Sonnets from the Portuguese

I went up to the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco this past weekend. There were many bookstores selling their wares ranging from illuminated manuscripts to 8″ x 10″ glossies of Bettie Page ($500, signed – thanks, I already have one). I was looking for examples of photogravures in books. I stopped at several booths, and spent about three hours walking around. Pretty much for nought. Too many books to open, too many booths, too little time.

On returning home, I went to my faithful resource and tracked down a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with 20 tipped in photogravures by the pictorialist Adelaide Hanscom (Leeson). The sonnets were written immediately prior to her marriage to Browning, the most famous being Sonnet 43.
I have been tracking down and acquiring original vintage examples of dust grain photogravures being guided primarily by a list to be found at the truly wonderful site The Art of the Photogravure. They have good reproductions of significant photogravures from the early 1900’s, but the images on the web pale in comparison to the originals.
Adelaide Hanscom began significant contributions to pictorial photography with the illustrations she produced for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Her images are heavily manipulated (starting with glass plate negatives) to achieve a painterly style – this same approach was used for the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Many of the images do not look photographic. The Rubaiyat is perhaps the first book to show a photograph of the male nude. One of several tragedies in her life struck in 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed her studio and all the negatives for the Rubaiyat.

Hanscom combined multiple negatives and drew in backgrounds and borders to achieve her artistic effects. The border designs reflect the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement at that time. The images for the sonnets were taken over the years from 1903 to 1915. Several of the images were made in Danville, California where she taught drawing in the high school. The house she lived in while there still stood as of 2003.

Tragedy began stalking her at a quicker pace. Her husband was killed at Verdun in 1916. Her father Meldon died after a brief illness in 1919.

In 1921, she spent all year in the Agnews State Mental Hospital in San Jose, California.
In the morning after my order for the sonnets, I got an e-mail from Ian Kahn, owner of Lux Mentis book store saying he was at the fair in San Francisco and I could pick up the book that day if I liked. I liked, and drove up 101 to San Francisco for a second time in as many days. A surprise at leaving, I spied a single volume of Curtis’s epic work The North American Indian at the booth across from Lux Mentis. At $30,000 I very carefully, simply and only viewed the exquisite photogravures.
The pages of the Sonnets from the Portuguese are heavy and rough edged requiring turning each one by one, the tipped in gravures are sumptuous. The printing is sensual matching the sonnets. I spent a rainy day reading the book and viewing the images.

Adelaide Hanscom died in 1931, struck by a car as she stepped off a trolley in Pasadena, California and was all but forgotten.


  1. Anonymous
    Posted Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Was attracted to your blog by the Edward Curtis reference. I appreciate the pointer to the Art of the Photogravure website. It looks like a good read as well. $30K is a lot to pay for any single volume of Curtis’s work–even at retail I think only volume one should approach that. I actively buy sell and trade Curtis photogravures and master prints. While I consider myself more a collector of Curtis I do sell from time to time on ebay under the user name orotone.
    Take care and thanks again for the pointer.

  2. Brian Pawlowski
    Posted Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Just to be clear – I didn’t buy the Curtis volume:-)

    I’ll keep an eye on ebay!

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: