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Art and design that jump off the page
“I am not a scholar of nineteenth-century literature,” announced the famed illustrator and bookman Barry Moser at the start of Skidmore’s traditionally scholarly Fox-Adler Lecture last September. But his talk, on the occasion of the lecture’s twentieth anniversary, made it clear that his expertise covered everything but the scholarship—from book design, illustration, and typesetting to binding, printing, and publishing.
Moser’s dedication clearly resonated with his audience, which included the lecture’s longtime sponsors Norman Fox, son Harvey, and daughter-in-law Cassie Roche Fox ’80 in the front row of a packed Gannett Auditorium. The lecture’s coordinator, Catherine Golden of Skidmore’s English faculty, presented them with a plaque (Victorianly veiled in black velvet), and they were warmly applauded for supporting twenty years of lectures about such artists and illustrators as George Cruikshank, Thomas Nast, Winslow Homer, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and related topics including nineteenth-century fashions, Victorian male impersonators, and the British magazine Punch.
In his lecture, Moser admitted that he had originally homed in on nineteenth-century literature because its public-domain classics would be “inexpensive and unproblematic to acquire” for his Massachusetts-based Pennyroyal Press. But he quickly made the period his own, combining the virtuosic technical skill of a Dürer with the bold eye of a contemporary artist. His prints, drawings, and books, on view at the time in Skidmore’s Schick Art Gallery, demonstrate his propensity for “bringing out the dark sides of literature usually seen as light, and finding a bright side in the darker stories,” as Golden pointed out in her introduction.
Moser’s remarks, accompanied by slides of his images and sources, explained the working details of a number of his best-known books, including a historically accurate Moby-Dick and handsome editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He described how each book’s text helped dictate its design, typography, even margin widths, and he revealed his penchant for putting the faces of well-known public figures into his illustrations—among them, Nancy Reagan as the Wicked Witch of the West.
In the most powerful part of his talk, Moser showed how he made his own monster as a model for his edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Reasoning that the monster’s ugliness is “the psychological center of the novel,” Moser and his daughter stitched the skin of a chicken into a crude face, stretched it over a human skull, topped it with a black wig, and set it outdoors to dry, shrink, and decompose. Then he photographed it as it rotted into the agonizingly nightmarish creature captured in the illustrations. But for all its visual horror, Moser dealt gently with his monster, illustrating his portraits with the only touches of color in the book—“a warm color,” he said, “as a sign of my empathy for him.”
Currently a professor-in-residence in art at Smith College, Moser has more than 300 book titles to his credit. His imaginative and elegant images have earned him wide acclaim, including a National Book Award and designation as a “New England Living Treasure.” His work is held in major collections such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Vatican Library.
Skidmore’s Fox-Adler Lecture Series is named in honor of the Fox family and the late Hannah Moriarta Adler, who loaned her collection of nineteenth-century books to Skidmore in 1967. After her death in 1989, Fox and his family took charge of her collection and initiated a yearly Adler Lecture on the literature and art of the nineteenth century. In 2001 the lectures were renamed Fox-Adler, and in 2005 the Foxes gave the collection to Skidmore’s Scribner Library. —BAM