Creative Arts Book of the Week 28/05/2015

Word & Image.  Art, Books and Design: from the National Art Library

Word and image: art, books and design from the National Art Library

Edited by Rowan Watson, Elizabeth James and Julius Bryant.

I first saw this lovely book in the V&A bookshop and decided it was a ‘must buy’ for our library.  The National Art Library (NAL) is part of the V&A and is a major public reference library of fine and decorative arts of many countries and periods. I have visited the National Art Library twice and it is a hidden gem that more people should know about.  The library was, from the beginning, an integral part of the Museum, formed by, and for, artists and designers as an essential element of the educational and museological project (see below) of Prince Albert and Henry Cole after the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Word & Image shows how the distinct character of the NAL was formed, and how its collections created a new kind of bibliographical resource.  The book brings together more than 150 objects from the National Art Library’s collection of literature, prints, drawings and photographs and represents some of the finest examples of ‘book art’ in existence.

Word & Image is divided into chapters including: Resources for Art and Design Education; Making Images: the Illustrators at Work; the Impact of Photography (with a fascinating section on the history of Reportage); The Fashion Archive; and Modern Artists and the Book.  A useful source of reference for Illustration, Photography, Journalism, Fashion, Art, History and book production. There is also a chapter about art and design of the 1930s, incorporating aspects of German Bauhaus and modernist architecture featuring British poster designs. Something that may interest our students of Architecture.

The opening of the new South Kensington Museum after the Great Exhibition of 1851  (later to be renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum and then the V & A) prompted the publication of several luxury books by leaders of design reform who wanted to celebrate the museum’s educational role.  This included The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones published in 1856.  We have three copies of early editions in our Rare Books Collection and one modern facsimile in the loan collection.  This is an inspirational book for art and design projects showcasing classical and mid-nineteenth century designs from other countries. Many of these designs were to be seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Jones’s visit to the Alhambra Palace in Andalusia, Southern Spain where he had studied the Islamic designs.  We have copies of this work here which was published in 1842-45.   As The Grammar of Ornament is out of copyright there are several digitised versions now available online.  If you want to refer to an original print copy or anything else in the Rare Books Collection please ask a member of library staff for a specific title and you can look at it within close proximity of the Library Enquiries Desk on the ground floor.

My favourite section in Word & Image is Making images: Illustrators at Work with plates by George Cruikshank, who illustrated three books by Charles Dickens; William Makepeace Thackeray (who was an illustrator as well as an author – for example, Vanity Fair); Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and Beatrix Potter.  It is an absolute delight to look through this book as it is the first opportunity to see all these wonderful images together in one place.  The book discusses its current collection from a fifteenth century book of hours to The Book of Nails by Floating Concrete Octopus – which symbolises the ‘pain and suffering’ of an artist.

There are thousands of books in the National Art Library; many of which are available in the general collection but many more are stored in a controlled temperature only to see the light of day if they are needed for an exhibition or by a discerning researcher. Their Special Collections contain materials that, quite apart from their text or images, are rare or unique, or which need to be preserved in their original formats as exhibition objects and specimens of book production. Items in Special Collections are stored, issued and consulted in more controlled conditions than materials in the library’s general stock.

Two years ago I was surprised to see a series of NAL medieval etchings in a fabulous exhibition entitled The Grotesque Factor in the Picasso Museum in Malaga, Spain.  So you see… you never know where their collections will turn up!

Access to the National Art Library is free but you will need to apply for a Reader’s Ticket, see here for details and a list of their Special Collections is also available.  Don’t forget about the My Subject pages to find other resources relating to architecture, art, design and journalism.


Museologica is the study of museums, museum curation, and how museums developed into their institutional role in education through social and political forces.







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