Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Good advice for shelving books from 1929, a return to a theme, a painter and a coda

Lunch with my old prof is a weekly pleasure and frequently by the time we leave the restaurant she's said "come in when you take me back, I've got things to show you." A small woman of strong education and deep culture who graduated from the University of Illinois the year I was born, whose house, as all repositories of long lives must be, is a reflection of her mind – its walls and shelves filled with books and pictures, its cupboards and drawers filled with accretions of half-forgotten, once-interesting things ready to be brought out when she thinks someone might have use or need. And so it was last Friday – not that I knew it at the time – when she loaned me two brochures about Robert Allerton Park at the University of Illinois – she handed me a hitherto unknown paragraph in my Connections series about gay men, decorators, their clients and friends, men long dead and whose work is now, in the scramble for attention amid ever-irrelevant history, almost completely forgotten. 

I had intended to write again about books because I'd found a downloadable copy of Harriet and Vetta Goldstein's excellent Art in Everyday Life where the two sisters (my old prof's mentors – she was their last graduate assistant before their retirement) gave good advice which I quote at the end of this post about how to arrange books on shelves. And so it was when I saw Robert Allerton's library in one of the booklets I thought it perfect, and perfect for my purposes – my all-too delayed return to my theme. (The fact that his sofas resemble mine exactly has nothing to do with it).

Allerton's main library above, one of three in the house, converted from the music room, was designed by John Gregg, the man with whom, after the stock market crash of 1929, Allerton was to spend the rest of his life. In fact, in 1959, after a change in Illinois law, Allerton adopted Gregg as his son. According to Wikipedia they were one of the most prominent same-sex couples of their time.

The "butternut" library, paneled in lumber cut on the farm, 
was considered by Robert Allerton as the "family" library

The stable, no longer needed after the gift of an automobile,
was converted into the "barn" library with a garage underneath

It might be that I am the only person left in this country who did not know about Robert Allerton and John Gregg but in case there is anyone else as ignorant as I of a moment of gay history I shall continue with a paragraph or two more. Assuming, that is, in a time when, arguably, homosexuality did not exist simply because no-one talked about it, two men living together as companions, with one eventually adopting the other, could lead one to believe there might just be something more than sharing expenses to their relationship.

Glyn Warren Philpot

 "The Man in Black"
Robert Allerton by Glyn Philpot

I am struggling with facts that might be already well-known to many but it comes as a surprise to me that Glyn Philpot first visited Robert Allerton in 1913 when he painted a portrait of Allerton for which the latter then declined to pay. The portrait, "The Man in Black" now hangs in the Tate Gallery. This portrait was one of Glyn Philpot's works that earned him the designation of RA at the young age of thirty. 

Clearly I need to find and read a biography of Philpot before I take this idea of connection much further - despite the fact that this artist recently has been on my mind. Philpot painted the murals that once accompanied this fireplace that I found, forlorn, in a Victoria and Albert Museum corridor this past July – though considering the fate of the murals I'm glad it was bought by the museum. But, that's a whole other post. 

So, back to where I began – with books and advice. It really is very good advice and if you think of the date, 1929, it is rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

"So simple a thing as the arrangement of books will add to or detract from the beauty of a room. The very plainest books can make a beautiful effect in a room if they are grouped according to size and color. To do this so that the result may practical as well as beautiful, divide the books according to their subject-matter, and then within these groups arrange the colors and the light and dark books so that they will present the appearance of well balance groups rather than a light book here and there, an occasional dark one, and bright ones scattered all about. Keeping the lighter books near the top and around the center line, for well placed emphasis will help to complete an interesting color pattern.

"Books and magazines which are easily accessible will do more than anything else to make the living room seem home-like. Books are always more inviting if they are placed on open shelves instead of being shut off behind glass doors. They should be placed so they are convenient for use, and if there are interesting books and magazines on small tables in the room, in addition to the generous shelves, it will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the room."

After all the discussion of vignetting, I thought you might like this. It's the tail end of a catalogue that dropped in the mailbox this week.

"The Man in Black" from the Tate Gallery
The Philpot self-portrait from Wikipedia
Philpot Murals from "London Interiors" John Cornforth, Aurum Press, 2000
Libraries photographs from brochure about Robert Allerton Park, published by the Univerity of Illinois. 1951


  1. I can't imagine how one would ever find a book if not grouped by subject.

    1. donna baker, thank you. Mine are grouped according to subject but I think the Goldstein sisters' assumption was that in an early 20th-century house there would not be that many – certainly not as many as in Robert Allerton's libraries.

  2. What an interesting article, thank you. I too have not previously known of Allerton and Gregg, but I covet their libraries, which appear to me to be comfortable places to read and relax.

    Have you noticed how the majority of gardening books are green? They naturally color co-ordinate themselves on a shelf.

    1. Chronica Domus, thank you. I hadn't noticed but I just checked my books about gardens and gardening and guess what .... ?

  3. To have 3 libraires is a very fine thing, and these are all very pleasant. I'd love to say, "I'm working in the Butternut today."
    I don't think I had ever seen books with their spines toward the back of the bookcase until visiting you here lately. Sacrilege.

    1. gésbi, thank you. Total sacrilege and idiocy, if you ask me.

  4. There is that book in you that needs to be born. I do hope you listen to their voices wanting to be heard.

    As for the libraries. Three would be lovely, but my lord think about how we would waste our time/gray cells trying to remember which library held which book we were looking for? My best advice for bookshelves: put the books at the edge. Easier to get out of shelf and reduces dusting! Not sure I can go with the color coding advice given, however.

    1. home before dark, thank you. I am listening but it's that first step. As I say above to Donna Baker I think the sisters' advice was meant for people who had far few books than some of us have today. My books begin near the edge but migrate backwards – it's as if they have vertigo and fear the edge.

  5. I am about to reorder my nine-foot-tall bookshelves and it's midnight. You devil. I'm hooked.

    1. Daniel James Shigo, thank you. At your young age age you should have better things to do with your midnights!

  6. Had first known of Glyn Philpot as the muralist who painted the faux-primitif frieze around the upper walls of Philip Sassoon's dining room at Port Lympne, so it's a relief to know that he was far better at portraiture. Though of Robert Allerton & John Gregg, complete ignorance of their existence until this enlightening post.

    Three libraries in one house seems the ultimately luxury, but come to think of it there are collections of books on all 3 levels of our 1860 townhouse, arranged with some semblance of order: art& design at garden level, local and US/world history main floor, biographies and novels top floor.

    Yet there are exceptions. A row of Beverley Nichols in original wrappers along one table edge, another of Noel Coward's plays, a cabinet with the musty volumes of Osbert Sitwell's memoirs (bedroom, owing to their soporific qualities). And shocking though it might sound, every single book has got its spine facing OUT.

    1. Toby Worthington, thank you. I remember that frieze and also was not impressed by it. We have one room of books on shelves, an office with shelves for old magazines and there are some books on the bedside tables. Like you, we are revolutionaries in that book spines do not face the wall ever.

      Beverly Nichols! There's a rave from the literary grave for me. He wrote a rather sickening newspaper column when I was young and I despised it. Belongs on the same table as a Constance Spry arrangement as far as I am concerned – but maybe I need to increase my medication and reevaluate both of 'em.

  7. Have you taken up the question of guest room/guest quarters reading? I've been thinking about it and would be a little surprised if you had not ventured into this, in one perspective or another.

    Have to concur with HBD, for the highly practical reasons stated but equally, albeit opinionatedly, on visual grounds. You remember how Caravaggio's "A Basket of Fruit" effaced the barrier effect of the horizontal plane on which the basket lay, and presented it as a participant in the viewer's domain; and although I respect how much time or selectivity of materials may have gone into bookshelves, their stacking of prominent and (hopefully) unyielding parallel horizontals can be overbearing and, psychologically, forbidding toward the inspiration or impulse to revisit a volume. HBD's recommendation extends a great sympathy toward that relationship, and as you have conveyed in many remarks over the years, any such thing is to be encouraged, never forgetting the nerves of the horses.