In 1952, Marian Parry presented her editor Curt Valentin with The Paris Book, a series of illustrations depicting the French capital during the early 1950s. But the project fell by the wayside after the editor’s death the following year. Over 60 years passed before the book was resurrected thanks to an independent publisher, Un-Gyve.
After blowing out the candles on her 90th birthday cake, American illustrator Marian Parry has another reason to celebrate: The Paris Book, a volume consisting of 20 of her watercolour illustrations.
The adventure began in 1952, when Parry’s friend, the American painter Ben Shahn, encouraged her to create the book and present it to Curt Valentin, who was known for publishing limited editions of poets’ and novelists’ works illustrated by contemporary artists.
Long before her friend’s suggestion, Parry had come up with a story about a character fascinated by Europe and by the French capital in particular, brought to life through illustrations in her watercolour sketchbook. The character, which has the head of a bird and the body of a human, is seen strolling through 1950s Paris among artists in berets, ladies in fur coats and people enjoying the city’s famous cafés. The illustrator presented these images to the editor, who died a year later, leaving the project in limbo.
Marian Parry had a personal fondness for the project, having spent part of her childhood in Paris, where her family moved due to her father’s work. As an adult, she returned several times to the city, which continued to occupy a special place in her heart, as seen in her poetic renderings of Parisian life. And fortunately, the illustrations were not destined to remain in obscurity.
The destiny of a book
By a stroke of luck, The Paris Book got an unexpected second chance thanks to the Nemrow sisters, Julie and Lisa, the heads of the independent publishing house Un-Gyve.
One day, while visiting their friend Christopher Ricks ― a literary critic, professor and occasional advisor for Un-Gyve ― they noticed a post card on his mantel. On one side was an illustration from The Paris Book, and on the other, a message from Marian Parry and her late husband wishing him and his wife a happy new year and announcing that they would soon leave for Paris.
The Nemrow sisters were struck by the level of detail in the illustration and immediately asked about the artist. And it turns out they have a good eye: Marian Parry is an accomplished illustrator whose work is found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, and in the Smith College Rare Book Room. A writer, poet, illustrator and watercolour painter, Parry is known primarily for her children’s books.
The next year, the three women met and decided to work together.
A notebook yellowed with age
It took the team at Un-Gyve two years to faithfully reproduce The Paris Book, working from Parry’s original watercolor notebook, which had grown “yellow with age,” Julie Nemrow says. In consequence, much of the work consisted of recreating the original colours as closely as possible.
Un-Gyve expects to launch the book before this summer in a limited edition of 333 copies, each numbered and signed by the author (a task that took her three days). The launch will be celebrated through several events organized with the Boston Public Library, which houses the majority of Marian Parry’s archives.
Though she spent most of her life in the US, the artist never forgot the city she fell in love with in her youth. As Julie Nemrow tells it, “The first time she returned to this city as an adult, she realised that the recurring dream she had been having until then was about the Paris metro. So the images of Paris, her childhood memories, stayed with her; and she dreamed of this city without knowing it was Paris.”