Treasures from the golden age of illustrated books are vanishing


June 02, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

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.

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