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Every Bottle Shapes Its Message

Stephen Richard Kerbs Exhibit Area
November 1, 2009
December 31, 2009

Or, A Selection of New Acquisitions in Special Collections
that demonstrate the ways in which form affects content

Many of the new acquisitions in the Special Collections Research Center over the past two years have emphasized the impact the material forms of books have on their meanings, or on the reader’s experience of their contents. As Special Collections increasingly supports the use of rare materials in the classroom, these new acquisitions play a significant role in providing Georgetown students with a tangible experience of history in almost every field of the historical humanities and social sciences.

The selections on display highlight the role that hand-work played in the production of books before the industrial revolution, as well as the continuation and refinement of such traditional methods in modern fine press books. In the tradition of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century, these books were made using traditional methods: printed, illustrated, and bound by hand.

Direction of the Road
Ursula K. Le Guin
Santa Cruz: Foolscap Press
2007

Aaron Johnson’s anamorphic woodcut of a tree requires a specially designed mirror to view. Perhaps a gimmick; or perhaps a call to wonder. Subtler is the effect of the pages—the leaves—of the accompanying book. The paper, handmade at La Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal, Canada, crinkles like the sound of newly fallen leaves: a sort of literal onomatopoeia giving voice to the tree that is the protagonist of Le Guin’s short story.

Sylvae: Fifty Specimens Printed Directly from the Wood with Historical Anecdotes and Observations
Ben Verhoeven, Gaylord Schanilec
[Stockholm, Wisconsin]: Midnight Paper Sales
2008

Gaylord Schanilec’s 53 wood engravings, each printed from a specimen of the wood depicted, are a tour-de-force of fine color printing. In the grand tradition of Thoreau, the book is also a masterly treatment of local and environmental history: each of the 24 species of tree came from the same 20 acres in Wisconsin, and each essay records Verhoeven and Schanilec’s experience of the tree in question.

“Sylva: An Adventure in Fine Press Printing”
Gaylord Schanilec
Matrix 27
Winter 2007

Matrix, a “review for printers & bibliophiles,” is printed by hand at The Whittington Press in England. Its articles on fine press printing are accompanied by original prints and other samples. On display, to illustrate Gaylord Schanilec’s discussion of the innovative methods he developed for printing his book Sylvae, is a set of progressive proofs showing the stages required to print his wood engraving of a cross-section of “Wild Plum.”

Prima Elementa Historiae Urbis Augustae Vindelicorum
Paul von Stetten (1731-1808)
Augsburg: Lotter
1763

This simplified Latin history of Augsburg, Germany, was written for schoolboys. It demonstrates graphically the stages in the production of early modern books. It started out as a series of individual sheets (in this case, three and one-half octavo sheets, plus a fold-out engraved map). This copy appears just as it did when it left the printing shop: collated and rough-folded once for warehousing, but never folded, sewn, and bound.

Les Quatre Saisons
Charles Cros (1842-1888)
Octon, France: Verdigris
2003

This masterpiece of contemporary fine printing forcefully illustrates the integration of text and image. American printmaker Judith Rothchild’s mezzotints resonate with the sense of each poem as well as their presentation on the page. Georgetown’s copy includes the original copper plate for “L’Hiver” (Winter). The single candle surrounded by the velvety black achievable only in mezzotint echoes brilliantly the metaphor of the ‘charbon’ (carbon) of the earth, i.e. coal, burning in a lonely room.

Mimpish Squinnies: Reginald Farrer’s Short Guide to Useless Plants
Reginald Farrer (1880-1920)
Petersham, MA: Lone Oak Press
2007

Abigail Rorer’s sprightly anthropomorphic wood engravings respond to Farrer’s curmudgeonly descriptions of plants he disliked. These examples of Rorer’s highly skilled color printing allow us to compare the qualities of her illustrations for books versus other fine prints by her in the University Art Collection.

De Inscriptione quadam Aegyptica Taurini Inventa
John Turberville Needham (1713-1781)
Rome: Typographia Palladis
1761

An accidental survival, this book, sewn but never bound, retains its original block-printed floral wrapper. Meant to be temporary, this covering captures a fugitive aspect of the 18th-century experience of colorful decorative arts. The book is an attempt by an English Catholic priest (and the first Catholic clergyman to become a fellow of the Royal Society) to show a common origin for Chinese and the language of ancient Egypt.

Poems by Two Brothers
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
London: Macmillan
1893

This finely printed limited edition reprints the future poet laureate’s first book of poems, originally published in a rare 1827 edition, and including poems by his brothers Frederick and Charles. Our copy is handsomely custom-bound by hand using the unusual embossing technique known as the “relievo” style.

Rich Redivivus or Mr Jeremiah Rich’s Short-Hand Improved
Nathaniell Stringer (17TH C.)
London: William and Joseph Marshall
[1680?]
Alexander L. Sheff Shorthand Collection; gift of Ronald Sheff

By no means fine printing! But a remarkable survival of a very scarce entirely engraved book that was frequently reprinted (as witnessed by its very worn plates). Shorthand was surprisingly popular in the 17th century. The book is a dramatic example of the principle of ephemerality: the items printed in the greatest numbers—almanacs, schoolbooks, manuals—tend to survive in the fewest copies, because they got used up.

Acknowledgments: 

Curated by John Buchtel