When Book Covers Outshine Their Pages

The Grolier Club — “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts” — is situated on the busy Upper East Side intersection of 60th Street and Lexington Avenue, a few blocks from the Plaza Hotel. The space is furnished in a conspicuously old-fashioned style, its foyer void of a single piece of art or furniture that could betray its presence in the 21st century. Now showcased inside the institution’s 100,000-volume wood-paneled library, more than 100 silver, gilded, embroidered, miniature, and otherwise noteworthy editions lie shut in the room’s glass display cases. The aptly titled exhibition Judging a Book by its Cover, on view through April 13, spans 700 years of Western art history in a long overdue celebration of the highly specialized craft of bookbinding.

Before commercial publishing houses began producing ready-to-read books, a practice the show’s curator H. George Fletcher derided as “gluing,” wealthy patrons purchased unbound pages and commissioned artisans to cover them. The craft is still practiced today, though it is rare and expensive. The works in the show vary widely, from a bedazzled late Medieval prayer book to a removable Art Nouveau silver cover to a commercially available copy of a bestseller that ended up on Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club list.

Left: Bernardino Ridolfi, In funere Caroli III Hispaniarum Regis Catholici oratio habita in sacello pontificio (1789), binding created by unknown artists, likely a congregation of Roman nuns; right: Ernest Lefébure, Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Day (1888), with binding created by May Morris

One of the most memorable artworks, however, is a sumptuous but comparatively delicate volume, a 1643 book of psalms created in London. Atmospheric exposure usually turns white silk-bound editions tan and brown, but this cover is a shiny cream color. The polychrome silk and gold metallic threads, which wind around one another to form a colorful floral pattern, maintain an eye-catching vibrancy. The only sign of the book’s age is the oxidized silver “stumpwork,” a type of raised embroidery that in this case resembles beading.

“One of the things about that particular miniature is that it’s still brilliant,” Fletcher told Hyperallergic.

A group of women centered around London’s Royal Exchange, the British banking center established in 1566, created the binding. 

“I don’t know what on Earth it has to do with the Exchange in London — Ebenezer Scrooge’s favorite place in the world — but they were there: They were employed, and they were almost all resolutely anonymous,” Fletcher said, lamenting the utter lack of historical record on these women despite the fact that much of their work has survived to the modern day.

Installation view of Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others: The Imaginative French Book in the 21st Century (2016) (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

The show features a smattering of over-the-top, heavy-appearing editions inlaid with gems and precious metals. Lace-like silver filigree covers a small 1673 Book of Hours studded with 14 amethysts and oversized enamel portraits of angels and saints. A dramatic black velvet volume, a record of the funeral ceremonies of King Charles III of Spain created for his son, is detailed in gold and silver thread and showcases the family’s crest and silver coins. It was likely made by a congregation of nuns. 

While the velvet edition appears distinctly royal, other works mirror the popular aesthetics of their times. Artist Margaret Lilian Simpson’s 1896 silver book covering features Art Nouveau’s characteristic curved lines. An 1894 tourist guide to the United States is adorned with the old-timey typeface associated with the Victorian Era.

One volume on display is still available online for less than $30 — a 2019 edition of author Lara Prescott’s bestselling The Secrets We Kept, a Novel (2019). The hardcover’s dust jacket features a cutout Soviet star that reveals the paper-coated cardboard below, printed with a scene from artist Konstantin Alekseyevich Korovin’s four-part series Winter Landscape (1900–1939).

The exhibition concludes with a display of books commissioned by the Grolier Club itself. A delightful — and slightly gaudy — 2017 binding of author Mark D. Tomasko’s Images of Value: The Artwork Behind US Security Engraving, 1830–1980s (2017) features banknotes inlaid onto red goatskin. An architectural binding of Paul van Capelleveen’s Artists & Others: The Imaginative French Book in the 21st Century (2016) comprises vellum-covered boards that converge to form a self-supporting stand.

“I can’t say that I really have a lot of favorites. I’ve been doing this for a very long time,” said Fletcher, who began collecting books at the age of 15 and previously served as the Morgan Library’s curator of printed books and bindings and as the director for special collections at the New York Public Library. “Some of them appeal to me because of their historic connections, some because of what they are as art objects, some because they survived with the very simple work that was initially done.” 

Visitors gaze at the display of Grolier Club-commissioned books (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
Michaël Dauplet, “Book of Hours, Use of Paris” (1673), binding possibly created by Dauplet

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