Richard Ovenden on book arts in the 21st century
Speaker(s): Richard Ovenden
Date recorded: 15 Feb 2011
Thankyou very much Shane for that very generous introduction.
It's an incredible honour for me to be here in Melbourne delivering the Foxcroft Lecture. I'd like to thank all the staff of the State Library for looking after me so well and for making such exemplary arrangements. Especially to Shane, to Robert Heather, to Clay Williamson, Suzie Jasper, and Marion Gleason.
State Library of Victoria is a great institution and the Bodleian is delighted to be associated with it in this way.
Reading Shane's entertaining and interesting account of Foxcroft in the La Trobe Journal, I can't help but feel an affinity to the great man. A passion for improving library services and collection, and a deep interest in early printed books, both attributes that he and I share.
What really drew me to him, however, was reading that he expressed horror at seeing the newly built university library building in Cambridge. No, this isn't another example of Oxford Cambridge rivalry. Well, not much. But an acceptance that Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of both Cambridge University Library and the New Bodleian Library building in Oxford, wasn't that good at building libraries. Cathedrals, yes. Power stations, yes. Libraries, no.
We're in the process of completely renewing the New Bodleian Library in Oxford. Turning a large, but deeply uninspiring building in the centre of an amazing city for architecture, into a vibrant and inspirational centre for learning. I hope Foxcroft would approve.
So to my lecture this evening. As Henry VIII said to one of his wives, ‘I shan't keep you long’. What I do hope to do in the next 45 minutes or so is to consider, in a very general way, the past, present, and future of the interactions between libraries and the book arts, and indeed, with book artists.
But before I launch in, I think I should explain some terms of reference. I'm a librarian, after all.
First of all, what do I mean by the Book Arts? Coming from Oxford, I feel I should quote immediately from the recent and wonderful Oxford Companion to the book OUP 2010, edited by Michael Suarez and Henry Woudhuysen.
Book Art is there defined as, ‘The idea of the book as a work of visual or tactile art beyond its textual value’. The entry goes to discuss the importance of artist's books and continues to assert that Book Art covers a variety of artworks based around the form or concept of the book.
The inference of this definition is that Book Arts are a combination of words and images and what is really meant here is the printed publication.
I think it's important that we consider a wide variety of elements that can be brought under the heading The Book Arts. These might include calligraphy, to which I mean formal writing with the edged pen. Typography, meant here to be the process of design of an entire printed book, but especially of the type and associated press work. Illustration, referring to any kind of graphic illustration of a book either by reproductive processes or hand work, including artists’ books. Book binding, meaning here particularly the design and execution of the decoration of book covers. And the use of materials such as ink, pigment, paper, parchment, leather, and other materials used in the creation of the book itself.
The process of thought that goes into the materials that are used in the creation of a book, the skills, technologies and crafts that are brought to bear in its creation, as well as the process of designing or selecting type, script, text and images, and the surfaces that ink or pigment are presented on. All of these can be swept up in the term Book Arts.
It's this broad sense of the Book Arts, then, that I wish to consider in relation to institutional research libraries. Institutions that are undergoing profound changes and significant challenges in a world that is increasingly dominated and obsessed by digital technologies.
At this point, I'd like to issue a kind of caveat emptor. This talk is in no way an assault on digital information or the idea of electronic book. Part of my responsibilities at the Bodleian is for information technology. Information technology continues to provide serious benefits, both for the citizen, the scholar and the librarian. Transforming search capabilities and power. Providing ubiquitous access to information and unlocking the physical boundaries of libraries. All are positive benefits for readers and librarians.
The digital and analogue, can and will, in my view, continue to coexist and to complement one another for decades and probably for centuries to come. The fact that I'm also keeper of Special Collections is in my view an entirely natural co-location of responsibilities.
What I want to discuss, however, relates to the enduring power of the physical book. And in particular, the arts of the book. The ubiquity of text and images in digital form and the peculiar restrictions that these formats impose on the creators and the readers of books allow us, I think, to consider the book art as an even greater and more powerful force that has been the case for over a century.
I will also attempt to state throughout this talk why I think that the Book Arts can support the core missions of research libraries. And why I think that through collecting and promoting the Book Arts, the research libraries can provide a vital role both in making culture thrive and in making libraries connect with different communities and interests.
My focus will be on the great, on the general research library, not unlike the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, where I work. But my comments could equally apply to any research library outside of an academic setting. Such as the great institution in which we are gathered today.
Such libraries as the Bodleian have been traditionally obsessed with texts. The academic communities that they've supported for centuries have held the texts to be supremely important. An illustration to be of less importance. Oxford only offered Art History as an undergraduate degree in 2004.
Today, these libraries spend vast sums of money on information in digital form. The Bodleian now spends three quarters of its book buying budget on digital information, largely in the form of electronic journals, dominated by the fields of science, technology and medicine, like the journal Nature, for example. These resources are heavily used.
During the academic year 2009-10, Oxford students from faculty downloaded almost 8 million journal articles from these resources. Almost twice the number of searches made at the libraries' online catalogue of printed books and journals.
Of course, this experience is replicated more generally in daily life when we consider the massive use made of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and other online information services. The growing rise of the eBook is the latest element of this seemingly unstoppable trend of making digital information compete with analogue, music, moving pictures, radio, newspapers, and now books.
The digital is in the process of destroying the music business and the newspaper industry and serious journalism a long with it. What will become of the makers of fine books and book artists?
There are some associated questions alongside this. Does the digital age suppress the Book Arts or encourage them? I mentioned before that I'm not arguing against the importance, or indeed the necessity of digital information. I lead the Bodleian’s involvement with Google's mass digitisation of library collections, which has recently turned 140 million pages of 19th century public domain books in the Bodleian into fully searchable and freely downloadable eBooks.
My section of the Bodleian employs five text encoders, who have been working with colleagues at the University of Michigan to create the world's largest Corpus of encoded text in the English language. So far, almost 40 thousand books from pre-1700 British publications.
But the Bodleian continues to acquire over 130 thousand printed monograms every year. And over a million books get called up from the stacks by readers and many more are browsed from our open shelves. One can also discern an interesting trend in the revival of creatively designed books, whether trade or privately produced.
David Pearson, the former design director at Penguin Books, still in his 30s, has revitalised the great mass market, the Series Trade Publishers Books. Designing covers for several series of Penguin books. Pocket Penguins, and Great Loves, for example. Before founding his own design practice, which has produced, in turn, some small imprints like White's Books, which have been very successful.
Designers like Pearson are experimenting with some of the traditional forms of the book, whilst bringing contemporary design attitudes to bare. This is a new interest among young designers in textures and hues of paper, intensity of ink, and the feel of paper as pages are turned. The result is that there is a renewal of remarkably-beautiful physical books, like the Penguins, that deal with classic texts, but look and feed incredibly modern.
And if you go upstairs into the Mirror of the World Exhibition here in the library, you can see a case full of David Pearson's work for Penguin. The eBook is undoubtedly still in its infancy. The technology will continue to evolve and improve, but it's interesting to hear Pearson, a young, cool designer, comment that ‘the process of making books with worthwhile text, good typography and inspiring covers still lives’.
I've just spent a few days in San Francisco before coming on to Melbourne, where I attended the Codex Book Fair and Symposium. This is a major gathering of fine press printers and publishers, book artists, book binders, calligraphers, print makers, and others active in the contemporary Book Arts.
It was incredibly stimulating to see around 200 stalls of creative and talented book artists of all kinds, making and selling wonderful, inventive and interesting books. Many of these book makers were young artists deeply immersed in digital technologies used to make their books, and yet inspired to combine traditional techniques with new ones to create beautiful codices.
If there are signs then the demise of the physical book has been exaggerated, what is the history the book arts can look back on for inspiration in their future relationships with research libraries?
William Lord, Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the first people to collect the Book Arts, and to help build a publicly available collection of them with international scope.
Lord combined the high offices of both church and state, and was also the chancellor of the University of Oxford during the 1630's. He was a significant book collector, amassing printed books and manuscripts in their thousands. As much raw materials for an active theologian and politician, as they were symptomatic of growing bibliomania.
Lord gave the bulk of his manuscript collections to the university to which he was so devoted, in gifts in the 1630s and 1640s to both the Bodleian and his old college St Johns.
The Bodleian gifts were the most extensive. Over 2,000 manuscripts, including many important medieval manuscripts with English monastic provenance, marking Lord out as one of the successors to the circle of Matthew Parker of Corpus Christi, Cambridge.
However, a significant number of the books collected by Lord at this time could be argued to fall under the heading, The Arts of the Book. As they featured heavily illuminated Western manuscripts, as well as some of the first illuminated manuscripts to arrive in the West from the Near East and from Mughal India. 147 Arabic manuscripts and 74 Persian and Turkish.
Given Lorde's position in the court and in the state, he was able to deploy the network of ambassadors and the network created by the Levant company, in places like Syria and Turkey, to have agents who would look out for books and manuscripts for him.
These included such exotic creatures to the early 17th century librarians of Oxford, as illuminated in calligraphic books in Turkish, Arabic and Persian, some of them from the Mughal courts, but no doubt traded via places where English agents could acquire them. Damascus, Aleppo, and Constantinople.
These Mughal paintings were created by some of the greatest artists of the period and must have appeared as exceptionally beautiful at the time they were first viewed in London and Oxford in the 1630s.
Lord was not, of course, specifically collecting examples of fine penmanship or painting. He was interested in their religious and philosophical texts. And these books may also have served a role as research materials for the academic position he was to endow, the Laudian Professorship of Arabic at Oxford, the oldest established academic position in that subject in the western world.
Other collectors would soon add to this public institutional collection of art in book form.
John Grieves, one of the civilian professors of geometry, returned from the Middle East with albums of Moghul miniatures in lacquered bindings. As well as this copy of the Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, by Ismail Al-Jazari.
As his surname indicates, the author’s homeland was Al Jazeera, the area between the upper reaches of the Tigris and the Euphrates. He died in 1206, and his book is one of the earliest manuals of engineering. The manuscript was copied in 1486.
Other great collectors that followed, such as John Seldon, would begin a succession of the later 17th century, who would make the Bodleian one of the great collections of illuminated books from the Middle East and Asia in the west.
Such as Edward Pocock, who spent eight years as chaplain to the Levant Company at Aleppo. Robert Huntington, who amassed over 600 manuscripts with a focus on the Christian Orient. And Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh, who left over 700 near or Middle Eastern books in all languages on his death in 1714.
The interests of these collectors were complex. They were deeply interested in the texts that these books contained, seeking illumination on religious and philosophical ideas. But they included albums of book art with no profound textual interest, and were seen to be attractive for their visual interest only.
Despite the impact of these amazing 17th century collectors, the Book Arts were to be largely forgotten by institutional collectors for almost two centuries. It's hard to think of another one, another collection of this kind to research library until the bequest of Francis Douse's books to the Bodleian in 1834.
The Douce Collection, thousands of rare books and manuscripts, including western illuminated manuscripts in the hundreds have survived. But also, major Persian and Mughal manuscripts and albums of paintings. Printed books, printed ephemera, early children's books, fine book bindings, were all included in the Douce bequest. Transforming the Bodleian overnight from being a major research library into one of the greatest collections for the arts of the books in the world at the time.
I thought I would share a few of these outstanding art examples of Persian and Mughal book arts with you, as they might also serve as a taster for the exhibition Love and Devotion from Persia and beyond. Which is being developed as a collaboration between the Bodleian and the State Library Victoria, which will go on show next year.
The exhibition will explore the arts of the book in Persia, and the way they've influenced western aesthetics in both literature and art. The show will feature over 60 manuscripts from the Bodleian's collection of Persian manuscripts, as well as a number of major western medieval Manuscripts from the Bodleian, which explore how classic Persian stories have transcended cultural politics and geo, geographical boundaries and have become major influences on western writers and artists, and have shaped western tastes in books in profound and long-lasting ways.
One of the highlights of the show will be the manuscript of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a work inspired by a manuscript in the Bodleian, given during one of the earlier donations of Persian manuscripts.
One of the great treasures we will bring to Melbourne is a famous copy of the Baharistan of Jami, written circa 1595 and painted by the artist Madhu for the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar in Lahore. Here, showing the singer on the balcony, where you can see the heads of the gazing youth and the girl bowing her instrument appearing against the background of a flowering garden, suggesting the blossoming of their amorous feeling. To the right of the image, the master of the house looms behind a woven grass screen hung over a window opening. Kind of peeping, peeping on the two lovers.
Or here, from an exceptional copy of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the wellspring of Persian culture, the preeminent compendium of legend and knowledge about Iran's epic past. This copy was written and illuminated in Shiraz circa 1430 for the grandson of Timur and the son of Shahrukh, later owned by the great orientalist Sir Gore Ouseley.
This image shown sees Iskandar contemplating the Talking Tree. The tree bears male and female heads that speak by night and day, respectively, which mark the end of the world. In another image, Bahram Gur hunts in the company of Azhara. Two tall trees spill out in the margins.
Sir Gore Ouseley, the owner of these books, was an important British diplomat. The first British ambassador to Persia since the 17th century. He became imbued with a love for Persian culture, and taught himself Persian, Arabic and Turkish, a passion he shared with his brother William.
Both of them collected extensively, and these collections were, for the most part, to be brought together in the Bodleian in a series of gifts and purchases during the 19th century.
This image shows Bahram Gur and Princess Khwarazm in the Blue Pavilion, from a copy of the Sabʿa Sayyara circa 1553.
These images from the Haft Awrang or the Seven Thrones by Nur Jami, another classic of Persian literature.
This one is from the Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr, or Conference of the Birds, a poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, which uses the device of a journey by 30 birds led by a hoopoe as an allegory of the Sufi master's path to wisdom.
The modern appreciation of the Book Arts really begins with William Morris and therefore, conveniently for me, in Oxford.
William Morris, as an undergraduate at Exeter College, encountered medieval aesthetics and craft conditions at the same time as he encountered important writings, such as those of John Ruskin and of the Scandinavian literature of the early Middle Ages. He also met people who became major collaborators with him in the Book Arts, such as Edward Burne-Jones, a fellow undergraduate.
But during his time as a student, Morris also encountered serious books. And we have a record in the Bodleian of his viewing a major Western illuminated manuscript, a 13th century apocalypse, which had come to the Bodleian a few decades earlier in the bequest of Francis Douce, and now known as the Douce Apocalypse.
Morris, of course, went on to produce superb calligraphic manuscripts, including using his own collection of Renaissance writing manuals to support his passion, as well as commissioning work from professional scribes and illuminators. And of even great relevance to this presentation, of course, to establish the most influential private press of all time, the Kelmscott Press.
Here is an image from the Kelmscott Chaucer, another book you can see upstairs in the Mirror of the World exhibition here in the library.
In establishing the press, Morris sparked a regeneration of interest and enthusiasm and energy associated with the arts of the books worldwide. Morris's work as a book man is so well understood and appreciated that I do not need to reprise it here. But the point that I would like to make is that an interest and investment in the Book Arts in one generation has the potential to stimulate and trigger a whole new set of innovation and development in the Book Arts in subsequent generations.
Not only did Douce's gift help to turn Morris into a book artist, but it helped to generate another group of research materials. Morris gave the Bodleian an important group of his calligraphic manuscripts, and he and other members of his family gave us important Kelmscott materials. This blending of collecting historic book arts and contemporary continued into the 20th century, spurred on by the Arts and Crafts movement.
Philip Hofer was a Harvard graduate of independent means who began to collect materials on the arts of the book for himself in the 1920s. His collecting was always concerned with original graphic media. Woodcut, engraving, etching, lithography or photography. He held curatorial positions at the New York Public Library and the Morgan before joining the staff of the Harvard College Library in 1938, founding and developing the Department of Printing and the Graphic Arts.
Hofer had the luxury of being able to finance the work of his new department himself, making large numbers of individual acquisitions for Harvard and, somewhat confusingly, for himself, and mixing trading in with his own acquisitions. Not to be recommended.
The significance and beauty of letterforms, whether on the manuscript or on a printed page, were of paramount concern to Hofer. He collected early writing manuals and type specimens. He carefully watched the modern revival in lettering and calligraphy, acquired the work of Eric Gill and Grady Hewitt, but commissioned work from Marie Angel, Alfred Fairbank, and Hermann Zapf. His admiration for the work of the great contemporary printers and typographers led him to collect and to commission work from W.A. Dwiggins, Bruce Rogers, Rudolph Rusica, Jan Van Krimpun and Giovanni Madisteig.
Fortunately the Bodleian's own interests coincided with those of Philip Hofer, and between 1955 and ‘61 he commissioned the celebrated British calligrapher, Irene Wellington, to write out a text called the Quartet of the Seasons with miniatures by the artists Marie Angel as a gift to the Bodleian.
Irene Wellington was an assistant to and favourite pupil of the great calligrapher Edward Johnston. Himself, of course, a disciple of William Morris. The quartet was to be bound in separate folds of vellum, but this was never done.
The double openings each portray a season, although there were two alternative versions for summer and winter secures only a single page. The designs of the double openings are quite different from each other and are thought of as a single panel rather than two separate images. Each opening was treated as an entity in its own right, unlike many other calligraphic manuscript books, but they've a unifying framework that runs throughout.
The Bodleian has never had a single donor in modern times with the vision, energy and commitment, and resources, of Philip Hofer. Some say that that may have been a blessing as Hoefer was, by all accounts, a maverick collector who organised his working life in ways that are unthinkable today.
Perhaps the person in the Bodleian's history who comes closest to Hofer is John de Monins Johnson. He was printer to the University of Oxford, that is to say, he ran the printing house at OUP at a time that OUP did its own printing.
But he became interested in printed ephemera during the 1930s and began collecting this material when there were few competitors. By the time of his retirement from OUP in 1946 and his death in 1956, his collection had grown like topsy and now occupied a suite of rooms in the press. And in the desire to reclaim the space, the collection was given to the Bodleian in 1968. Today, it amounts to over 1.5 million items, ranging from paper board games for children developed in the 18th century to posters, like at this one advertising industrial giants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even posters and placards from the student riots of 2010.
The collection has never been catalogued but has been systematically digitised to allow for greater access through full text searching. And so far we've been able to digitise some 200,000 items from the collections. The collection includes a great deal of material that would come under the heading of the Book Arts.
There's a great series of materials relating to the private presses of the 20th century. Correspondence between John Johnson and people like the great typographer Bruce Rogers. Also the materials of the work of great illustrators and graphic designers, such as E. McKnight Kauffer or Eric Pepler. And through the collections, teaching is frequently done on the development of graphic processes, from wood engraving to silk screening.
The collection has become a magnet for collectors of ephemera for specialists in graphic design and print making and the volunteers wishing to work with interesting materials. New groups of academics work with the collections such as historians of consumption, historians of science and criminologists.
The collection's attracted almost two million pounds worth of external project funding. And through a partnership with the electronic publisher, Proquest Information, a digital resource that earns subscription income has been created in addition to many completely free collections.
The message here is that what is being viewed as a book arts collection will be, in its broader sense, will be interpreted in many different ways by different generations of scholars. And will remain latent with opportunities for scholarly exploitation, both teaching and research, for attracting external-research funding and for generating income through collaboration with publishers. Someone once said, ‘What's not to like?’
Major special collections of historic materials relating to the Book Arts clearly then have a more than passing relevance to the work of the 21st century research library. They can be seen as pretty integral to the core mission of these bodies.
But what about more specialist areas of collecting? Or direct involvement in the contemporary practice of the specific areas of the Book Arts? What business might a research library have in collecting contemporary book bindings, or sponsoring competitions, or even commissioning the work of a contemporary book binder?
Many great research libraries have had an interest in fine book binding in the past, dating mostly from the days when almost all institutions of this kind had binderies of their own. They wouldn't produce things like this, which is a 10th century German metal-binding with a Carolingian ivory inset in the cover.
These binderies, but institutional libraries, when they had their own book binderies, would undertake routine journal binding as well as repairs to older books. But as the cost of maintaining independent binderies have outstripped the demands on them and the rise in electronic journal provision has further rendered the bound periodical as a thing of the past, libraries have tended to close their own operations and to outsource their binding needs.
But of course the bath water which was discarded with such alacrity in the 1990s has also contained a few babies. One of them was knowledge of books as three-dimensional structural objects. And the knowledge of how to repair damaged books that libraries might want to keep has now become harder and in many ways more expensive.
This knowledge is now the preserve of curators of rare books, and of the more specialist breed of conservator. One of the other buck babies has been fine book binding. It's very often the case in library book binderies that some of the staff would be enthusiastic fine binders, interested mostly in finishing rather than the less glamorous aspects of forwarding. But these individuals played a part in retaining these skills and would occasionally foster among their community a fine binder of great quality.
Libraries like the Bodleian have, of course, collected fine bindings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance for some time. Sometimes, this has been collecting by accident, such as this embroidered binding, made as a New Years gift Queen Elizabeth the First by the world printer, Christopher Barker. And really, acquired for its royal association rather than for the binding.
Others have arrived with the collections donated by the great collectors of the 20th century, such as the Broxbourne Collection formed by Albert in the first six decades in the 20th century and encompassing some 2,000 medieval renaissance and modern bindings. Such as this quintessential Book Arts binding from the Doves bindery on an addition of Milton. Or this wonderful Art Deco binding by the woman, the binder Sybil Pi bought by airman from the binder. And this commission from the French binder, Paul Bonnet.
Today, I'm pleased to say fine book binding is flourishing. It's flourishing perhaps despite the work of research libraries. However, a number of these libraries are rediscovering an interest in the field. And in the UK at least we now have a surprisingly active scene that supports the work of these talented committed and enthusiastic group of artists and crafts people.
The British Library, for example, has worked with the Folio Society for a number of years to sponsor an annual book binding competition. The John Ryland's library at Manchester regularly exhibits contemporary fine bookbinding. And the National Library of Scotland has had an annual book binding competition sponsored by Mrs Elizabeth Suitor for almost 20 years.
In 2007, the Bodleian embarked on a new venture in partnership with the excellent group, Designer Book Binders. The Bodleian Sir Paul Getty Bookbinding prize was established in conjunction with a major international competition, which was organised by Designer Book Binders, and which also featured the commissioning of a book from a fine press. In this case, an anthology on the theme of water, printed by the Incline Press.
Resulting competition attracted over 300 applicants from 29 countries, including, I'm pleased to say, Australia. I chaired a panel of judges, which had an incredibly difficult task in selecting 23 prize winners out of these 300 applicants.
There was an astonishing richness in materials used, in design approaches, in the quality and style of lettering, and in the interpretation of the theme of the publication. Some of the binders took a quite literal approach, with nautical and aquatic motifs featuring prominently. Others were far less obvious, seeking to evoke moods or triggering a more general sense.
One entrant collected garbage found washed up on a beach, incorporating it in the binding. Another used the scales of a fish in the cover. Fortunately, it didn't smell. One binding could only appreciated, could only be appreciated by tilting the box that the binding came in, contained substances that mimic the sound of waves rolling up a beach when it was tilted back and forth.
Eventually we did choose a winner, Allen Terall from France, and a runner up, Jenny Grey from the UK. Allen Terall's amazing book was made from pear wood covered by Cerilian Birch Veniere decorated with fusion marketry made of 17 different woods including palm, youd, bubinga, matti, ambognia and many others.
Its wooden joints being fixed with a steel axis, finished off by swayed end leaves and a wooden slip case also made from Cerilian Birch Veniere. Unfortunately, I can't convey to you just the pleasure of opening this book and feeling it and actually hearing it slip in and out of its slip case. It was just completely ecstatic experience to hold this book. Come to Oxford and I'll show it to you.
The design evokes water through visual references and inferences to rocks, earth, clouds, tears, rivers and lakes and was the unanimous choice of the judges.
Jenny Grey's binding, the runner up, was very different. She chose to divide the sheets into two bindings, water and water-borne. They were made from embroidered gray Dipien style fabric and airbrushed end papers with sterling silver wire fixings in etched acrylic. Engineered to very precise tolerances and executed completely faultlessly, so the lines create wave shadows on the end papers. And the, the, the precision of the execution of this, all done by hand, is just absolutely astonishing. The accompanying box conveniently has shell bottom fastenings. The design was inspired by light and shade created by sun and clouds on the surface of the sea and echoes the marbling forms in the text.
Other bindings, including this one by Dominique Dumont from France, brought a very tactile sensibility in the cover. And you can see the kind of resin dew drops on, on the, the leaves of grass there. Kully Grunbekstein, from Estonia, with her charming fold-out design trying to evoke sails. The British Mary Norwood's wonderful domestic water-pipes were made from timber and clay, but each were wrapped in goatskin. Very, very, very, very wonderful. Finally, another Brit, George Kirkpatrick, managed to convey the absence of water in his binding. You can just see the, the metal clasp was actually made of silver and there's a kind of drop of water that it, it makes on the upper leaf onto these parched, muddy bottom of a river or a lake. And on the bottom side, the water is encouraging the new shoots of growth. Very, very inventive.
This exhibition was seen by well over 20,000 people in Oxford. And many more during a US tour, where it was shown by the Boston Public Library, by Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco, and by the Grolier Club in New York City.
The Bodleian produced a sumptuous catalogue of the competition in collaboration with designer book binders, which has also sold over 2,000 copies. The binders were able to sell their works after the various exhibitions and found the whole experience enhancing to their careers, many obtaining commissions as well as selling the competition bindings.
The competition and exhibition of the Bodleian was sponsored by Mark Getty in honour of his late, late father Sir Paul Getty, one of the most important philanthropists in the UK, and the owner of a major collection of rare books and manuscripts. So the association is a natural alliance of interests of his and those of the Bodleian.
In supporting contemporary bookbinding then, the modern research library can find a useful way of adding research materials to its collections as the winning and runner-up bindings were both deposited in the library. And make a strong connection to the general public, representing them with an unusual, interesting art form. And connecting with a major philanthropist into the bargain was a bonus for the library.
Calligraphy is one of the Book Arts currently lacking a prominent public profile. Unlike typography, illustration, and even book binding, calligraphy has almost become invisible to the wider public. And even within circles of the committed, and others with a deep interest in the Book Arts, it's hard to find contemporary calligraphy. The art of calligraphy has not died, however, it continues to be practiced by a group of talented and committed devotees.
The Bodleian has a long-held interest in calligraphy and in script. The great scholar practitioners who inherited the passion of the Arts and Crafts era, men like James Waldrop and Alfred Fairbank, gave their collections to the Bodleian, creating massive resources that enabled both historians and practitioners to benefit from their legacy.
One of the Bodleian's own staff became so accomplished that exhibition catalogue signs and many other more routine labels were created very carefully and beautifully by him in a modern italic. Incredibly visually appealing, but incredibly profligate of staff time, unfortunately, and it's, it's now lapsed.
One of the legacies of Waldrop and Fairbank was the foundation of Oxford Scribes, an organisation not founded until 1984, but inspired by their by their efforts. The society grew up in Oxford, surrounded by both by institutions able and willing to commission work, and a deep well of reference materials in the Bodleian for inspiration and information.
One of our great supporters recently commissioned a wonderful calligraphic tour de force by members of Oxford Scribes, a set of contemporary calligraphic copies of each of the Shakespeare sonnets. In all, some thirty calligraphers were involved, each producing a different sonnet on a sheet of vellum. The group then stored in this custom-built wooden case. This is a really beautiful object that will enhance future Bodleian exhibitions on Shakespeare or poetry, as well as providing a record of early 21st century calligraphy for future cultural historians.
Perhaps most significant, the man who commissioned the work helped to preserve the practice of one of the most beautiful of the book arts. Without active commissions such as this, calligraphy may suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Should the Bodleian, as a past recipient of benefactions relating to calligraphy, and as a major centre for study of calligraphy, become a commissioner? The answer is ‘yes’, we should.
How then fares that more celebrated element of the Book Arts, typography? Many research libraries have actively sought to collect materials relating to the history and development of type.
Cambridge University Library, with its wonderful Morrison room, has developed a superb resource and have a major collection of historic types, such as the types used for the Kelmscott press, and types of other fine British presses of the 20th century.
As an integral part of this resource, Cambridge has a working printing press in its historical printing room, and regularly holds teaching classes. This is part of a phenomenon of teaching presses based in libraries around the world. This started off life of ways of teaching graduate students about the transmission of texts, showing the operation of printing house practices through practical demonstration. I was lucky enough to learn this way from the late Stanley Britt, a bookseller who volunteered to operate the printing press at the Library School at University College London in the early 1980s.
The Bibliography Room in the Bodleian, as we call our teaching press, is our own contribution to this movement and has been in existence since 1949, when it was founded by FP Wilson, the then Merton Professor of English, and Lars Hansen, then Bodleian's keeper of printed books.
Together with Herbert Davis, the first holder of the University's post of Reader in Textural Criticism, they instituted the series of classes in hand printing in a room equipped with presses, type, handmade paper, and specimens of printing from the hand-press era.
It now contains six presses. A common press, which was formerly used by the Oxford University Press, three Albians, and a Columbian, from the same source. This facility is now thriving under the direction of our resident printer, Paul Nash, who also runs his own private press, the Strawberry Press.
Classes are given to graduate students, such as the ones you can see on the screen, and to undergraduates. And not just from Oxford. This case is a class from Bath University.
We now hold classes, this is Paul Nash, for the general public, which so far have all sold out. We've recently added—and here you can see a copy of one of the pamphlets that our English graduate students print. They each choose a poem, compose a page of type, marble paper, print their own page and have it all stab-stitched and issued as a publication—we've recently added, through a gift, one of the Albion presses used by Leonard Baskin to print many of the Gehenna Press books that were made following the reestablishment of the press in 1981.
The press itself is, has had an interesting history. It was made in England and purchased by Lisa Baskin as a gift to Leonard after they had relocated to Lurley in Devon to be close to Ted Hughes. And thus beginning a phase of intense creative partnership between the two men that was to result in some of the beautiful and compelling handmade books of the 20th century.
The press then returned to Massachusetts when the Baskins took the Gehenna back to the US in 1984. The press finally returned to the UK in 2009, collecting fabulous frequent-flier points in the process, when the Bodleian acquired the Gehenna Press archive as part gift and part purchase.
So this leads me to discuss, for a moment, the acquisition and use by research libraries of major archives of the modern and contemporary book arts.
The Gehenna Press archive is the Bodleian’s most recent acquisition for the book arts archive. In the past 20 years we have acquired others, such as the archive of the book designer presided over the design of books at the Bodley Head, John Rider. Or more recently the gift of the papers of Vivian Riddler, the last person to hold the title printed to the University of Oxford.
But Gehenna has been different, we purchased part of it. For one thing, why should we spend money on such an archive?
Firstly, it provides us with a rich archive for graduate students and senior scholars to get to grips with. There is a great deal of correspondence, notebooks and other textual items, as well as a great series of literary manuscripts, from manuscript drafts to final proofs documenting the work of the poets and writers that Landon Baskin collaborated with, the most celebrated of whom of course was Ted Hughes.
The archive, of course, also shows the press in action. Trial proofs and dummies of the letter press worker are there in abundance. But it is the visual and artistic material that really marks the collection out for us.
Baskin’s artistic vision was both original and powerful, highly-skilful and technically innovative. The extensive collections document his artistic processes from sketches on the back of discarded proof sheets, to various stages of engraving, etching, woodcut and linocut, and indeed many other graphic processes.
The complexity of his use of different processes, often used in combination, and especially of its use of multiple colours, will provide challenging material for graduate students to hone their skills in the material culture of late 20th century art. And it will provide great opportunities for teaching undergraduates about print making and graphic processes using real life examples of technical experimentation, as well as getting to grips with the largely unmined archival research resource.
The archive is so rich in materials that we are actively planning a major exhibition based on the work of Leonard Baskin as a book artist, and centred around the Gehenna archive. It's been conceived as a major project involving academic research, the publication of a scholarly catalogue and a major touring exhibition. The project will provide a superb vehicle for scholars at Oxford and will be funded through research grants.
Such a project will hit a number of buttons for the Bodleian. We can help one of our hard-pressed humanities departments, through providing a research project to produce research ‘outputs’, in inverted commas, as books, articles and catalogues are now deemed by the Higher Education Funding Council in the UK. Including exhibitions themselves which have the added benefit of producing evidence of ‘impact’.
A real buzz word in UK ‘research funding’ at the moment. Humanities tend to struggle to demonstrate the impact of that research. It is easier to demonstrate the impacts of cancer medicine say, then the rhetoric of. But attendance at a public exhibition where hundreds of thousands of people might potentially attend can be measured. Now, I'm not arguing here in favour of impact as a tool to measure the value of research or as a factor to calculate research funding. But in the UK we exist in this regime now and anything that libraries can do to help humanities researchers play the game can only be a good thing.
Now the Baskin’s work defies categorisation. Were his books fine press editions or artist books?
I would like to consider for a moment the concept of the artist book.
A large collection of artists’ books can show in an affordable way the development of modern art throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. I'd like to cite, for example, the Reva and David Logan collection of illustrated books in the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco. An amazingly rich collection of artists books which really connect the world of books to the world of fine art and transcends somehow the craft tradition that William Morris reignited in the late 19th century. And through the Kelmscott Chaucer can, although it, the Kelmscott Chaucer can in some ways claim to be the world's first modern artist book.
Other artists produced superbly conceived combinations of images and text, sometimes weighted very heavily in favour of the art. After Morris, we have Rodin, Picasso, Kandinsky, Chagall and, of course, Matisse. Then in the post-war era artists like Claes Oldenburg, Ed Roche, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell and Harold Hotchkin, have all produced wonderful artist books, many of which are now almost unobtainably rare and expensive. This then provides libraries with a great opportunity to acquire the work of major artists in an affordable way. If you can get, get to them early, these superb resources for teaching and research can be acquired when the artist is still relatively young, and then of course they're much more affordable than the canvases and sculpture that hang in great galleries. And you can see, again, some fantastic artist books up in the Mirror of the World exhibition upstairs in the library.
I would like to spend a little time discussing one important artist-book archive in the Bodleian, Tom Phillips.
Tom Phillips is one of those people who elude being pigeon-holed, such is the breadth of his talent, interests and skills. He's best known as a great visual artist, much sought after portrait painter and the designer of such diverse things as the Conflict Memorial in Westminster Abbey and the 50 pence piece.
He's curated major exhibitions, such as the major survey of African art at the World Academy in the Guggenheim in 1995, Africa, Art of the Continent, and he’s also composed operas, designed tapestries and album covers. He's also an expert on the history of postcards.
In the mid-1960s, Tom Phillips took a forgotten 19th century novel, W.H. Matlock's A Human Document and began working over the extent text to create something new. Tom plundered, mined and undermined its texts to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and surrealist catastrophes, which seem to lurk within its wall of words.
‘As I worked upon it,’ he recounted, ‘I replaced the text I'd stripped away with visual images of all kinds’. And on this dust jacket, just, you can see an example of one of his Humument pages. He actually designed this one for the library. Tom keeps working on the Humument Project and occasionally adds new pages for other projects, such as this one, which adorns the wrappers of a book on photo postcards that he's recently published with the Bodleian’s own imprint.
Our first piece of work with Tom Philips was the acquisition of his archive for the artist book of Dante's Inferno, which he published under his own imprint of the Talfourd Press. This deluxe edition of 138 prints, which accompanied the translated poetry, took him seven years to complete and it became a complete work of art.
He began by drawing a bust of Dante every day for two years between 1975 and 1977, and then began a translation of Dante's original in Italian by sending standards of his translation on a postcard to his mentor Frank Albach and the playwright David Routkin, working on them in what he describes as several hundred evenings from 1979 to 1982.
The prints were painstakingly printed as etchings, lithographs and screen prints with Tom even having paper made and tinted to his own specifications at Inverness Mills, near Wells and Somerset, with his signature incorporated into the watermark. Although 50 notebooks were filled with a preparatory textual and artistic studies. The resultant deluxe edition was in three volumes, weighing in at over 14 pound.
The Bodleian purchased the archive of the Dante book from Tom Phillips in 2004 and showed a selection of pieces in an exhibition called Italy's Three Crowns, created by the professor of Italian at Oxford and designed to celebrate the cultural impact of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
Of course the Bodleian has superb holdings of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books of all three writers, but the inclusion of the Phillips material brought our survey bang up-to-date, and we were able to also to show clips from a TV Dante, which Tom wrote with the director Peter Greenaway. It was the first commission for the British TV station, Channel 4.
Most recently, Tom Phillips has produced an eBook version of A Humument, designed specifically as an iPad app, which in its own way is rather wonderful. So how do research libraries benefit from their involvement in the Book Arts?
I hope I've shown that the Book Arts provide tremendous opportunities for research libraries to advance their own work and the work of the academic communities and the researchers that many of them are surrounded by and used by.
Far from being a burden or a distraction from the serious business of supporting researchers, the Book Arts can play their own unique part in allowing research to flourish. More importantly, as history has shown time and time again, the Book Arts are an area where artists, collectors and philanthropists have often been enormously generous to libraries in donating materials and financial resources to enable libraries to acquire book arts materials and to catalogue, preserve, exhibit, digitise and publish them.
Very often, the support is stronger for the Book Arts than it is for other areas of academic engagement for research libraries. So, in many cases, libraries can develop their collecting research activities in the Book Arts without having to divert funds from areas like science, medicine and engineering.
There are those that sometimes still question whether the support for some donors should be channelled in one direction for another. The response here is, I think that the Book Arts do more than just provide opportunities for research. They are the perfect means to engage students and young people with an enriched experience in teaching through providing access to compelling, original materials, for close study in seminar or internship.
In Oxford, we've involved students in cataloguing the Tom Phillips archive. And in so doing, they've met the art, the artist and feel a real connection to his work. We're about to do the same with Gehenna, but obviously, unfortunately, they won't get to meet Leonard Baskin.
Because materials are eminently exhibitable and can enrich the lives of students, whether they are helping to curate the exhibition or merely, merely coming to view it. Through these exhibitions research libraries can also reach out to the wider community, inviting local residents into the doors of the library to enjoy materials normally restricted to rare books’ reading rooms and will often bring viewers from much further afield than the immediate locality.
This is an example of an exhibition of Islamic Book Arts that we took to the European Parliament for their Arab Week in 2009. And just this small exhibition was opened by the President of the European Parliament. It was attended by the speaker of the Iraqi Parliament and the President of the League of Arab Nations and widely viewed by the watchers of Al Jazeera, the TV company. And it just shows how the Book Arts can in some circumstances be cultural ambassadors. These books were deliberately shown selected to demonstrate the connections between the West and the Arab world.
All of these examples point to the essential fact that the Book Arts will flourish in research libraries and in society more generally, because they are not digital. The very pervasiveness of digital media is what is driving the persistent health of the Book Arts and even a growth in interest and investment in it.
In an age where books and newspapers are increasingly licensed and not owned, the ability to own a handcrafted work of skill and beauty can be seen as both an investment for the present and the future.
The idea of being left a collection of fine-pressed books in a will is rather more enticing, I would say, than being left a Kindle.
The Book Arts can even generate income through creative entrepreneurship and commercialisation of the Book Arts. Even the humble Christmas cards, such as these examples from the Bodleian can be used to generate surplus income that can support library services across the piece.
This is one of our Christmas cards in 2010.
Traditional sources of income for libraries from public funding sources are put under ever increasing pressure, it's important to look for ways that libraries can be responsible for their own financial well-being. The Book Arts can be a big help in this.
This sense then, that the Book Arts look forward to the future as much as they do to the past, is at the heart of how research libraries, I think, should engage with the Book Arts. It also poses a more challenging question for these institutions, what is the role of the research library in cultural preservation?
In the past, probably without realising it, research libraries sometimes played an active role in the preservation in the skills and techniques of the Book Arts. They did this through their in-house binderies, through their teaching presses, through supporting minority interests in fields such as calligraphy and printmaking.
The survival of these skills and interests is intimately connected with research. Knowing in great detail how parchment was prepared in Renaissance Italy, or how the more obscure processes from photography, like the platinum process for example while undertaken, is vital for many contemporary book artists.
So two of the kind of advanced digital skills and expertise that often lie, reside in library IT departments.
Research libraries, obviously hold texts that help the artist learn how to develop their work. But the research knowledge and people like creators of rare books could be utilised more creatively and support the contemporary practice in the Book Arts, I think.
So, I think there's a great opportunities here for research libraries to engage in the contemporary practices, in a very deep and serious way.
As I have tried to show, this trend is part of a long tradition of engagement and one which is no way in conflict with the important and vital developments in digital information that surround all of us, all of the time. In fact, they complement this development and fill a void left by it. Libraries are enduring institutions and must take the long view that the investment in one generation may only be revealed and received by another later generation.
I can't leave this topic without giving the last word to William Morris, whose thoughts on the arts of making fine books continue to point the way for us into the future.
‘Let us study it wisely’, he wrote. ‘Be taught by it, kindled by it, all the while determining not to imitate or repeat it. To have even no art at all or an art which we have made our own.’
Thankyou very much.
Book art is the idea that a book is a work of visual or tactile art beyond its inherent textual value.
About this video
In the digital age are books and the associated 'book arts' still relevant to a 21st-century research library?
Join a discussion with distinguished librarian Richard Ovenden of Oxford's Bodleian library to hear whether books are on the endangered list.
Learn the answers to the question: is there still a place for design, typography and illustration in book production? And is the quality of paper, ink and binding still an important part of the process?
Thankfully, Richard explains that at the Bodleian Library interest in both the history and modern-day production of remarkably beautiful physical books is on the rise.
Richard Ovenden FRSA FSA is keeper of special collections and director of the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian library.