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