It’s time once again to update our ‘Treasures’ package from the rich variety of material within the special collections of the NAL. This package is one which you could view with your school, college or university group if you were to make a group booking with us. The NAL houses a wide variety of special collections, spanning from medieval illuminated manuscripts to 20th/21st century examples of book art and graphic novels.
We try to select material which demonstrates the inspirational history of the Library as an educational resource for those studying art and design: originally the Library was a functional library for students studying the applied arts at the Government School of Art and Design, founded in 1837. In 1857, the Library moved into the newly established South Kensington Museum within the present buildings of the V&A and soon afterwards opened its doors to the general public. The scope and depth of the collections changed from this point onwards to serve the interests of the public at large. Collecting broadened to feature documentary materials relating also to the fine arts and a wider variety of material was acquired for the special collections.
In 1902 William Reid, a wealthy linen manufacturer and collector, loaned his collection of illuminated manuscripts to the Museum for an exhibition. The collection comprised 83 codices, mostly late medieval book of hours. He was so impressed with the Museum’s facilities that he bequeathed his complete collection to the Library. The first item we look at in our group visits ‘Treasures’ package is a very small book of hours from Reid’s collection. This is a lovely example of a personalised commission – evident through the inclusion of the name of the first owner, Agostino, in the text and the personalised inclusion of the final prayers to Raphael and Sebastian.
Sparse on full page miniatures, perhaps what makes this book so charming is the calendar illustrations. Men and women are shown working on, or simply engaging with the land and wholly embracing the changes each season’s weather and activities bring. You can see also from the size of the weight on the book how small this volume actually is which adds to the charm of the piece.
Of course our collections can demonstrate a wealth of information about the history of the Museum itself. The importance of the 1851 Great Exhibition in the establishment of the Museum’s collections is well documented in other posts and on the V&A’s website itself. Within the Library we house a collection of medals relating to the Great Exhibition. Here is an example of the council medal that was presented to 170 of the exhibitors by the Council of Chairmen of the Juries. This Council had been set up by the Royal Commissioners. The prestigious award was accompanied by a certificate signed by Prince Albert, featuring detailed engravings of the medal design.
The NAL’s collections are not just English in scope. A high percentage of our holdings are in a foreign language or have been produced abroad. Many of these works offer fascinating insights into the customs specific to these countries, or sometimes just a slightly different angle on a subject to how it would be presented in the United Kingdom. If we cross over to the continent and step back in time over 200 years from the days of the Great Exhibition, we can take a look at this Italian 17th century guide to the preparation of a dining table; it features extensive examples of the techniques of napkin folding, presents the correct knives for cutting meat, the cuts of an animal, and instructions on dressing the table.
The concept of the book as ‘a work of art in itself’ is often at the forefront of our minds when working with the collections here at the NAL. Our over 5000 strong collection of international book art presents the embodiment of this idea. However, if we consider this concept on a smaller scale then we can look to the bindings of some of the works within our collections. We have dedicated ‘fine bindings from the Western world’ and ‘Islamic bindings’ special collections. An example from these collections is the Antiphoner cover shown below, a German binding from ca. 1500. This binding showcases a magnificent multimedia approach; the scale of the finished article is quite overwhelming to behold. An embroidered figure is attached to a buckskin binding with metal mounts and two large leather buckles comprising animal heads. The original title of the work was written on a strip of vellum; this was a style popularised by the printer Anton Koberger towards the end of the 15th century and the style became known as a Koberger binding.
In terms of providing easily identifiable trends in the applied arts, fashion often reveals a highly visible sign of the times. Of course, fashion is an area of the applied arts that the V&A is well known for. The NAL’s holdings of books within this genre is extensive. Within the selection of material found in our group visits package you would be able to see this beautiful example of an early 20th century, French fashion magazine. Illustrations focus on various common occasions (and some fantastical ones too) when formal and casual wear would be on show. Pochoir prints feature which became such a powerful medium for presenting these type of visual based publications at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century.
We’ve looked at just a few of the highlights of material you would be able to explore with us during a 45 minute group session. A huge variety of special collections material can be requested also simply by using your individual library reader pass. It is well worth taking a look at descriptions dedicated to specific collections within the library as a starting point to what might most inspire you, or complement your present studies.