Book Arts, past and present

I have read so many articles lately about the impending and inevitable obsolescence of the book, that it is rather comforting to focus on the book as a work of art, as it certainly was in the past and remains so in the present. Surely books will survive as things, decorative or otherwise. The Morgan Library & Museum is exhibiting its precious sixteenth-century “Van Damme” Book of Hours this summer in celebration of the manuscript’s facsimile publication by Faksimile Verlag. This tiny little book is like a jewel, made the more so by its encasement in a silver filigree case that looks like a clutch purse, the commission of a previous owner.

Books Van Damme Hours

The Van Damme Hours and case, Antonius van Damme, scribe, and Simon Bening, illuminator, 1531, Morgan Library & Museum.

I am jumping forward several centuries and into a genre that I’m not quite sure can be raised to the level of art: children’s shape (or shaped) books which were first issued in America in the 1860s by L. Prang of Boston with verse and designs by Salem’s own Lydia Very. I’ve been interested in the low profile Very for a while and I admire her spirit from afar: the sister and lifelong caretaker of “eccentric” poet Jones Very (they were the children of unwed first cousins of a very old Salem family), she taught in the Salem public schools while also maintaining a prolific publishing career, which included poetry, garden essays, and these shape books for children, which were part of Prang’s popular “Doll Series”. Despite Prang’s claim that the form “originated with us”,  European publishers issued these novelty items at the same time, in all sorts of shapes: boxes, bears, cats.

Books Very

Books Arts RedBooks Arts Red 2


Lydia Very, Good Two Shoes, (L. Prang, n.d.), Aleph-Bet Books, and Red Riding Hood (L. Prang, 1863) E. Wharton & Co., and Castell Brothers, London, cat-shaped book, Bromer Booksellers.

Taking another big leap up to the present, and some very elegant and detailed examples of “pop-up books”, another Victorian innovation:  these “book sculptures” by Justin Rowe cross over into a new genre, but still, the book is the foundation, as well as the material i(n more ways than one). Here are images of his “Little Red” Riding Hood (compare to Very’s above) and “Shoot the Moon”.



Images © Justin Rowe, 2012.

So that brings us to what looks like a flourishing book-related movement? field? endeavor? (searching for the right word here). Artists’ books are exactly that:  books made by artists in very (or singular) limited editions, inspired by themes and utilizing book crafts and materials, books that are composed (or simply made) in more of an artistic than literary manner. There seem to be many definitions and classifications of artists’ books out there, so I just made up my own–I hope it suffices and stand to be corrected! There are also many examples of artists’ books out there to feature, so I’ve just chosen two, to illustrate the range of work. The first images are of the cover and all the “pages” of renown book artist Julie Chen’s “Cat’s Cradle” from her beautiful website Flying River Press, while the last is of a hand-made botanical book from the Etsy shop modestly: the book lives on in many forms.



Book Arts Modestly

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