Glass, hair, shoe laces and straw



September 4, 2015
'The Book of Nails' Floating Concrete Octopus, 1992 Pressmark: X930037
‘The Book of Nails’ by
Floating Concrete Octopus, 1992
Pressmark: X930037
(C) Victoria and Albert Museum/Floating Concrete Octopus

Each year at the V&A, students, artists, book historians and anyone else with an eye for the beautiful, unusual and thought provoking come to visit the National Art Library’s rich and varied collection of over 5000 artists’ books.  Often unique works of art, many are displayed in galleries around the V&A as fine examples of 20th century craftsmanship.  If you want to read a fuller description of the collection and why it is part of the National Art Library, take a look at the Artists Books pages or read the earlier blog  Clouds of discovery .

There are numerous challenges in storing and making available such unusual works. They are often very large and unwieldy, and sometimes even include moving parts, but they can also be fragile and made of delicate materials: glass, hair, paper mache, precious stones, straw, soil, nails, leaves, bootlaces and even various bodily fluids have all been utilised in the production of some of the artists’ books collection.

Any member of the Library can request to see an artists’ book, but to help with the storage and handling issues of such a fragile collection, we only retrieve 3 at a time and the books go straight back to their store as soon as they are finished with.  We also only get the books out when the person requesting the book has arrived in the Library so that the items don’t need to be placed in temporary storage areas while they wait for collection.

'Emissions' by Susan Johanknecht and Katherine Maynell, 1992. Pressmark X930145
‘Emissions’ by Susan Johanknecht and Katherine Maynell, 1992.
Pressmark: X930145
(C) Victoria and Albert Museum/Susan Johanknecht and Katherine Maynell

Artists’ books are all listed on the NAL catalogue. The easiest way to search for them is to select a ‘Genre or Publication Format Keyword’ search from the dropdown list and enter ‘artists books’ in the search box. This allows you to browse through around 3250 Artists’ book titles. However, as the books are such a visual medium, you may want to have a look at a selection of what is available before (or instead of) ordering the books to see in the National Art Library. You can see a selection of images from the collection in an online gallery and we have a ‘visual register’ of artists’ books available in the Library which contains descriptions and photographs of around 200 items – just ask a member of staff if you would like to consult it.  These are both good starting points for anyone beginning to research the area.  If you would like to read further into the subject, there are also a number of books you could request from the Library.

Selected publications about the National Art Library’s artists’ books collection.

Hogben, Carol, and Watson, Rowan eds., From Manet to Hockney: modern artists’ illustrated books. V&A, 1985. ISBN 0948107073 (paperback). Pressmark: 603.AA.0251

Bettley, James, ed., The art of the book: from medieval manuscript to graphic novel. V&A Publications, 2001. ISBN 1851773339. Pressmark: 603.AB.1247

Selected catalogues of exhibitions from the NAL’s Artists’ book collection

The open & closed book: contemporary book arts. HMSO, 1979. Pressmark: AB.79.0003

Elena Foster and Rowan Watson; [foreword by Mark Jones]. Blood on Paper. Ivory Press; V&A Publishing, 2008. ISBN 9780955458538. NAL Pressmark: VA.2008.0011 & PC 6/9

Blood on paper : the art of the book : 15 April-29 June 2008. Publisher: London: V&A; 2008. Pressmark: VA.2008.Box.0002  & 607.AJ.0207.

Word & image : art, books and design : from the National Art Library . Edited by Rowan Watson, Elizabeth James and Julius Bryant. Publisher:  London: V&A Publishing, 2015 [i.e. 2014]. ISBN 9781851778089 NAL pressmark: VA.2015.0001 & Ref. 708.21 VIC

About the author



September 4, 2015

I am the manager of the onsite information services in the Word & Image Department, including the National Art Library, the Prints & Drawings Study Room and the Blythe House...

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