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Crystallography congress Cambridge, 1960

On 19 August 1960, Escher held a lecture at the Fifth Congress and General Assembly of the International Union of Crystallography. He was invited to this congress by Prof. Dr Carolina H. MacGillavry, professor in chemical crystallography at the University of Amsterdam. In 1950 she became the first female member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. MacGillavry was a great admirer of Escher and would go on to publish the book Symmetry Aspects of M.C. Escher’s Periodic Drawings in 1965. For crystallographers, the tessellations on which Escher spent years working in his sketchbooks were ideal teaching materials. His patterns are particularly insightful when studying the symmetry, repetition and reflection that are so characteristic of the field. Below is one of the drawings from Escher’s sketchbooks that was exhibited in Cambridge and is included in the book by MacGillavry.

In a letter to his son George (who lived in Canada), dated 2 November 1959, Escher wrote about the meeting:

Caroline H. MacGillavry

‘The best thing that happened to me lately, however, was a visit yesterday afternoon, which is why I could not write to you, from a lady called Prof. Dr MacGillavry, lecturer in crystallography at the Amsterdam University. She came with her sister-in-law, also interested in tessellations in one way or another, and they both sat down to look at my prints, from half past two to well beyond half past five. A couple of shrewd ladies! It is a relief to finally receive visitors who do not just sit there gawping at my creatures, as people usually do, but who chuckle with utter amusement where there is something to chuckle about. J. Chr.! How they stared at some of the pictures. A few months ago I received a Belgian-American colleague from her, one Professor Donnay, who teaches somewhere in the US and seems to be the one to have put Mrs MacG. on my trail. It became evident that she first wanted to know what kind of a man I am before having any involvement with me. Now this is out of the way, she will make an effort to let me give a lecture in Cambridge in August 1960, where there will be about 700 crystallographers attending a conference. That is what that Donnay was talking about too and now it looks like it will be going ahead. There will also be an exhibition of my prints and the travel and accommodation costs will be reimbursed. You realise that I cannot pass up such an opportunity; so if mother and I come to Canada it will be in September 1960. I am confident that this will not be a problem.’*

Escher accepted the invitation and immediately took 15 private English lessons. A flurry of correspondence with the organiser, Mr Taylor, ensued, covering practical matters concerning the exhibition, the lecture, the accommodation and the participation in various events. Everything was discussed and arranged very precisely.** Among other things, Escher wrote that:

‘There is one thing that I must emphasise: the tables should be placed in such a way, that no direct sunlight falls upon them. Especially the coloured drawings are extremely sensitive to sunlight.’***

He prepared the exhibition thoroughly: he produced floor plans, gave advise on the cardboard to be used in showcases, gave numbers to the prints and created a visitor catalogue. He also swapped Fishes for Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell) at the last moment****.

The exhibition would show 76 prints and drawings, all of which had to be exported too. This proved to be a time-consuming task because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to send them by diplomatic mail. Everything had to go through customs, including all the attendant paperwork*****. Nevertheless, Escher looked back on his English adventure with great pleasure. In a letter to Arthur dated 28 August 1960, Escher wrote about the Cambridge stay:

‘In one word, it was wonderful. They pampered me there for four days. My position as the only artist among 1,200 congressmen (plus at least 300 students) was therefore very favourable. Barely had I arrived hastily dressed up in my nicest suit, got to St Catherine’s College and sat down at a Luncheon, as a member of The Company of Principle Speakers. There, I was immediately familiarised with the highlights of the congress. I sat between Mr Belov, leader of the Russian delegation, which consisted of 47 members, and an American, whose name I no longer remember. Both surprisingly convivial and friendly people, who exhausted themselves in lavishing praise on my exhibition (which I had not even seen). The next morning at a quarter past 10 I held my lecture in the main auditorium they had, a venerable, amphitheatre-like affair with Gothic arches and columns that contained 220 seats. The congestion of listeners, however, was so great that they were everywhere on the stairs. I think there were 300 attendees and many others later expressed regret that they were no longer allowed in.

It went splendidly. I was not nervous at all and, according to subsequent comments, I spoke very clearly and intelligibly. On a white wall, two slides were projected simultaneously at my request. I enjoyed it so much that I dared to go off script and crack a few jokes. When I finished, I was overwhelmed by deafening applause. I must say, it is quite an experience. My exhibition had been arranged on long tables, very neat with printed catalogues, in a huge examination room, where, apart from my prints, all sorts of technical gadgets and weird instruments were on show, like a whole row of computers, microscopes, etc. It looked like a hall of a world expo. In addition, a conversation room with armchairs, tables, a buffet where coffee and lemonade were served for free all day and where hundreds of congressmen were walking around and sitting and conversing. There I also had the most pleasant conversations, including with several Russians, who spoke extremely bad English and were smiling constantly.

I sold 23 prints in four days; that was quite an administrative feat in itself, to not get confused, to write down all addresses properly. Great interest on the part of MIT members in my lecture at Cambridge, Mass. (provisionally set for 28 October). There, I will have to work hard on that during my boat trip [Escher would make a seven-week voyage to Canada in the autumn, EK], because they want more than 45 minutes and more pictures.’******

M.C. Escher, Regular division drawing with reptiles, no. 56, india ink, gold ink, coloured pencil, poster paint, November 1942
Symmetry Aspects of M.C. Escher’s Periodic Drawings by professor Caroline H. MacGillavry

A direct result of the congress was that Escher’s regular divisions of the plane would be included in textbooks for students of crystallography. In 1965 Carolina H. MacGillavry would publish her book Symmetry Aspects of M.C. Escher’s Periodic Drawings, in which these works were also included.

[*] and [******] M.C. Escher, His Life and Complete Graphic Work, edited by J.L. Locher, Abradale Press, 1982, page 94-99 and 101-102

[**], [***], [****] and [*****] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 412-413

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