The British Library Special Collection of Artists Books

The British Library :: Special Collection of Artist’s Books :: UAL Trip 

In March this year a small group of Book Arts MA students from The Camberwell College of Arts were treated to a show and tellof Artists’ Books at The British Library; this was organised by Richard Price, Duncan Heyes, Jeremy Jenkins, Sophie Loss and Susan Johanknecht.

Dr Richard Price, head of Contemporary British collections at the British Library, warmly welcomed the group into a beautiful boardroom at the heart of the Library. He explains that although a boardroom may appear to be a strange place for a display of artists’ books with its distinctly museum-feel there is a reason for this. The books are displayed in a ‘special way of showing’ using foam book rests and lead ‘snakes’ to hold the pages down, and any handling is conducted by a member of staff. This is because as a library of last resort, the British Library’s intention is to keep a copy of all that is published so that many other generations may enjoy and appreciate these works for centuries to come. Price describes ‘moments of liberation’ when these books may ‘liberated’ – to some degree within the context of curating a collection for future posterity. This was one such delightful moment of liberation.

Price goes on to say that when one thinks of the artist’s book, one immediately thinks of a 20th-century object, however the artist’s book is actually much older than one would imagine, beginning with other traditions of text such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, of which the British library is custodian. This is an illuminated manuscript from around 715 to 720 A.D., produced at the Monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland. It is a rather large sculptural-looking book with Celtic and European influences, richly illustrated with a decorative braiding, and it is essentially one of the first ever artist’s books to exist. Such a book possesses a particular ‘density of narrative’ and ‘a non-sequential way of being understood’ that make it and others like them historically special.

I learned that there is such a thing as the ‘accidental artist book’. For example there are the herbal and botanical manuals filled with illustrations for medicinal, reference or cataloguing purposes, where it is evident that the thrill of looking at an object of natural beauty possibly inspired the impetus for the book.

Children’s books may also be thought of as ‘accidental artist books’. I discovered that The British Library has a fantastic collection of children’s books spanning the last 30 or 40 years containing everything from games, to foldout pages, pop-ups, see-throughs, cut-out holes, lattice, windows, sliders and other feats of paper engineering with a sophisticated use of colour. It’s all there.

This mixture of high and low registers, such as graphic novels with a distinctly zine feel, alongside accidental and non-accidental artist’s books, rubbing shoulders with illuminated manuscripts, gives The British Library a positive and diverse historical collection of the artists’ books, as well as many other kinds of storytelling books. With these the idea of sequence and time can control the timing of the reader and the reading. The reading can be paused or halted simply by the act of looking; for example flicker books, or flip books tell a story either down the edge of the page, or the edge of the book where the process of looking is speeded up. Also, through the ambiguous use of white space around a small area of text or maybe surrounding a lone word on a page, time can be slowed or stopped by encouraging the reader to think that the word has a particular significance, importance or status, or simply that it should be read more slowly. Time can be speeded up, slowed down, stopped or captured, and the book itself suggests all this.

Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Publications, chooses a selection that emphasises the idea of the narrative and the word in the artist’s book.

Among his selection is a book published by the European Union, entitled Hidden Disaster, by Eric Bongers(2010). Bongers. It has been published in German, French, Italian and Dutch in addition to English .  A digital edition is freely available via EU publications: is a graphic novel that packages a message about Western Aid Workers providing disaster relief under a flag, in a format that is suitable for a juvenile, or non-English speaking market to understand. Here the narrative is contained within the images and pictorially describes the role of certain EU agencies to support a disaster area. This is unusual to say the least as one doesn’t generally associate a graphic novel with an official publication by a supranational union to promote their ideas and could be considered either as information, or equally as propaganda. The publication is tightly edited and begs the question what goes on outside of the frames? What happens when the Westerners or the protagonists leave the disaster area, what then?

There is a second example of a graphic novel, The Complete Don Quixoteby Rob Davies(2013) which is two books bound into one, and despite being translated from Spanish, Jenkins says that it is able to retain much of its original humour and flavour. It also contains sequences within a sequence, with the use of tableaux in a different artistic style providing a simultaneous subtext running within the narrative.

Evgenia Emets’s Do We Have A Common Language?is a bilingual artist’s poetry book in English and Russian. Emet is a performer, merging sound art, poetry, installation and calligraphic practice focusing on forms of visual and sonic language, utilising a sequence of repetition, pattern, space and hexagonal shapes, suggesting movement on a page. Her work asks us to question what do the words do? How do the words react physically in its environment? Each page may be interpreted as a performance in book-form, drawing the audience in, whereby we also become performers through the act of participating with her book.

One of Jenkin’s favourites is Ambeck’s Typographic bestiary A – Z. Volume 1by Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck(2006), which is a collection of 26 caricatured men, women and animals made entirely from the strategic placement of alphabet and punctuation letterpress characters. All of the personalities have names, nick names, foibles and antics, which she describes humorously on the adjacent page. It was a product of a student project at Central Saint Martins art school; the type was found in the basement of the school in the late 1990’s. Jenkins cites this work as a ‘call to action’ to inspire future students to follow suit.

Another of his favourites, and now one of my own too, is Natalie d’Arbeloff’s The Creation from the Book of Enoch: Five and half hours in Paradise(1992), this is unbound in a box with ten beautiful fold out leaves that reveal sugar-lift etchings and relief painting. The plates are sensitively illustrated with simple lines that convey strong sentiments. Accompanying extracts of text are taken from the Book of Enoch. Enoch is reputed to be the great, great, grandfather of Noah and godly in his vocation. The testament of Enoch is said to have been dictated directly by God, with Enoch as his scribe, written in the first person making it instantly accessible to the reader, and yet it has been excluded from the modern Christian Bible. However Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian faiths still favour Enoch’s testament and choose to include in their own versions of the Bible. Natalie’s interpretation is a philosophical work that embodies the work that she did with her father, who published under the name of A. B. Christopher in the Philosophical Library Journal in the 1950s, a text to which she added etchings at a later date. D’Arbeloff is a British and American artist, book artist, cartoonist, humourist, writer and teacher.

These were just a few examples from the show and tellselection of artists books that the MA group were lucky to see at The British Library, made all the more fascinating by Jeremy Jenkins’ interesting curatorial insights, stories and background information. It was a wonderful afternoon of literary and artistic inspiration and I would like to extend my grateful thanks to everyone at The British Library and the University of the Arts London, for making this possible. I do hope that there will be more.


C. M. Miller