Open Books

The passion for reading and collecting books became more widespread during the 17th and 18th centuries. Book collecting could be motivated by the simple pleasure of reading, a love of scholarship or, at times, a desire for pretentious ostentation. Throughout Europe many great private book collections were assembled, a number of which came to form the core of today’s great national libraries.

Detail from ‘A Book Lover’, one of a set of twelve prints entitled 'Folies à la mode'. Etching, Daniel Nicolaus Chodowiecki, Germany, 1788 V&A E.411-1934 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail from ‘A Book Lover’, one of a set of twelve prints entitled ‘Folies à la mode’. Etching, Daniel Nicolaus Chodowiecki, Germany, 1788 V&A E.411-1934 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Europe Galleries will feature seven bound books from the National Art Library’s collection. To ensure their safety prevent damage, it is important that all parts of a book are supported when on display. As a result, each of the books going into our galleries will require a tailor-made cradle to sit in.

One of the books which will feature in the Europe Galleries. Les liaisons dangereuses, ou Lettres recueillies dans une  société, et publiées pour l'instruction de quelques autres by Choderlos de Laclos, published Geneva, 1792 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the books which will feature in the Europe Galleries. Les liaisons dangereuses, ou Lettres recueillies dans une société, et publiées pour l’instruction de quelques autres by Choderlos de Laclos, published Geneva, 1792 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We recently held a session looking at all of the books in the Book Conservation studio, so that Curators and Conservators could together determine the most appropriate way to display each of the books to its best advantage. Also in attendance was one of our very skilled Museum Technicians who will oversee the making of the cradles. We needed to work together to balance the design brief and vision for the gallery displays with the conservation requirements for each of the books.

One of the volumes of plates (illustrations) from Diderot and d’Alembert’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonnée des sciences, des arts, et des métiers), published Paris, 1762-1772 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the volumes of plates (illustrations) from Diderot and d’Alembert’s ‘Encyclopédie’ (Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonnée des sciences, des arts, et des métiers), published Paris, 1762-1772 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Having already triple-checked the physical dimensions and weights of the books when closed, we then needed to decide on what would be the most suitable angles for each book to be displayed at. The Conservators determined how wide the pages of each book can be opened without straining or damaging the binding of the book. Identifying which exact page the book will be open at is important as this can alter the shape of the cradle and the amount of space required.

Measuring the ‘display height’ of the book when open at the required page © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Measuring the ‘display height’ of the book when open at the required page © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The vertical angle at which a book is displayed can sometimes affect how visitors respond to it and whether they feel encouraged to take their time looking at the pages. Some books (such as the Encyclopédie) may only be able to be displayed horizontally as the structure of the book can’t cope with the strain of gravitational pull when held at an angle. For other books it may be possible to display them at a slight vertical tilt – this can sometimes help to nicely give an impression of how a book would look if you were holding it in your hands. In the photograph below you can see a number of angled Perspex stands, which were used to help us decide on the suitable vertical angles for some of the books.

Session in the Book Conservation Studio © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Session in the Book Conservation Studio © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

We will of course always be handling the books with distinctly more care and attention than Madame de Pompadour demonstrates below.

Detail from Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, oil on canvas, François Boucher, Paris, 1758 V&A 487-1882 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail from Portrait of Madame de Pompadour, oil on canvas, François Boucher, Paris, 1758 V&A 487-1882 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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