The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 13
A Guide, — Etc
The Department of Printed Books is extremely rich in objects of interest and curiosity. As, however, the space available for their display is limited, it has been considered advisable to make such a selection as, under the circumstances, may be most instructive and interesting. Of the very first efforts of the inventors of the Art of Printing no specimens are known that can be clearly identified as such, but books of sufficiently early date exist to enable us to show its rise and early progress, and this is all that the present exhibition can pretend to trace.
Block-Books, although the immediate precursors of printing, must not be regarded as the form in which the art first developed itself, but rather as the perfection of another art, which had prevailed for many years previously—that of engraving on wood—and perhaps of one particular form of it, that of card-making.
The Books which are displayed in the show cases for the purpose of tracingthe progress of the art of printing occupy Cases III. to VIII., and are classed according to countries. This arrangement was neccssary, because, although Germany took the lead, printing rapidly spread itself into other countries, and was carried on contemporaneously and with surprising vigour. It also displayed a remarkable distinctness of national character. Nothing can be more massive and vigorous than the German type, but it possesses none of the artistic grace and elegance of the Italian, which again differs totally from the fanciful and pleasing French type, while the English, in the hands of Caxton, shows four different forms (only one of them tolerably good, and that an imitation of the Secretary Gothic of the French)—gets on but little better with Lettou and Maehlinia—becomes hard, fixed, and ungraceful with "Wynkyn de Worde, and only approaches elegance in the works of Pynson.
The subjects of the books printed within the first twenty or thirty years of the introduction of the art also display a national individuality as striking as that of the type. The prevailing subjects of those printed in Germany are Jurisprudence, Theology, and Philosophy; of those printed in Italy and France—Theology, Jurisprudence, Sciences, Greek and Roman Classics, History, Poetry, Romance; while in England, the subjects are nearly equally divided between Theology, works on Morals, Classical and Scriptural Legends, History, Poetry, Romance, and a little Jurisprudence. Among the productions of each of these page 4 countries Grammar and Language find a place, but not a prominent one until towards the close of the century.
Having shown the progress of the typographic art in the fifteenth century, the next case (No. IX.) displays specimens of sumptuous printing—i. e. works printed upon vellum and on large paper—and also of fine printing of more recent date. And here, in the specimens of modern fine printing, it will be seen how completely the distinctive character of the type of each country has disappeared with the progress of refinement, the beautiful type of Italy, called the Roman, driving the others out of the field, and leaving only so much difference as is recognisable by a practised eye.
The next step in the art, as displayed in Case X., is the Illumination of books. The Illumination, or pictorial embellishment of manuscripts, dates as far back as the fifth century, and when printing had become established was applied to printed books, but to those only of a more costly character, and particularly to those printed on vellum.
The Illustration of books by means of engravings on wood or copper is shown in Case XI. The simple uncoloured outline did, in fact, precede the coloured picture. But the first efforts of this nature on wood were extremely rude, owing, it is said, to the jealous refusal of the practised engravers on wood to assist, by their skill, the art of printing, which they feared would injure their own. The first printers were therefore obliged to engrave their own illustrations, as they were to cast their own type. The first illustrations were on wood, and in this, as well as in printing, Germany took the lead, being again closely followed by Italy, which, on the other hand, had the honour of producing the first book with copper-plate illustrations—Antonio Bettini's Monte Sancto di Dio.
The illustrations from engravings on wood and copper are followed by two cases containing a miscellaneous collection of literary curiosities and autographs, and the last comprises specimens of bookbinding from the sixteenth century downwards. Of this art it may be observed that, like that of printing, its earliest specimens display a degree of excellence which cannot be surpassed at the present day, and which modern binders are proud to be able to imitate successfully.
The table cases in which the books above referred to arc exhibited, are placed in the room occupied by the magnificent collection presented by the Right Hon. Thomas Grenville, and in the King's Library. The room on the right or east side of the Hall, and opposite to the Great Staircase, contains the Grenville Library. This collection consists of 20,240 volumes, and cost its late owner upwards of £54,000. The same high feeling which characterised all his actions led him to bequeath his library to the public as an act of justice. His words are, "A great part of my library has been purchased from the profits of a sinecure office given to me by the public, and I feel it to be a debt and a duty that I should acknowledge this obligation by giving that library so acquired to the British Museum for the use of the public." On a pedestal in the centre of the right side of the room stands the bust of page 5 Mr. Grenville, the gift of the Right Hon. Sir David Dundas, a Trustee of the British Museum. On the left side of the room are two table cases, wherein are laid out Block-Books, of which the following is a list:—