August 12, 2005

A rare time

I was detained, last night, by evil companions (a good friend and my wife) and only managed 5 hours of sleep. That's ok, all you need is five hours if you then go and mortify the flesh in the gym for about two hours. Indeed, that's also a good way to make walking later too painful to do much of. But back to last night.

I went with a dear friend who is an international expert on rare books and manuscripts and toured some of the highlights of a private book and manuscript collection at a private club here in New York City. Seeing and handling rare books is a pretty interesting experience. I don't have the rare book bug, although I probably could catch it if I let myself. Its just that I lack the time, the money, and the education. I have the inclination, at least mildly, but the inclination by itself will not a collection build. Which is good. Collections are a responsibility and I'm never really certain who owns whom. Does the collector own the collection or does the collection, which requires special care and storage and handling and security and professional care, own the collector?

This collection had some highlights and I was really very fortunate to be able to touch and admire the following:

*Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London 1771). Catesby predated Audubon and his drawings of birds and plants were so extraordinarily colorful, even after some 230 years and so lifelike. It was the first natural history of America. We didn't look at the fish, but maybe another time.

Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida, & The Bahama Islands is one of the great achievements of Anglo-American science in the eighteenth- century. Catesby's great folio plates provided the means by which Europeans could view the natural produce of North American and thus were a part of the continuing discovery of the continent. Most of Catesby's figures were based on watercolor sketches that he made in the field or upon specimens made available to him in England. The work remained a major source for the study of American plants and animals through its own century and even into the next.

Here’s one of his prints of the Teal (blue winged):


Regrettably, when his books come up for auction, they are often bought by dealers who cut them up and sell the prints individually. I think that’s cultural vandalism, personally.

*Ptolmey's Geographica (Venice 1511). This was one of the most interesting of the renaissance version of the atlas and while they corrected some of Ptolmey's mistakes, they couldn't bring themselves to correct all of them. Especially noteworthy is that this contained the first map that showed North America, or so I'm told. A nice link here. Here's the map. Love the little putti:


I think the thing that most blew me away with this printing was the title page. It was in red and in the form of an inverted pyramid, I assume in homage to Egypt. It was such a modern feeling graphical design presentation and the red was so beautiful. So exceptional.

*A couple of examples from the William Morris printing house, Kelmscott Press. These were rich, lush and detailed printings. Stunning stuff. You can see some examples here. A nice collection of information on Morris here. We then saw the 1903 printing of the Doves Bible by Cobden Sanderson, a protege of Morris, who rejected the rich and lush look for a much more sparse and very powerful look. Cobden Sanderson believed that the font stood for itself and should be powerful enough to support the work by itself. Here is the first page from the Doves Bible, one of the most famous pages in printing history, I'm told:


Pretty impressive, no?

*Leaving out some of the Renaissance era architectural books we looked at, at my request, we also looked at sketches and drawing by George Cruikshank, a noted satirist and caricaturist of the 1800's, in the tradition of Hogarth. The drawings were marvelous, a collection of full out water colors in exquisite detail all the way down to doodles he did, and signed, on the backs of envelopes and receipts for erasers. My favorite was a very powerful unfinished sketch for a series of illustrations for Milton's Paradise Lost. The edition was never published and Cruikshank destroyed the plates and the drawings, except for this one. It was quite a thrill to see it, to know that I was looking at something that existed nowhere else. Cruikshank also painted wonderful animals -- dogs and horses, in the best tradition of an English artist, it seems to me. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco has a large collection of his works and many of the images are online.

We finished off the visit with an hour long drink with the curator as we chatted about wonderful rare books he had seen in the course of his long career. A very real book nerd evening. After he left, we adjourned for dinner.

All in all, an outstanding night. It is really quite an experience to hold a book published in 1511. Makes one feel a little less important in the grand scheme of things, which may not be so bad at all in our very individual focused society.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 12, 2005 02:28 PM | TrackBack

I just stumbled across your page somehow and read this entry. It reminded me of the excitement I felt when I handled some first editions of Galileo and Copernicus in the rare books room of my university library a few weeks ago. I couldn't help but think how many hands of people i've only read about have touched those books over the past hundreds of years. I also couldn't help but think they really shouldn't let me be touching them.

Posted by: Jessica at August 12, 2005 03:57 PM

I think old books are fascinating.

There was a rare bookstore in London I happened across last fall. I had to go in.

There's almost a reverence when handling them. Of course, the only one I was allowed to touch that was more than a couple of hundred years old was a child's primer. The "scribblings" inside were familiar, in a deliberate and elegant sort of way.

The voyeur I am, I am always hoping to run across an ancient diary or journal.

; )

Posted by: Christina at August 13, 2005 09:47 PM

I'm just amazed that books survive in as good a shape as they do. Growing up, my mother had some older books in the bookcase. The oldest one, from about 1840, was a volume of Lord Tenneyson. The pages were not only brown, they were very brittle. They cracked if you turned the page too roughly. Many of the pages were broken from the spine, many had missing corners. It must been low-quality paper because the other books were fine.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 14, 2005 11:36 AM
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