Thursday, June 09, 2022

The joy and alchemical play of jigsaws

During the pandemic of 2019-2022 many people worldwide discovered the joy of jigsaws. Faced with restrictions in social activities and confined indoors during lockdowns, the opportunity to escape from uncontrollable events and immerse oneself in a puzzle enticed many. Consequently,  the past two years has seen a boom in the manufacture and sale of jigsaws globally in order to supply an unprecedented demand.

It was the Englishman John Spilsbury (1739-69) a London cartographer and engraver who is credited with inventing the jigsaw puzzle. Spilsbury created the first puzzle sometime in the 1760's as an educational tool. He affixed a map  of the world to wood and hand cut each country out using a marquetry saw. Spilsbury's 'dissected maps' were used as teaching aids for geography.  The technical name of the jigsaw enthusiast as a dissectologist originates from Spilsbury's 'dissected maps' as does dissectology, the study of jigsaws. Because the word 'dissection' has an unfortunate association to surgery, the Anglo-Saxon of  'jigsaw builder' is preferred nomenclature here.

Scenic postcard views of mountains and lakes along with lighthouses, windmills and castles have long been the staple diet of jigsaws. The fantasy castle of King Ludwig of Bavaria, Neuschwanstein Schloss, the artistic inspiration for the Disney Castle logo is often reproduced as a jigsaw puzzle, as are the romantic destinations of Paris and Venice. Michael Ryba's interpretation of King Ludwig's castle and relationship to the German composer Richard Wagner is wittily expressed in the Heye brand 2000 piece puzzle entitled 'Bavaria' (below).

Established in Poland in 1985 the Trefl brand of puzzles have a matted finish with chunky, tactile pleasing pieces. Below-  Dolomite mountain range, Italy.  Trefl 500 pieces

Its good to see that the Falcon brand includes a puzzle of the Norfolk Broads, an extensive network of shallow lakes and rivers which are famously alluded to in the David Bowie song, 'Life on Mars' (1973) - 'See the mice in their million  hordes/From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads'. Norfolk-based jigsaws include - Cromer beach and pier, Norwich market place, windmills (below) and Sandringham House, residence of Queen Elizabeth II  (1926-2022).  

The earliest jigsaw puzzles were hand-cut from wood and expensive to make, needing skilled workmanship for each individual jigsaw. The 20th century saw the rise of manufactured, mass-produced cardboard puzzles. The popularity of the jigsaw puzzle during the 1930's Depression as an inexpensive form of entertainment can be gauged from the novelist Daphne du Maurier's best-selling gothic love story Rebecca (1938). In du Maurier's fictitious first-person narration, jigsaws are flexible as metaphors, expressive of comprehension and error, along with revealing identity. 

In  Rebecca Du Maurier's anonymous narrator states-

'What he has told me and all that has happened will tumble into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle'.

'The jig-saw pieces came tumbling thick and fast upon me'.

'They were all fitting into place, the jig-saw pieces. The odd strained shapes that I had tried to piece together with my fumbling fingers and they had never fitted'.

'The jig-saw pieces came together piece by piece, and the real Rebecca took shape and form before me'.[1]

Georges Perec (1936-82) was a film maker, essayist and author of the acclaimed novel 'La vie, mode d'emploi' (Life: A user's manual). Jigsaws are integral to the very structure as well as the central story of Perec's novel. Its narrative moves from one room to another, the reader learning about the residents of each room, or its past residents, or about someone they have come into contact with, thus building a picture of an instant in time. La Vie, mode d'emploi  is an extraordinary novel, containing painstakingly detailed descriptions and hundreds of individual stories. 

The central story of Perec's Post-modern masterpiece concerns itself with the Englishman Bartlebooth who devotes ten years acquiring the skill of painting in water-colours, then ten more years painting every harbour and port he visits while on a world-cruise. Each of Bartlebooth's finished water-colours are methodically dated and posted to a jigsaw maker in Paris. Upon returning to Paris, he devotes the remaining years of his life attempting to complete every jigsaw made from his paintings in precisely the same chronological order of his travels. 

In the preamble to La vie mode d'emploi Georges Perec makes a pertinent point about jigsaws, namely, that its how a jigsaw is cut which makes it easy or difficult to complete. 

'Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not matter whether the initial image is easy (or something taken to be easy - a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a colour photograph of an Austrian castle) or difficult (a Jackson Pollock, a Pisarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle), its not the subject of the picture, or the painter's technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; and an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty, ranging from the extreme of easiness - for edge pieces, patches of light, well-defined objects, lines, transitions -to the tiresome awkwardness of all the other pieces (cloudless skies, sand, meadow, ploughed land, shaded areas etc.) [2] 

Its interesting to note that the logo of the world-wide collaborative project known as Wikipedia consists of an incomplete globe made of jigsaw pieces. The incomplete sphere symbolizes the room to add new knowledge as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

Many sub-genres of puzzles exist. Sentimental and kitsch depictions of puppies, kittens, cakes and cottages abound in jigsaw reproductions as well as art-works such as Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus', Monet's 'Poppies'  and Bosch's 'Garden of Heavenly Delights'. The  primitive artwork style of Charles Wysocki (1928 - 2002) whose work depicts an idealized version of American life of yesteryear and Thomas Kinade (1958 - 2012) a painter of pastoral and idyll scenes with warm, glowing colouration (Gibsons brand) are both well-loved by American jigsaw builders. Puzzles composed purely of brand labels are also popular in America, a  long lasting aftereffect of the 1950's when advertising companies gave away free puzzles with their products.

Featuring the comic art-work of Graham Thompson (b. 1940), the so-called Wasgij puzzle (the word 'jigsaw' spelt backwards) challenges the jigsaw builder to have eyes at the back of their head in order to construct a mirror or 'what-happened-next' picture of the action depicted, a far more difficult task than simply referencing a box top picture.  

Remembering the trauma of the world-wide health crisis in the past two years its little wonder that comic jigsaws retain their popularity. The prolific Dutch cartoonist Jan van Haasteren (b. Schiedam, Netherlands 1936) has now supplied Jumbo puzzles with over 200 titles. Haasteren's artwork is instantly recognisable, not least for the same characters re-appearing in his puzzles. These include - a crook and tax official, Police Officers,  a mother-in-law, Santa Claus, a cat and mouse, an octopus and crab, along with his trade mark, a Shark fin. 

In Haasternen's 'Winter Sports' (below) various activities associated with snow and ice are depicted.  Its a typically busy, crowded scene of masterful draughtsmanship,  reminiscent of a canvas by Breughel. 

The  British artist Mike Jupp (b.1948) is a best-seller of the Gibsons brand of jigsaws, a British family business since 1919. Mike Jupp became a freelance artist in 1974, moving into film and TV design in 1980. He spent some time in Holland before he relocated to America where he became a storyboard artist and scriptwriter. In the late 1990's Jupp applied his talent and sense of humour to creating designs for jigsaws. Jupp delights puzzlers with his I Love series, where he captures the comical and silly side of everyday life. Almost every inch of I Love Spring includes some kind of cheeky humour. There can also be seen - an International Worker's march, Druids, a Maypole dance, Morris men, a Wedding and Hell's Angels. In the foreground of I Love Spring (below) a young man falls off his ladder when spying a girl in a bubble bath. 

The French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Loup (1936-2015) studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Lyon and worked as a cartoonist in Paris from 1969 until his death. A prolific contributor to a wide variety of magazines and publications, Loup was also an architect and a jazz pianist. In his 'Apocalypse 2000' (below) Loup humorously mocks the fears and apprehensions associated with millenarian expectation including, an alien spaceship invasion, a falling meteorite, an earthquake and a plague of frogs. Many differing reactions to the World's End can be seen - Holding a playing card a man prepares to commit suicide, a woman prays on her knees, a priest thrusts a crucifix at a hairy demon who rolls around laughing at him, Hare Krishna followers chant, others are seen screaming or running away. Drinkers in a bar look on, slightly perturbed at all they're witnessing. 

The cartoonist Loup along with the Argentinian cartoonist Guillermo Mordillo (1932-2019) were both widely published throughout the 1970's. Their artwork is featured on a handful of Heye puzzles, one of the most exciting of all puzzle manufacturers in the artistic scope and range of their jigsaws.   

Recent study at the University of Michigan, USA, has found that jigsaws improve visual-spatial reasoning along with IQ. They also help reduce memory, relieve stress and lower blood pressure and heart-rate. Scientific research also suggests that the simple satisfaction of placing a puzzle piece in its correct place, releases a micro-dose of the 'feelgood' neuro-chemical' dopamine which is associated with well-being and happiness. An even bigger 'feel good' chemical reward is released upon completion of a puzzle. 

Long acknowledged as sharpening cognitive faculties through the correct identification of shape and colour, requiring hand and eye coordination through dedicated sessions of time, jigsaws teach and develop patience, concentration and logical thinking. When finally completed they reward their builder with a  real sense of achievement and improved self-esteem. Whether of kittens or puppies, a favourite place visited, a comic cartoon or Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper', a completed jigsaw remains the builder's very own accomplishment. In an age of ubiquitous electronic entertainments its an achievement  which is made through finely-tuned hand and eye coordination in conjunction with the much under-valued virtue of patience. 

       The alchemical play of jigsaws

Constructing a jigsaw may be viewed as a reduced or simplified form of the alchemical opus. To begin with,  the jigsaw builder, just like the alchemist,  dedicates themselves for an unknown duration of time, often in solitude, sometimes facing self-doubt or a sense of futility, even risking sanity, in order to complete a 'Great Work'. Hope and despair are experienced by both alchemist and jigsaw builder alike in their endeavour to make the invisible become visible. 

Ancient alchemical texts frequently warn the adept of the many difficulties and dead-ends to beware of during the 'Great Work'; so too the jigsaw builder can expect setbacks, even disaster if their work-space is tampered or interfered with. The vision shared by alchemist and jigsaw builder upon completion of their task is one of unity, created from the chaos of the massa confusa or unsorted heap of puzzle pieces.

It was the seminal Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961) who first identified distinct similarities between alchemy and the creative process. Jung's observations on the spiritual and psychological meaning of creativity are applicable to the artist more than jigsaw builder, nevertheless his following remark invites comparison with jigsaw building - 

'the first part was completed when the various components separated out from the chaos of the massa confusa were brought back to unity in the albedo and "all become one". [3]

The dark, initial state which the alchemist called the nigredo stage was also known as the massa confusa or chaos, the not yet differentiated, but capable of differentiation disorder which the adept gradually reduced to order and unity. Hidden and invisible within the chaos of the massa confusa lay the vision of unity which the alchemist aspired to make visible. For the jigsaw builder, contained within the thousand piece heap, which on first sight can arouse despair, there lays invisible within, the vision of a completed jigsaw.

The alchemical discourse The Garden of Cyrus by the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) has a number of associations to the jigsaw.  Long viewed as one of the most difficult puzzles in the entire canon of English literature, most readers of The Garden of Cyrus have struggled and floundered attempting to piece it together, thwarted by the combination of its esoteric theme, dense symbolism and the near breathless haste of its communication. Very few have ever completed Browne's jigsaw puzzle of an essay, yet alone stepped back upon completion to admire the beauty of its hermetic vision.

Composed from numerous 'stand-alone' notebook jottings, not unlike solitary pieces of a puzzle, Browne cites evidence of the inter-related symbols of  Quincunx pattern,  number 5 and  letter  X  in topics equal in diversity as jigsaw subject-matter, including- Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion, mythology, ancient world plantations, gardening, generation, geometry, germination, heredity, the Archimedean solids, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology and astronomy, in order to prove  to his reader the interconnectivity of all life. Predominate themes of the discourse include - Order, Number, Design and Pattern, all of which are related to jigsaws.

Fascinated by all manner of puzzle throughout his life, whether hieroglyph, riddle, anagram or mystery in nature,  Browne in The Garden of Cyrus connects the quincunx pattern found in mineral crystals in the earth below to star constellations in the heavens above; thus a primary objective of  his discourse  ultimately is none other than advocation of intelligent design. In Browne's hermetic vision, the cosmos itself is a fully interlocking jigsaw, designed through the 'higher mathematics' of the 'supreme Geometrician' i.e. God.

If anything however, its perhaps more the art and design of the jigsaw cutter which Browne celebrates. He's credited by the Oxford Dictionary as the first writer to use the word 'Network' in an artificial context in the English language, (in the full running title of the discourse, The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the ancients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered).  The frontispiece to Browne's discourse resembles some kind of grid cutter for an unusual jigsaw or a gaming board for Go or Backgammon.

Its Latin quotation reads -'What is more beautiful than the Quincunx, which, however you view it, presents straight lines'.

Browne also mentions various leisure-time activities in his discourse. Archery, backgammon, chess, skittles and knuckle stones are all fleetingly alluded to as examples of pleasure and play. 

Upon completion of a puzzle, sooner or later its broken into separate pieces and returned to its box awaiting to be completed once more,  a cycle not unlike the cycle of birth, death and rebirth  or 'Eternal Return' which alchemists alluded to in their writings, including Thomas Browne at the conclusion of his discourse.  

'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven'.

One particular jigsaw shape  of interest to Browne in his quinary quest is the so-called 'dancing man'  or 'T-man' piece with its 4 + 1 structure (below left). Its a reduced form of ' Square man' by the Roman architect Vitruvius of the human form as drawn by the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci in his Vitruvian man (below, right) which is alluded to in The Garden of Cyrus thus -  

'Nor is the same observable only in some parts, but in the whole body of man, which upon the extension of arms and legs, doth make out a square whose intersection is at the genitals. To omit the phantastical Quincunx in Plato of the first Hermaphrodite or double man, united at the Loynes, which Jupiter divided. [4]

Adding in a little referenced footnote - 'elegantly observable in the Mesopotamian silhouette figurines, not unlike conjoyning tiles found in parlour amusements amongst us'. [5] 

One is tempted to speculate that Thomas Browne's allusion to 'conjoyning tiles' may be some kind of precursor to the jigsaw puzzle, pre-dating fellow Englishman John Spilsbury's 'dissecting maps' by a full century. 

In any case, the technical inventiveness in manufacture, the wide variety of artistic subject-matter and development of skills such as shape identification along with the therapeutic qualities of jigsaw puzzling would doubtless have been approved of by Browne.  With his predilection for the microscopic in nature one imagines the seventeenth century physician-philosopher engaged in the challenge of constructing a miniature jigsaw, employing his 'occular observation' with tweezers and magnifying glass in order to construct  it ! 


Top - Wooden 60 piece puzzle of elephant. Wentworth. Completed  January 2022 

'Bavaria' Ryba, 2000 pieces Heye. Completed July 2022

Dolomite Mountains, Italy, Trefl 500 pieces, Completed  March 2022

Norfolk Windmill and river Falcon 500 pieces. Completed Feb. 2021. 

Winter Sports by Jan van Haasteren Jumbo 1000 pieces. Completed  February 2022

'I Love Spring' by Mike Jupp Gibsons 1000 pieces. Completed May 2022

'Apocalypse 2000' by Jean Jacques Loup Falcon 1000 pieces. Completed  June 2022

Colour Wheel. 1000 pieces. Made in China. Completed September 2022

The Table of the Muses.  USA Springbok 1968. Completed November 2022

N.B. The Wikipedia  entry on puzzles has numerous links to articles about jigsaws.


[1]  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier  First published by Victor Gollancz 1938 chapter 20.

[2] George Perec  La vie mode d'emploi  First published in France in 1978 by Hachette/ Collection P.O.L. Paris and in Great Britain in 1987 by Collins Harvill 

[3] C.G. Jung Collected Works  Vol 14.  Mysterium Coniunctionis  An enquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy translated by R. F. C. Hull 1963 paragraph 388

[4]  Thomas Browne : Selected Writings edited by Kevin Killeen Oxford University Press 2014 . Quote from chapter 3 of The Garden of Cyrus 

[5]  An unpublished footnote from a source equal in veracity to Fragment on Mummies.