Collecting Books What To Collect

The Art of the Book: Rare & Antiquarian Aesthetic Books

Six Types of Aesthetically Pleasing Vintage Books to Focus Your Next Collection On.

When I was visiting the Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair in September, the importance of the art of books became viscerally clear. The fair was held at the Saatchi Gallery, a place dedicated to showcasing art and artists. There, among the gallery rooms, glass bookcases were carefully set up to hold stunning displays of gorgeous books, from medieval manuscripts to modern firsts. As you walked through the galleries, covers and illustrations would capture your eye. The books were displayed as art. The cards next to the items would describe that item’s particular value and details. And after perusing, you could speak with the bookseller concerning those particulars. 

A rare book fair is the perfect example that sometimes a book should be judged by its cover. The beauty in the way a book is bound can match or even exceed the significance of the pages inside. It can also be an object you experience both mentally through the words and physically through the object as art. A collection can be composed simply of aesthetic books – whether those are old hardcover books for decoration or beautiful vintage books from fine presses.

There are numerous ways a book can be art. Below are just a few related to rare and antiquarian books. 

Aesthetic Book Category #1: Fine Bindings

This copy of Daphné by Alfred de Vigny was bound by François-Louis Schmied and listed by
Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Medieval Manuscripts

Fine binding is the craft, or art, of hand binding a book. Fine binding consists of elaborate and decorative binding, usually done in leather. Colored leathers, gold foil, and exotic wood are other materials that master artisans can use in the binding. Ornamentation can range from simple gilt edges and raised ribs to a cover tooled in gold, embedded with jewels or embroidered. Some of the first finely bound books were done in 4th century Egypt, and through the 6th century, monks bound hand-written manuscripts with wood and encrusted them with jewels. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century led to an eventual explosion of finely bound manuscripts.

A beautiful library was a way to express one’s wealth, and people who could afford it would commission binders to create masterpieces of their favorite volumes. These were generally leather-bound books and often classics in literature. Some of the most famous and collectible bookbinders are Grolier, Rivière and Son, Sangorski & Sutcliffe, Guild of Women Binders, Zaehnsdorf, and Samuel Mearne, Dawson & Lewis, Stikeman & Co., and Bayntun-Rivière Bindery. Binding types can include the Cosway style, initially executed by Riviere & Son for Henry Sotheran booksellers in the early 20th century, and colorful “Kelliegram” bindings by Kelly Sons, prime examples of beautiful antique books. Easton and Franklin Press create accessible leather-bound classic books for contemporary customers. There is a distinct art and science to fine bindings, as the materials all have to work together seamlessly to open and close; the pages must be sewn in without gaps or unevenness and with enough both give and tightness that the carefully tooled spine stays intact. Old leather-bound books in fine bindings are a staple of book collecting and can be seen in most private collections. 

Aesthetic Book Category #2: Illustrated Books

LITTLE BROTHER & LITTLE SISTER by The Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Listed for sale by Type Punch Matrix.

An illustrated book is one where the pictures enhance the book aesthetically but add nothing or little to the actual story. The images have a decorative function, whereas a picture book is a book where the pictures are essential to the story. In Illuminated Manuscripts produced from 1100 – 1600, the words are decorated with flourishes and jewels. For other illustrated works, artists were moved by the written tales to create imaginative pictures to accompany the words. These beautiful old books are among the most highly collectible antique tomes. Rare illustrated books and vintage children’s book illustrations are two popular niches in collecting. 

Aesthetic Book Category #3: Fore-edge Painting

The Book of Gems: The Poets and Artists of Great Britain
by Samuel Carter Hall

Not all illustrations are inside books. Fore-edge paintings can be found on edges of book pages that are visible when the page edges face the reader, either straight on or held at a fanned angle, depending on the style. Fore-edge painting is an art form that dates as early as 1650 and often includes elaborate landscapes and sometimes even erotic portraits. Some unique and hard-to-find books even have double fore-edge paintings, where the illustration changes depending on the direction of the pages being fanned. Fore-edge paintings can also serve a utilitarian purpose, as the unique paintings made the book identifiable when the pages faced outward.

Aesthetic Book Category #4: Typography

Synesthesia by Terence McKenna [Text]; Timothy C. Ely [Art]; Philip Gallo [Typography], listed by Burnside Rare Books, ABAA

Typography is the style and appearance of printed matter. While the font and arrangements of letters on a page may seem at first glance pretty straightforward, there is a whole history and art to type that makes it way more than meets the eye. Readability and layout are essential to book design, and typeface can lend more meaning than words alone, whether set in the old-style serif of Garamond or the modern simplicity of Baskerville. There is even a label for lovers of all things type – Typophiles.

One of the most famous typographers is William Morris, founder of Kelmscott Press. Morris also brought back the idea of ‘Fine Press’ books at a time when book printing became easy, cheap, and abundant, creating a whole new generation of aesthetic vintage books for collectors.  

Aesthetic Book Category #5: Fine Press Books

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, by Roycroft Press. Listed by Peter Harrington.

Fine presses are publishing companies specializing in high art in literature and often producing deluxe and special editions of famous and rare books. Alderbrink Press and Daniel Press Oxford are some of the oldest fine press publishing companies, and Kelmscott and Roycroft are some of the most well-known. There are many more that publish limited and deluxe editions of your favorite titles. Modern presses include the Folio Society and The Limited Editions Club. These books are generally released in small numbers, printed with letterpress printing on special paper, and bound by hand. They also generally include illustrations by famous artists. Since books are hand-made from the finest materials, the prices are higher than commercially manufactured books.   

Aesthetic Book Category #6: Miniatures

The Smallest English Dictionary in the World, 1900. Listed by Bromer Booksellers.

Often hand-crafted with skill and expertise, miniature books are quite valuable in the book-collecting world. Miniature books are books that do not exceed three inches in height or width according to standards set by the Miniature Book Society. The first printed miniature book dates back to the early days of the printing press in 1468, and it remains a popular niche of book collecting even today. Some volumes were produced with special bookcases or shelves specially designed for display, making miniatures ideal books to use for decoration. There are highly valuable and scarce miniature books and many reproductions of classics, including antique Shakespeare miniature books and vintage miniature books such as The Little Leather Library, 101 books published from 1920-1924. You can learn more about the history of miniatures here.

These examples show how books can be art outside of the written word. Book collectors have many avenues of exploration for their imagination and trade. Whether you are collecting pretty vintage books for the art on the outside, or breathtaking books for the wisdom inside, you are sure to find what you’re looking for on Biblio

1 Comment

  • True, and let’s also appreciate how each of these impacts more than visual and touch senses. The scent of a book, which varies with paper selection, printing styles, and binding methods, greatly impacts my enjoyment of physical books.

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