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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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