Christopher Allen and Public Works
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)