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Miniature Books at Yale Center for British Art: Not for Reading Only

Brush Up Your Shakespeare (New York: Piccolo Press, 2009), bound by Derek Hood, 2010, in goatskin with multiple colored goatskin onlays, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
Brush Up Your Shakespeare (New York: Piccolo Press, 2009), bound by Derek Hood, 2010, in goatskin with multiple colored goatskin onlays, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

By Bobbie Leigh

Have you ever heard of a collector commissioning a work of art  saying: “Do what you want and I will love it.”  Neale Albert is that rarity.  He is a  collector who commissions artists to  create miniature bookbindings and  asks  only that they give him their best work.  “The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert” at the Yale Center for British Art  presents  a mere  100 of the  more than 1,000 miniature books in his collection.

The  exquisitely crafted miniature Editions of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, and books —none more than three-inches high –  currently  on view will  expand your  concept  of  designer art books exponentially.   As distinguished  bookbinder, art conservator, and  teacher James Reid-Cunningham  explains  that “ a   designer binding merges art and craft, executed to the highest level of both…”

The title of the exhibition, “The Poet  of  them All,” is  a line  from the song,  Brush Up your Shakespeare, from Cole Porter’s 1948  musical Kiss Me, Kate. Neale bought the rights to  the song and printed   some 50 texts at his Piccolo Press in  2009.   He then commissioned  artisan printmaker  Leonard Seastone to design   pages (sheets is the professional term) and  graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast to do the illustrations  for what would become a fascinating collection of miniature Brush Up books – all  with the same text and drawings.

For the bindings,  Albert commissioned some of  the most gifted   designers working today. He asked each artist to create his or her own  designer bookbinding  with no strings attached. “I never give the binders instructions about what to do. I don’t tell them what I want. I never know what will arrive in the mail,” says Albert.  To  one artist he wrote: “My only instructions are to make this the finest binding you have ever done.”

 Jan and Jarmila Jelena Sobota and Dalibor Nesnídal, Sonnets in Shakespeare’s Mobile Library, 2015, Set of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Loket, Czech Republic: Jan and Jarmila Sobota, 2002) bound in different colors of goatskin by Jan and Jarmila Jelena Sobota, tooling in gold and blind on spine and front and back covers, sculpture by Dalibor Nesnídal housing the books constructed from epoxy putty modeling clay and painted with acrylics, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
Jan and Jarmila Jelena Sobota and Dalibor Nesnídal, Sonnets in Shakespeare’s Mobile Library, 2015, Set of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Loket, Czech Republic: Jan and Jarmila Sobota, 2002) bound in different colors of goatskin by Jan and Jarmila Jelena Sobota, tooling in gold and blind on spine and front and back covers, sculpture by Dalibor Nesnídal housing the books constructed from epoxy putty modeling clay and painted with acrylics, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

Judging from the 39  miniature books in the Brush Up Your Shakespeare  collection, the centerpiece of the  Yale exhibition,  artists working in a variety of media —paper, leather, cloth, wood, or metal— embraced the challenge.  Aside from immense technical skills and  stunning craftsmanship,  their work is above all witty and playful.  Each is a little universe of it its own,  a work of art that has no precedent. They are as different from one another as the songs of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

Derek Hood’s binding for  Brush Up references a musical staff  with some elements spreading across the spine. Geometric shapes suggest the  unconventional music within.  Hood is one of England’s most outstanding bookbinders.  Diametrically opposed is Philip Smith’s  unique  binding.   Smith, another immensely talented British bookbinder, created covers (called boards)  that  are circular and unevenly shaped  in blue and red goatskin.  Michael Wilcox’s  binding totally captures the free and lively spirit of the music.  “The cartoon characters (on the boards)  represent what I think might result when men offstage apply the advice that the song gives: amusement, indifference, or mild astonishment,” writes Wilcox who is Canadian and consistently experiments with creating original designs.  Wilcox says that he does not consider himself an artist, rather a bookbinder and craftsman. He insists the craft cannot exist separately from the book and its literary content.

Shakespeare to Music (Huddersfield, West Yorkshire: Final Score, 2011), printed and bound by Stephen Byrne, in black leather with inset embroidered panel by Marian Byrne, illustrated by Marian Byrne, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
Shakespeare to Music (Huddersfield, West Yorkshire: Final Score, 2011), printed and bound by Stephen Byrne, in black leather with inset embroidered panel by Marian Byrne, illustrated by Marian Byrne, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

Aside from the Brush Ups, the exhibition presents miniature editions of Shakespeare’s works published  in the 19th and early 20th centuries by William Pickering, Knickerbocker press, and others,  all bound with artistic designer bindings commissioned by Albert. William Pickering was an mid-19th century London bookseller  who published a miniature edition of nine volumes of  Shakespeare in 1825.  Albert acquired many and sent them off to be rebound by highly distinguished bookbinders.   In 1910 American publisher   Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company issued  complete  miniature sets of  Shakespeare  which Albert also  acquired and had rebound.  (NB: You can still find  Knickerbocker Shakespeare miniatures on ebay.)

Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s Works (New York: Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company, ca. 1910), bound by Santiago Brugalla, 2004, in goatskin with tooling and miniature hand-painted portrait medallions on front and back covers by John Hodgson, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
Julius Caesar from Shakespeare’s Works (New York: Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company, ca. 1910), bound by Santiago Brugalla, 2004, in goatskin with tooling and miniature hand-painted portrait medallions on front and back covers by John Hodgson, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

Spaniard  Santiago Brugalla, one of the most celebrated professional bookbinders worldwide, took a classic approach to  the  Knickerbocker  Julius Caesar.  Bound in green goatskin with gold and red tooling, he placed a miniature  Shakespeare  portrait medallion, painted by John Hodgson (1779-1845), in imitation of a Cosway-style binding,  on the front and back covers.  (Cosway bindings are traditional leather bindings with miniature painting insets on the covers.)

The Taming of the Shrew from Shakespeare’s Works (New York: Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company, ca.1910), bound by Jenni Grey, 2006, in purple suede, with glass and pearl beads hanging from silver wire, and silverclasp, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
The Taming of the Shrew from Shakespeare’s Works (New York: Knickerbocker Leather and Novelty Company, ca.1910), bound by Jenni Grey, 2006, in purple suede, with glass and pearl beads hanging from silver wire, and silverclasp, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

Jenni Grey’s  Knickerbocker  edition of The Taming of the Shrew is totally contemporary. Grey, an internationally acclaimed bookbinder from England,  says she didn’t think  the title character,  Katherine, a shrew at all.   Grey chose lilac for the covers  of  her book, “female, but not too girly,”   she says. The twisted silver wire on the covers  are  a reference to the pressures  that Katherine, a consistently clever, strong-willed character,  had to endure to maintain her identity.

Paul Wells, Globe Theatre model, 2010, mixed media, including lime and pear woods, board, brass, and hemp, with acrylic paint and dry-powder pigment, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert
Paul Wells, Globe Theatre model, 2010, mixed media, including lime and pear woods, board, brass, and hemp, with acrylic paint and dry-powder pigment, Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert

Among the other Shakespeare- inspired miniatures are a model of the Globe Theatre,  a tiny bookcase with leather-bound editions as well as  six  1871-78  playbills  advertising Shakespeare’s plays  performed at the New Theatre Royal, in Bristol.

According to the sumptuously illustrated catalog, Albert himself does not know why he commissions and collects  hundreds  of  miniature books.  What is clear that for him and for us, each miniature is an invitation to  look closely and enjoy every aspect of  these meticulously designed art objects.

“The Poet of  Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Design Bindings from the collection of Neale and Margaret Albert” is at the Yale Center for British Art  through August 21, 2016.

 

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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