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For the Library: Stephen Ellcock’s marvellous miscellany welcomes wonder into a fragmented world

A Wunderkammer of images strange and beautiful, The Book of Change, by Instagram magpie Stephen Ellcock, is a jewel-like treatise on the power of pictures and objects to inspire hope and healing

Words
Cici Peng
For the Library: Stephen Ellcock’s marvellous miscellany welcomes wonder into a fragmented world

An image scavenger and art curator for the digital age, Stephen Ellcock unearths a cabinet of wonders on his Instagram page, which is overflowing with visual art from across the globe, spanning all periods. Some are strange, wondrous, obscure; all are beautiful, unveiling the shared creative potential that transcends any specific location or time. Newly released by September Publishing, The Book of Change looks to the past to construct a shared present and imagine a shared future. Arising from Ellcock’s own sense of alienation and dislocation, this compilation of images asks readers to reimagine existence through a sense of collective recognition; of ourselves, of others, of every single organism. By placing works by Medieval artists next to those of contemporary illustrators, for instance, he weaves strands of reference together to create a tapestry that acknowledges our shared ­reality – and our shared potential.

The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek αἰσθητικός, meaning ‘to feel’. Flicking through Ellcock’s assemblage of 240 reproductions of art, photography and objects, we see his deep feeling for the world. This is Ellcock’s paean to the aesthetic. His bricolage approach, combining past and present, rouses feelings of wonder, curiosity and, ultimately, love. Quoting Iris Murdoch, one chapter opens with the words: “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” By combining these images, Ellcock exposes the varying realities of others. In turn, our aesthetic response connects us to them.

Ellcock’s collection is a cartography of human existence, tracing the topography of the expansive natural world through the dark lanes of our metaphorical fall (from heaven? From grace?), and finally to the road to redemption. In his chapter ‘Source’, Ellcock looks to the creation of the planet, opening with Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. The second section, ‘Fall’, perfectly captures our postlapsarian reality – cast out of paradise into the temptations of the wicked world.

Moving and tender, ‘Connections’ reveals the ways in which human beings have responded to the world, to its beauty and ugliness. With images ranging from a 16th-century Ethiopian terracotta coloured painting of the Virgin and Child to a depiction of the spiritual kachina dolls (protective spirits in Native American Pueblo culture), Ellcock explores the various ways in which humans use rituals to connect with the world. Meanwhile, other chapters look to our darker cultural underbelly ­– including mankind’s attempts to control the world. Here, one finds Kara Walker’s powerful depiction of a slave ship and Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, painted 700 years prior. It seems that despite the intervening years, the unchanged expression of corruption continues to haunt us.

Later, Ellcock compiles images filled with light, which seep through the swathes of darkness created by loss and lies. Illumination brings clarity ­­– and a sense of responsibility. Here we find images of justice: an etching by Dürer showing the allegorical figure atop a lion; Black Panther buttons imprinted with raised fists; a suffragette lithograph depicting a woman with arms raised towards the sky, her fingers as branches abloom with golden fruits.

Finally, we arrive at ‘Hope’. In fact, the whole collection is testament to the radical power of that emotion. By repurposing and reimagining fragments of the past fused with those of the present, Ellcock shows us the world anew. Between the distance of time and place, unspoiled aesthetic possibilities emerge, clearing a shared path that we can walk together.

Further reading

The Book of Change, by Stephen Ellcock, is published by September Publishing

Stephen Ellcock on Instagram

Image credits, from top: Kings of the East, West, South, North (from Clavis Inferni sive Magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona), 18th century, ML Cyprianus. Wellcome Collection; The Jari Family, 2020, Hao Zeng. © Hao Zeng; The Mothers, 1921-22, Käthe Kollwitz. Artokoloro, Alamy Stock Photo; Der Schützengraben (The Trench), c1917, Otto Dix. Allegory of Charity, c1655, Francisco de Zurbarán. Asar Studios, Alamy Stock Photo; I am in training don’t kiss me, 1927, Claude Cahun, pseudonym of Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob. Album, Alamy Stock Photo; Artepics, Alamy Stock Photo; Woman Suffrage… Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates, no date, Evelyn Rumsey Cary. Schlesinger Library, Harvard

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