Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2017

2017 Rare Books Week #4

The wounded wing was no problem today because Hidden Treasures was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Rd so there was no straphanging on a tram today –  I drove in with my arm propped on a cushion and parked in the car park.   Easy:)

It was a wonderful session.  The presenter was Elisa Bunbury, one of three curators in the Print and Drawings department of the NGV, and she was knowledgeable and interesting, and relaxed about questions from the small audience.  The room we were in was designed for showing items from the rare prints and drawings collection, so it’s not very large but there were plenty of tables with space around them so that people could walk around and look at everything properly.  No touching, of course!  I was interested to learn that prints and drawings actually comprise about one-third of the entire NGV collection, but that’s not the impression you get as a gallery visitor because the prints and drawings can’t be left on permanent display.  The paper and inks are vulnerable to deterioration and can’t be restored like paintings can, so displays of prints and drawings are changed every four months, and then they are rested before being displayed again.  (The curators track how long each item is exposed to light for, to ensure that they don’t get damaged.)

The items I liked best were the illuminated manuscripts.  Back in 2008 the State Library hosted an exhibition called The Medieval Imagination and I loved it so much I lashed out and bought the catalogue and spent months browsing through it on lazy Sunday mornings.  So it was wonderful to see three exquisite personal prayer books: the Office of the Virgin from 1300 is the second oldest in the NGV collection, and two Books of Hours, the Wharnecliffe Hours (named after its owner, who probably commissioned it) and a Florentine Hours in Humanist Renaissance script rather than the Gothic script of the other two.  They were all highly decorated with gorgeous art work and calligraphy, and I learned the meaning of a ‘red letter day’.  In a Book of Hours, a red letter designated something important, so a ‘red letter day’ is one that’s important.

Not all illuminated manuscripts were done by monks and nuns, and some of the illustrations are (a-hem) Chaucerian in vulgarity.  There can also be errors in the texts, when the copyist was tired or had poor Latin.  Sometimes the person who did a particular page can be identified by their mistakes, but mostly these artists are anonymous.  My photo’s not great but you can just see the two smaller Books of Hours at left, and you can also see a stunning acquisition from the Felton Bequest, Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse, which was acquired from the Barlow Collection and it’s in excellent condition because Barlow apparently only collected the very best and he made sure that his copy was printed before there was any wear on the copper blocks used to make the prints.  (You can see the woodcuts, one for each page of the book, at Wikipedia.)  Did Dürer do it all by himself?  Scholars aren’t certain, but if he did work with others he certainly pushed them to a very high standard of workmanship.

On the other side of this first table were  treasures from the Colonial era. Elisa explained that, because of the intense interest in the settlement of the unknown continent, publishers rushed to produce books as soon as ships returned with specimens, journals and artworks.  John Stockdale’s Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay was not the first book but it was the first illustrated one, and it came in a coloured edition, or in B/W.  Our NGV copy is the coloured edition, which is why it’s in good condition – colour illustrations were done on better quality paper.

John Lewin’s Natural History of the Birds of NSW (1813) is notable because Lewin was the first artist to come willingly to the colony.  Collectors in Britain employed and funded people to come to Australia and bring back specimens and artefacts.  The prints in this book were made in Australia because Lewin brought out his own press, and the prints were hand-coloured by him and his wife.


Joseph Lycett’s Views of New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land comes from a later period when the emphasis was on how well settled the colony was, and how peaceful the natives were.  They weren’t, of course, they were fiercely defending their lands against the invasion, but the good folk in Britain did not get that impression from this book which was designed to encourage migration.  After landscape printing started in about 1810, this type of landscapes book was common around the world at the time, with books of regional landscapes in Britain and America and so on.   And last, but not least, that lovely little book of sketches of plants in the Castlemaine area was made by Ann Paulson, an Englishwoman who came out to work here between 1858 and 1866.

The other table displayed more modern artbooks, and again my ignorance of avant-garde artists means that some of this was a bit lost on me.  I really liked a small ‘travel’ book by local Melbourne surrealist Peter Ellis, but I wasn’t sure if it was subject to copyright so I didn’t photograph it.  The book was like the small Moleskine travel books I take with me when I go overseas, but Ellis has his handmade, just for him, and he fills them with sketches of this and that.  Sometimes he sketches an exhibition of other surrealists that he’s been to see, and sometimes he just draws weird objects and juxtapositions that occur to him.

There was also a copy of the earliest art book made in Australia: it’s called Night Falls on the Ti Tree and it’s by Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede (1905) and you can see a page from it here because like many of the NGV’s holdings, it’s been digitised.  The style reminded me of an edition of The Hobyahs that I’ve seen, and that’s probably because the Japanese style of this book was very influential.

Well, that’s it for Rare Books Week for me for 2017.  I was going to go to an event in the Percy Grainger Museum, but that’s on the Melbourne University campus and that means trams again.  So I’ll have to pass on that…



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