Oliver Robert Batsel (1919—2004) was an American collector of artifacts and ephemera related to the Empyreal Trading Company, an English mercantile enterprise active from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Over Batsel’s nearly seven decades of collecting, he amassed thousands of books, garments, documents, jewelry, and other objects. These materials constituted the most extensive Empyreal Trading Company collection in the world – and together, they represented a history of opulence, conquest, plunder, and adventure.
In September of 2004, Hurricane Ivan leveled the beachside Florida home in which Batsel kept his extensive collection, taking his life and sweeping the majority of his possessions out to sea. While some materials were recovered and placed in storage directly after the storm, many fragments of the house and its contents have rested under mere inches of sand for more than a decade. Over the past few years, the collection has been exhumed, restored, and exhibited by Batsel’s granddaughter, Hannah Batsel.
Oliver Robert Batsel has become a figure inseparable from the history he so obsessively archived. Now, for the first time, Batsel’s personal effects and correspondence join the artifacts he treasured to illuminate the legacy of both the Empyreal Trading Company and of Batsel himself.
Pieces from the Batsel collection in a 2016 exhibition.
Although this headdress is one of the most dramatic pieces in the collection, its origins and intended purpose remain unknown. While we can speculate that it may have originally served some ritualistic function, Batsel’s notes on the piece tell us only its time period (“C. 1780s”) and those materials that he believed may have composed the object: “Kudu horn, wood, mud daub (?) [sic], unidentified.” Batsel’s assertion that the piece was once used in an Imperial Russian Ballet performance is almost certainly unfounded. While it may have been worn in a promotional photograph for the Ballet in the late 19th century, no dancer’s neck could have supported the weight of the headdress for any extended period.
Unfortunately, very few parts of the headdress are original. The horns and skull piece, while damaged by the storm, were intact and recoverable; the woven cloth ropes have been replaced with facsimiles based on samples of the original textiles. The headdress base has been reconstructed modelled after a surviving fragment of the “mud daub” texture, now located under the left set of horns.
Over the years, Oliver Robert Batsel handed many clothing items down to his son, Kurt. Two of these items, originally purchased and worn in the 1930s through the early 1950s, appear in some of the few extant photographs of Batsel as a young man. In his early days as a collector, Batsel posed for a photograph with his Ford Model A wearing both the eight-panel cap and the suit jacket exhibited here. The cap – or one very similar to it – also appears in an earlier photograph of Batsel at work selling cigars as a teenager.
Under the care of Batsel’s son, these garments evaded not only the ravages of Hurricane Ivan, but also the wear and tear of everyday use. Today, they appear much as Batsel might have worn them nearly eight decades ago.
This tintype, taken in the early 1890s, remains the only known photograph of Peregrine Lander (left), known best as Empyreal Trading Company figurehead Carbuncle Pip. An explorer, naturalist, and anthropologist by trade, Pip gained a cult following after appearing in at least 23 short stories in The Boy’s Own Magazine, a serial newspaper for British youth. In his stories, Carbuncle Pip is a swashbuckling adventurer, captain of the Empyrean, skilled hunter, and discoverer of both obscure artifacts and uncontacted peoples.
In reality, Peregrine Lander’s accomplishments are poorly recorded. The heavy promotion of his nickname, which honors his discovery of a massive red gem (or “carbuncle”), suggests that the Company was more concerned with projecting an image of wealth and luxury than it was with Lander’s actual exploits.
In 1895, Carbuncle Pip perished in a shipwreck when a sudden storm drove the Empyrean into a rocky reef off the coast of Senegal. Cargo from that doomed voyage washed up on shores around the world, and much of it ended up in Batsel’s collection. Pip’s famous red carbuncle, which the Company encouraged him to wear as a part of his public persona, has never been recovered.
[LEFT] Thaumatrope Spinning Toys
1890s (facsimiles 2016)
These paper toys were included in certain copies of The Boy’s Own Magazine to promote the Carbuncle Pip stories. When held by the strings and spun, the image of explorer Carbuncle Pip appears to push through leaves in a dense jungle. While Batsel did have an original thaumatrope in his collection, it did not survive the storm; these facsimiles were produced using scans of the original toy provided by the Museu Marítim in Barcelona.
[RIGHT] Ribbon Rosette
Produced as a promotional item by The Boy’s Own Magazine, in which the Carbuncle Pip stories were published, this wearable pin bears the Empyreal Trading Company motto: ad terminum terrae, or “to the ends of the earth.” While the center is original, this pin’s ribbons have been replaced after storm damage.
The Empyreal Trading Company sponsored only a single chartered ship, the Empyrean, but its reputation for securing strange and exotic curios for its wealthy clientele – at whatever the cost – distinguished it from its much larger competitors. One of those clients, either a shareholder of the Company or simply a well-connected patron, commissioned this fur collar in the late 1700s.
The Empyrean brought the white pelt used in the collar’s construction from the Arrowan islands to England, where it was sewn into this one-of-a-kind garment. The Empyreal Trading Company had an almost exclusive trade relationship with the native Arrowansi, whose low-volume and inconsistent markets were not lucrative enough to catch the attention of larger companies. Embroidery depicting a fantastical stag creature adorns the right side of the piece; on the left is the Company’s distinctive crest.
Hurricane Ivan irrevocably damaged the collar’s original lace and nearly disintegrated its embroidery. In 2014, the piece underwent extensive repairs; it has been restored to its present-day condition largely through reference photographs and written descriptions of the pre-damage garment.
Batsel sent postcards and letters for every special occasion. Many of these contain references to his collection, like the one at left: "I'm bringing back a souvenir for you from up north - and one for me, too!"
In his teens, Oliver Robert Batsel spent his summers selling cigars in southern Florida.
By the time he reached his early twenties, Batsel had already built a home in northern Florida and purchased a car of his own.
A rare photograph of Oliver Robert Batsel (with wife, Carole, left) behind the Florida home in which he kept his collection.
Out of the Dark/Into the Water
Out of the Dark/Into the Water is an edition of 125 hand-printed and hand-bound artist books about the life and work of Oliver Robert Batsel, an American collector of exotic artifacts and art objects from around the world. Batsel spent his life gathering clothing, documents, jewelry, photographs, and other ephemera related to the Empyreal Trading Company (E.T.C.), a small mercantile enterprise which operated from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
In 2004, after decades of amassing the most complete E.T.C. collection in the world, Batsel lost his life when Hurricane Ivan leveled his beachside Florida home. The house, the collection, and Batsel himself were swept out to sea. Now, over a decade later, Batsel's granddaughter, Hannah, has begun to excavate the sand lot where the house once stood, recovering pieces of Batsel's story and restoring the artifacts to which he dedicated his life.
Out of the Dark/Into the Water is a dos-a-dos book, a historical binding in which two text blocks share a back cover. One half describes Hannah Batsel's memories of and relationship with her often-absent but endlessly fascinating grandfather. The other half takes a closer look at the collection itself and the progress that has been made towards restoring it. The book combines screen, offset, and letterpress printing techniques, and includes 14 original reduction linoleum prints.
Maneater is a set of four artist books, produced in a limited edition of 50 hand-print and hand-bound copies. The set consists of four stories whose physical and narrative structure nest within one another like Russian nesting dolls. The books can be read separately, but when taken together, reveal a legacy of greed and colonialism across generations.
Every time a new character’s name is spoken, a new book begins that follows that character’s life story. The first book’s protagonist is a wealthy shut-in who becomes obsessed with an exotic deity; the three enclosed books reveal this retired businessman’s colonialist past and the history of the deity’s native land. With every book, the narrative as a whole moves backwards chronologically in time. The visual style echoes that of 19th century children's mass-market hardcover adventure books, whose bright and captivating illustrations belied the troubling imperialist messages conveyed within.
Magnets embedded in the spine of each book hold them in place for display or easy reading as a set.
"Maneater" is housed in a custom clamshell box
"Maneater" box contents; colophon left and book set right
All four nesting books
All four books opened to their center pages
Sample pages from all four books
"Maneater" Artist Book Walkthrough
A video walkthrough of the books' structure. See the set being handled!