Monday, 8 June 2015

The Art of Describing Archives

How do you describe an item so those who cannot see it will want to visit the Hull History Centre to see the real thing?

I have recently been working on the illustrated notes of Victor Weisz (U DX165) the political cartoonist who worked under the name Vicky. My task has been to write a description for all 269 personal notes which he wrote to his fourth wife Ingelein “Inge” Lew (daughter of Mrs. Weltsch) c.1962- 1966.

These notes are very different to his usual political satires and provide deep, and sometimes touching, insights into the workings of Vicky’s mind and his feelings for Inge during the four years before his suicide on 22nd February 1966. He suffered from insomnia and depression and many of these cartoons portray his frustrations and how it affected his relationship with Inge. They also depict some of his happier moments such as his veneration of Inge, their days out together and his mischievous sense of humour which can have you laughing out loud.

Describing all 269 of them has been quite a journey, each one of them very different and containing handwritten text by Vicky, ranging from brief to cryptic.My natural approach with Vicky’s illustrations would be to put my art-history hat on and write a psychoanalytical analysis asking why he has caricaturised himself that particular way, or what the cartoon says about his relationship with Inge. However, this analytical approach is not necessary. The aim of the online catalogue is to make it easy for people to discover material they don't necessarily know that you have to allow people to decide whether looking at the originals would be relevant to them.

Detail from Vicky illustration (U DX165/7)
If we have a look at the detail on one of my favourite Vicky cartoons (U DX165/7) you can see that it is quite a complex illustration to describe.

The approach I have adopted has been to recognise both their literal and possible symbolic meaning. My first step was to objectively describe what he has drawn within the note, including objects, clothing, environment and colours (Vicky always colours the area around his mouth in blue).

I would then write a brief summary of any handwritten text, taking particular notice of key words or phrases that users may search for. I also check to see if there are any details on the reverse of the note. 

Using this method I described his illustration as following:                                               
Victor has drawn himself and Inge sat in the nude within what appears to be a colourful Garden of Eden scene. They are surrounded by butterflies and foliage, sat next to a palm tree and a house. Victor sits in discontent, his mouth area coloured in blue, whilst Inge engages happily with a butterfly. The whole scene is depicted within the base of a table lamp with a bright yellow shade. Victor writes to Inge thanking her for her last note and says how much this garden illustration depicts how he would like to spend his time with her. On the reverse, Victor writes "For Inge".
As none of these illustrated notes are titled I have created a false title for each based on a significant visual feature from the drawing, this one being “[Lamp Garden Scene]”.

Each of Vicky’s 269 illustrations to Inge are unique scenes and are full of hidden references, anthropomorphic caricatures and in-jokes making each one a fascinating challenge to describe. I’m hoping that my descriptions will be useful for those wanting to research Vicky, or simply to admire his artistry, as these illustrations are valuable windows into how Vicky perceived his personal life.

Hannah Rice
Transforming Archives Trainee

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