Top of page

Two pages from Arts Companion, showing watercolor washes, test daubs of paint, and handwritten comments by a prior owner on topics from the text and famous artists’ palettes
Two pages from Arts Companion, showing watercolor washes, test daubs of paint, and handwritten comments by a prior owner on topics from the text and famous artists’ palettes. Arts Companion, 1749. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Rosenwald.2477?loclr=blogpres Credit: Meghan Wilson

The Artist as Reader? Looking at Dirty Books

Share this post:

The following is a post by Cindy Connelly Ryan, Preservation Science Specialist, Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD).

 

Many of the drawing and painting manuals printed in the 17th-19th centuries were expensive, beautifully made editions, produced for a wealthy and literate upper-class readership. This has led some scholars to conclude that these books were received and read primarily in a literary manner, as part of the broad cultural education of fine ladies and gentlemen, but largely not used for much practical application, and certainly not intended for, or used in, the studios of working artists and craftsmen. Some, such as the drawing manual by Alexander Browne shown here, were published by teachers who offered drawing and painting lessons to this same upper-class audience. Such volumes, almost bordering on vanity publications, typically contain a pastiche of content from earlier sources and a section of illustrated plates. These clearly aspired to enhance their authors’ reputations and attract patronage and students to their studios, and perhaps only secondarily aspired to instruct.

 

A page from a drawing manual showing the use of top-quality paper, extensive ornamentation, large font sizes, and decorated initial letters.
A page from a drawing manual showing the use of top-quality paper, extensive ornamentation, large font sizes, and decorated initial letters. Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge. Lomitius, Oxford, 1598. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Rosenwald.1265?loclr=blogpres Credit: Meghan Wilson]

 

Author portrait of Alexander Browne, depicting him as not a working artisan but instead as a fashionable gentleman of quality, with flowing, curly hair, a dreamy gaze, and bejeweled silky garments.
Author portrait of Alexander Browne, depicting him as not a working artisan but instead as a fashionable gentleman of quality, with flowing, curly hair, a dreamy gaze, and bejeweled silky garments. Ars pictoria: or, An academy treating of drawing, painting, limning, and etching. Alexander Browne, London, 1675. Credit: https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2021rosen1523b?loclr=blogpres

 

Cultural Historian Bénédicte Miyamoto of Sorbonne-Nouvelle University in Paris is investigating this question of readership and audiences by examining 18th C. British drawing and painting manuals in collections world-wide, looking for smudges and stains of artists’ materials or other indications that suggest studio use, particularly evidence of expert or extensive users of these volumes. She recently visited the Library of Congress to examine some of our drawing manuals, in collaboration with Rare Books and Special Collections Reference Specialist Marianna Stell and a team of three scientists from PRTD.

 

Two staff look over a small book that sets on a counter.
PRTD scientists Amanda Satorius and Cindy Connelly Ryan selecting a test site for analysis. Credit: Eric Monroe

 

Although some of the colored marks we analyzed in the various volumes were of ambiguous composition or origin, 11 of the 12 books examined contained clearly identifiable artists’ materials, suggesting at least casual use at some point in their history. We found examples of red, blue, and gray chalk or pastel, iron gall and carbon black drawing inks, graphite and charcoal, cochineal, vermillion, orpiment, yellow and brown earths, indigo, and Prussian blue in the volumes. Some marks are seemingly stray drips or inky fingerprints, others take the form of deliberately applied brushstrokes, small sketches, highlights to the texts, or tracings of figures on the versos of illustrated plates.

 

Left: crosshairs focused on swipe of blue pigment across letters on a page. Right: Crosshairs focused on an inky thumbprint
A stray mark of vivid blue indigo-based pastel from Arts Treasury of Rarities…. John White, 5th edition, London, c. 1700. https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2021rosen1552?loclr=blogpres. And an inky thumbprint found in Ars pictoria: or, An academy treating of drawing, painting, limning, and etching. Alexander Browne, London, 1675. https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2021rosen1523b?loclr=blogpres. Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan
A faded capital letter "D" printed on a page.
A very un-convincing attempt to copy Albert Durer’s monogram in iron gall ink, added to the title page of Albert Durer revived: or, a book of drawing, limning, washing, or colouring of maps and prints: and…., anonymous, London, 1718. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Rosenwald.2461?loclr=blogpres. Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan.

 

An exceptional example was Arts Companion, printed in 1749. This was the smallest and most modest of the imprints we examined, and the most extensively marked, containing test patches of paints, text highlights and annotations, and the use of multiple media. We found, for example, yellow pastel in the margin of the section discussing pastels, a cochineal red watercolor wash highlighting the title of the section on red pigments, and more. Here the evidence clearly points to use by, at the very least, a serious amateur engaging with the text, and recording their comments on both theory and practice of its contents.

 

Two pages from Arts Companion, showing watercolor washes, test daubs of paint, and handwritten comments by a prior owner on topics from the text and famous artists’ palettes
Two pages from Arts Companion, showing watercolor washes, test daubs of paint, and handwritten comments by a prior owner on topics from the text and famous artists’ palettes. Arts Companion, 1749. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/Rosenwald.2477?loclr=blogpres Credit: Meghan Wilson

 

In the words of Dr. Miyamoto: “As magnified images of the stains appeared on the screens, the hair-thin traces left by the brushstrokes and the tide line of watercolour spills came into full view, amplifying the experience I had had in the Rare Book Reading Room with a simple hand lens. Standing in front of the whirring machines, I was thrilled by the specificity of the ingredients that the tests were confirming, as the team pointed out, for example, how a peak of zinc on the spectroscopy graph could be evidence of a drying agent in an oil-based medium. As they worked out the components of the stains, I felt a startling closeness to my eighteenth-century readers who had ground, washed and mixed these pigments and binders to follow the terse colour recipes of their manuals. The report of the Preservation Research and Testing Division has helped me as a historian to refine and question the definition of an amateur reader of art manuals in the eighteenth century.”

This project has been a rewarding example of collaboration between rare book scholarship, cultural history, and scientific analysis at The Library of Congress, in which technical studies add depth to the scholarly understanding of the Library’s collections; in this case, shedding light on the prior ownership and readership of rare books and historic imprints in our collections, and on the cultural context and reception of these books at the time of their creation. You can read about another project that looked at physical traces and material evidence of ownership in incunables in a previous post, The Secret (Past) Lives of Library Books.

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — learn how the largest library in the world preserves the coolest stuff in the world.

Comments

  1. One of my favorite novels is Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, exploring history through the artifacts found in a book. How many stories are literally between your pages?

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.