Exhibition | In the Library: Deforming and Adorning

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on April 2, 2014

Of the 29 volumes on display (dating from 1471 to 1973), 8 are from the eighteenth century, including Reynolds’s copy of Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting and Christoph Gottlieb von Murr’s copy of Philipp von Stosch’s gem collection, Description des Pierres gravés du feu Baron de Stosch.

From the National Gallery of Art in Washington: 

In the Library: Deforming and Adorning with Annotations and Marginalia
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 3 March — 27 June 2014



Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England (Strawberry Hill, 1762–1771). National Gallery of Art Library, Gift of Joseph E. Widener. The remarks throughout this four-volume set reveal that this copy of an important 18th-century work on British paintings once belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). His commentary illuminates his relationship with the author and his role as the head of the Royal Academy of Arts.

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This exhibition highlights a selection of rare books that are unique not because of their content or imprint, but because of the one-of-a-kind markings and additions that readers of the past made to the printed text. From their hand-written marginal commentary and sketches to custom bindings with extra pages and illustrations to editorial notes, each of these books has been transformed from a standard mass-printed volume into a uniquely personal object. They illuminate us with insights into the texts themselves, as well as the readers who read, enjoyed, and annotated them—and the relationships between the two.

The printing press was introduced in the West by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Prior to this, manuscripts were often copied by hand—a laborious process that was both expensive and prone to errors. In contrast, the printed page permitted the creation and distribution of exact copies of a book to a wide audience. This revolutionary technology changed the spread of knowledge forever.

Yet even a mass-printed volume has the potential to survive as a unique artifact: perhaps all other copies of a particular edition are destroyed; perhaps an individual copy gains notoriety through its provenance, having belonged to a figure of historical importance; or perhaps the book is bound in a peculiar way. In the hand-press period, variance in collation is common for a variety of reasons. Alterations to the text might be made during the print run; moreover, bookbinding was performed separately from the actual publishing process, which allowed for the possibility of pages being lost, added, trimmed, or bound in a different order.

In spite of all these variations, the specific focus of this exhibition is alterations made to the text by readers. The books on view all began as copies identical to hundreds or thousands of others, but each has been transformed by the addition of new information. Many include annotations ranging from navigational aids to detailed critiques of the text.

In the manuscript era, extra-large margins were sometimes provided for scholars to provide commentary, known as glosses. Many early printed books incorporated these earlier glosses along with the main text, and modern readers continued the tradition of adding their own thoughts in the margins. Benjamin Franklin was known to have penned entire debates with authors in the blank spaces of his books; other readers adorned the text with sketches and illustrations. Some readers had their books rebound and included extra material such as prints, notes, and correspondence. In several cases, the author has made editorial notes and revisions for the next edition of his book.

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