The “Griffin & Sabine” collection deserves to be on any art- or story-lovers bookshelf.
A 25th anniversary edition of Chronicle Books’ bestselling Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence and the release of The Pharos Gate: Griffin & Sabine’s Lost Correspondence are cause for bittersweet celebration.
The San Francisco publisher issued this year the special edition with added notecards and the final book in the double trilogy series written and illustrated by Nick Bantock. For devoted fans, the last hurrah is sad but offers closure. For other readers, the series is a newfound treasure, but one with a prescribed, finite ending. Bittersweet, all around.
The unusual, episodic love story of Griffin Moss, a London postcard artist, and Sabine Strohem, a woman who lives on a South Pacific archipelago and illustrates stamps, originated in 1991. The books function like mini handheld art galleries: The story is told through image-filled postcards and illustrated envelopes with removable letters that provide a tactile, vicarious thrill. Reading the cards and letters is akin to peeking beyond a couple’s bedroom and into the mystical elixir that is their passion and intellect combined. In the first letter, Sabine explains how since the age of 15 she has “witnessed” Griffin’s drawings from afar “without knowing who made them.” Opening it is tantalizing and curious.
The subsequent correspondence they share has them falling into a romance that is meta (huge), physical (softly filtered sensuality), and transcendently metaphysical. It’s arguably one of the more erotic love affairs recorded on paper without there ever being actual sex described. Of course, there’s a villain who intrudes and other developments that have kept the books on The New York Times Best Sellers list for not just continuous weeks but for years at a time.
Throughout the series, Bantock’s artwork is stunning. A quarter century after the artist, who was born and raised in England, saw the “sweet blue envelope” of another man’s letter and decided the best way to receive similarly distinctive mail was to post letters to himself, there’s nothing dated about the results. Thankfully, the artist had the good sense to put them into a narrative. There’s contemporary density in Bantock’s combination of mostly handwritten text, highly stylized drawings, classic and representation paintings, collage, and photographic images. The stamps alone are masterpieces of subtle storytelling.
I had not read Griffin & Sabine since 1991 but found it instantly alluring when reading it recently for review. Perhaps it is an artifact—tangible evidence that a tale of soulmates in pursuit of each other is eternally appealing. But these timeless books are not without place: The Griffin & Sabine collection deserves to be on any art- or story-lovers bookshelf.
Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock (Chronicle Books, August 1991, 48 pp., $22.95) and The Pharos Gate: Griffin & Sabine’s Lost Correspondence by Nick Bantock (Chronicle Books, March 2016, 60 pp., $24.95)
This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.