Whether there can be such a thing as an art to Dumpster diving I do not know.
But I do know that there can be art in the Dumpsters.
And I know at least one Dumpster diver who actually specializes in finding it—in combing Vancouver’s garbage for the old, the antiquarian and the artful.
If there isn’t an art to what he does, it still has to be said that he has a real knack for finding what he’s looking for.
This hankerer after hoary old artifacts has (in the past) shown me piles of crumbling, old stock certificates and deeds that he has dug out of Dumpsters. Two weeks ago he was brandishing a document listing someone’s password to a provincial government database that some real estate operation had thrown away.
Last week he surfaced with an entire file folder of letters, memorandum, and other papers, all generated within the B.C. NDP government of Dave Barrett, circa 1975. Much of it was correspondence from the office of former B.C. attorney general Alex Macdonald.
Among the historical gold in this trove of 44-year-old documents was a mimeographed “handbook” for the then B.C. NDP caucus.
Using various progressive sources, including an essay by the great NDP parliamentarian Stanley Knowles, it went to some detail to explain the Canadian political system and how it differed from that of the United States.
For example, it was stressed how the vital need to enlist labour unions to help register voters in U.S. elections did not exist in Canada, where voters did not need to register in advance of the polls.
When I last saw this antiquarian Dumpster diver on Monday (March 12th), he had two more objets d’trash to show off.
First was a somewhat beat-up utensil decorated with Art Nouveau tendrils ending in shamrocks on the handle. It may have been a cake knife and it may have been made of actual (rather than just historical) gold.
Secondly there was an old original of a technical drawing that was breathtaking in its hand-drawn precision and proficiency. This he generously allowed me to photograph.
Hopelessly drawn to the past
The technical illustration was on a water-stained and age-yellowed sheet of formerly white, smooth-finished art board measuring something around 60 by 90 centimetres.
It was monochromatic and diagrammatic. The media used was black ink, grey washes, and white gouache paint.
It was clearly intended for print reproduction; probably on decent paper that could hold the fine dot patterns used to reproduce continuous tone images, most likely for a book.
The subject was the modern petroleum oil well, alongside its forerunner the artesian well. Both were shown in annotated cross-section view above and below ground and there was superimposed a selection of the specialized drill bits developed for oil rigs, including chisel bits, boring bits, diamond tipped bits and—most important—a corkscrew tool for recovering the broken bits.
The special appeal of this illustration to my eyes—given that I worked as a commercial illustrator for over 20 years—is in the precision line work. All of it was done freehand with nib pens dipped in ink and much of it had to be done with extra care using a straightedge.
Drawing out a perfect width line with any kind of nib pen is feat of training and repetitively-learned muscle memory. And using any nib pen near a ruler, or straightedge of any sort, is daunting.
The load of ink welled on the nib must not come in contact with the edge, or it will be pulled by capillary action onto the edge and bleed all over the surface of the illustration.
And if the black linework earns my praise for its steady skill, the freehand lettering leaves me speechless, particularly the lettering in white gouache paint, likely done using speedball-type ball-tip nib pens.
This illustration was done at a time when the high degree of lettering proficiency that it displays was no more than the minimum demanded of would-be technical illustrators and therefore taken for granted even.
It’s a reminder of what a person is capable of with the right training and persistence.
Such freehand lettering skill was already becoming rare by the time I began working as a commercial illustrator at the end of the 1970s. This was due in large part to skill-saving advances in technical drawing equipment, such as the Leroy mechanical lettering system—which was in common use by the 1950s and the refillable, fixed-width technical fountain pen, which came into general use in the 1960s.
Drawing conclusions as to a vintage rather than antique origin
This brings me to the question mark of when and where this technical illustration was created. While it bears the initials of the artist—”L. M.—it displays no creation date.
We can at least narrow down the provenance of the illustration using its key subject matter: an oil well “drilled by rotary method” and powered by an “oil engine”.
The first commercial oil well in North American, if not the world, was drilled in Pennsylvania by Edwin Drake in 1859. The original Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine was patented in 1890, with some 32,417 of the engines produced between 1891 and 1905. And the first rotary drill oil well of note was at Spindletop, Texas, in 1901.
All of the above strongly suggests that the illustration was created post-1901, when rotary drilling of oil wells had largely taken over from the earlier cable drilling method. This occurred just after the First World War, the 1920s.
That would put this illustration just shy of the century mark needed to qualify it as an antique; therefore it is merely a vintage object.
Provenance and location-wise, we also get some help on the back of the art board itself, which bears a brand name and address: ‘”Kingsway” Fashion plate boards. L. Cornelissen & Son, 22, GT. Queen Street. W.C. 2.’
“CORNELISSEN, L., & SON, Lithographic and Artists’ Material Manufacturers, 22 and 23A, Great Queen Street, London, W.C. Hours of Business: 8.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.; Saturdays, 8.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Established in 1854 by Louis Dieudonne Cornelissen (d. 1889). Joined by L. D. J. Cornelissen (son) in 1882. Present Principal: L. D. J. Cornelissen. Speciality: Lithographic Transfer Papers. Telephone: No. 5025 Gerrard, London.”
Today, 165 years after it was founded, L. Cornelissen & Son has changed its address in London but otherwise continues to ply its trade as self-styled “Artists’ Colourmen”.
This suggests that the illustration was created someplace within the British Empire, which functioned as a big free trade zone (at least for goods manufactured in Great Britain). Probably the place was right here in the then British colony of the Dominion of Canada.
The funny and somewhat ironic thing is, unless I miss my guess, this technical illustration probably survives—and in much better condition—on a printed page in some old textbook, or encyclopedia, or trade manual.
In this form it moulders away, hidden in any number of libraries and antiquarian book shops—arguably the junk heaps of history, or (to bring us full circle) Dumpsters by another name.