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2002-06, 333, 334, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘The Art of the Book.’ Edited by James Bettley

London, V&A Publications, $90.00 (available from Allen and Unwin).

The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the world’s best known treasure houses of civilisation. The National Art Library within it is possibly a hidden treasure. It is a huge collection with over a million volumes and a similar quantity of archival material. Most visitors to the Museum probably never get to visit the Library and yet the present volume reveals what wonderful and varied material is housed there.

Dr James Bettley, a former staff member of the National Art Library, has assembled a superbly illustrated volume which ranges in chronology from medieval manuscript to graphic novels. The text constitutes a series of nine thematic chapters covering such topics as artist’s books, comics, illumination and nineteenth century book illustration.

Within the thematic chapters, the contents range from the descriptions of a miniature portrait of Henry VIII in a 1524 manuscript, numerous Book of Hours, the records of the Biba fashion department store, accompanied by a glamorous colour photograph of Twiggy in “languid elegance”, and original manuscripts of Beatrix Potter.

Most of the items described are exceptional treasures, if not unique items. In total they cover all the major aspects of book production and the documentation of art and design ranging from an illuminated manuscript of 1350 to the private view card of a 1998 avant-garde exhibition. The collection is a living one and the final chapter covering works from the 1990s represents art history in the making, from small magazines to commemorations of artistic works such as the “young British artists”.

The Art of the Book publicises a superb national and international repository. It successfully combines scholarship with attractiveness of layout to a design by Cara Gallardo, incorporating full page colour and black and white illustrations. The book is a reminder in the Internet era that the many facets of the art of bookmaking will remain with us as long as artistic physical objects are required. The end result is a book to be treasured by those with a love of art, literary history, illustration and civilization itself.

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