Christo­pher Allen and Public Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - Christo­pher Allen In­spi­ra­tion by De­sign: Word and Im­age from the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, un­til June 14.

Books have been cru­cial to civil­i­sa­tion for sev­eral thou­sand years, but their form, as well as the way they have been pro­duced, stored and read, have changed con­sid­er­ably over that time, from hand­writ­ten scrolls to printed books and now dig­i­tal read­ers. As with most forms of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, there have been gains and losses in the process.

The an­cient Egyp­tians, Greeks, Ro­mans and Chi­nese all wrote on scrolls, and the change from the rolled-up book — the ori­gin of the word vol­ume — to the book com­posed of sep­a­rate pages, tech­ni­cally known as a codex, has been as­so­ci­ated with early Chris­tian read­ers, who wanted to be able to leaf back and forth in their Bibles with greater ease, com­par­ing vari­a­tions in the dif­fer­ent Gospels or pas­sages in the New and Old Tes­ta­ments.

Ma­te­ri­als changed too. The Chi­nese had silk and pa­per; in the West there was pa­pyrus in an­tiq­uity, then parch­ment or vel­lum, made from an­i­mal skins: tough ma­te­ri­als suited to with­stand­ing the calami­ties of the Dark Ages be­tween the fall of Rome and the rise of ma­ture me­dieval civil­i­sa­tion. When pa­per man­u­fac­ture, learned from the Chi­nese, be­gan in com­mer­cial quan­ti­ties in the 15th cen­tury, it made pos­si­ble the in­ven­tion of print­ing, which pro­duced the knowl­edge revo­lu­tion of the early mod­ern pe­riod.

To­day we live in a new knowl­edge revo­lu­tion, and the fate of the tra­di­tional book is widely de­bated. On the one hand we find our­selves in­creas­ingly read­ing texts on dig­i­tal screens of one kind or an­other — and li­brary ad­min­is­tra­tors rush in lem­ming-like fash­ion to in­stall more screens and re­duce shelf space — yet book­shops are full of end­less new pub­li­ca­tions of vari­able qual­ity.

One sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment in the past 20 or more years has been the ap­par­ent re­turn of the hard­back. A cen­tury ago, se­ri­ous books in the English-speak­ing world were usu­ally pub­lished with cloth­bound card­board cov­ers. Pa­per­backs be­gan to ap­pear be­tween the wars and Pen­guin in par­tic­u­lar was a pi­o­neer of qual­ity pub­lish­ing in a bud­get for­mat. Even­tu­ally pa­per­backs came to pre­dom­i­nate.

It was not, how­ever, the pa­per or hard cov­ers that made the great­est dif­fer­ence but the struc­ture of the book it­self. In a hard­back, the printed sheets con­tain­ing mul­ti­ple pages are folded and stitched to­gether be­fore be­ing bound. Even early Pen­guins were still made like this, but soon pa­per­backs be­gan to be pro­duced with so­called per­fect bind­ing, in which the sheets are cut with a guil­lo­tine into sep­a­rate leaves and held to­gether with glue down the spine.

Real bind­ing is far su­pe­rior to per­fect bind­ing be­cause the vol­ume can be opened flat, used again and again and even be quite se­verely mis­treated with­out fall­ing apart. The cover will usu­ally come off long be­fore the book block it­self fails. In per­fect-bound books, spines crack, pages fall out and books can come apart af­ter a sin­gle read­ing. Per­fect bind­ing is for dis­pos­able books, not for durable ones.

Then, a cou­ple of decades ago, cu­ri­ously co­in­cid­ing with the rise of the in­ter­net, the book mar­ket sud­denly re­dis­cov­ered the glam­our of hard­back pub­lish­ing, and hard­cover edi­tions of new books and clas­sics be­gan to pro­lif­er­ate, of­ten at sur­pris­ingly low prices. But th­ese were in re­al­ity a sort of bas­tard prod­uct, a per­fect-bound pa­per­back with a cheaply made cover and a shiny dust jacket. They were books for the post­mod­ern age: solid on the out­side, flimsy on the in­side.

At any rate, peo­ple still seem to be buy­ing a lot of phys­i­cal books, even though so much is avail­able so cheaply on de­vices such as Kin­dle. Phys­i­cal books have sub­stan­tial ad­van­tages, from not be­ing a screen — sym­bol of our mod­ern al­ways-con­nected servitude — to not re­quir­ing recharg­ing. You can’t take a Kin­dle or a lap­top to a desert is­land.

The ab­so­lute porta­bil­ity of the book, its tas­ca­bil­ity (able to be car­ried in a pocket, to bor­row from the Ital­ian), its un­wired, un­pow­ered, of­f­grid au­ton­omy, are all sym­pa­thetic to the free­dom of the mind. But, above all, the phys­i­cal book is best adapted to se­ri­ous read­ing. For util­i­tar­ian brows­ing, for the news, for most aca­demic pur­poses, on­line and dig­i­tal are prefer­able. But for com­muning with a text that one may read, re-read, an­no­tate, read aloud to oth­ers, mem­o­rise for one­self — for the most se­ri­ous en­gage­ment — we still want a phys­i­cal vol­ume in the hand.

The value of the book, both as repos­i­tory of knowl­edge and cul­ture and as a beau­ti­ful ob­ject in it­self, was not in ques­tion for the founders of what be­came the Na­tional Art Li­brary at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury. The ori­gin of th­ese in­sti­tu­tions lay in the need to ed­u­cate man­u­fac­tur­ers and con­sumers in the new age of mass pro­duc­tion.

The com­par­a­tively poor qual­ity of Bri­tish man­u­fac­tured goods had al­ready been recog­nised in the 1830s and had led to the estab­lish­ment of public li­braries. Af­ter the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851 in Lon­don, the first of the in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions that would be im­i­tated around the world for more than a cen­tury, the need to im­prove the stan­dard of de­sign in Bri­tain at­tracted the pa­tron­age of Queen Vic­to­ria’s con­sort, Prince Al­bert, who en­cour­aged the foun­da­tion of a school of de­sign and mu­seum and ini­tially lent one of the royal res­i­dences as the home for the new li­brary. It was af­ter his death in 1861 that the rapidly grow­ing in­sti­tu­tion was re­named the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum.

The li­brary was set up from the first with the am­bi­tion of cov­er­ing the his­tory and the­ory of art and de­sign in all their as­pects, but also of

mak­ing this in­for­ma­tion as ac­ces­si­ble as pos­si­ble to non-aca­demic read­ers and users. The re­sult was a vast, com­pre­hen­sive and also, com­pared with a nor­mal art his­tory li­brary, di­verse and eclec­tic col­lec­tion of works, a small se­lec­tion from which is the ba­sis of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria. It is ac­com­pa­nied by a fine cat­a­logue — par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing on the his­tory of the li­brary and of art ed­u­ca­tion in gen­eral — which re­veals that the Mel­bourne show is a some­what re­duced ver­sion of the one to which the book cor­re­sponds, with some tan­ta­lis­ing omis­sions.

Some of the first items ex­hib­ited re­call the en­cy­clo­pe­dic am­bi­tions of the li­brary as well as those of the pub­lish­ers of sump­tu­ous vol­umes of ethnog­ra­phy and or­nithol­ogy. There are a few mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ples of bind­ing as well, from a French 16th-cen­tury vol­ume to an early 20th­cen­tury edi­tion of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Ed­ward Fitzger­ald’s fa­mous trans­la­tion. The li­brary’s more im­me­di­ately ped­a­gogic in­ten­tion is rep­re­sented by a mid 19th-cen­tury man­ual of art his­tory ad­dressed to pain­ters and de­sign­ers. The aim is to demon­strate the prac­ti­cal lessons that can be learned from the great masters, and the book is open at a dis­cus­sion of a group por­trait by Rubens. The work is il­lus­trated in a colour plate that, though only ap­prox­i­mately ac­cu­rate, helps to sup­port use­ful re­marks on the dis­tri­bu­tion of hues and the bal­ance of cool and warm ar­eas.

Later ma­te­rial of ped­a­gogic in­ter­est in­cludes ex­am­ples of de­sign and ty­pog­ra­phy such as a modernist al­pha­bet from the Bauhaus that in­ter­est­ingly re­veals the flaw in the designer’s search for the sup­pos­edly es­sen­tial form of each let­ter: the forms are fun­da­men­tally alien­ated from the ac­tions of the hand by which the shapes of let­ters were pro­duced in the first place.

Among the more in­ter­est­ing items is a col­lec­tion of pro­pa­ganda works from the Soviet Union, Maoist China and Nazi Ger­many, in­clud­ing a mag­a­zine cel­e­brat­ing Hitler’s 50th birth­day and show­ing him ten­derly hold­ing the face of a lit­tle blonde girl, and most in­trigu­ingly the front page of the Ber­liner Il­lus­trirte Zeitung in Oc­to­ber 1940 with a pic­ture of Lon­don in the Blitz, clearly taken on the spot and pre­sum­ably with a hid­den cam­era.

Equally in­ter­est­ing, and from just be­fore the war, is a se­ries of pho­to­graphs by Bill Brandt, an An­glo-Ger­man pho­tog­ra­pher who left for Eng­land in 1933, of a day in the life of a Lon­don par­lour maid in 1939. Her day is busy, with re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at break­fast, lunch and din­ner; she has the dig­nity of a skilled pro­fes­sional, but it goes with­out say­ing that her so­cial po­si­tion is be­low that of the fam­ily she serves. This so­cial strat­i­fi­ca­tion had al­ready been shaken by World War I and would be largely shat­tered by the up­heaval of World War II.

Of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance are ex­am­ples of book il­lus­tra­tion, es­pe­cially those that ac­com­pa­nied the works of Charles Dick­ens in their pub­li­ca­tion in se­rial form and later in vol­umes. Ge­orge Cruik­shank’s ini­tial draw­ings for the fig­ure of Fa­gin in pri­son are in­cluded, as well as the fi­nal printed de­sign. There are fine ex­am­ples of chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion too, in­clud­ing the works of Ran­dolph Calde­cott and Beatrix Pot­ter.

Sev­eral items re­veal the ra­pid­ity with which con­tem­po­rary art styles were taken up by com­mer­cial me­dia and turned into strik­ing ad­ver­tis­ing images. As­pects of sur­re­al­ism and even dada, es­pe­cially col­lage, were rapidly as­sim­i­lated and com­mer­cialised, and this process has con­tin­ued since.

Sim­i­larly, it is strik­ing how quickly com­mer­cial groups took to em­ploy­ing artists to make strik­ing images for them. The pub­li­ca­tions of the Bri­tish Post Of­fice are par­tic­u­larly no­table, and even Shell Oil com­mis­sioned paint­ings from artists such as Tris­tram Hil­lier.

A pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non of the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies was the fine col­lec­tor’s edi­tion of artists’ prints — such as Toulouse-Lautrec’s Elles se­ries of 1896 — or of lit­er­ary works, usu­ally po­ems, il­lus­trated by con­tem­po­rary artists. Or per­haps il­lus­trated is not quite right the right word, for part of the im­plicit un­der­stand­ing of th­ese works was that the artist’s de­signs were a par­al­lel cre­ation, in­spired by but not sub­servient to the text.

One of the lat­est ex­am­ples ex­hib­ited, David Hock­ney’s draw­ings to ac­com­pany the work of Con­stan­tine Cavafy, the poet of mod­ern Alexan­dria (1966), is in fact the most di­rectly il­lus­tra­tive, fol­lowed by those of Pierre Bon­nard for the po­ems of Paul Ver­laine. Per­haps the most strik­ingly dec­o­ra­tive of all are the joy­ous de­signs of Joan Miro for the sur­re­al­ist verse of Paul Elu­ard, but some­how Pi­casso man­ages to steal the show with the edi­tion of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Chant des morts ( The Song of the Dead, 1948). The text, grim and poignant, re­pro­duces the poet’s hand­writ­ing, and Pi­casso’s de­signs are min­i­mal but pow­er­ful, which em­pha­sise rather than dis­tract from the poet’s words.

From far left, il­lus­tra­tion from His­tory of the In­dian Tribes of North Amer­ica (1836); Mary Quant fash­ions mod­elled by Jean Shrimpton and Celia Ham­mond (1962); China Pic­to­rial mag­a­zine (1971); Eu­gene Gras­set ad­ver­tis­ing poster (1892)

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