The bookbinding art dazzles, educates Art review

November 12, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

William Noel, the Walters Art Gallery's recently appointed assistant curator of manuscripts and rare books, scores a hit with his first show in the manuscript gallery. Called "Covered in Meaning," it's a show of book bindings, and it brings together some of the collection's most beautiful, unusual and important bindings, dating from the mid-11th century down to 1962.

It's a show of treasures but not simply a "treasures of " show. It doesn't just throw gorgeous stuff at you, though there's enough gorgeous and rare material here to provide a feast for the hungriest eye.

There's a tiny 16th-century prayer book, only about an inch square but made of gold and set with rubies. There's the dazzling 1962 sunburst binding by Paul Bonet of Paris, sun's rays in gold inset with green and white leather. There's the catalog of Chinese porcelains with a binding that incorporates Chinese porcelain plaques, and the catalog of Rembrandt etchings with a binding that incorporates Rembrandt etchings.

But in addition to its riches, the show has an informative purpose: to teach how bindings are made and what they have to communicate.

Bindings aren't just decorative covers; they have meaning, too. Some relate to the subject of the book, such as the Rembrandt or the porcelain. Some relate to their owners, such as the heavily symbolic cover on the book about book collector Robert Hoe. The book belonged to Henry Walters. He had it bound by the legendary French binder Charles Meunier. It has Walters' HW monogram on the covers. And inside the front and back covers, Walters had inserted two cuttings from a 15th-century French book of hours, the type of manuscript he especially liked to acquire. So with this binding, Walters indicated his intention to emulate Hoe as a collector and the direction his collecting was taking.

Some bindings tell you about the binders, such as the 1475 example by Johann Richenbach that says clearly on the back, "Bound in Geislingen by me, Richenbach." You can't get any clearer than that.

And then there are bindings that have multiple meanings, such as Meunier's binding on a book about Roger Payne, the great 18th-century English binder. Not only is Meunier's binding exquisite, as it would be coming from him, but the decoration is in Payne's style.

This was also Henry Walters' book and has his monogram on the back. So the binding relates to the binder, the subject of the book and the owner.

In addition to the bindings themselves, there are displays devoted to how a book is bound, including every step from sewing the pages together to adding decorative clasps to the finished cover.

There's a lot to see and a lot to learn here.

At the Walters

What: "Covered in Meaning: Book Bindings from the Walters"

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Jan. 11

Admission: $6; seniors $4; students $3; children 6 to 17, $2.

Call: 410-547-9000

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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