Walters' book exhibit illuminates bookbinder


July 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Henry Walters assembled almost unbelievably wide-ranging holdings for a single collector -- from Impressionist paintings to // medieval arms, from ancient Greek vases to Faberge bibelots.

Inevitably, he could not be equally interested in everything. But one of his principal interests was his extraordinary collection of manuscripts and rare books, which he bought individually, on his trips to Europe, many of them from the Parisian bookbinder and bookseller Leon Gruel.

He also had Gruel create sumptuous bindings for some of his books and acquired various other things from the firm, such as medieval ivories.

A carefully selected group of these objects constitutes the Walters manuscript gallery's latest exhibit, called "Bookish Business: Henry Walters and Leon Gruel." It probably gets us closer to Henry Walters, a private and secretive collector, than he would want us to be.

According to the show's curator, Elizabeth Burin, Walters would have been appalled, for instance, to see on public view the invoice from Gruel, of about 1907, listing items including manuscripts and bindings for which he was charged from 575 to 45,000 francs.

And he might not have wanted us to see the friendliness implied by Gruel's treatment of the three-volume book of Richard de Bury's "Philobiblion."

As a tribute to Walters, Gruel bound all three volumes together accordion-style, so that the back cover of one volume is the front cover of the next.

This curiosity was the only one of its kind Gruel had ever made, he wrote in his dedication, and it indicates an unusually close dealer-collector relationship. Gruel was a scholar as well as a dealer, and Walters' collecting knowledge was both broad and deep. The two men, obviously, met not only as buyer and seller but as people of unusual intellectual curiosity.

The show contains its rarities, such as: two miniature 14th-century books of hours from France and Flanders, an exquisite picture of St. Matthew writing from a 15th-century French book of hours, or the Flemish book of hours of about 1500, its nativity scene bordered by a dozen birds, all slightly different in color or pose.

But the most sensually seductive objects are the Gruel bindings, a group of which reveal that their designs are as appropriate to their books as they are elaborate.

The calfskin cover of a volume of religious meditations has a design of a woman praying, with symbols of life and death around her.

A treatise on the etchings of then-contemporary artist Whistler has a then-contemporary art nouveau cover design. A catalog of Rembrandt prints has Rembrandt self-portrait etchings inserted in front and back covers.

A volume on bookbinding is bound with a sampler of bookbinding designs -- floral, scenic, etc -- and also bears the coat of arms of the Grolier club, which published the book, and Henry Walters' monogram.

One takes away from this show both a sense of Walters' delight in the beauty of these objects and a sense of the pleasure Gruel derived from the depth of Walters' appreciation.


What: "Bookish Business: Henry Walters and Leon Gruel"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 North Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; through Oct. 17

Admission: $4 adults; $3 seniors; free to members, students and those 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

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