Here on the Island we have a unique quirk: a vibrant market in Isle of Wight books. Having moved here recently myself, I can see one starts to be a little obsessed, to seek out guide books, oddities or even simple references to the Island. One Isle of Wight collector and friend to the shop makes me laugh by saying it appeals to his acquisitive nature to work his way through a definitive list and to seek out the rarest, tastiest morsels.
The new collector might start, not with a rare morsel, but with The King Penguin book of c. 1950, ‘The Isle of Wight’ written and illustrated by Barbara Jones. It is still widely available, still affordable and there are many illustration from it on our website. Its oddity lies in Jones’ own fascination with the everyday ‘folk’ arts of the Island, where she sought out decoration in unexpected places, be it a huge topiary boat clipped from yew on an Island roadside, or the tiny details of a cross stitch cushion on a chair at Osborne House. She points out in the text that this was Queen Victoria's own work and always 'at her back' and describes the original vivid Irish green upholstery of the Stag Room as 'terrifying'. I am sure it was beyond terrifying when coupled with the original white carpet with emerald foliage and crimson, orange and turquoise flowers.
Seeking out oddities in illustrations of the Island, I also enjoy the one shown here of Tennyson’s home Farringford, taken from an 1870’s tourist guide by Nelson and Son. It is an idealised view of the house, but surprisingly one in which the gardener has not been removed from the picture. He has opened the greenhouse door and windows against the heat of the day and dressed in a deep hat and long russet-brown apron, continues to rake the open ground. His tools, scythe, basket and barrow are put to one side and there is that other Victorian touch, the marooned yucca plant in the middle of the lawn. This guide book opens with a (mis)-quote from Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’, ‘A Summer Isle of Eden lying in a purple belt of sea’ appropriated by the publishers to describe the Island, but actually written about the British Isles. It is easy to imagine Tennyson composing the lines whilst striding across the Downs though, the Solent before him, having belted out of the house from his roof top look-out to avoid yet another unwelcome visitor to his home.
Becoming attuned to surprise references to the Island, I have been finishing Matthew Kneale’s Whitbread Prize winning ‘English Passengers’ and was excited to find the final chapter entitled ‘The Wonders of the Isle of Wight (excerpt)’. Sadly, this is not taken from an original account and in short, after a ship wreck, Kneale maroons one of his protagonists here, an unhinged Pastor driven to insanity by his exploratory voyage to Tasmania to find the true Garden of Eden. Perhaps the aggravating Pastor might have found his Eden nearer home had he looked, rather as Tennyson did on the Isle of Wight, if only until driven out by the curious tourist.