Our current state of media overload may feel thoroughly postmodern, but a new exhibition at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens suggests it may echo practices that date back to the 1700s. Although our 18th century friends weren't posting on Instagram or Pinterest by the minute, those who could afford to amass large quantities of images did engage in another kind of activity: augmenting published books with illustrations gathered from a variety of sources. Some of these images were original works of art, letters, maps, or pages from other books. But most were art prints that had started circulating in increasing numbers through Europe and England (and a bit later, the U.S.). It may be hard to appreciate from our current vantage point, but engravings, etchings, and woodcuts were the height of international imaging technology and the visual currency of their day.
On view from July 27 through October 28, "Illuminated Palaces: Extra-Illustrated Books from The Huntington Library" features more than 40 such works dating from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. The books are treasure troves of art, often spanning several volumes. What began as a nine-volume edition of Shakespeare's works is so stuffed with additional imagery that it now extends to a whopping 45 volumes. The Kitto Bible, created in the 1800s, "is like a museum in itself," says Claremont Graduate University professor Lori Anne Ferrell, who curated the exhibition with Stephen Tabor, the Huntington's curator of early printed books. It has been augmented with over 30,000 prints, encompasses 60 volumes (weighing as much as 30 pounds each), and is probably the largest Bible in the world. In looking through other works, Ferrell and Tabor discovered a pre-Revolutionary War letter from George Washington and a rare, original watercolor by English Romantic artist William Blake.
Yet the books are works of art in their own right. Collectors didn't just shove their finds between the pages; they paid large sums of money to have books disassembled and re-bound -- often in impressive gilt and leather bindings -- with both the original pages and added images mounted inside delicate paper frames (a labor-intensive process called inlaying). The reconstituted tomes, many of which are still in pristine condition, are polished and professional, unlike most scrapbooks. For Tabor, that is a key distinction. "I insist that you have to have that backbone of a printed book, a single printed book," he says, "It's not a scrapbook; it's not an accumulation of stuff on a subject. You start with a book and that dictates your collecting."
Although people have been augmenting and altering books since the form emerged in ancient times, the practice of extra-illustration really took off in 1769, when British clergyman James Granger published a catalog listing (but not reproducing) portrait prints of famous people. "In the 18th century, the practice of collecting these prints was revving up and people needed some way to organize it," says Tabor. "Granger wrote a sort of a catalog to what was available ... and one of the early buyers of this thing got the idea to combine his collection with the catalog." The phenomenon, which became known as "Grangerizing," thus took on an air of what we might now call celebrity obsession, with collectors scrambling to find every image of King Charles the Second, for example. Yet strangely enough, it was prints of the least famous people -- subjects Granger categorized as being known for only one thing -- that became the most sought after, simply because they were the hardest to find. "They very soon started to run out of the most popular prints and the rarest prints," says Tabor, "So they started manufacturing replicas of the originals to satisfy this thing."
Although the trade in prints was soaring, it's unclear whether there was much of a market for extra-illustrated books at the time. "You always wonder whether people did it for what they would get back for it, or just this notion of the obsession that sets in," says Ferrell. Yet she maintains the practice was driven by more than acquisitiveness. "People are interested in turning something generally exciting like books were -- or as the internet is now -- into something which they could call their own," she says, "I do think this is really caught up in the act of some form of creation as well as acquisition." Although extra-illustrators structured their collections around a central text, the wide, somewhat indiscriminate net they cast was perhaps not unlike the swarm of digital images from which we cull and fashion digital stories every day. Assembling images to form a book like no other could be seen as a precursor to the extreme degrees of customization we've come to expect from websites and apps like Facebook and Pandora.
Although there is no evidence that he engaged in Grangerizing himself, American railroad tycoon Henry E. Huntington was something of an uber-collector, purchasing over a thousand extra-illustrated books in the early years of the 20th century. Tabor says that in general, Huntington collected "basically the fashionable things": Gutenberg Bibles, Elizabethan drama, and works on English and American culture and history. "He just happened to do it much better because he had more money and a lot of taste," says Tabor. He was also a rare West Coast collector of works that were largely created on the Eastern seaboard or in Europe. Californians "were still taming the land instead of taming the book," says Ferrell, who searched the collection for more local works. "I couldn't find a thing about California."
Huntington's fixation on the prestige of British and East Coast culture is well known, but even within those parameters, he was a savvy collector. The extra-illustrated book was popular among collectors at the turn of the 20th century. "I think he saw it not only as a beautiful presentation but also as a storehouse of art," says Tabor.
If Huntington had any idea of the sheer number of artworks he acquired in this manner, however, he never let on. Tabor and Ferrell estimate that 90% of the Huntington's art collections reside between the covers of extra-illustrated books, most of it unidentified. Although the books were created in the 18th and 19th centuries, many include much older works of art. Collectors also typically neglected to record the sources of the artworks they incorporated. While the book titles have been cataloged, no one has yet had the time or expertise to research and document all of the individual works within. The vast majority of the institution's art holdings thus remain an enticing mystery.
However, despite the treasures they contain, extra-illustrated books have not been of great interest to modern scholars, says Ferrell. Part of the reason for this neglect is that they fall somewhere between genres. "These are real hybrid productions," she says, "Not quite art, not quite books." The Huntington has removed items of great value like the Blake watercolor and stored them with the institution's art collections, but a complete accounting of an extra-illustrated book is likely to require a rare constellation of specialties: deep knowledge of the histories of Western art, printing and book arts, and classical, Biblical, British, and American literature.
Extra-illustrated books have also remained obscure due to a shift in attitudes toward the book and collecting that happened around the turn of the 20th century. "One of the most surprising things I've found out," says Ferrell of 18th and 19th century collectors, "is just how willing people are to mess around with books. We feel very differently about them now." Since the early 1900s, book collectors have emphasized the importance of first editions and original condition. The work of 20th century bibliographers, says Tabor, "depended on finding honest copies of originals." Ferrell adds, "It's also the great age of the U.S. research library. So when you think about it, people are buying books that are important for research." Because they have been so thoroughly adulterated, extra-illustrated books are not considered reliable textual sources.
It was also around this time that Grangerizing began to die out. It had pretty much ceased in England by the mid-1800s but carried on awhile longer in the U.S. "The Gilded Age in America made it possible to do this stuff," says Tabor. "Americans were emulating the country squire model." But as printed materials grew cheaper and more ubiquitous, they lost their appeal for wealthy collectors who wanted something more exclusive. "Some of the Civil War ones do end up straddling between being an extra-illustrated book and some kind of scrapbook," says Ferrell. The form had become more diffuse, and eventually died out. "What really did the coup de grâce was the Depression in the U.S.," says Tabor.
In recent years, scholars and curators have become more interested in extra-illustrated books. In 2010, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. organized an exhibition with an emphasis on the works of the Bard of Avon, a favorite of Grangerizers. "The interest is just beginning to rise again in the scholarly world because we've been so fascinated with the history of the book in the last 15 years," says Ferrell. "I think it's because we worry about the book as a material object." With the advent of e-books and other forms of digital publishing, the physical book is in danger of becoming something of a fetish object. This interest in the materiality of the book parallels developments in present day publishing, in which art books in particular have become more lavishly illustrated collector's items.
To be sure, there are great differences between the era of Grangerizing and our own media-addled existence: extra-illustration was the privileged hobby of rich, white men and printed images were certainly much more expensive and harder to find than digital images are now. Our present-day fascination with images is much more democratic, and our collecting is less likely to be tied to the guiding dictates of a text so much as the whims and predilections of our own lives.
Yet our willingness to manipulate and customize both images and texts reflects a return in some ways to a more open-ended understanding of cultural production. A book, in the hands of a Grangerizer, was an open invitation to create something new and unique. That sentiment parallels attitudes in the last few decades that have produced remixes and mash-ups, parodies and appropriations. In this mode of thinking, texts of all kinds (books, videos, songs, etc.) are not sealed, inviolable cultural documents. Instead, they are open, not only to interpretation, but to augmentation, transformation and personalization. That is the postmodern condition, but it's also very 18th century.