Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sweet Disorder in the Balkans

Sweet Disorder in the Balkans by Marijana Dworski

A story of how book-dealers very often buy rather more than books, and a warning that perhaps they shouldn't or how the Lady Sybil Stewart collection came into her possession.


Embroidery, knitting, weaving and sewing are all pass-times, for which I am psychologically and constitutionally unsuited. I do not have the patience, the dexterity or the eye for detail to even consider embarking on these particular art forms. However, I love traditional textiles, especially those of the Balkans and the Near East, and rarely come home from abroad without some woven or embroidered 'piece' in my luggage.

Over the course of years selling books on Southeastern and Central Europe, I have had many requests for books on Hungarian, Polish and Balkan embroidery and costume. All these countries, particularly post World War II, produced publications in their own languages on the subject and many are profusely illustrated with photographs from ethnographic collections.

However, useful as these books are as works of reference, they cannot compare with the charming illustrated books on costume issued almost throughout the history of publishing. One of my particular favourites, and now of course so very hard to find, is one of Frederic Schoberl's series on the 'World in Miniature', published in the early nineteenth century. My personal copy of "Illyria and Dalmatia" (1821) is a charming two volume book in 16mo and in a later but very sympathetic half-calf binding with gilt decorated raised bands to the spine. The book comprises 32 hand-coloured engravings and short (rather subjectively viewed) texts on the various inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsular in their traditional outfits.

Romanian (or Rumanian or Roumanian) folk costume and craft was popular amongst the Bohemian set in 1920 and '30s London and the rather scandalous, Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, forged many links between the two countries. Books on Romanian costume, Romanian craft and Romanian folk lore published at the time are not uncommon with Studio's 1929 Peasant Art in Roumania being a good early example. The Romanians themselves also published books on folk art for the foreign market both before and after World War Two. Banateanu et al's lavish work: 'Folk Costumes, Woven Textiles and Embroideries of Rumania' (1958) is a typical example and an excellent source of reference.

Despite the plethora of publications on the area since Victorian times, good libraries on the Balkans are scarce and some years ago, I was tempted to the West Highlands to view the books of a family who had had close connections, both personal and diplomatic, with Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. The owner of the books, one of those 'redoubtable' English ladies was now old and unable to live alone in her Highland home. The house was being sold. The books themselves were interesting, albeit somewhat damp but there were few of value. It was just as I was taking my leave that the daughter of the family, threw open the lid of a large chest and exclaimed: "What shall I do with these?" It was a huge chest and brimful with traditional Yugoslav costume and other textiles. What an offer. I bought the lot. Refusing the offer of the chest itself, I drove the five hundred miles home barely able to see out of the back for coloured and patterned materials. I showed them off to all my friends; the embroiderers and weavers amongst them exclaiming at the detail and marvelling at the antique items: tiny and encrusted with gold thread. Another friend lent me an Edwardian tailor's dummy and a traditional Croatian dress became a symbol of my business and a tourist destination in Hay. But what to do? You can have too much of a good thing. My floors are already covered in Kilims, my walls have hangings galore and my sons won't wear the dresses. Some three years later having done little with this gorgeous collection - moving it occasionally from spare-room to attic and back, I feel it is time for Sybil Sturrock's textiles to leave my hands.

You can view Marijana's books on the Balkans here.

1 comment:

GeraniumCat said...

How wonderful - and irresistible!

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