Review: ‘¡OHO!’ by Rex Whistler, words by Laurence Whistler

This is one of the most unusual volumes of poetry, because the poems are far less engaging and memorable than the illustrations for which they were made. The witty and whimsical British artist, Rex Whistler, produced a series of drawings of people which, when turned upside down, show a different but related person; his brother Laurence produced poems to describe the relationships. The front and back covers are identical–except that there is no front and back; the book can be opened and read from either end. There are two poems facing each illustration, the lower one describing the face you see, the upper one appearing upside down… until you turn the book around and find it describes the other face.

The nurse and the patient; the old man and the young one; the panicked householder calling the Fire Department and the fireman delighted to have work; the glum Mayor of Standon Ceremony and the gleeful Madam the Mayor of Stanster Reason… as for the cover illustration, the young and old women, Laurence Whistler begins the former’s poem:

The sisters truly thought she looked like that,
Cinderella, with her brush and pan,
Slip-slopping down-at-heel around the flat,
Ash-coloured where she sat,
Deep in some fatuous daydream of a Man.

The reverse poem is the Fairy Godmother’s, beginning:

Be home by twelve!
The one condition
For beauty tremulous
With ambition.

The drawings were inspired by this illustration in the 1682 book ‘The Church of Rome Evidently Proved Heretick’ by Peter Berault:

The ‘¡OHO!’ illustrations were done in the 1930s; Rex Whistler was killed in the Second World War, and the book with Laurence’s poems came out in 1946. A subsequent edition, ‘AHA’, was published in 1978 to include seven more of the double portraits, four very engaging, two less so, while one is an unprepossessing Henry VIII with Anne of Cleves; though without verses for any of them. But the poetry is clearly incidental, anyway… here is the sour Patient and upbeat Nurse:

It’s a wonderful book. As the publishers wrote: “However you put this book down it will lie face up, which is to say face down. And upside down is how it can never be slipped into a bookshelf.”

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