What comes to mind when you think of the Wallace Collection? Old Master Painting? Rococo decadence? Perhaps even the hardened steel in the armouries? In a series of blog posts, Helen Jones, our Library Cataloguer, will be exploring the books in the Collection; the processes and science behind them. Should our books be celebrated? Read on to make up your own mind!
Take a closer look….
Today, I would like to invite you consider the humble book, as kept in the Londonderry Cabinet in the Large Drawing Room, as an object in its own right. There’s plenty to admire, from the fine leather bindings and the gold tooling to the family crests, and remember that’s just on the outside, a lucky reader would have the pleasure of turning fine quality paper, seeing marbled endpapers, engraved plates and beautifully printed and arranged pages. And then just think what texts the books might contain: artists’ biographies, descriptions of Versailles, medical texts, erotic poetry even…
Books and writing have a long history: clay tablets inscribed with pictograms or cuneiform writing were in use in Mesopotamia from around 4000 BCE and Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome made use of the plentiful papyrus plant to create scrolls. In Western Europe we began using parchment scrolls in the first century CE, which coincided with the invention of paper in China. The book as we know it today, then called the codex, was developed in the 2nd-3rd centuries but it was the 12th century before paper reached Europe, and the 15th before the invention of the printing press meant an explosion of printing and the production of books throughout Europe.
The Wallace Collection has a small but fine collection of rare books, dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries before the gradual mechanisation of processes seen in most trades arrived in the printing world and changed it forever.
It’s hard for us in the modern world to understand how valuable the printed word was. Surrounded by technology all we have to do is type, press print and the text arrives, neatly printed on the paper of your choice. You can go back to it however often you like and you can print as many or as few copies as you want. Easy! In the 18th century, this process was very different and extremely labour-intensive and it was only one of the many steps that had to be taken in the production of a well-bound volume.
In a series of posts, I’ll be taking you through the stages required to produce these special books. You may be surprised at the technical skills and artistry involved; our books can certainly claim their place alongside the other works of art displayed in our galleries.