An Evening in the Company of Rare Books

Last Thursday evening, the members of my bookbinding course and I took a field trip to the National Gallery of Canada for a behind-the-scenes look at its rare book collection.

We arrived, signed in and made our way up to the library. I didn’t even know our art gallery had a rare book library, never mind that it was open to the public. What a treasure!

Having travelled down back corridors, up elevators and across footbridges that only reflected our faces back at us, we arrived at the main floor of the library. Beyond this vague description, I couldn’t tell you where we went or how we got there. The sense I had standing in that first room, looking at Dewey Decimal card drawers and ancient slide projectors, was one of being up in a tower that had been locked and hidden away from modernity for some decades. I  could have spent hours there, breathing in the smell of old papers.

To see the books we were there for, we climbed up a spiral staircase to the next level. They were laid out across four large reading tables, behind which the lights of Ottawa’s nighttime skyline twinkled.

Being part of an art gallery, the books in the collection all relate in some way to art; there are rare Canadian and foreign imprints, early illustrated books, Canadian bookplates and contemporary artist books, as well as notable subject collections, holdings related to Canadian artists, and those related to historians of Canadian art.

The items we were shown described everything form costume design to how to mix paint colours, some profiled specific artists, and still others explained the unique art of nineteenth century playing cards. Each of them provided a unique example of bookbinding through the ages.

Not all of these books are ancient, though those, of course, were my favourite. But they are all rare. That’s an important differentiation and one that I hadn’t actually considered before the visit. The examples of newer books took me a bit by surprise; the voluminous catalogue of Warhol artwork, for example, and a tiny volume with a furry spine.

A rich plum-coloured velvet book with directions for a production of the Portrait of Dorian Grey did, however, catch my attention. Just look at the beautiful cover and costume design sketches:

We began the tour, though, with the pièce de resistance: a 19th century hand-printed, handmade book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works published by Kelmscott Press in 1896. I had mixed emotions when I studied Chaucer in high school, but with decades of distance and perspective, I was able to see the beauty of this item before me, a mix of my love of literature and book creation.

This was a project dreamed up and presided over by William Morris, a 19th-century designer, social reformer and writer. Only 450 copies of this book were printed and they are each worth approximately $200,000 (CDN). Although by this time period there were printing presses and machines for creating books, the beauty of these 450 volumes is that each were made entirely by hand. The drawings are exquisite.

As the British Library’s website explains, Morris aimed to revive the skills of hand printing, which mechanisation had destroyed, and restore the quality achieved by the pioneers of printing in the 15th century. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was the triumph of the press.

Its 87 illustrations were designed by Edward Burne-Jones, a celebrated Victorian painter. His pencil drawings were painted over in Chinese white and Indian ink and then these black and white designs were transferred to wooden blocks and engraved. Finally, the engraved blocks were pressed onto the pages of the handmade paper.

There are more, interesting and worthwhile details about this project available on the British Library’s site, linked above. But I won’t go into them here as this was only one of a number of books we saw.

And because my favourite is yet to come.

There was a lovely vellum volume from 1788, a French treatise on painting in pastels. I liked this one both because of its age – that is, its history and the Old French in which it was written – and because it was bound with vellum before bookbinders had figured out how to counteract the tendency for vellum to warp the covers. The aged vellum has taken on a beautiful patina, despite the warping, so beautiful in fact that I would prefer to have it warped than covered some other way.

In later times, bookbinders working with vellum opted for what is known as a limp binding instead. It avoids the warping but, to me anyway, isn’t as nice. I didn’t take a picture but it sort of reminded me of a floppy, unfinished leather cover with a smooth, white surface.

Another French book, this a beautifully illustrated work by Octave Uzanne titled Le miroir du monde: notes et sensations de la vie pittoresque, was printed in 1888 and consisted of a text block and a separate leather cover.

Before binding was mechanized, I learned on Thursday, books were produced as text blocks (a block of pages, essentially, without a cover) and those who bought them would, if they could afford it, have a cover made. If they couldn’t afford it, they would just have a collection of text blocks, I guess.

By 1888, books were being mass-produced with covers already attached but this volume was produced without a cover, and a Japanese company created special leather covers for it after the fact. I gather this was more for reasons of artistic expression than because of process, i.e. it was a novel and beautiful way to finish this unique book.

For whatever reason, I didn’t take a picture of the cover and binding but luckily there are many examples online.

These next predominantly 19th-century books were laid out beautifully together, showing a range of astonishingly exquisite cover art:

But one among the group was different. Can you see it?

It’s a slim volume, with a plain leather cover, and no cover art. This book actually was produced before mass-market covers existed. It would have originally been a text block and the cover you see here was unique, produced individually by a binder for the owner of the original “book.”

The cover is blank because back then, books were not stored on bookshelves with their spines facing out – so no information on the spine – and because not all owners could afford to cover their books. Instead, the title and other pertinent information was printed on the first page, and sometimes was also written across the side of the book, along one of the edges where the pages are stacked. Books back then would have been piled together on a surface or kept in drawers.

This lovely little piece of history was printed in 1676 and has a pen inscription saying as much inside its inside cover.

I couldn’t stop looking through this and didn’t want to put it down. This one was my favourite.

These were the highlights of the field trip. There were also some impressive bookplates – impressive because they were old, or were designed by important Canadian artists (Group of Seven) or for important Canadian figures (John A. MacDonald, Vincent Massey).

Aside from a deep and awe-inspired appreciation for what I was looking at, the evening also inspired in me a desire to build on my bookbinding skills.

One of the original reasons I seized on the opportunity to take this course was that I would love to be able to repair old books. I know this isn’t a particularly in-demand skill and I don’t expect to one day quit my job and become a book restorer (á la The People of the Book, minus the bad and unnecessary drama – if you’ve read this book, you know what I mean). But it is a skill I would love to have.

For now, I will settle for visiting the rare books, and learning the basics of making my own.


16 thoughts on “An Evening in the Company of Rare Books

  1. Your museum visit sounds amazing, thanks for sharing it with us. So interesting about books with no cover. And there are so many amazing ones to look at. Makes me think about all the time as a young adult, before living in such a rural place, and was able to appreciate the history and beauty within. I’m so glad you found something inspiring in this class, that you want to continue with. The idea behind it, is so unique today, I can see why you would want to continue to hone the skill. Definitely keep us posted!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! Whenever I find myself in the company of archives or old books, I’m immediately enthused and inspired. I should make time to do that kind of thing more often. For now, though, I have another month of bookbinding class and some more opportunities to learn new ways of making books. It’s been so great to have an opportunity for artistic output that’s not related to words. But it has been busy, too, between my class and all my son’s activities. 🙂

  2. This was fascinating, thanks for sharing. I have 3 volumes of a French botanical encyclopedia from 1789. Beautiful full page copper engravings on handmade paper sewn into the most horribly ugly paper boards you could imagine. Apparently the owner never got around to having his subscription bound! I adore rare books, loved this post.

    • I can only imagine how exquisite that encyclopaedia must be. What a treasure! Other than the boards, of course. It might be worth seeing if you could do something about them!
      I’m glad the post caught your attention and that you enjoyed it. Thank you for stopping by.

  3. What an incredible adventure, journey and discovery of such a fascinating subject and topic. I’m so glad that your passion and interest has spilled over to the blogging world and you have shared your trip, information gathered and learned, here, with us. Simply exquisite and just the “write/right” “outing” I needed in my day. 🙂

    • Your comment made me smile, and I’m glad my post made you smile 🙂
      I wasn’t sure how many people would be interested in my in-depth recounting of the evening, but I have noticed that there are quite a few people kicking about in blogland who love old and rare books. A bit ironic, actually. I’m glad so many people have stopped by and been intrigued by the very things that intrigued me.

      • Well, there is a quiet passion in the way you share and present, so I would think that even someone who doesn’t necessarily share the same interest might be inclined to stop by and keep reading – because the images are wonderful too 🙂

  4. Gorgeous. Lucky duck! I am a rescuer of sad old books in giveaway piles. I don’t know what to do with them once I rescue them, though. Especially paperbacks. On a side note, I realize dreading your blog that gallery is an anagram of allergy. Which is sadly what happens to me when I am in a closed room with old books,

    • Yes, I’m not sure what to do with paperbacks either. Hopefully I’ll learn how to repair them too – one day! I did see in my trolling of Google images a hardcover that someone had re-bound using coptic stitching (hard to explain but I’ve just posted my own coptic stitching example on FB). It was quite lovely and gave a whole new life to the book.

      I had never noticed that gallery is an anagram of allergy. How funny – and sad! I think I’d suffer through the allergies and dive in, but then it’s easy to say that when you’re not actually suffering.

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