The Wordless Art of George A. Walker

A wood block of Mary Pickford sits on George Walker’s press, ready for printing

It’s been a long time since I posted. In part, I’ve just been busily working on my new book, but to be honest I’ve also been a bit dejected — I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the mystery baby I was researching late last year, though I still haven’t given up that more information will surface. I often wonder what makes me so obsessed with the past, and finding clues to old mysteries that, for many people, just don’t matter anymore. But I’m overjoyed when I find kindred spirits (like my sister and co-author, and so many of the readers here) who share the same curiosity. I also love to learn about other approaches to investigating the past, and over the last many months I’ve had a close-up view, since my husband Jeff Winch has just finished his documentary Woodwriter: The Wordless Art of George A. Walker. It’s about a book artist and wood engraver who makes “wordless biographies” about such fascinating subjects as Tom Thomson, Pierre Trudeau, and Leonard Cohen. His latest chronicles the life of silent screen star Mary Pickford.

Some of George’s Mary Pickford blocks

I think Jeff and I both fell a little bit in love with Mary via George, and she makes numerous appearances in Woodwriter, lighting up the screen each time with her funny facial expressions and her ability to say so much without talking. I guess that’s why she’s such a perfect subject for George’s books — a muse, in a way. Being behind the scenes during the making of Woodwriter has been like being in a little chain of creators inspired by creators: me watching Jeff film George make a book about Mary making films!

Jeff, left, and George on set in George’s studio

But the film is about more than Mary Pickford and George’s other subjects. In my mind, it’s really a film about creativity. It follows George through his process, starting with a blank wood block and ending with a gorgeous hand-made book. Throughout the film we see his craft close up: the old-fashioned tools he uses for engraving, and the hand-fed, Vandercook Press that dominates his charming back-yard studio. But we also hear George’s thoughts about his work — what moves him, why he chooses certain subjects, what he loves about the black-and-white form and about books and art and history. Living with the filmmaker, I had the added luxury of watching Jeff’s process as he captured George’s work, using “rotoscoping” to make footage of George look like his engravings; and through tricks of technology, sending George back in time to be a character in Mary Pickford’s films.

George engraving: a rotoscoping still from Woodwriter

Though my own process is so different from Jeff’s and George’s, for me the film underscores the beauty of creating, and the power of reaching back in time to tell stories. As Jeff says in his description of the film, “the past and present never stop talking to each other – even if it’s without words.”

I’ll post again whenever there are screenings for the film. For now, you can visit the Woodwriter site and watch the trailer below:

A 1950s winter: new Canadians

Here in Toronto, we’ve gone into lockdown again, and may or may not emerge before Christmas. The news of so many small businesses being hit hard is worrisome, to say the least. But it’s a necessary thing that we stay home to slow the spread of this awful virus.

If you’re thinking of giving books for Christmas, many small independent bookstores have done an amazing job getting set up for online sales or curbside pick-up. We hope you’ll support them, and think of our books too, for those lovers of history and family history who might be on your list.

In keeping the snowfall we received yesterday, here is a little gallery of wintry family photos featuring “characters” from our first book, The Occupied Garden. These images show our dad’s family in 1951, the year they first came to Canada from the Netherlands to start again after the Second World War. To me they capture the excitement the children felt about their new world — well, the boys, anyway — and how different it all was for them compared to where they’d come from. I wish the pictures were in colour, for Opa looks particularly stylish, and Oma’s “swing coat” was apparently bright green, sewn by a family friend. I think now how brave they were to have left everything they knew, and all of their family and friends. Their first stay with a cruel dairy farmer near Aylmer, Ontario, was disastrous, but they got themselves out of that horrible situation and persevered — something they’d become quite good at during war, and for which my sisters and I will always be grateful.

Gerrit and Cornelia den Hartog on board the Volendam in March 1951.
With the children on the Volendam. From left, Rokus, Gerry, Niek, our dad Koos, and in back, Rige. March 1951.
Our dad, Koos, our grandparents, Gerrit and Cornelia, then dad’s brothers Gerry, Niek and Rokus. A dapper lot! Port Burwell, Ontario, 1951.
Niek chopping wood. Port Burwell, 1951.
Gathering at the water pump. Niek in fine form with a rifle, and our dad Koos, foreground, wearing an adolescent oh-brother expression? Port Burwell, 1951.
More woodcutting, Port Burwell, 1951.
Niek with a pig, and his mother Cornelia in the background. New territory for a gardener’s family.
Waiting for letters from home? Rokus, Rige, mother Cornelia, our dad Koos, Niek, and Gerry with a grin and a snowball. Port Burwell, 1951.
Wintry day, Port Burwell, 1951.
A similar scene in the Netherlands. One of my favourite photos by my dad, Jim “Koos” den Hartog.

Zoom presentation: Wellington Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society

Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Via Zoom, Kristen will be delivering the presentation Digging Up Stories for the Wellington County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. Start time 7 p.m. From the branch’s website:

“Join us as Kristen den Hartog explores the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author Tracy Kasaboski used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. The book begins in the slums of Victorian London and follows the authors’ family for nearly a century, ending in London, Ontario, in the 1930s. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors ‘wandering insane,’ charged with crimes, dying in workhouses, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and talk about how personal resources were useful for building both The Cowkeeper’s Wish and the sisters’ first collaboration, The Occupied Garden, which chronicles the lives of their father’s family in the Netherlands in WW2.”

The meeting is open to the public but guests will need to register ahead of time. Please see the link above for more details.

South Africa, Australia, and The Cowkeeper’s Wish

Zebras … about whom more later!

It’s been quite some time since we’ve posted. Tracy and I were lucky enough to travel extensively in South Africa this summer, and since then we’ve been back at home and busy moving new projects along. But we have not forgotten the blog, and will return with some fascinating stories in a very short time.

In the meanwhile, I wanted to share a nice little mention of The Cowkeeper’s Wish that appeared earlier this month on the Queensland Genealogical Society’s blog. How lovely to think that our family story is traveling the world. It just shows how widely family history can resonate, and how it can be social history as well.

The book was mentioned as one of the blogger’s current top five go-to books for genealogy. “A compelling tale. … The book was written by two sisters who delved into their family’s past with little more than a collection of yellowed photographs and a basic family tree – much like what the rest of us have when we begin our genealogical journey. The book is exceptionally well referenced … a very good read.”

Those interested in the subject might like a peek at the other four picks as well: visit “What’s in my genealogy library.”

See you here again very soon!


Book Review: The Cowkeeper’s Wish

Princes, Paupers, Pilgrims & Pioneers

What would you give up and how far would you go to make a better life for yourself? Would you pack up what little you had and leave your loved ones and your rural homeland to seek your fortune in the big city? Would you walk 250 miles over mountains and moors while driving a herd of cattle to forge a new destiny? Just what would you do?

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Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto branch

I’m happy to be visiting the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society next week, and speaking about some of the resources we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Here’s a description of the event from the group’s website. The event is free and open to the public. I hope you’ll join us!
May 27, 2019 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Lansing United Church
Beecroft Rd & Poyntz Ave
Toronto, ON M2N 1K4
Free. Visitors welcome.
The Cowkeeper's Wish @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada

Speaker: Kristen den Hartog
Our speaker will be exploring the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. Part family memoir, part social history, the book follows the authors’ working-class family from the slums of Victorian London to 1930s Canada. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors “wandering insane,” charged with crimes, dying in workhouses and asylums, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and the thrill of weaving intimate family lore with the bigger events of history.

Kristen den Hartog is the author of four novels, including And Me Among Them, shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and The Perpetual Ending, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She and her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, have collaborated on two family memoirs: The Occupied Garden, about their father’s family in WW2 Holland, and most recently The Cowkeeper’s Wish. They blog about eclectic offshoots from their genealogical journey at https://thecowkeeperswish.com/. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

NOTEThe Toronto Branch Annual General Meeting will precede this presentation.

The scented valentines of perfumer Eugene Rimmel

Valentine’s Day was a big deal in Victorian London, so much so that newspapers often reported on how many tens of thousands of cards were sent out on the backs of busy postmen. Leading up to the day, there were notices urging people to send their missives early, so that the system would not be overloaded. Perfumer Eugene Rimmel made smart use of the occasion, expanding his business to include the manufacture of Valentine’s cards that were scented with his perfume. Here’s a little find from an 1870 issue of Penny Illustrated.

One of the sights of London on St. Valentine’s Eve is the exterior of any of M. Rimmel’s establishments. The valentines of this famous perfumer growing in popularity every year, the middle of February attracts more and more disciples of the lovers’ saint to 96, Strand. Every variety of swain and sweetheart hie thither, and form a study as interesting as the beauteous and delicate works of art which they gaze at, as if perplexed as to which to choose. M. Rimmel’s valentines are this year even more charming than ever. He has been fortunate enough to hit upon an artist who paints a fair face with a magic touch, and is alike happy in delineating blonde and brunette. As graceful in design as the valentines in which these irresistible beauties appear are some choice specimens adorned by real birds, rich in plumage, and stuffed with such skill that they would make handsome ornaments for any mantelpiece. The floral lovemissives, scented sachets, and girl-of-the-period valentines also merit a word of praise. They are worthy of that arch match-maker M. Rimmel, whose name will be in good odour, we trust, with many happy couples this season.

Penny Illustrated Paper, February 12, 1870

rimmel valentine
An 1880 valentine by artist Jules Chéret, produced by Eugene Rimmel. Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

Sources and further reading

Victorian Valentines by Sarah Beattie. V & A Blog.

“Rimmel’s Valentines.” Penny Illustrated Paper, 12 February, 1870.

Rimmel’s Scented World.” John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Libraries.

Christmas in 1905: Stimulating the Economy Edwardian-style

christmas card 1900s
An early 1900s Christmas card courtesy Museum of Childhood

Christmas stimulates all industries, but there are some trades which practically live on the greatest of our yearly festivals. For instance, there is the manufacture of Christmas candles, which are used in countless myriads in the Roman Catholic and Greek Churches all over the world, and at which skilled artists work all the year round. These candles are of all sorts and sizes, but the speciality of the trade is the Paschal candle, which is some six feet high and three inches and a half in diameter, weighs nearly fifty pounds, and is invariably made of the purest beeswax. These great altar-shafts are elaborately decorated with broad bands and designs of blue, gold, bronze, and red, all painted by hand, so that it is no wonder that they are costly. Nine to twelve pounds per pair is quite a usual price. There are also the special small candles of all colours, made for the decoration of Christmas trees and known as “tree-tapers.”

The Christmas plum pudding occupies the energies of housewives for several weeks before Christmas. It also keeps busy large special departments of various biscuit and cake manufacturing firms for a large portion of the year; for we export plum puddings by the hundred tons to all parts the world. …

No one actually grows holly or mistletoe for sale, though plenty make a yearly harvest by cutting it and sending it to market. There are, however, several plantations in Yorkshire especially devoted to the growing of Christmas trees, and men are at work on them all the year round to make the trees perfectly symmetrical. The best of these trees are worth as much as £3 apiece.

Near London is a palm “forcer” who has nearly a hundred glass houses devoted to the growing of palms of different kinds, and his market is in the main a Christmas one. Palms are becoming more and more popular for Christmas decorations. Their prices, wholesale, run from a shilling to a guinea apiece.

Toys for Christmas and Christmas cards keep thousands employed from one December to the next, while a brand new business has recently sprung up in the manufacture of artful advertisements masquerading under the guise of Christmas cards.

The proportions of the Christmas cracker industry may be gathered from the fact that between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 are manufactured each [year] for home use.

There is an ever-increasing number of people who make their living at window decorating, and for these the great harvest of the year comes at Christmastide when every window vies with every other in attracting customers. The butcher’s artist is, perhaps, the most important of the lot. His work is not only to hang up the fat beasts so as to make the best show, but to decorate them with designs cut in fat. So much as a pound or thirty shillings is paid for a portrait of the King and Queen done in this way, and there is a man in Smithfield who will guarantee to copy any picture which the butcher likes for a specified sum.

Penny Illustrated, 23 December, 1905

Woman in White

A young signalman on the Southern Railway, at Cane Hill Box, Coulsdon, had the fright of his life yesterday at daybreak. Looking out of one of the windows of his cabin, Ernest Fills saw a ghostly apparition approaching, says the London “Daily Chronicle” correspondent. It proved to be an old lady in her night attire, with her hair in disarray all over her face. There was a fixed stare in her eyes; she was clasping her hands over her breast and screaming. Evidently she had been attracted to the signal-box by the light. Fills opened the door and asked her in, but she did not answer. He touched her on the shoulder, and she turned round and cried, “Don’t touch me! Don’t send me back; don’t send me back! I want to find my children.” The signalman was alarmed, for the woman was shivering violently, but he persuaded the wanderer to enter the signal-box, and went to fetch an asylum attendant who lived near. When he returned the woman had gone. A quarter of an hour later she was found on the side of the railway, at Ashdown Park Hotel, still shrieking, “Don’t send back; don’t send me back.” It was found that the woman was a dangerous mental patient, who had escaped from Cane Hill Asylum. She was returned there.

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, Thursday, 26 April 1923.

Chapter 3 - Mary Anne Evans, circa 1893, around the time of her engagement to Harry Deverill
Our great grandmother, Mary Anne Deverill, was a patient at Cane Hill Asylum not long before this article was written. This photograph shows her in happier times, in the 1890s, about to be married.