Picture books

Pictures. That's it. Just pictures of things so you can rest your brain.

So what comes after blank pages? Maybe black pages?

This is what’s often described as a mourning page—there’s a famous one in Tristram Shandy, but its precedents are from the 17th century, including this from one of many books mourning the 1612 death of Prince Henry, son of King James of England and heir to the throne. But who wants to look at a whole lot of black pages and talk about mourning at this particular moment in our lives? 

So let’s not. Really my mind just wants to rest. Maybe some pretty pictures? There are lots of gorgeous early printed books that are made up primarily of illustrations, like the fish I shared last time, or this collection of the beautiful church doors in Paris.

I know, it’s slightly askew, but that’s how the paper was placed on the rolling press, not something I did to it. But aren’t visual representations of things akin to written representations of things? Both are going to make me think about something... and my brain is tired, y’all.

What I’m craving is just staring at abstract things and letting my mind go. And, it turns out, early printed books can give us much to look at. (Along the lines of not wanting to think, I’m putting all the details about what we’re looking at in the notes section, so you can just relax and enjoy the view for now. But I’ve also linked each image to its source, so you can keep track of things that way, too.)

Type can do amazing things:

A new way of looking at things can also be a gorgeous pattern:

Oh, what’s that? Abstract designs? I’ve got those for you:

Let’s end with a splash of color, because there is still a rainbow world out there and we need to hold that in our hearts.


Some notes

Starring, in order of appearance…

The black mourning page is from Josuah Sylvester’s Lachrymæ lachrymaru[m] or The spirit of teares distilled for the vn-tymely death of the incomparable prince, Panaretus (London 1613) in a copy held by the Folger Shakespeare Library (STC 23578 copy 3). I’m actually fascinated by mourning pages and have written about this specific one before: see “Secret histories of books” and “Looking like a book” from my Collation days.

The Parisian church is from Pierre Cottart’s Receuil des plus beaux portails de plusieures eglises de Paris (Paris 1660) in a copy held by the Getty Research Institute (2914-810). If you wish to be wandering around 17th-century Paris admiring churches, this is the book for you. I also recommend visiting 17th-century Amsterdam via Jacob van Campen’s Afbeelding van 't stadt huys van Amsterdam (Amsterdam 1664).

The letters scattered across the page in the third image are a battle formation diagram from Vegetius’s De Re Militari (Rome 1494) in a copy held by the Herzog August Bibliothek (A: 240.69 Quod. (2)). The diagrams are only a fraction of the treatise but they are fascinating: how did they print all those curved lines and awkward spaces? Debates have ensued and will ensue.

Did you know how stunning cross-sections of plants are? The fourth image I show is taken from Nehemiah Grew’s The anatomy of plants (London 1682) in a copy held by the Library of Congress (QK41 .G82). This is a view of the horseradish root, chosen both as a reminder of our bitter days, but also because, man, there are some fun binding issues going on with copies of this! Stay tuned for that letter—you know how I love myself some book structure and digitization issues.

I’m guessing you guessed that what comes next is a long string of images from pattern books, some for embroidery work, others for various types of lace work. They are all very fun and all digitized in full by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and since they are in the public domain, you could do all sorts of bonkers things with these! I’m not sure now is the time to start from scratch in learning lace work, but if you’re already a textile person, you might fun some fun things in here to keep your hands busy. I’ve shared only a tiny fraction of what the Met and other places have available, and did so in chronological order as follows. (A quick note: I can’t seem to link to specific images within a book easily, so the links take you to the volume, not to the image I’ve used here. And, god bless institutions that think in terms of prints not books, it was often very not clear what leaf or page was what, so I haven’t identified those in most cases. Sorry!)

There’s obviously a gazillion things to say about pattern books and someday when I’m not overwhelmed by them/life/screens/grocery shopping, I will add a bunch to my site and write a post for you. In the meantime, it might be fun to think about how most of these were printed with woodblocks, not copper plates. Can you imagine carving all those intricate patterns into wood? Maybe woodcarving isn’t harder than etching but for delicate lines, it sure seems like it would be. Thinking about how designs are depicted in these and the connections between two different technologies—printing and textile work—could open up some fun questions.

Johann Schönsperger, Ein new Modelbuch (Zwickau 1524). Met, 29.71(1-31) [This is the earliest extant dated pattern book; the title, which refers to this book containing new additional patterns, suggests that there were earlier ones, but pattern books tended to get used up and so lost to us today.]

Giovanni Antonio Tagliente, Essempio di recammi (Venice 1530). Met, 35.75.3(1-55)

Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, Opera Nova Universali intitulata Corona di racammi (Venice, 1530), fol. 8v. Met, 32.54.1(1-76) [So Italian! So pretty!]

Domenico de Sera, Libbretto nouellamete composto per maestro Domenico da Sera...lauorare di ogni sorte di punti (Lyon 1532). Met, 35.79(1-43)

Matteo Pagano, Giardineto novo di punti tagliati et gropposi per exercitio & ornamento delle donne (Venice 1554). Met, 21.15.1bis(1-48)

Federico de Vinciolo, Les Singuliers et Nouveaux Portraicts (Paris 1558), sig. C4r. Met, 18.68(1-93) [This is what I mean when I say the materiality of carving wood is playing into how these images appear in print. In relief printing, the black areas are left level and the white lines are carved in. It’s nice to think that the image uses white lines because lace is white, but it also has to use white lines because if those delicate lines were in relief—if the areas around them were carved out, instead of the lines being carved out—they would quickly break under the pressure of printing.]

Cesare Vecellio, Corona delle Nobili et Virtuose Donne: Libro I-IV (Venice 1601). Met, 18.67.2(1-118)

Matthias Mignerak, La Pratique de l'Aiguille (Paris, 1605), sig. K4r. Met, 20.50.1(1-78)

Isabella Catanea Parasole, Fiore D'Ogni Virtu Per le Nobili Et Honeste Matrone (Rome, 1610), fol. 25r. Met, 37.1(1-40) [Hey-o, shout-out to the ladies!]

Andreas Bretschneider, New Modelbüch (Leipzig 1615). Met, 36.19(1-49) [not all the plates in this book are hand-colored, but look how lovely this one is!]

Bartolomeo Danieli, Vari disegni di merletti (Bologna 1639), Met 37.47.2(1-13) [Look, a pattern book that uses etchings instead of woodblocks!]

Finally, that splash of color is from the famous Wiener Farbenkabinet (Vienna and Prague 1794) in a copy held by the Cooper Hewitt Museum (QC495 .W64; the Cooper Hewitt, some of you might not realize, is part of the Smithsonian set of museums, so this part of their vast collection of amazing stuff). The Viennese Color Collection or Complete Book of Samples of all Natural, Basic, and Combined Colors is a truly rare book, with only a handful of extant copies, each of which has hundreds of examples of carefully calibrated colors. You might think I’m not being entirely fair in claiming this as a printed book, but while the stunning carefully done colors are indeed hand-painted, the names of the colors and the boxes and the text are all, yes, printed.


Thanks and see you soon!

So this was kind of a weird letter, but I hope your brain and eyes found some solace in it. Things will be back to whatever I decide is normal in my next issue. Until then, I’m still working on doing something with Renard’s Poissons, and I hope you are staying at home and minding your p’s and q’s!

Sarah.