The art of the book can be defined in the broadest sense as a production representing the combined efforts of artists, writers, and technicians with the intention of serving a large and disparate audience. If one holds to this definition, it must be said that the collections of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design began life as a kind of book collection. Specifically, the very first acquisitions of the Museum were large and complete portfolios of Salvator Rosa prints and prints after Raphael, registered into the Museum in 1878, the year following the incorporation of the institution as a whole. Primarily reproductive engravings or outright restrikes, these works were issued and purchased in portfolio to disseminate information about these artists' techniques and principles, and thus serve as didactic tools. From the artists' concepts to the technicians' reproduction to the explanatory texts, they were indeed conceived of loosely as "books" and intended to reach a wide audience.
If, on the other hand, one holds to a more traditional definition of the book as a small, bound object heavily dependent on text for its raison d'être, the Museum's collection has been acquired rather recently. The history of the illustrated book begins not in the West, but in the Middle and Far East, and it is apt that our own book collection largely originated with a group of Japanese Manga (motif books) given in the 1920s and '30s by Mrs. Gustav Radeke. Western books did not enter the collection in large numbers until after World War II under the impetus of then-curator Heinrich Schwarz. Thanks to his efforts, the Museum now boasts several works dating from early in the evolution of Western book production, including, in particular, sheets from the first Latin edition of Hartmann Schedel's Liber Chronicarum (The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493); the even earlier Schatzbehalter illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and published by Anton Koberger (Nuremberg, 1491); and the essential ingredient in any book collection, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499). The latter is widely regarded not only as one of the first milestones in the history of Western book printing, but as the epitome of the illustrated book in the Renaissance.
Book connoisseurship was not a strict specialty of Dr. Schwarz's, and it has not been the specialty of any curator to succeed him. Nonetheless, the collection has continued to grow, and is now strongest in the area of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century livre d'artiste (artist's book). The livre d'artiste is almost exclusively a modern phenomenon based upon the dual identity of printmaking in the nineteenth century: on the one hand, it was inspired by the renaissance of original graphic techniques during that period and took as its own the idea of the limited edition; on the other, it stood in contrast to the crudity of much contemporary commercial book production resulting from the development of inexpensive printing techniques (such as lithography and wood engraving) and, of course, widespread literacy.
Most recent efforts have been made in the acquisition of the contemporary livre d'artiste. To such significant works as Lucas Samaras's Book (New York, 1965) and Lee Bontecou's Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone (Long Island, 1968), the Museum has added in this year alone a copy of David Hockney's Paper Pools (Thames and Hudson, 1980) and the Pennyroyal Press reissue of The Diary of Anne Frank (1985), illustrated by Joseph Goldyne and designed by Barry Moser. In addition, the Museum has begun to collect works that represent the principles of the livre d'artiste within the history of photography, for example, several complete issues of Alfred Stieglitz's ground-breaking publication, Camera Work (New York, 1903-17), and a pristine copy of Peter Henry Emerson's Marsh Leaves (London, 1985).
Although book acquisitions were few during the years between 1878 and World War II, it was during this time that the Library of Rhode Island School of Design became an important reserve of art reference and rare book sources. This was achieved largely through the benefactions of Mrs. Louisa D. Sharpe Metcalf beginning in 1908-09. Then as now, our neighboring institutions to the East and West have been formidable allies, including the important Updike Collection of books on printing of the Providence Public Library, the John Carter Brown and Annmary Brown Collections of Americana and Incunabula, respectively, at Brown University, including the more than 200-year-old Providence Athenaeum. The art of the book has clearly enjoyed a special and honored place at the heart of Providence's cultural and intellectual life.
It was also during these years that two especially notable book works entered the Museum collection: the important Manet/ Mallarmé portfolio publication of Poe's The Raven (Paris, 1875), and William Blake's Book of Job (London, 1825; cat. 1), both acquired by gift in the early 1920os. The Book of Job was at that time—and still may be—the single most significant book to enter the collection. It may also be seen as the primary progenitor of the phenomenon that is the subject of this catalogue: the personally crafted, beautifully printed, and fully integrated artist's book in nineteenth-century Britain.
Not only was it in Victorian Britain that Blake and his work — forgotten since his death in 1827—were revived; in many cases, Blake was the personal discovery of several artists whose books appear below. The Rossetti brothers, for example, helped to complete the first biography of the artist, begun in 1863 by Alexander Gilchrist and finished by his widow. In 1868, J. C. Hotten issued the first facsimile of a Blake book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in 1875 by the republication of the Book of Job in Boston by Charles E. Norton, and the Jerusalem by J. Pearson a year later. Up to this point, the originals could be seen only through the occasional copy in the British Museum where, in fact, the Rossettis and John Ruskin, among others, had uncovered them. Even now, Blake's books are so rare that only two institutions possess more than twenty copies out of a total oeuvre of over 100: the British Museum and the Library of Congress.
The Book of Job is widely acknowledged as one of the best of Blake's original works. As he looks forward to the livre d'artiste in concept, so too does he link with the origins of the printed, illustrated book at its best, the Hypnertomachia Poliphili: in both, text and design are treated as harmonious entities brought together as an integrated whole. But in the equal aesthetic weight these two elements are assigned and in their near-fusion on the page, Blake reveals his source not in the Renaissance book, but in medieval hand-illuminations. It was this important return to the pre-Renaissance past and Blake's successful translation of hand work into print that spoke so strongly to many of the artists discussed below. Add to this his personal genius as poet and artist and his unique belief in the printed book as an important art form, and one rediscovers in him the origins of so much of Victorian bibliomania, as well as the modem history of the book.
We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Alice H. R. H. Beckwith of Providence College for conceiving this project, Victorian Bibliomania, and bringing this exhibition and catalogue to fruition. This is a proud addition to our distinguished series of Museum catalogues and a boon to bibliophiles everywhere. Of the community of Victorian bibliophiles, several must be thanked here for their specific contributions to the success of the exhibition and to many of the ideas which follow: in this country, Rodney Armstrong, John Ballinger, Lance Bauer, John Burrows, Paul Cyr, Norman Fiering, James Findlay, Joan Friedman, Elizabeth Harris, George P. Landow, Jennifer Lee, John Merriam, Edward Money, Ellen K. Morris, Robert Nikirk, Jean Preston, Dale Roylance, N. David Scotti, Agnes Sherman, Roger Stoddard, Samuel Streit, and Michael Winship; Henry L. P. Beckwith should be singled out for his special assistance in matters of heraldry, book printing technologies, and Victorian history. In Britain, Thelma and Rodgier Crosse. Helen Davies, Robin de Beaumont, Fred and Val Mulder, the staff of St. Deiniol's Library, and Michael Turner. And as usual, no exhibition or catalogue would see the light without the backstage efforts of the Museum staff: Terry Fisher, Museum Installation and Maintenance Manager, Christopher Monkhouse, Curator of Decorative Arts, Frank Robinson, Director, David Stark, Curator of Education, Robert Thornton, Museum Photographer, and Lora Urbanelli, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. Assistant to the Director Kathleen Bayard, and publications coordinator Janet Phillips deserve special mention for the depth of their involvement in this project from the start.
A particular note of thanks must be extended to Dr. Beckwith's colleagues at Providence College, especially Professors Richard Elkington, Nancy Hampshire, Paula Jones, Associate Vice President James McGovern, and Professor Mary Ann Sedney of the Providence College Committee to Aid Faculty Research. The latter generously contributed funds for the publication of this catalogue in an extended format. Finally, our deepest debt of gratitude goes to the National Endowment for the Humanities, without whose support this catalogue would not have been produced, and to the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, whose help has made possible a range of related activities.
Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.
Last modified 2 January 2014