Letters of Note is a collection of one hundred and twenty five of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the seismically popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people, compiled by Shaun Usher.
From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.
The book contains pictures of the mentioned letters (not always though) with a small explanation of the context and also a letter transcript when the handwriting is harder to decipher. Very absorbing and fun to shuffle through, here is a small sample of some of my favorites.
JACK THE RIPPER to GEORGE LUSK
On October 15th 1888, George Lusk, Chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee – a group of concerned citizens who actively searched for the person responsible for a spate of killings known as the “Whitechapel murders” – received this chilling letter from someone claiming to be infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. It was sent along with a small box, the contents of which was later determined to be half a human kidney, preserved in wine. Catherine Eddowes, Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim, was thought to be the organ’s previous owner; according to the note, the remainder of her kidney had been fried and eaten.
From hell Mr Lusk, Sor I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer Signed Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk
WILLIAM P. MACFARLAND to ANDY WARHOL
May 19th, 1964
As product marketing manager for Campbell’s, William McFarland must have been overjoyed with the incredible public reaction to Andy Warhol’s first exhibition as a fine artist in 1962. Present at Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery was Warhol’s now world-famous, unmistakable Campbell’s Soup Cans piece: 32 silk screened portraits, each representing a different variety of the company’s soup product, all arranged in a single line. These works helped bring the Pop art movement to the masses and provoked huge debate in all corners of the art world – all the while holding a certain soup brand in the limelight. In 1964, as Warhol’s star continued to rise, McFarland decided to show his appreciation to the artist by way of this letter, followed by some complimentary cans of soup.
VIRGINIA WOOLF to LEONARD WOOLF
By the age of just 22, influential novelist Virginia Woolf had already suffered two nervous breakdowns – brought on, it’s believed, by the deaths of her mother and half-sister in quick succession, and then her father some years later. Unfortunately, the struggle didn’t end there for Virginia and she fought off numerous bouts of depression throughout her lifetime, until the very end. One evening in March 1941, Virginia attempted to end her life by jumping into a river; however, she failed and simply returned home, sodden. Sadly, she persisted, and a few days later, on March 28th 1941, she tried again and this time succeeded in escaping a lifetime of mental illness. On the day of her death, unaware of her whereabouts, Virginia’s husband, Leonard, discovered this heartbreaking letter on their mantelpiece. Her body was found weeks later in the River Ouse, the pockets of her coat filled with heavy rocks.
Tuesday. Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
ROALD DAHL to AMY CORCORAN
February 10th, 1989
One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1989, with encouragement and much-needed help from her father, a seven-year-old girl named Amy decided to write to Roald Dahl, one of history’s most successful children’s authors and, most importantly for Amy, the person responsible for writing her favourite book, The BFG – the wonderful, magical story of a Big Friendly Giant who collects nice dreams and then blows them through the windows of sleeping children. With that in mind, and using a combination of oil, coloured water and glitter, young Amy sent to Dahl, along with a letter, a very fitting and precious gift: one of her dreams, contained in a bottle.
Judging by his response, the sentiment wasn’t lost on Dahl.
OSCAR WILDE to BERNULF CLEGG
In 1891, shortly after reading the great Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a puzzled young man named Bernulf Clegg wrote to its author and politely asked him to explain the assertion that ‘All art is quite useless”, as printed in the novel’s preface. To his surprise, Wilde soon replied with exactly that.
My dear Sir Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression. A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one. Truly yours, Oscar Wilde
All photographs and texts come from Letters of Note, Correspondence deserving of a wider audience, compiled by Shaun Usher, Canongate Books Ltd, 2013