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London Now: Exploring the Connection Between Art and Literature

Christie’s is celebrating the great city of London and exploring the connection between literature and art this summer with an exhibition and a philanthropic auction in support of English PEN, which champions the freedom to read and write around the world

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s much-repeated quote from the 18th century, “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” remains pertinent as Christie’s celebrates the city and art inspired by literature this summer.

London has been the setting and inspiration for celebrated works of literature, drama, and art, and home to artists and writers from around the world, for hundreds of years. The Art of Literature: Loan and Selling Exhibition, which runs until 14 July, explores the relationship between art and literature. From depictions of scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid by the Old Masters to the collaboration between Peter Doig and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, the connection between the visual and literary arts has created some extraordinary texts and objects.

Aesop's Fables open to show text and images
Julien Macho’s French translation of Aesop’s Fables features 66 miniatures by an artist associated with the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse, whose work is attributed on the basis of style. Source: Christie’s Images 2022

“We have united a fascinating selection embodying some of these connections,” says Christie’s co-curator, Victoria Gramm, specialist, Post-War and Contemporary Art.

Highlights on display include a unique illustrated manuscript of Aesop’s Fables (see above), written in French and dating from around 1495, which beautifully combines text and painting. It is the only known illustrated copy of Julien Macho’s popular French translation. Also of note is John William Waterhouse’s Tristan and Isolde, often described as “the last Pre-Raphaelite,” which was painted at the height of the First World War and features undertones of romantic nationalism.

An ink drawing of a bird in a cage by Lucian Freud
French poet Larronde died aged 38, and was posthumously awarded France’s first Prix de Littérature in 1965. This ink drawing by Lucian Freud was supposed to feature in Larronde’s "The Bird in the Gilded Cage", which was never published. Source: Christie’s Images 2022

The exhibition also reunites seven works by Lucian Freud, which date from 1946 during his association with French poet Olivier Larronde. Following the end of the Second World War, Freud spent the summer in Paris where he embraced the artistic and literary scene. He painted The Birds of Olivier Larronde, inspired by the poet’s two parrots, plus five preparatory sketches, and the ink drawing pictured above.

First Editions, Second Thoughts: An Auction in Support of English PEN

There’s also the chance to secure one of more than 80 modern first editions by great writers and artists of our time, each featuring unique annotations or illustrations. The online sale is supporting English PEN, one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations, which champions the freedom to read and write around the world.

The auction—First Editions, Second Thoughts: An Auction in Support of English PEN—includes annotated first editions by Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes, Monica Ali, Bernardine Evaristo, and Ian McEwan, and books with extra illustrations by Quentin Blake, Mark Haddon, and Max Porter. There are also artworks by Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, and Anish Kapoor on offer.

Monica Ali's Brick Lane open and annotated by the author
Author Monica Ali uses her commentary to highlight what pleases, shocks, or surprises her about her own language choices as she revisits Brick Lane for the first time in many years. Source: Christie's Images 2022

“The authors’ annotations are personal, profound, insightful, and frequently surprising, adding a unique layer of intimacy to some of the most celebrated texts published in our lifetime. To read them is to feel incredibly close to the process of creation,” says Mark Wiltshire, specialist, books and manuscripts, and head of sale.

From Brick Lane to The BFG

Highlights include a first edition of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, which is signed on the title page and extensively annotated by the author as she describes her reaction to her first rereading of the novel in more than 16 years. Other comments discuss her inspiration, responses to the film adaptation, and the issues of racial and gender inequality faced by her characters.

There’s also a first edition of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, published in 1982, which tells the tale of a friendly dream-catching giant and orphan Sophie (named after his first grandchild, to whom the book is dedicated).

In the edition offered for auction, renowned illustrator Quentin Blake enables Sophie and the BFG to roam the pages in pen and ink and felt tip. The additional illustrations are found across 18 pages, including both sets of endpapers, and on the front cover. A six-word inscription by Blake dates the illustrations to February 2020.

Open copy of Girl, Woman, Other by Booker Prize winning Bernadine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo won the Man Booker Prize for her 2019 novel Girl, Woman, Other. In this first edition, she offers insightful commentary on her influences and the success this book brought her. Source: Christie’s Images 2022

Meanwhile, Al Weiwei’s 1000 Year of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir is a first-edition book as artwork. The author has signed the title page and burnt and shaped the book into a profile of French painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp, a source of inspiration and fascination for Weiwei. The work is being sold with a USB flash drive containing a video of the book in the artist’s studio.

There’s also Tracey Emin’s 2005 autobiography Strangeland, signed and dated with the words “And there was Death For Us All, Tracey Emin 2022” and Antony Gormley’s illustrated history of sculpture, which is signed, titled, inscribed, and dated “For Pen Stand up for Ukraine II A Gormley 2022.”

All lots are on display at Christie’s in London from 8—12 July, and online bidding is open until 12 July. Estimates range from £1,000 ($1,210) to £20,000 ($24,202), with bidding on most lots starting from £100 ($121).

Banner image: London’s skyline. Credit: Getty Images