ancient book love!

Some of the areas we access through my course are confidential and I can’t share them. These however I am fairly sure are fine to write about and put pictures up, as they are from the University of Melbourne archives and pretty much anyone can access them if they request to. It’s just a short post really, to share my delight at a few of the volumes that I saw on Monday.

A volume of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer! This I could have drooled over all day… from the link you probably won’t click: The Kelmscott Chaucer was the most ambitious book Morris ever printed; it took four years, and was only finished just before his death. But it was a labour of love, the culmination of Morris and Burne-Jones’s long friendship. Morris designed the typeface, decorative initials and page layout; Burne-Jones designed the illustrations. SO. SEXY. I wanted to touch it so badly but “on touche avec les yeux”… the printing was magnificent, and the binding in white leather was so fabulous, oh my… you can’t tell from the picture but the book is 11×16 inches and 600 pages long — massive and completely impractical and utterly desirable nonetheless!

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Also fabulous — a gigantic volume of Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament.

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It inspired me to purchase this beautiful book of wrapping papers ($7 only!) a few days later. Sorry for the horrid quality picture but my room’s lighting is not ideal.

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In the background of the Grammar, you can see this treasure: …I have forgotten the details already unfortunately. It’s a herbalist’s manual, full of hand-coloured prints showing not just all the herbs and plants but also all the animals — including unicorns and mermaids.

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This — also glimpsed in the background above — is a single page from an original Gutenberg Bible. Not the best picture but this is kind of like being a paparazzi really — I’m just excited to catch a shot of a celebrity. Even though I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Gutenberg, as he gets all the credit for inventing moveable type hundreds of years after the Chinese did (and after the Koreans perfected it). Still. Pretty cool! Of course, if I’d studied in Europe instead of Australia I would probably have access to more than a single page… but I’m the only person allowed to point that out.

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A week or so ago you may have seen me get excited on Facebook about the etymology of the word miniature: The name “minium” was used for both orange lead and cinnabar [from which were extracted red and orange pigments]. An artist working with minium was known as a “miniator”, who made “miniature”, so the term miniatures was originally used for the red capitals used in illuminated manuscripts. The term was eventually applied to any small feature and came to mean anything reduced in size.* Here is some original miniature for you! The vellum of this manuscript made it a perfectly acceptable candidate for binding another book, completely unrelated, and it has held up just fine over the centuries.

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Last but not least in this episode of book geekery… You may note in this action shot of the Chaucer, a small, unprepossessing volume, bound in a dubious floral print, hovering in the background.

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It has been in the collections for years, more or less ignored. Upon fortuitously opening it one day, however, the archivist was amazed to discover…

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*I have written up some information about pigments and their history but I’m not sure if it’s really fair as it’s more or less a rip-off of the article I read, and I don’t have time to re-write it completely in my own words… maybe later?


5 thoughts on “ancient book love!

  1. i am curious about what kinds of things are confidential in your field. techniques? who owns what old things? what can you tell me without crossing lines?

    • It’s a combination of things. Partly that the owners of the objects may not want it to be public knowledge where they are kept, but mostly because apparently some people have nothing better to do than hunt down pictures of objects undergoing treatment and then accuse conservators of not taking good care of them by pointing out damage or bad conditions. I don’t get it, and I have pictures burning a hole on my hard drive because of how awesome they are, but we were specifically told no Facebooking.

  2. Thanks for sharing this link on my blog, that’s incredible! I’d love to see it. It’d be great if they’d let you blog about some of the other cool things you got to see. If you’re ever in the UK you should try to get to see the Museum at Oxford University Press, their archivist gave us a really interesting talk on publishing from the dark ages to the digital ages and we got to see some really amazing old books (I’ll post a link but feel free to delete!)

    The Bodleian Library and The Victoria and Albert Museum also have some cool displays of old to ancient books, but again, there are some photography restrictions

    • When I’m next back in Europe there are SO MANY places I want to go visit… your suggestions are going on the list! I’m not planning to specialise in paper conservation, but as a book lover, how could I not love poring over old books – it’s such a treat 🙂


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