Friday, 20 January 2017

Coffee table books | Bitten by Witch Fever & Hokusai

Recently I mentioned that I had a few coffee table books in sight. Some of them have already been published; others will soon be or in the spring, like Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave. On the list below is one that I'm currently reading with great interest, Lucinda Hawksley's book Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home, a Christmas gift from a friend. It presents 275 facsimile samples of wallpaper designs that have all been tested positively for arsenic content.

For some time I have wanted to see a new art book on my coffee table and I believe I have found the right one, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave. The book features 300 illustrations of works by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), created during the last thirty years of his life. Its publication (early May) coincides with an exhibition that opens at the British Museum on the 25th of May, and closes in August. How I would love to travel to London to see it and spend a few days in the Bloomsbury area.

Katsushika Hokusai's, Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji), 1831

Let us take a look at the list of the coffee table books I'm interested in, in random order with a comment on each (you may already have spotted some in the blog's sidebar):

· The Japanese House: Architecture and Life: 1945 to 2017  by Pippo Ciorra and Florence Ostende (Marsilio). If architecture is your thing this book is a comprehensive study of Japanese architecture since the Second World War.
· The Long Life of Design in Italy: B&B Italia. 50 Years and Beyond  by Stefano Casciani (Skira). In 1966, Piero Ambrogio Busnelli established the Italian furniture company B&B Italia and now we are able to enjoy its story in a beautiful book (see a short video on their website).
· Blumarine: Anna Molinari by Elena Loewenthal, edited by Maria Luisa Frisa (Rizzoli). The Queen of Roses, designer Anna Molinari of the Italian fashion house Blumarine has many fans. I believe fashion design enthusiasts are waiting for the publication of this one, which contains photographs by the likes of Helmut Newton, Tim Walker, Albert Watson, and Craig McDean. I think I would buy it for the cover alone!
· Adobe Houses: House of Sun and Earth  by Kathryn Masson (Rizzoli). I would really like to get my hands on this book that presents twenty-three Californian homes, showing both interiors and gardens. Adobe houses with whitewashed walls and exposed beams ... yes please.
· Art House: The Collaboration of Chara Schreyer & Gary Hutton by Alisa Carroll (Assouline). A visual feast: five residences designed to house 600 works of art, a collaboration of art collector Schreyer with interior designer Hutton.
· Flourish: Stunning Arrangements with Flowers and Foliage by Willow Crossley (Kyle Books). If you are looking for a new decorative style for your home by using flowers I'm sure Willow Crossley's new book will inspire you, and Emma Mitchell's beautiful photography.
· Around That Time: Horst at Home in Vogue by Valentine Lawford and Ivan Shaw (Abrams Books). I still haven't found this one in a bookshop, I have only seen magazine features (one spotted in my bottom image). It contains, among others, photographs by Horst P. Horst that appeared in Vogue's Book of Houses, Gardens, People from 1968 (his partner Valentine Lawford wrote the text). The foreword is written by Vogue's Hamish Bowles. Here is a sneak peek.
· Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley (Thames & Hudson, published in association with The National Archives). The aforementioned book that presents 275 facsimile samples of wallpaper designs, including e.g. Corbière, Son & Brindle, Christopher Dresser and Morris & Co. (See more below.)
· Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave by Timothy Clark, Shugo Asano and Roger Keyes (Thames & Hudson). The aforementioned book about the Japanese influential master Katsushika Hokusai that features artworks he created during his last thirty years. It also gives his daughter Eijo (Ōi) a due attention, an artist of the late 19th century Edo period. The publication coincides with a British Museum exhibition opening in May.

A detail of Hokusai's, The poet Rihaku lost in wonder at the majesty of the great waterfall

I had to include these two Hokusai's woodblock pieces in this blog entry. His career spanned over seven decades but most people are familiar with his later work. The blue colour, or the Prussian blue, as it has been called, has always fascinated me and drawn me to his art.

For those interested in viewing more pieces by Hokusai (or any other artist) there is a wonderful selection of his artworks on Artsy and an editorial piece containing some fun facts. Artsy is a website I only recently added to my bookmarks and which instantly became a favourite (they also have a podcast). Artsy's mission is to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

'Blue Bird Amongst the Strawberries', a pattern by Charles F. A. Voysey, recalls William Morris's
well-known 'Strawberry Thief' of 1883. From the book Bitten by Witch Fever, p. 131

By reading Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home, which I haven't finished, I have realised that I was blissfully unaware that poisonous pigments were used in wallpaper design without being considered dangerous (it was Carl Wilhelm Scheele who in 1775 used arsenic to create a green pigment, Scheele's Green, that became popular and was used e.g. to create a vibrant colour for wallpapers):
Many dismissed as ludicrous the doctors who held that the wallpapers were poisonous, including English wallpaper designer William Morris, who stated that they 'were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever'. (p. 7)
I had to leaf through the final chapter to learn that the first arsenic-free wallpapers weren't produced in Britain until 1859, with 'little public recognition'. By the 1870s, Morris & Co. finally 'bent to public pressure' and then it became 'big news' (p. 226). This book is indeed interesting, not to mention beautifully designed: There are seven short chapters - they look like brochures - in between pages of colour coded plates that show the wallpapers tested for arsenic content.

Pale green. Corbière, Son & Brindle, London, UK, 1879. From the book Bitten by Witch Fever, Plates V, p. 141

images by me | Katsushika Hokusai art via: 1. The British Museum, 2. Thames & Hudson Spring 2017 Catalogue


  1. I love your blog, it is great to look around and read all your suggestions.
    I will start following you at Bloglovin
    Have a nice weekend

    1. Thank you Manon for your kind comment. I hope my suggestions lead to a joyful reading. Have a wonderful weekend!


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