A Family Story as Told by Peter Bentley
by Gabriella Solti
About the book
A Family Story as told by Peter Bentley is an artist book which combines found photographs with oral storytelling. The accidental finding of the photographs – beautiful medium format Kodachrome slides from around 1960 – was just as exciting for me as uncovering the story of the people whom they depict. I found the slides in an old plastic bag in September 2005 during my visit to the University Women’s Club of Vancouver, a private club in a splendid Edwardian mansion on Shaughnessy Heights. The bag was on a table among other bits and pieces of old photographic equipments, clearly all useless. When I pulled out the slides one by one from the bag and turned them against light, I witnessed moments of the life of an unknown wealthy family: graceful women in silk, fur and jewelry looking into the camera with dignity in the backdrop of the elegant interiors of their home; luxury cars; a magnificent horse named Duke written by hand in blue ink on the slide’s frame; beautiful happy children, neatly dressed little girls enjoying a mini train ride in Stanley Park. No one in the club knew who the people on the photographs were only that they were brought over from the neighbouring house where an old lady died and the executor of the estate discarded them. I gave a small donation to the Club and took home thirty beautiful slides.
In the next two years I often admired the beauty of the pictures and became increasingly curious to find out who the family was. Finally in 2007 I conducted extensive research and from newspaper articles and hundreds of Holocaust-era restitution documents I learned intriguing details about the family. They were the Viennese Bloch-Bauer family, wealthy industrialist and well known art collectors who supported Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka among other artists by collecting their work, giving them commissions, or hosting them as guests in their summer palace in Czechoslovakia where they could devote their time for creating art. Klimt was twice commissioned to paint the portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of them was completed during a summer retreat in Czechoslovakia. Both portraits became iconic works of the artist.
The Bloch-Bauer name is familiar to everyone in Europe who visits museums as their name is often mentioned in books and catalogues in relation to particular artists whose work they collected. In the US their name became well known only recently when in 2006 many newspapers reported on the heroic and ultimately successful fight of Maria Altman (ne Bloch-Bauer) against the Austrian Government for the return of the family heirloom, the five Klimt paintings in the National Gallery of Austria which were looted from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s home in Vienna during the Nazi occupation. Among the paintings returned were the famous portraits of Ferdinand’s wife Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Reading the court filings and restitution documents including the ones for the compensation for the family’s sugar refinery business I learned about the timeline of events, names of family members and their relations, the monetary value of their business and artworks which were confiscated by the Nazis but all I learned were figures. My research left me dissatisfied; I was more interested how their life unfolded after such historical events, how they lived their everyday life as I strongly believe that a life lived rests in the details of the everyday. One fact I learned from the documents I read is that with the exception of Maria Altman all family members of the Bloch-Bauer family settled in Vancouver, Canada. Some escaped during the night of the Anschluss and came to Vancouver in 1938 based on the decision of Leopold Bloch-Bauer, the nephew of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who often visited Canada for hunting trips, and some arrived later. The family anglicized their name to Bentley and established a furniture veneer business which became a major supplier of plywood for the famed Mosquito bombers during World War II. Later they grew their business into one of the largest lumber companies in the world, Canfor.
I contacted Peter Bentley, son of Leopold Bentley and Chairman of Canfor who was eight year old during the night of the Anschluss and kindly asked him to tell me about the people on the pictures. He generously invited me to his home and I heard stories from the lovely to the peculiar to the horrific, the real story of his family. As it turned out the pictures depict many of his family members and their life in Canada. They were all made around 1960 by his father who was a talented amateur photographer. The book is the transcript of Mr. Bentley’s oral storytelling and it shows the freshness and immediacy only the speaking voice can convey.
As an artist I communicate experience so my goal was to create a photographic book where the text is rather storytelling than descriptive and the readers can feel that Mr. Bentley talks to them directly, if they were sitting next to him and listening to him just as I did. For this reason the book opens completely flat, the reader does not need to struggle with the pages and can spend time with the images and stories without any distraction. The book cover is made from plywood, a reference to the means how the family established a prosperous new life in Canada, with a window in the centre of the front cover letting to peak into a slide, the picture of Leopold Bentley who was the decisive force behind the family’s move to Vancouver. The spine of the book as well as the hinges which attach the wood covers to the body of the book is made of 100% silk, a material reference to the elegant life the pictures depict in the book. For the same reason to match the quality of content with the materiality of the book the images are high resolution inkjet prints and the text is hand-printed letterpress. This book is a labour of love, each book is completely hand-made by me including hand-cutting, sanding, vaxing and polishing each wood cover for hours and hours. I made the silk book cloth used in the spine and hinges from scratch and hand-printed the book on a Vandercook proofpress, almost 2000 pages for an edition of 40.
I felt a lot of connection with the story of this family as I am from Budapest, Hungary and the history of Central Europe which deeply affected my own family is part of my personal history. What truly attracted me to this book project after I learned the basic historical facts about the Bloch-Bauer family is the many layers of truth that can spring up from the memory through personal storytelling and remembering the past. This book is a testimony of the complex intertwining of current experience, personal memory, and world historical events.
A Family Story
as told by Peter Bentley
A book by Gabriella Solti
Limited edition artist book, 2010-2013
The book was designed, hand-printed and hand-bound by Gabriella Solti and published under her publishing imprint Gold Deer Press.
Images are digitally printed on Epson inkjet printer.
Text is letterpress printed from polymer plates using Bembo, Times New Roman, Garamond and Book Antiqua typefaces.
Paper stock is Ilford Galerie smooth heavyweight matte double sided photo paper.
Front and back cover are made of hand-polished plywood with red silk spine.
The edition is limited to 40 copies and they are signed and numbered by the author.
8.25x 8.25 inches. 40 pages, unpaginated. 24 colour photographs.