January’s Free to Use and Reuse sets of copyright-free prints and photographs is one of our favorites, as it beholds the beauty of the book. The book itself, of course, is one of mankind’s greatest inventions; the art that goes into the making, shaping, designing and illustrating of books around the world is another set of art forms. If you’re interested in seeing what other free prints and photographs the Library has online, just flip through the sets of them — travel posters are always a favorite, as are presidential portraits and the Gottlieb Jazz Portraits.
The collection of book images, meanwhile, gives a tour of the planet, of the dreams and images of people as they have evolved through time. And as far as craftsmanship: The inks and dyes in these images are often as brilliant today as they were when pressed to paper, cloth or vellum, often long before the United States existed.
Our first image stems from Juan de Tovar’s “Historia de Mexico,” first published around 1585. Library curators note that Tovar a famous Jesuit priest and missionary, an expert in the Nahuatl language who collected pre-Columbian Aztec codices. The original images in his “Historia” were made by the Aztecs.
The image above is a watercolor from an 1830 copy of the book from the staggering collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps, a wealthy British collector who had, at one point in the early 19th-century, perhaps the largest private collection of books in the world. (He was known to buy the entire stock of bookstores.) The colors here — the reddish maroons, the stark yellow — bring us into worlds gone by, when the Aztecs dominated what is now central and southern Mexico.
Speaking of worlds gone by, William Blake, anyone? The above hand-colored illustration is taken from the British painter/author/engraver/mystic’s “Milton: A Poem in 2 Books,” a stunning work finished in 1811. The book is in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, part of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.
Blake’s work in this dazzling vision is to imagine — in poem, prose and art — a spiritual union with John Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost,” in a fierce quest to save “Albion,” or Britain. The preface contains a brief poem that recites the legend that Christ once visited Britain: “And did those feet did in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green…” that was eventually used for the beloved hymn, “Jersusalem.” It’s still often called Britain’s second national anthem.
The muscular, dramatic illustrations over 50 pages were made with etched plates that were washed over with watercolors and a gray wash. As Library curators note: “(Blake’s) mature style depicts the struggles of human nature in its deepest psychological and spiritual sense and gives Milton’s poem a meaning unfathomable by most readers of his day.”
Here, you can see the orange coloring is often wide of the flames, giving the work a flash of Blake’s intense passion. It’s been on the page for more than two centuries and yet you can still feel the dazzling heat, the energy, the vision, that drove Blake like a man possessed.
Lastly, we come to China in the 15th Century.
This is a woodblock print from 1486 titled, “The Origin of Buddhism and Its Development in China.” The image is taken from volume 2 of the original 6 volumes of the work, and depicts Gautama Buddha during the period of his ministry. Buddhism originated in India more than 2,500 years ago, and likely migrated to China with Silk Road merchants and travelers some 2,000 years ago. The brilliant colors here — those blues! those greens! — are testament to the beauty hidden between book covers, patiently waiting through to the centuries to enchant viewers in a new age.
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