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Lambe Latin:
Tales of a Mantua Maker and Her Brother, from the South Sea Co. to the Merchant of Venice
(A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb)
by Angela Lorenz
 
Edition of 12 copies
14" x 14" closed, as briefcase; 20" x 58" open, as straightjacket
2012

The title provides many clues to understanding this visual biography of the authors Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and Mary Lamb (1764-1847). As in other biographical pieces created by Lorenz, mnemonic devices inhabit every possible aspect of the work. In this case, the Merchant of Venice and the edition size of 12 for Twelfth Night, as well as the inclusion of vintage Italian art post cards from Venice and Verona, summon up one of the Lamb siblings’ greatest achievements: the volume “Tales From Shakespeare,” co-authored in 1807 and still in print. This was the first adaptation of Shakespeare for children, a classic still appreciated the world over. Among the numerous languages in which it has appeared, Samoan is the most ironic, as Charles had his first day job clerking at the South Sea Company, when his marked speech impairment precluded him from continuing on after seven years as a Bluecoat Boy at Christ’s Hospital school. Despite his academic prizes, higher education at that time was geared to preparing young men for the clergy, so the school would not let him continue on to the Grecian level, the last year before university, due to Charles’ pronounced stutter. Friend Leigh Hunt suffered the same fate, but classmate Coleridge had good enough oratorical skills to continue. Mary Lamb was only allowed three months formal education, which she memorialized in a collection of short stories.

The “e” in Lambe Latin refers to Charles’ next day job, recording shipments of textiles and other imports for the East India Company until he reached retirement. This false vowel was an occult device permitting Charles to provide free mail service to Coleridge, Wordsworth and other literary friends courtesy of his company, one of the many ways Charles managed to “stick it to the man” in his long career as a clerk. When the extra “e” appeared on his name, he knew the mail was destined for one of his friends.

Lambe Latin refers to the genesis of this work, inspired by research into early children’s verse for the visual biography of the poet, architect and gambler Sir John Denham (1615-1669), represented by a pair of paper blue jeans, item 50 in the artist’s digital archive. A footnote in the nursery rhyme anthology detailed Charles Lamb’s amusing translations of nursery rhymes into Latin in letters to a friend. Lamb and Denham have another connection besides their devilish wit in verse; Denham was on a mission to cut down the poet Wither, who antagonized him, and Lamb is credited with resuscitating Wither’s reputation in the 19th century. Americans are familiar with the coded speech pig Latin, known as dog Latin in England. Lamb’s Latin is very playful in its rendition of Mary, Mary quite contrary, Diddle Diddle Dumkins, Little Jumping Joan, Little Jack Horner and Cat’s in the Cupboard, but the Latin grammar is genuine. Charles’ literary friends referred to him at times as the Agnus Dei, an affectionate Latin pseudonym for Christ as the Lamb of God, or Paschal Lamb. But Charles rejected docile epithets used by Coleridge and others, saying he merited adjectives like drunken, odd-eyed and ill-shaved.

The Latin nursery rhymes are executed by the artist in calligraphy resembling early type, and transfer printed together with the accompanying images on cloth handkerchiefs purchased from a merchant in Venice, Italy. The illustrations are images based on woodcuts from early children’s books, printed with Styrofoam meat tray packaging formerly containing lamb and pork. In the early world of book publishing, sometimes printers used recycled woodcuts that were lying around the shop instead of more appropriate, newly created ones, resulting in odd pairings. Following this tradition, “Cat’s in the Cupboard” is illustrated by an image for “Pussy’s in the Well”, and “Little Jack Horner” has a plate and a wife like Jack Sprat. “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is a lesser-known version with cuckolds all in a row instead of cockleshells, the more puritanical version familiar to children.

Mantua in the title is not just a nod to the city in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo was exiled. Mary’s chosen profession when she was required to be the sole wage earner in a household of three elderly relatives, two of them physically impaired, was that of a mantua maker, or seamstress. Needlework was one of the few professions available to women in the 18th century, a fact underscored later by Mary in her historic editorial “On Needlework” published under the pseudonym Sempronia. It is an early feminist voice urging women who could afford it to pay others to do their sewing, that working women might earn their living in a respectable, legally sanctioned profession. She also suggested that these same women might turn their minds to intellectual pursuits instead of this needlework meant to keep idle hands out of trouble, that women might consider their “free time” as men do, in terms of periods of work and periods of pleasurable pursuits.

The five handkerchiefs with embroidered monograms are appropriate for Mary as a lettered mantua maker, but they just as easily represent the extreme woe suffered by the Lamb siblings. Only three of the seven children survived infancy. Attention was showered on the eldest, John, and Mary was separated in age by eleven years with her younger brother Charles, for whom she served as an affectionate mother figure in a glum household. But the crisis that marked their lives forever took place when Mary, with no household help, was supporting the family and sharing a bed with her invalid mother, getting little sleep. Her elder brother John was also living at home with a broken leg. Charles attempted to find the family doctor when he noticed Mary began acting strangely one day. He was not successful, and in a delirium Mary began chasing a young apprentice from the workhouse around the dining table with a fork and knife – in the tumult her mother was killed. Mary had no memory of this disastrous event, and never was violent again, but the sadness, guilt and horror of having killed her own mother framed her entire life.

Mary was released into her brother Charles’ custody. And while some friends described him as a martyr for establishing a household with his sister, others note how he had trouble coping during the months she spent periodically in mental institutions, when she would voluntarily commit herself to asylums, known for physical and sexual abuse of patients, out of fear of committing another act of violence. The fact that she survived her brother by thirteen years without incident lends credence to the idea that she did more of the caretaking, especially during his ruinous bouts of drinking, when he would pass out and have to be carried home. While Mary never entertained thoughts of marriage due to her mental condition, nor can she be entirely blamed for killing off all of Charles’ prospects. His crushes were unrequited, but his small stature, unusual features and awkward gait, probably due to polio, his difficulty speaking and his excessive drinking might have discouraged women. Mary was also an important friend and intellectual reference point for many others, some of them leading literary lights of the time. And Mary was a shoulder for Coleridge to cry on, before going back to face his wife whom he earlier abandoned. Charles, too, spent a brief period in an asylum a few years before Mary’s crisis, and it is possible their mother, who was rather frosty and unhappy, understandable after losing four children and begrudgingly sharing the household with a sister-in-law, suffered from depression or other mental illness. It is presumed that Mary grew up with little affection, but despite all she nurtured an informally adopted daughter and many children of friends.

Lambe Latin presents itself as a white briefcase with a leather handle. Untying the bow at the front allows the work to cascade open, revealing itself to be a straightjacket, known as a straight waistcoat in the Lambs’ time. This format evokes the necessity of carrying a straightjacket on trips, in case Mary started exhibiting signs of a looming mental crisis, possibly provoked by the stress and fatigue of their frequent changes of address and household moves. The bottom half of the straightjacket resembles a green baize desk blotter, with corners of embroidered book cloth. Nine vintage Italian postcards with handwritten excerpts from the Lambs’ correspondence nest in a pocket behind the baize desk, stored in an acrylic pouch tied with ribbon. Charles and Mary were great lovers of art, and collected portfolios of prints which they often framed to adorn the walls of their various homes. Charles wrote essays on art, and collecting images with their meager budget was one of their cherished pastimes.

While Charles’ translations of nursery rhymes into Latin launched this project, with research that entailed reading modern and contemporary biographies, it was the process of reading the three volumes of their collected letters that provided the key to representing their lives visually. In reading the letters, one can’t escape the unifying thread of textiles. The constant mention of fabrics and clothes, their own and in descriptions of others, textiles regarding their work and their memories and daily lives, suggested the idea of bringing the Lambs to life with very minimal text, entirely through quotes with textiles, reproduced on the back of the postcards. Although the artist’s study collection contains wonderful 19th century manufacturers’ sample books, which early mock ups of the piece were based on, they were ultimately deemed too literal. The postcards, and the desk blotter corners they can slot into, introduce writing, letters, collecting, Italy and art, while still providing a format to define the authors through their textiles. Each of the twelve straightjackets contains a unique set of vintage Italian art postcards, mostly printed with lush chromolithography or original photographs.

Strait jacket composed of cotton cloth, baize and bookcloth, sewn on a sewing machine. Leather briefcase handle attached with screws. White laces threaded through acid-free foam board in the torso to drape five linen embroidered handkerchiefs with water-based linoleum ink images printed with meat packaging. Images and Latin nursery texts transfer-printed onto linen handkerchiefs at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Venezia, where the artist was a faculty artist in residence in 2012. Handwritten text on antique postcards. Edition of 12 copies. 2012.