to the ‘crafted’ nature of language and image. Considering the role of the ‘book maker’, I was drawn particularly to the artist and poet Pierre Lecuire due to his commitment to the book form (working exclusively with it throughout his lifetime) and the hidden nature of his work as despite it being in many major collections, there is very little scholarship on him outside France. Focusing on Lecuire, and his desire to construct a ‘total’ book, I became intrigued by how his philosophy could act as a lens through which to examine this linguistic/artistic divide and the potential of sites of knowledge such as books to reveal the crafting of our writing.
Born in May 1922, Lecuire was a French poet and artist who specialised in creating artists’ books. Viewing himself as both an architect and director of books, he describes the process of creating an ‘opera of words’ in which ‘the book accumulates so many organically united meanings and forms that once completed, it achieves the fusion of dissimilar delights, takes on the appearance, music, colour, phrases, hospitable traits of a coherent albeit magical.. ancient logic’
In this way, Lecuire was interested in the creation of a ‘total’ work in which different elements were unified by a simple structuring principle, that allowed a viewer to move into the work through the concentration of all the sensual elements towards Lecuire’s intention.
During the internship we visited the special collection rooms of both the Sackler and Weston libraries and were able to see two works by Lecuire; one designed by Lecuire featuring his poetry and another created in collaboration with the artist Étienne Hadju. The former is a copy of Lecuire’s book ‘La Femme Est’ created in 1967 housed in Weston’s wider-ranging and expanding Rare Book collection. The work consists of enlarged letters that densely populate the pages, allowing each sheet to form a total image in which language unites shifting towards mark, creating a total work.
The work illustrates the potential for artists’ books to allow language to spread beyond its type. Critic Sullivandescribes the artist’s book can become a type of speech act, acting as a theatre does to drama. As language gains physicality, the book becomes a site of performance, to enact the meaning of the poem. Lecuire stated ‘I want to write a poem and build a house for it.
Through envisaging a book as a site, Lecuire presents language not as a mere surface but as a series of signposts to move through. Writing shifts, it becomes tangible. Placing the text next to mark making, meaning appears as sculpted, allowing text to slip towards symbols. Language can perhaps be approached from a perspective detached from ‘reading’. Anthropologist Tim Ingold claims language and drawing are simply two learned forms of line drawing, developed as forms of communication. Therefore, language and image, become different variations of mark, open to redrawing.
This can be seen in the enactment of Lecuire’s text created in collaboration with Hadju that is housed in the Sackler Collection as part of an expansive collection of Le Livre D’Artiste donated by Mr Walter Strachan in 1963 and 1978. The poem entitled ‘Regnes’ was created in Paris in 1961 and shows Lecuire’s text moving amongst Hadju’s symbols as if the curves of his letters could easily fall into Hadju’s marks. Sitting outside of a continuous linear format, the writing and marks appear as if moving across a score, both enclosed within the edges of the paper.
Though the application of each was done separately they were treated as two instruments, following the same score (the poem) to be eventually blended into the overriding work. Despite his close friendship with the painter Nicolas De Stael which illustrated an obvious faith in artists, in his collaborations he tightly oversaw the construction of his books, remaining in his architectural role throughout. This commitment to the author’s role in the book’s crafting is key to Lecuire’s philosophy. He stated ‘that a poet, asking of language more than a language, aspiring to all languages, should arrive at the invention, the creation, the publication of his own book.. this seems to be a strong, natural and eternal right of man the creator...The book is not born of an aesthetic desire.. It is consubstantial with my language, being its necessary condition and aim… they are the ultimate monumental achievement of a poem’s patience.’
Lecuire’s emphasis on the material crafting, places the hand within the work. In this way, Marcia Oliveira states that an artists’ book ‘as a sum of layers, be they pages, images, words or materials, works as an arc from which meaning is drawn through the act of engaging with the body.’ Moreover, through placing his choreographed world within a book format, the viewer is able to touch a work of art. The book becomes a site of touch both showing the marking of who has crafted it and welcoming new hands to engage.
In her recent lecture with the English Faculty, Alice Oswald discussed how the casualness of the letter format, allows for language to sit outside its final form. A poem that is a letter sits in the liminal, waiting to be sent and newly interpreted. Being not quite letter, not quite poem, it becomes what Roland Barthes sees as a text, a piece of language that is in flux, for which new meanings can appear. Being between art and literature, the book is a moving hybrid site that is constantly touched and exchanged, suggesting the incompleteness of linguistic meaning, again loosening the ties of structural language allowing text to slip towards mark. Carrol and Dickenson state that artists’ books in their ‘non bookness’ break the idea of a book as a ‘mere container’ and makes ‘vivid again’ the activity of thinking, drawing our attention to the structural make-up of language and image. Therefore, Sullivan argues that in drawing the viewer’s attention to the crafted quality of a book, the artists’ book confronts the viewer as a ‘critical artifact’. Language becomes reattached to the physical material of the page.
To trace the works of Pierre Lecuire leads to an adjustment in our ways of looking. We come to see the libraries of Oxford not just as depositories of ideas but homes to physical objects; we come to see their texture, placing our eyes on the crafting of language.
 Pierre Lecuire ‘A Tribute to Some Perfect Books From Abroad; Its Poem/The Poem and Its Book’ in Books Abroad, University of Oklahoma Press, 50 (1976), 808
 Nina Parish and Emma Wagstaff ‘Pierre Lecuire: assessing the coexistence of the material and the virtual in his Modernist publishing project’, in Word and Image, Routledge, 32 (2016)
 Pierre Lecuire ‘A Tribute to Some Perfect Books From Abroad; Its Poem/The Poem and Its Book’ in Books Abroad, 807
 Marcia Oliveira, ‘Weaving the Archive: Some Notes on the Artist’s Books of Louise Bourgeois’ in Journal of Artist’s Books, Chicago: Centre for Book, Paper and Print, 42 (2017)
- Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History, Routledge (Abingdon, 2007)
- Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana Press (Hammersmith, 1977)
- Henry Bouillier, ‘Pierre Lecuire or The Poem in Majesty’ in World Literature Today, University of Oklahoma Press, 62 (1988)
- Pierre Lecuire ‘A Tribute to Some Perfect Books From Abroad; Its Poem/The Poem and Its Book’ in Books Abroad, University of Oklahoma Press, 50 (1976)
- Elmar Hertrich, ‘From the "Livre d'Artiste" to the "Livre de Poète": Permanence and Change of French Book Art in the Work of Pierre Lecuire’ in World Literature Today, University of Oklahoma Press, 54 (1980)
- Nina Parish and Emma Wagstaff ‘Pierre Lecuire: assessing the coexistence of the material and the virtual in his Modernist publishing project’, in Word and Image, Routledge, 32 (2016)
- Monica Carroll and Adam Dickerson ‘The Knowing of Artist’s Books’ in Journal of Artist’s Books, Chicago: Centre for Book, Paper and Print, 43 (2018)
- Marianne Dages, ‘The Artist Book as Third Mind’, in Journal of Artist’s Books, Chicago: Centre for Book, Paper and Print, 43 (2018)
- Marcia Oliveira, ‘Weaving the Archive: Some Notes on the Artist’s Books of Louise Bourgeois’ in Journal of Artist’s Books, Chicago: Centre for Book, Paper and Print, 42 (2017)
- James D Sullivan ‘A Poem Is a Material Object: Claire Van Vliet’s Artists Books and Denise Levertov’s “Batterers’ in Humanities, Basel, 8 (2019)
Emily Webb is a third year Fine Art Student based at St Edmund Hall. Working in hand made sculpture, video and speculative fiction, her practice focuses on the crafting of knowledge systems considering these frameworks as woven eco systems, open to unstitching.
To learn more about our collaboration with the Hidden Objects Project see:
John Piper: Artist In Stained Glass
Oxford’s Mortlake 'Supper at Emmaus': A Look into St John’s President’s Lodgings
Weaving tales of the Green Man: A journey into John Piper’s hidden tapestries
A History of Bookbinding as Told through Oxford College Libraries
Both Artistic Compromise and Artistic Freedom’; The Complicated Context Behind the Inuit Printmaking Tradition
Hidden Objects Project
TORCH Heritage Programme Homepage