The novelist Evelyn Waugh was an inveterate collector. His interest was Victorian arcana — bric-a-brac unfashionable in his time, even gauche, and cheaply acquired. He had a soft spot for histrionic decorative objects, and furniture much larger than function demanded. By his own account, Waugh’s taste referenced the musty, redolent home of his three maiden aunts, a house that hadn’t been altered since 1870, which had entranced Waugh as a young child. Brownish oil paintings; mounted butterflies; glass cabinets of fossils; a taxidermized monkey on the bathroom shelf. “It all belonged to another age, which I instinctively, even then, recognized as superior to my own.”
In middle-age, Waugh turned his collector’s eye toward books, telling Life magazine in 1946 that he was now “collect[ing] old books in an inexpensive, desultory way”. Indeed, he amassed some 3500 volumes, all of which were transferred after his death to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Despite the size of Waugh’s library, the archive had no trouble designating its “single most curious object”. That distinction belonged without question to the Victorian Blood Book.
The Blood Book is handmade, folio-sized, with a handsome marbled endpaper and forty-three pages of exquisitely crafted decoupage. John Bingley Garland, the manuscript’s creator, used collage techniques, excising illustrations from other books to assemble elegant, balanced compositions. Most of the source material is Romantic engravings by William Blake and his ilk, but there are also brilliantly colored flowers and fruits. Snakes are a favorite motif, butterflies another. A small bird is centered on every page. The space between the images is filled with tiny hand-written script that reads like a staccato sermon. “One! yet has larger bounties! to bestow! Joys! Powers! untasted! In a World like this, Powers!” etc.
The book’s reputation, however, rests on a decorative detail that overwhelms: To each page, Garland added languid, crimson drops in red India ink, hanging from the cut-out images like pendalogues from a chandelier. Blood drips from platters of grapes and tree boughs, statuaries and skeletons. Crosses seep, a cheetah drools, angels dangle bloody sashes. A bouquet of white chrysanthemums is spritzed.
To be clear, Garland’s blood is not that of surgery or crime or menses, but of religious iconography. He obviously intended the blood to represent Christ’s own. And yet the final work suggests that the properties of actual blood tugged the artist’s shirtsleeves, pulling him away from the symbol and towards its source. It’s as if God gave Garland permission to fetishize hemorrhage. The Blood Book isn’t the only evidence of this fixation. Garland also made several single-page collages, now dispersed in various museums. In these, the imagery is more densely layered and the compositions more clamorous than those in the Blood Book, but the trademark drips remain.
It’s not clear that Garland ever saw collages like the ones he decided to make. While Victorian scrapbooking could sometimes veer toward collage, the Blood Book is in a different category entirely, deploying techniques usually dated to Cubism in the early twentieth century. There is no evidence that Garland even considered himself an artist. Born in Poole, England, in 1791, he was a politician and merchant who joined the family fishmongering business. The fish came from Trinity, Newfoundland, such that Garland moved back and forth between Poole and Trinity, distinguishing himself in both places. He was Newfoundland’s first speaker of the house and a two-term mayor of Poole; with his brother, he spearheaded the building of a church in Trinity. He seems to have retired early, leaving public life around age forty-five, though he lived another four decades. The occasion of the Blood Book was the 1854 marriage of his daughter Amy, who treasured it as the pious craft of a loving father. Her heirs rejected the Blood Book nickname, preferring “Amy’s Gift”. (Garland’s own title—Durenstein!, a cryptic reference to the castle in which King Richard the Lionheart was ransomed during the Third Crusade — didn’t stick.)
It’s not surprising the Garland heirloom ended up in Waugh’s library. The Blood Book’s singularity would have spoken to any collector of mid-Victorian whatnots, and Waugh was moreover a devout Catholic. But it was perhaps the specific pitch of Garland’s creation that made the purchase inevitable, the breathless exuberance of so many exclamation points, and so much exclamatory blood. For a man famously cynical and perpetually bored, the Blood Book was the perfect novelty.