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'There is a madness about various Gaberbocchus books which is the spice of life, an ingredient somewhat lacking in the world of impeccable book production'
(Ruari McLean in Quarterly News Letter of the Book Club of California, Summer 1956)

Stefan and Franciszka Themerson founded Gaberbocchus Press in 1948 in London. It was the product of an artistic collaboration that had begun in Warsaw, where they worked together as experimental film-makers, and wrote and illustrated children's books. With Franciszka as artistic director and Stefan as editor, the Press published 59 titles, in 31 years, of which the National Art Library owns 20. They began, in the private press tradition, by hand-printing their first two books on a hand-press on hand-made paper in their home in Maida Vale. These were Jankel Adler, or an Artist seen from one and many possible angles (1948) and Aesop: the eagle and the fox and the fox and the eagle (1949). Later they used professional printers, for editions of between 1000 and 2000 copies. Initially, the business address of the Press was in King's Road, Chelsea, but in 1957, it moved to permanent premises in Formosa Street. Apart from the Themersons, there were two other directors: the painter, Gwen Barnard, and the translator, Barbara Wright, who were also responsible for some of the Gaberbocchus publications.

From the start, Gaberbocchus was 'a vehicle for introducing new ideas', and specialised in intellectual avant-garde texts. These ranged from poetry and philosophical novels to unclassifiable combinations of text and pictures. The authors chosen included Stefan Themerson himself, Hugo Manning, Bertrand Russell, C.H. Sisson and Stevie Smith. The Press also introduced important first English translations of Alfred Jarry, Heinrich Heine, Raymond Queneau, and Anatol Stern, introducing English-speaking audiences to the culture of European avant-gardes. In some books, such as Ubu Roi, text and illustration were combined in ways that had never been attempted before in English publishing.

The name Gaberbocchus was taken from the Latinised version of Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky', a source which already points to a surreal and often absurdist sensibility running through the publications. Both the choice of text and the illustrations reflect a keen concern for ethics. There is good and evil mixed with subversive humour, as well as a sense of the ridiculousness of human beings. One common characteristic of the publications is the intimate relationship between image and text as an expression of content.

A key objective was to produce 'best lookers rather than best sellers', and indeed the Themersons felt little sympathy for mainstream taste and publicity, with Stefan once identifying 'refusal to conform' as both the primary strength and primary weakness of the Press. Gaberbocchus attracted curiosity from critics, who saw it as odd and yet appealing, observing in the words of one that the books manifest 'a pleasing and intelligent originality in presentation, which makes them quite different from anything else appearing in London'.

Gaberbocchus Press had very little in common with the other British private presses of the 1940s and 1950s, such as the Golden Cockerel Press, who were largely influenced by the Arts and Crafts approach of William Morris's Kelmscott Press. Even so, Sir Francis Maynell of the Nonesuch Press, was an admirer. It is telling that when Gaberbocchus produced an edition of an Aesop fable, such as might have been favoured by the more conventional presses, it was accompanied by a reversed version, thus becoming Aesop: the eagle and the fox and the fox and the eagle, turning convention on its head in a characteristic Gaberbocchus fashion. The aim was to produce inexpensive yet original and imaginatively designed books rather than luxury, finely printed collectors' items.

In 1979 the Themersons transferred the running of the Press to the Amsterdam publishers, Uitgeverij De Harmonie. Nine years later they died in 1988, just six weeks apart, after a lifetime of collaboration.

The press continues to attact attention. Recent retrospective exhibitions of Gaberbocchus Press were held at La Boetie in New York, 1993/4, and at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1996.

This exhibition focuses on three Gaberbocchus publications from the Library's collections: Ubu Roi (1951), The Good Citizen's Alphabet (1953), and Kurt Schwitters in England : 1940-1948 (1958). Each book is presented in a separate display case, with related material on loan from the Themerson Archive. This material includes original artwork for book cover designs, illustrations, private correspondence, manuscripts and printing plates. Each display relates the story of the development of the book from initial ideas, through artwork and drafts to proofs, sometimes culminating in several editions. The three books illustrate the range of different approaches to book design, and the interplay between text and image.

Alfred Jarry Ubu Roi, London, Gaberbocchus Press, 1951. NAL pressmark : 802.AC.0084 (Special collections)

Alfred Jarry Ubu Roi, London, Gaberbocchus Press, 1951. NAL pressmark : 802.AC.0084 (Special collections)

Ubi Roi, by Alfred Jarry, 1951

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi was translated for the Gaberbocchus Press by Barbara Wright and illustrated by Franciszka Themerson. It has been described as 'undoubtedly the most acclaimed book of the Gaberbocchus Press', and is radical both in its choice of text, as the first English edition of the play, and in the design of the book.

Ubu Roi created a scandal when it was first performed in the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1896 and was described by André Gide as 'the most extraordinary thing seen in the theatre for a long time'. Having seen the play, W.B. Yeats said: 'After us, the savage god.' Critics were divided between those who compared it to Rabelais and Shakespeare (Père and Mère Ubu like the Macbeths without consciences or poetry), and those who dismissed it as rubbish and a degenerate schoolboy joke. With its bad language and schoolboy humour, the play tells the farcical story of Père Ubu, an officer of the King of Poland, a grotesque figure whom Jarry saw as epitomising the mediocrity and stupidity of middle-class officialdom. Aided and abetted by his wife, Père Ubu kills the King and claims the throne. Having amassed a great fortune by executing his subjects and seizing their property, he is finally driven out by the ‘Whole Russian Army’ and flees across Europe.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, the influence of both the play and the writer has endured. Born in Laval, Mayenne, France in 1873, Jarry wrote Ubu Roi at the age of 23, and it remains his best known and most influential work. Derived from a schoolboy play called Les Polonais, Ubu was inspired by M. Hébert, a school teacher and the butt of schoolboy jokes at the Lycée in Rennes which Jarry attended. Lacking both authority and dignity, the physically grotesque figure of M. Hébert became for Jarry, as Barbara Wright relates in her introduction to the book:'the symbol of all the ugliness and mediocrity he already saw in the world', and he in turn became the inspiration for Père Ubu. The figure of Père Ubu was to be a potent one for Jarry, who became obsessed by his creation, to the point that he began to imitate him, adopting an odd way of speaking, referring to himself as ‘Père Ubu’ and behaving in a highly eccentric, Ubuesque manner.

Absurdity became the hallmark of Jarry’s style. Hailed as the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, he told a friend that 'talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind and falsifies the memory, but the absurd exercises the mind and makes the memory work'. It was through writing Ubu Roi that Jarry became the creator of the science of Pataphysics, a logic of the absurd, and 'science of imaginary solutions', enshrined since 1948 in the Collège de Pataphysique.

However, the importance of the play lies not its plot but in its anarchic presentation in the theatre. A precursor of Dada and Surrealism, Jarry was to be of influence to Picasso, Satie, Cocteau and Apollinaire, and as a critic noted 'almost everyone has seen in Jarry—and especially Ubu—an intimation, if only a shadow, of the future... His spirit… can be seen in all the Absurd Art, Anti-Art and so forth, which has obsessed the art of this century'.

It was the anarchic theatrical experience of Ubu Roi that Gaberbocchus Press sought to portray in the presentation of the book, making its design as subversive as its text. Barbara Wright was persuaded to adopt the unconventional technique of writing her text by hand on lithographic plates, on which Franciszka Themerson later made her drawings. This, together with the yellow paper on which the book is printed, already gives a suitably anarchic appearance, which as one writer has noted 'graphically communicates the play’s wild (and often scatalogical) irreverence'.

Ubu Roi attracted critical acclaim, puzzlement and curiosity.'...as exciting a piece of modern book publication as we have ever seen' claimed New Directions Books in their catalogue in January 1952; a 'striking example of brains and imagination in book production' commented a writer in 'Ark', Journal of the Royal College of Art, 1954). Andrew Sinclair in 'Time and Tide' (30 November 1961) wrote: 'Jarry’s Ubu is perhaps even more powerful a satire today than it was 65 years ago…The weird and wonderful Gaberbocchus Press have dashed in where others fear to print'. A columnist in the 'Times Literary Supplement', (18 August 1966), commented on 'the wit and the precision and the merciful economy of Mrs Themerson’s drawings' that capture the spirit of the play.

The success of the publication led to the production of three subsequent editions. The role of the Themersons was duly acknowledged by the Collège de Pataphysique and they were awarded honorary titles, Franciszka became Commendeur Exquis Petits fils Ubu, and Stefan Commandeur Requis ou Capitulaires Quatrièmes fils Ubu.

In 1952, Franciszka created masks for a dramatised reading of the play at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; she designed the stage production with life-size puppets by the Marionetteatern of Stockholm in 1964, and finally drew her own comic-strip version of Ubu in 1969. This tour-de-force of a comic strip consists of 90 episodes, with each drawing measuring one metre.

Finally, when the Gaberbocchus Press published Ubu Roi, time had added another irony. Both in the play and in reality, Poland was a 'nowhere'. In 1896, Poland was not on the map of Europe. From 1939 to 1945 it vanished again, and was under foreign, Soviet, control after that. The murderous and stupid Ubus had one thing in common with the multi-talented Themersons: all had had to flee from foreign invaders of Poland.

Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, London, Gaberbocchus, 1953. NAL pressmark : G.29.W.80.

Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, London, Gaberbocchus, 1953. NAL pressmark : G.29.W.80.

The Good Citizen's Alphabet, by Bertrand Russell, 1953

Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, with illustrations by Franciszka Themerson, was published in 1953. Bertrand Russell, the English logician and philosopher, celebrated for his work in mathematical logic and known to a wider public for his social and political campaigns, was also a man with a great sense of humour. This socio-political alphabet, written by Russell 'for the guidance of the first steps of the infant mind', started life as a private joke in correspondence between Russell and the Themersons, who decided to publish it.

Russell’s alphabet teaches far more than just the letters of the alphabet, as ‘A’ stands not for ‘apple’ but for ‘asinine: what you think’, followed by other ‘satirical letters’ such as ‘O’ for ‘objective: a delusion which other lunatics share’ and ‘L’ for ‘liberty: the right to obey the police’. Russell was delighted with the publication and said that Franciszka Themerson's drawings 'heightened all the points I most wanted to make”. A satire by both the philosopher and the illustrator, the book is compelling for the simplicity of its design, and for the mix of whimsical humour in the drawings with the satirical bite of the words. As Nick Wadley has observed of another Gaberbocchus book, The Way it Walks (1954), a book of cartoons illustrated by Franciszka Themerson, 'for all their appearance of naiveté, the book’s drawings are subtle, wise and funny – affectionate, ridiculous, merciless and moral all at once'. These contrasting qualities are also evident in Franciszka Themerson’s painting, her stage design, as well as her book illustration, in which whimsical playfulness often sits closely beside the savage and the grotesque.

A reviewer in the 'Dublin Magazine,' wrote about the book: 'Bertrand Russell’s alphabet book is designed to improve the minds of the young in our acrimonious and utilitarian world. It will encourage them remorselessly to deflate the loftiest sentiments and neatly to undermine the blandest attitudes of relatives, theorists and reformers'. In 'The News Chronicle', Fredrick Laws said: '...wickedly and prettily illustrated... and designed to appeal to infant minds.' The book was also published in a limited and a trade edition in 1953, and in 1954 The Good Citizen’s Alphabet was chosen by the National Book League for their Exhibition of Book Design held in London in that year.

In 1962, as part of the celebrations of Russell’s 90th birthday, Gaberbocchus published Russell’s History of the World in epitome, a small booklet, offered 'for use in Martian infant schools'. It consists of one sentence of nineteen words, ‘Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable', accompanied by a drawing of Adam and Eve, a drawing of a battle scene and finally, a photograph of the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima. As with The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, simplicity of form is combined with depth of meaning, this time to an even greater degree. As Christopher Macy noted in 'The Humanist', 'No one could say more in one sentence than Russell'. In 1970, Gaberbocchus published The Good Citizen's Alphabet and History of the World in epitome in one small volume.

Stefan Themerson, 'Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940 – 1948', London, Gaberbocchus Press,1958. NAL pressmark : 22.H.112

Stefan Themerson, 'Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940 – 1948', London, Gaberbocchus Press,1958. NAL pressmark : 22.H.112

Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940–1948, by Stefan Themerson, 1958

In 1958, this was the first publication of Kurt Schwitters' English poems and prose, and – apart from an important article by Robert Motherwell (in 'Dada Painters and Poets', NY 1951) – the introduction was the first significant English text on the artist.

Themerson first met Schwitters when they happened to sit next to each other at a meeting of the PEN Club held to celebrate 300 years of John Milton's 'Aeropagitica', at the French Institute, London, 1943. It seems that they quickly recognised shared values (not least in what Themerson called 'making havoc of the classification system'). They became friends. Schwitters paid visits to the Themersons at home in Maida Vale, and they remained in intermittent contact until his death in 1948.

Kurt Schwitter's reputation as a major German dadaist meant nothing when he arrived in Britain as an alien in 1940. When after months of internment, principally in the Isle of Man, he came to London in 1941 he was still an outsider, and he remained virtually unknown as an artist outside a tiny avant-garde circle throughout his years in England. When Themerson met him, he was living with his son Ernst in Barnes. Schwitters had met and befriended Edith Thomas ('Wantee', as he called her), and from 1944 on they lived together. In 1945 they moved to Ambleside in the Lake District.

In February 1958, Themerson gave a talk about Schwitters at the Gaberbocchus Common Room. The text of his talk became the introduction to this book. Themerson saw the art of collage as a political act in Schwitters' hands, an heroic gesture against conventions. The way that the Themersons designed the book also expresses this liberation, almost like a collage itself, with its various coloured papers and insertions. Stefan Themerson's irreverent improvisation with the Court Circular title and crest from The Times as a cover design is also very Schwitters-like, in idea and in technique.

The critic of The Connoisseur wrote of 'one of the most lively examples of book design published in England recently... with a binding design of outrageous ingenuity. The inside is as unorthodox as befits its subject and the whole effect is most refreshing.'

Stefan Themerson published another version of the text, visually and typographically elaborated, under the title 'Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart', in Typographica 16, December 1967. Here, Schwitters is placed in the broad context of world culture, the avant-garde and political history, stretching from 1880 to the new attitudes of the 1960s, and incorporating Milton's words on Liberty. The story of PIN, the poetry journal that Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann were planning to launch together in the 1940s, was also published by Gaberbocchus Press, edited by Jasia Reichardt, in 1962.

The Themerson Archive

The Themerson archive consists of thousands of documents relating to the work of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. Their work encompassed film-making, publishing (Gaberbocchus Press), painting, writing, graphic design, theatre design, and, above all, experiment within these fields. The archive material relates principally to their life in London between 1940 and 1988.

An important part of that life was their foundation of the Gaberbocchus Press, the largest small press during the 1950s and 1960s in London. The archive includes letters, accounts, photographs, printed ephemera, books, artwork, printing plates, manuscripts and typescripts, designs, sketches, catalogues of their exhibitions and reviews of books published by Gaberbocchus Press, founded by the Themersons in 1948 and remained under their control until 1979.

Also included is material connected with Gaberbocchus Common Room which occupied the basement of 42a Formosa Street, where lectures, recitals, film screenings and performances were held between 1957 and 1959. The purpose of the Common Room was to breach the gap between the arts and the sciences by bringing together people interested in both cultures.

Apart from material directly related to the Themersons’ publishing activities, there are manuscripts, books and personal correspondence of Stefan Themerson (film-maker, writer, publisher) and Franciszka Themerson (film-maker, painter, stage designer, publisher, illustrator), in three languages (Polish, French, English) and relating to their lives and work in Poland before the war, in France from 1938 and subsequently in England. The archive also contains articles and reviews about the Themersons and their work; their collection of books by various collaborators and a further collection of books on subjects of relevance to their work.

Since 1988 (when both the Themersons died), the archive is organised, housed and looked after by Jasia Reichardt and Nicholas Wadley.

The object of creating and maintaining the Themerson Archive is its preservation (documents are filed in plastic folders for protection and bound so that they can be read like a book), widest possible accessibility (the archive is intended ultimately for a public institution) and usability (the filing system is alphabetical and chronological; with cross references).

Subjects of the archive include: art, the avant-garde, book production, books, concrete poetry, constructivism, dada, decency, ethics, experiment, film, humour, language, London, nonsense, philosophy, poetry, prose, publishing, the relationship between art and science, satire; science, the Second World War, semantic poetry, theatre, translation, typography.

The archive throws light on 50 years of an independent creative enterprise and intellectual life in a cold climate, encompassing a great variety of activities with contacts spanning Europe, America, Australia, Canada, Mexico and South America.

The material is housed in a first floor room at 12 Belsize Park Gardens. It is contained in folders on shelves, filing cabinets and boxes.

Themerson Archive, 12 Belsize Park Gardens. LONDON NW3 4LD


Other material relating to Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in the Word and Image Department of the V&A

Themerson, Stefan : Photo-Images with and without camera. A portfolio of 13 photographic images by Stefan Themerson. Produced and published by Editions Ottezec, London, 1983.

Museum number: Ph.16-28-1987/Pressmark x999A

Literature : the portfolio included a copy of the exhibition catalogue Stefan i Franciszka Themerson : visual researches (Lodz : Museum of Art, 1982) now in the National Art Library (pressmark NL.94.0153)

The portfolio contains 13 mounted photographic works plus two printed sheets which contain

1.  Title, essay on ‘The uniqueness of photograms’ by the artist, the beginning of a list of titles and dates,

2. Continuation of list plus publication details. Rodney Grey, publisher of Editions Ottezec, explained the printing details in a letter dated 10 March 1991:
We made our prints of the photograms (that is Numbers 1-5) from negatives which Stefan Themerson had had made for him some years before.
Numbers 6 and 7 we made film negatives which Stefan had had made from the film positives (that is, the 35mm cinema film).

For No.8, ST had had made a number of sheets of negatives from strips of the cinema positive film and we used a negative from one of these.

For No.9, ST gave me a strip of the cinema positive, and suggested that we use the torn frame at the end of the strip. I had the negative made - - - .

For No. 10, the self-portrait, ST gave me the negative, which had been made on an old view camera, and, because he wanted it printed in negative, he had made a positive on transparent stock, from which the prints were made. The prints are the same size as the original negative.

For Nos.11+12, ST gave me some pieces of the Dufaycolour positives (like No.13); we had enlarged colour negatives made and from these the prints were made”

Photogram, Konstancin, Poland, 1928 (copy, 1983)
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson and inscribed in pencil on the back #1.

Size of image 19.2 x 12.3 cms
Size of sheet 26.4 x 21.2 cms
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.16-1987

Photogram, 1928 or 1929 (copy, 1983)
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 17.4 x 23.5 cm
Size of sheet 21.2 x 26.4 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.17-1987

Photogram, 1928 or 1929 (copy, 1983)
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 18.8 x 22.3 cm
Size of sheet 21.3 x 26.5 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.18-1987

Photogram, 1929 (copy, 1983)
Signed on the image in orange ink Stefan Themerson

Size of image 19.2 x 25.2 cm
Size of sheet 21.3 x 26.5 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.19 -1987

Photogram, 1930 (copy, 1983)
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 9.7 x 15.1 cm
Size of sheet 19.6 x 26 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.20-1987

Photogram, a study for Moment Musical, a short sound film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, Warsaw 1933 (copy, 1983).
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 23.4 x 17.7 cm
Size of sheet 25.3 x 21.3 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.21–1987

Photogram, a study for Moment Musical, a short sound film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, Warsaw 1933 (copy, 1983).
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 23.6 x 17.6 cm
Size of sheet 25.5 x 20.2 cm
Gelatin–silver print
Museum number: Ph.22–1987

Photogram in motion, from The Eye and the Ear, a sound film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, London, 1944-5 (copy, 1983)
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 15.7 x 20.3 cm
Size of sheet 25.5 x 32.3 cm
Gelatin-silver print
Museum number: Ph.23-1987

Still from The Eye and the Ear, a sound film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, London, 1944-5 (printed 1983).
Signed in ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 14.6 x 23.6 cm
Size of sheet 20.3 x 25.4 cm
Gelatin-silver print
Museum number: Ph.24-1987

Self-portrait, London, 1955 (printed 1983).
Signed on the image in gold ink Stefan Themerson

Size of image 19.2 x 23.9 cm
Size of sheet 20.1 x 25.3 cm
Negative gelatin-silver print
Museum number: Ph.25-1987

Stills from the sequence of images for J.S. Bach Toccata in Calling Mr Smith, a film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, London, 1943 (printed 1983).
Signed in orange ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 18.1 x 12.8 cm
Size of sheet 25.5 x 20.4 cm
C-type colour photograph
Museum number: Ph.26-1987

A documentary film sequence, re-photographed in coloured lights through the positive superimposed on the negative, from Calling Mr Smith, a film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, London, 1943 (printed 1983).
Signed in orange ink below the image Stefan Themerson

Size of image 18.1 x 10.4 cm
Size of sheet 25.5 x 20.4 cm
C-type colour photograph
Museum number: Ph.27-1987

Original positive frames from first proofs of Calling Mr Smith, a film by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, London, 1943.

9.4 x 3.5 cm (sight size)
Dufay-colour 35 mm film strip
Museum number: Ph.28-1987

Themerson, Franciszka Men in a space-net
Signed and dated Themerson, 1957
Pen and ink drawing. 16 x 20 2/8
Museum number: E.375-1964

This drawing was shown in the artist’s ‘Retrospective Exhibition’ (1943-1963) held at the Drian Galleries, London, 10 September – 7 October 1963.
The catalogue for this exhibition is in the National Art Library, pressmark 200.BD.

This text was originally written by Fiona Barnard to accompany the exhibition Gaberbocchus Press, on display at the V&A South Kensington between 14 April and 31 August 2003.

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