Treasures from the golden age of illustrated books are vanishing


There's such a contradiction between the topic of this column and the process of writing it that I can't ignore it. The subject is fine illustrated books, while the process involves typing at a computer terminal.

These books, much prized by collectors, possess a tactile richness of high-quality paper and a visual richness of elegant fonts and, in many cases, original artwork. They invite a leisurely perusal.

The computer screen, in comparison, is an aesthetic non-starter. Thank goodness, the brightness dial can be turned to minimum and the contrast dial can be shut halfway. Otherwise, these letters would be burning holes in me. (Yet I wouldn't want to write this piece on anything less sophisticated than this machine.)

Of the books I've seen recently in two area collections, the volume that most exemplifies the notion of books as works of art is the Kelmscott "Chaucer" owned by Josephine Hughes.

Its gray unadorned cover gives little hint of the treasures within. Its size, about 16 inches high by 11 wide and 3 inches thick, however, suggests importance, while the untrimmed edges of its paper promise a production of high standards.

And the promise is kept. Open it up and you're immediately transported to the pre-Raphaelite world of late Victorian England. The title page sets the pattern repeated 86 times inside: a thick woodcut border of entwined acanthus leaves with the top half of the enclosed space depicting a scene from Geoffrey Chaucer's tales. The bottom half is for text.

The woodcut scenes, from drawings by Edward Burne-Jones, epitomize pre-Raphaelite sentiment with their attenuated figures in pre-Renaissance dress, standing nearly motionless amid patterned foliage. What makes these pages come alive is not his drawings, mannered to the point of being manicured, but the energy between the soft white of the linen pages and the tracery of the rich, black woodcut lines. Even the Gothic type contributes to this play of light and dark.

This book, formally called "The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer," is the finest effort of William Morris' Kelmscott Press. One of 438 copies, it was completed in 1896, four months before Morris died.

From the 1880s up to World War II, publishing had a golden age. Miss Hughes is fascinated by this period, which she describes as a rebellion against machine-made items of the Industrial Age and "a return to art for art's sake and a pride of craftsmanship." Yet, she says, it was the wealth of the industrial northeast United States and northern Europe that provided patronage for these lavish books.

Among her prized books is "The Flower Book," London, 1905, from an edition of 300. Again based on artwork by Burne-Jones, the book is a series of round color lithographs. Each is given a name of a British wildflower, but don't expect to see daisies. Burne-Jones offers a parade of heavily romantic beings.

Miss Hughes also has the three volumes of "The Savoy," a bound periodical of 1896-1897 that was largely a vehicle for Aubrey Beardsley and his deliciously naughty line drawings, and copies of "The Yellow Book," a similar series from the mid-'90s with more Beardsley plus Max Beerbohm drawings.

But there's another facet to her book collecting. She's mad about the Beat Generation.

"I love Jack Kerouac," whom she describes as "at times an undisciplined writer but at times there's such beauty in his writing." The early poetry of Allen Ginsburg also moves her.

As befitting a mind-set that repudiated ostentatious living, her books of the Beats are straightforward, hardly lavish productions.

And yet another side of Josey Hughes is that she sells used and rare books. For 10 years now she has operated Inscribulus Books, 857 N. Howard St. Beforehand, she was cataloger for an auction house and a researcher for an autograph gallery, both in New York.

Her love for books is matched by her enthusiasm for book lovers. "People who read are a joy to be around," she says. "It's not just the knowledge, it's the civilizing effect they [books] have on people."

Although I had been in her shop several times, we had never really talked until I saw her booth at the May 18 book fair at the Timonium Fairgrounds.

In the guise of a columnist, I introduced myself there to several people and learned of some fascinating collecting. But some folks were from out of state, while others justifiably preferred not to advertise their possession of books of considerable value.

Fortunately Eleanor Heldrich wasn't one of them. She has assembled books that handsomely tell the story of the use of color in publishing.

Yet she doesn't see herself as a book collector, rather as a crusader. In her words: "I've been saving books every day."

In a frame shop one day it dawned on her that many of the prints had been removed from books. "I realized there were wonderful books being ripped apart," she says. So she immediately headed for a used bookstore and began her collecting that day.

In collecting books, largely natural histories and guides to ornamentation -- all rich in color plates -- she has chosen an ever more expensive crusade. The mathematics are simple. Imagine a circa 1800 botanical with 50 hand-colored etchings that now fetch $250 each. It's a good buy to a print dealer (and they all claim they never rip apart books, but someone must) even if the volume sells for $1,200. Ten years ago this hypothetical book may have sold for one-tenth the price.

Mrs. Heldrich shrugs her shoulders. "It's just too expensive to save them anymore."

One she is quite proud of saving is "A Chronicle of England," 1864, with dozens of color woodcuts. While the color printing yields a very pleasant richness to the rather stiffly drawn historical scenes, this book is important in the history of printing. She say it marks the first simultaneous printing of both text and color art.

On the lavish side, she has several first editions of books by the British eccentric Henry Shaw. In 1833 he published "Illuminated Ornament," profusely illustrated with hand-colored lithographic copies of medieval miniatures.

The Victorian world had begun a series of stylistic revivals. One of the strongest both in England and the United States was the Gothic Revival. This book plus the "Encyclopedia of Ornament," of 1842 -- also in Mrs. Heldrich's collection -- played an influential role in this revival.

Likewise did the 1856 book "The Grammar of Ornament." Besides its parade of colorful designs, its popularity marked an important milestone in the use of color lithography, or chromolithography. Unlike Shaw's books, this book has seen recent reprintings, although the plates have been photographically reproduced.

My own collecting began with plates extracted from books. In fact, there was a gallery owner downtown who had volumes of Piranesi's "Views of Rome." You chose what you liked, then he cut it from the book.

Fortunately some 12 years ago I stumbled upon a gallery in Bethesda that specialized in American prints of the first half of the 20th century. This has been my focus ever since.

If I disregard fiction and references on art and antiques, I have a collection of a few dozen illustrated books. They mostly are an extension of my art collection, since often enough I have prints by the artists who illustrated the books.

In a few cases I have original prints of an image from a book I own. Sometimes the book was bought first. For instance, I had a copy of Clare Leighton's "Country Matters," 1937, before I snapped up a wood engraving of her wonderful scene of a thunderstorm ripping through a county fair.

Sometimes I bought the print first. For instance, I have two wood engravings by Lynd Ward from "Vertigo," one of his novels told entirely in woodcuts. I was quite delighted when I found a copy of "Vertigo," 1937, to discover the two were from crucial moments in the story, including the dire, final image of a precipitous ride on a roller coaster.

And most recently I've bought a woodcut that I already had an original of in a book. The book, J. J. Lankes' "Virginia Woodcuts," was printed in an edition of 1,200 in 1930. The plates, mostly of historic buildings, are pedestrian in a certain bucolic way. But I liked the last one of a sharecropper's farmyard complete with dog scratching himself, so I bought a copy this year.

Even though both were printed from the wood block, the signed print from an edition of 75 was inked better, producing a more atmospheric, summery feeling. The heavier inking in the book flattened the image. So by buying the print, my appreciation of Lankes shot up.

A5 And so another lesson in the life of a collector.

I'd like to hear from other collectors, especially if you wish to share your collection with readers of this column. I would also like news of shows put on by clubs of collectors. Please write to me, Scott Ponemone, at The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Book collecting tips

Josephine Hughes, proprietor of Inscribulous Books, 857 N. Howard St., offers these tips to budding book collectors:

*Subscribe to Bookman's Weekly. It gives extensive coverage to book fairs, has lots of rare bookstore advertising, auction news and classifieds on books wanted and books for sale. A year costs $75. Write Bookman's Weekly, P.O. Box AB, Clifton, N.J. 07015.

*Check newspapers for book fairs, auctions and estate sales. Miss Hughes advises, "I would spend Saturdays at these events."

In Maryland there are two regular sources of book auctions. The Baltimore Book Company, run by Christopher Bready, has eight catalog sales a year, held Monday nights in the Quality Inn in Towson. Mr. Bready holds exhibitions for these sales at his store at 2112 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218, the week before the sale. A year's catalog subscription is $25. Phone (301) 659-0550.

In Bethesda is Waverly Auctions. The sales are held Thursday nights with exhibitions during business hours starting five days before the sale. Eight catalogs a year run $35.

Both auction houses send subscribers lists of realized prices after each auction. Wavery is at 4931 Cordell Ave., Suite AA, Bethesda, Md. 20814. Phone (301) 951-8883.

*Use the library. Miss Hughes says the Enoch Pratt CentraLibrary has a shelf in its reference room devoted to book collecting. Moreover, she says she goes to the Library of Congress, across from the Capitol, one or more times a month.

*Lastly, I'll add the most obvious: Patronize your local usebookstores. The owners are invariably courteous and share your enthusiasm for collecting. Become a regular and they'll start keeping an eye out for books that interest you.

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