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The charming world of Leporellos

Leporello, what’s a leporello? You’ve seen them, they are delightful books that unfold like an accordion. They go by various names, such as a concertina or accordion book. They have been cherished throughout history by various cultures for centuries. They have the power to transcend cultural and language barriers by conveying stories, knowledge, and history.

Shalihotra Samhita, India,19th century. Concertina folding manuscript

A calendar made in Denmark,1513. In its folded state the object is the size of a matchbox.

Edward Fitzwilliam as Leporello, NPG D38568

The term “leporello” originates from the Italian language and is used across Europe to describe the concertina book. Its origin can be traced to Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” (1788) where Leporello was the name of Giovanni’s servant. In a particularly comic scene, Leporello explains to one of Giovanni’s jilted lovers that he isn’t worth her time by revealing a list of over 2,000 conquests; “Madamina, il catalogo è questo!” – “Little lady, this is the catalogue!” he exclaims, as the booklet unfolds and keeps unravelling until it gathers in a huge pile on the ground. During the Victorian era, leporellos were popular as travel souvenirs, depicting panoramic scenes of visited places. Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, artists have embraced the book form as an art practice in its own right. Collections of leporellos can be found at The National Art Library at the V&A and in the British Museum.

Henri Matisse, 'Jazz', 1947

Etel Adnan, 'Beit Eddin' 2003, Leporello, Chinese ink on paper, 9 cm x 174 cm

'Rise and Fall', 23.4 × 14.1 cm, Micah Lidberg, Nobrow Publishing, 2023

Icinori, 18 cm x 56 cm, letterpress. I found this edition at the East London Comics and Art Festival, 2017

Nobrow publishing pushes the boundaries of print with their series of educational and beautiful illustrated leporellos. Icinori, a two-person publishing house of designers and visual artists with a passion for drawing and print also push the boundaries of the traditional book.

Like artists before me, I have been captivated by this format for years. It offers an escape from the confines of the rectangular page. Etel Adnan, the Lebanese-American poet artist aptly describes it as; ‘writing a river’. To me, it feels like drawing in one continuous flow, connecting and layering marks and drawings, which ultimately reveal a narrative. While some drawings sit centrally on the page, others drawings sit in the crease of the accordion fold, evoking a scroll-like continuity of visual language. As a portable object it demands slow handling, which feels like a radical act in today's digital age.

In 2019 I crossed paths with Merav Soloman, an Israeli book artist and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. She challenged the conventional notion of books by creating pieces that are disassembled and intentionally incomplete. Her work questions the connection between illustration and text, giving rise to what she terms "visual poetics." This innovative approach is vividly illustrated through her captivating series of etchings inspired by the lost city of 'Pompeii' - see below.

This idea of visual poetics struck a chord with me - a fragmented narrative conveyed through images and text. My artwork “She sheds her skin” embodies this concept. The genesis of this work can be traced to the poem by Sylvia Lindsteadt, interwoven and layered with personal memories and the observed world around me. I worked intuitively, guided by the physicality of my materials, and the expressive marks they make and traces they leave behind. The work combines collage, blended soft pastels, charcoal and the use of a rubber to create luminous and blurred images which give a dream-like quality. As the panels unfold, they reveal not only the interconnectedness of the various elements within the artwork but also the interconnectedness of our own stories, both real and imagined. It’s an an invitation, to you, the viewer to reflect upon your individual memories and lived experiences.

'She sheds her skin', 15 cm x 83.5cm collage, pastel and charcoal on paper; cover, pencil on grey card

This resonance became apparent when "She sheds her skin" deeply connected with someone's personal journey. A person with psoriasis, a skin condition that literally causes them to shed their skin, reached out to me, sharing their experience.

Through the leporello format, I make fragmented visual poems. If you're a collector of books and paper ephemera, I dare you not to fall under the spell of the leporello.

Check out my 'Saltimbanque' leporello series in my shop


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