Sue Doggett’s The Tempest, a unique artists’ book

Conventional wisdom sets up two distinct experiences of Shakespeare’s plays: readers encountering a text, and audiences encountering a performance. The Folger recently acquired a 1995 version of The Tempest by London book artist Sue Doggett that complicates the distinction. Readers of this one-of-a-kind book encounter Shakespeare’s text through Doggett’s artistry, where her choices of paper, lettering, imagery, texture, and color help interpret the selected scenes. The book is not an edition of The Tempest, but rather an artist’s encounter with it, entitled The Tempest, a sketchbook from the play by William Shakespeare. Shelved as ART Vol. d108 (see Hamnet entry), a custom clamshell box hints that something special is inside.

The opening storm begins on the book’s binding, where Prospero’s face emerges from the upper right of the front cover, molded in hand-painted leather. The shipwreck spans both front and back covers, and is made of found brass and metal pins, knotted bookbinder’s sewing thread, and mull (the open-weave fabric binders use as the under-layer of a book’s spine).

Front cover of Folger ART Vol. d108

Front cover of Sue Doggett's 1995 artists' book "The Tempest, a sketchbook from the play by William Shakespeare"

The storm continues as the reader opens the book to reveal dark green endpapers spattered with blue, green, and yellow watercolor, like sea foam. Turning the three blank leaves of heavy hand-made paper that follow releases a sound like rustling wind. Then the title page, on smooth machine-made tracing paper appears, dimly revealing the illustration that follows:

Title page, Folger ART Vol. d108

Title page of Sue Doggett's "The Tempest"

Doggett used the tracing paper technique throughout the book, sometimes providing a backward glimpse of text to come, sometimes a mirror-image reminder of what came before. The effect is unsettling, and evokes something of the magic and deception at work on the island.

Title page, verso, Folger ART Vol. d108

Back of the title page, revealing the illustration underneath

Most of the play text is typewritten on tracing paper, with hand-written commentary:

Act 1, scene 1 from Folger ART Vol. d108

Opening of act 1, scene 1, from Sue Doggett's "The Tempest"

Select portions are rendered in calligraphy. Usually, the calligraphy is legible, but in act 1, scene 2, invisible Ariel’s song appears as confusing and mysterious to us as it does to Ferdinand:

Act 1, scene 2, from Folger ART Vol. d108

"Enter Ariel, invisible" from Sue Doggett's "The Tempest

The “several strange shapes” are, not surprisingly, accompanied by strange shapes, including sinuous lines that seem completely abstract until you notice that they’re grouped in fives, like a musical staff. “What harmony is this?” indeed.

Act 3, scene 3 from Folger ART Vol. d108

"Enter several strange shapes" from Sue Doggett's "The Tempest"

It seems a bit obtuse to blog about something that really has to be heard and felt as well as seen to be fully appreciated, but to throw in a fourth sense metaphorically, I hope I’ve given at least a taste of this book’s richness.

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

2 Comments

  1. What a beautiful book this is. The precision of the calligraphy is stunning, floating as it does above images of lost territories and places. One gets the sense — one I never got in watching Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books — that an entire kingdom has been possessed and repossessed through writing, symbols and incantations. A terrific acquisition.

  2. Pingback: “To Please”: Sue Dogget’s Art Book edition of _The Tempest_ (Shakespeare) | Masterpieces of British Literature, ENG 1500-004

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