July 2009 Archives

Reading Decorative Papers: From the Legal to the Forbidden

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A book historian has said: “Printers print sheets, but binders make books.” That dictum is well shown by close examination of the bindings on these two books.

The first example is from the library of John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration, and President of College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). It is volume 29 of his collection of sixty bound volumes of pamphlets. Most are bound with boards covered with decorative papers, usually marble paper. Some have remarkable tan paste paper covers which, because of age and wear, reveal printing beneath the decorative pigment. In this case, we can see page 331 of the 1784 edition of the Acts of the Council and General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey printed in Trenton by state printer Isaac Collins. In an age of scarcity, paper had value even after its original use. The trade in printer’s waste paper, for example, included a number of after-market uses, such as linings for hat boxes. Here we see printer’s waste as substratum for a decorative paste paper, tan in color, patterned in a wavy manner (done by comb while paste and pigment are still wet.)


The second example keeps us still in the world of reused printer’s waste but takes us far from the rectitude of the Reverend Doctor. This is the binding on a recently acquired copy the Scholar’s Arithmetic, or, Federal Accountant, a textbook published in 1814 at Keene, N.H. by John Prentiss “proprietor of the copy right.” [(Ex) Item 547834] The book is still in its original binding as issued. In this case the decorative paper is marbled paper, whose color and pattern results from laying the paper over oil pigments floating on water. Again, wear and age allow us to see what was once hidden by blue pigment. There are blocks of print separated by wide margins, signaling this sheet to be several pages of text imposed for book printing. There are 31 lines per page with a page number centered in brackets over the middle of line one. Layout is the same on both front and back covers.

What is this text? Closely reading one portion reveals a surprise.

Transcription:

                              [18]

[service] under these good people; and after 
[supper] being showed to bed, Miss Phoebe, 
[who ob]served a kind of reluctance in me to 
[strip and go] to bed, in my shift before her, now 
[the maid] was withdrawn, came up to me, and 
[beginnin]g with unpinning my handkerchief 
[and gow]n, soon encouraged me to go on with 
[undressi]ng myself; and, still blushing at now see
[ing mys]elf naked to my shift, I hurried to get 
[under th]e bed-cloaths out of sight.  Phoebe 
[laugh'd] and was not long before she placed

Racy stuff, indeed. One library describes books with comparable decorative papers as “Bound in boards covered with a marbled sheet from a suppressed edition of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. [Boston?, ca. 1810]” How did this happen? [More later.]

cat.jpg

“Any attempt to determine the dating and sequence of the majority of Piranesi’s etched works must begin from the artist’s own Calalogo, confined to a single plate. This appears to have been first issued around 1761 when Piranesi set up his print-selling business near the top of the Spanish Steps at Palazzo Tomati, Via Sistina — an address which appears on many of his subsequent plates. In particular the Catalogo is crucial for arriving at the dating and order of the Vedute di Roma and already on the earliest known example presented to the Accademia di San Luca on his election in the spring of 1761, some fifty-nine specific titles are listed. Thence forward until his death in 1778, Piranesi issued revised states of the Catalogo which can be dated approximately by the addition of new publications. At the same time, fresh titles of the Vedute were added, individually or in groups (these were sometimes inserted in ink before being etched). So far, well over twenty-five separate states of this key work have come to light.” — John Wilton-Ely, Piranesi (London, 1978), p. 45.

Recent study of the Catalogo by Andrew Robison, Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), has identified as many as 31 known states.

Princeton owns three states, as follows:

State IV - copy bound as last leaf in Piranesi’s De Romanorvm magnificentia et architectvra / Della Magnificenza ed architettura de’Romani. (Rome, 1761), call number (Ex) NA310 .P64e. Link to digital image.

State V - held at the Princeton University Art Museum, Prints and Drawings

State XXIV - copy at call number (Ex) 2007-0052E, dating ca. 1776. Link to digital image.

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