The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Emblem of My Work: Artists Reimagine Laurence Sterne’s Iconic Marbled Page

On the last page of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, I offered a short note on our endpaper choice — a special treat for lovers of literature, hidden in plain sight. This is what I wrote:


“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail. 

A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book. 

In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.

Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.

The original marbled page in Tristram Shandy

This famed marbled page has inspired a great many homages in the quarter millennium since its creation, but none lovelier than Emblem of My Work — a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s visionary masterpiece, presenting 170 artists with the opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret the iconic page 169. Each was sent a blank template of the page and invited to create within its bounds the emblem of his or her own work. The resulting artwork — spanning pen and ink, oil, watercolor, collage, photography, data art, and more, imaginative and unpredictable like the art of marbling itself — stands as a testament to the power of creative constraint, embodying Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

The project was exhibited in 2011 and the pieces were sold in an auction benefiting the Laurence Stern Trust. A list of the participating artists — among them John Baldessari, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, and Tom Gauld — was provided, but the creator of each piece was not identified, instead inviting visitors to speculate on authorship. Some, though not all, artists offered a few words about the concept and materials of their interpretation.

These are some of the pieces:

Emblem 3
Emblem 4
Emblem 5
Emblem 6. Artist’s description and materials: “Tristram’s father decreed that the boy would receive an especially auspicious name, Trismegistus, after the esoteric mystic Hermes Trismegistus. This image is an invented alchemical monogram representing the name of Trismegistus. Silkscreen and black ink on paper.”
Emblem 9
Emblem 14
Emblem 19
Emblem 20
Emblem 27
Emblem 29. Artist’s description and materials: “Fragment from an old poem circa 1969, used as a memory of the recovery of an Olympia Splendid 66 portable typewriter, originally designed by Max Bill in 1939, and once bought in Nottingham in 1966 with Elite pitch and its keys altered for accents. Lost in a Paris street market in 1987, and another found at Ludgate Typewriters in London in 1994 with Pica pitch, its fraction keys also altered identically for accents.”
Emblem 36
Emblem 40
Emblem 41. Artist’s description and materials: “While still only a ‘homunculus’ Tristram’s implantation within his mother’s womb was disturbed. At the very moment of procreation, his mother asked his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock. My print thus illustrates the key used to wind said clock. C.M.Y.K colour separation screen print.”
Emblem 47. Artist’s description and materials: “I have been making a series of drawings and prints of the development of the London Olympic site which is only a few minutes’ walk away from my studio. This unfinished print of which you see a fragment was worked over many months, its many layers combining to create the sense of flux that is a cornerstone of my work’s identity.”
Emblem 48
Emblem 58
Emblem 59
Emblem 64
Emblem 65. Artist’s description and materials: “One thousand, one hundred and ninety-six 0805 surface-mounted resistors and very small bits of wire.”
Emblem 69
Emblem 80
Emblem 85
Emblem 89: Artist’s description and materials: “Image-making of all kinds is often a result of some kind of pigment in suspension: the marbled page was created by a pattern of resistance by colours while suspended on a meniscus of water. My work is primarily about the push and pull of tides and I have used watercolours and pigmented inks to create these opposing flows. In my alternative life as a fish I variously resist or exploit these currents: hence the fish appearing in white gouache.”
Emblem 91
Emblem 93
Emblem 100
Emblem 102
Emblem 106
Emblem 113. Artist’s description and materials: “Pencil, acrylic, 2 dreams.”
Emblem 117. Artist’s description and materials: “I have used a ‘wet on wet’ process, with intense liquid watercolour on 638 gsm Saunders Waterford. The ink travels in a way that is controlled but random, wandering, meandering, diverting, returning — following but not following the direction of travel. For me, the marble page is already a journey, unpredictable, open and fluid.”
Emblem 125
Emblem 126
Emblem 133. Artist’s description and materials: “‘Asterisk,’ created for ‘The Emblem of My Work,’ uses antiquated dry-transfer lettering applied one at a time to create a melancholy emblem of the passing of time. Once ubiquitous in business and graphic design, dry-transfer lettering is now a cultural artefact denigrated to artistic production. Using only full-stops, dashes and asterisks, ‘Asterisk’ celebrates the absence, the unstated, the censored and the long-forgotten. For art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the forgotten is ‘The Emblem of my Work.’”
Emblem 138. Artist’s description and materials: “This little picture is dedicated to the memory of Brian Robb, friend & mentor & creator of (in my view) the best set of illustrations to Tristram Shandy. Waverley nib; Indian ink; magic pencil; watercolour.”
Emblem 142
Emblem 143
Emblem 146
Emblem 149
Emblem 153
Emblem 155. Artist’s description and materials: “The period is the typographic representation of an end. It is neither an expression of humour nor of sentiment. It simply is what it is. The image was printed using a Vandercook letterpress machine. Letterpress allows typography to sing and so while the character has passed, the letterpressed period signifies a poetic reminder to the reader of his previous existence. Definitions were taken from The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, copyright 1993.”
Emblem 159
Emblem 160: Artist’s description and materials: “The emblem of my work is my ‘mini meadow.’ This picture has been created to look like a blooming meadow on a summer’s day. It has been marbled on a very small tray using Designers’ Gouache paint, floated onto a substance called Carrageen moss. Each meadow is one of a kind as every one is produced individually.”

Published February 19, 2019




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