‘Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book’

Ed. note: Ingenious Impressions has magnificently marked the first six years of the Glasgow Incunabula Project. The project’s two main aims are to produce a separate, electronic catalogue of the 1,000 plus incunabula in the University of Glasgow Library Special Collections, and to review and build on the data contained in its online catalogue. This article is an amalgamation compiled by the authors of posts that originally appeared on the UGLSC website.

Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book was the first exhibition to be curated by Special Collections (University of Glasgow Library) in over ten years and closed in June 2015. It was great fun and a huge success, so thanks to everyone who visited and thanks for sharing all of your responses and feedback. It seems that 15th-century printed books do have popular appeal! Although we are sad to see it go, the good news – of course – is that although the books are now out of the spotlight, they are accessible again in our reading room. So come along to Special Collections at your leisure and get to turn their pages and see what else lies within, or explore over 1,000 other incunables that couldn’t fit in the Hunterian Art Gallery.

Over the last six years, Jack Baldwin, Julie Gardham and Bob Maclean have researched, catalogued and created a website for the whole collection of books that were produced within the first 50 years of printing for the Glasgow Incunabula Project. This period just after the invention of printing was particularly creative. Many of the printed books closely resemble manuscripts with scribal additions such as hand illuminations, while some books ‘recycle’ parchment leaves from manuscripts as binding supports or flyleaves – all of which are rich sources of historical research. The high quality of cataloguing as a result of this project now means that these interesting volumes are accessed more easily and the staff involved have a renewed and thorough knowledge of this area of the collection. This has resulted in the Glasgow Incunabula Project website and there is more information on the introduction page.

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For the exhibition, Stephen Perry, as head of the Hunterian Art Gallery design team, treated these bound volumes like works of art and circumvented the rows of cases that would traditionally display books. This new way of displaying books created a continuous flow through the different themes in the exhibition. Stephen thought that dispersed low-level light throughout the gallery ‘would look like a dismal bedsit’ so individual LED lights, which do not emit UV light or heat, were hung directly above each book. Light was kept to a minimum in the general gallery space to contrast with the LED spotlights and make the books appear brighter. The red and blue colour theme running through the exhibition design, particularly with the carpet and supports, was inspired by the rubrication and annotations in the books and manuscripts themselves.

Inside the exhibition: low-level LED lighting for each book

All of the books in the exhibition were thoroughly condition assessed prior to conservation and display. Each volume was cleaned in advance of the display and its condition rated as being good, fair or poor. Over half of the books were deemed in fair condition, which meant that they required some form of intervention from conservation before being considered ready for exhibition. Several of the books were in poor condition, with significant damage to the binding structure such as detached boards or breakdowns in sewing structures.

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The first book in the exhibition was a Bible printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg (1483). It is fully rubricated and its arresting woodcut illustrations are hand coloured. It was thought that this Bible belonged to William Euing – one of the University of Glasgow’s great 19th-century benefactors. However, as a result of Jack Baldwin’s thorough research it appears that the Bible was not acquired by the University until 1914, long after Euing’s death in 1874. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to ascertain the source of this acquisition or locate any further documentation but surmise that it was arbitrarily ‘added’ to the Euing collection, as he was an avid collector of Bibles. The Euing copy still has its blind-tooled pigskin binding, which was shown in the exhibition by the use of mirrors on the custom-made acrylic supports by Richard West.

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The Bible had long tears through the text on multiple pages, which had to be repaired in such a way so as to not cause the paper to warp nor disturb the fugitive ink.

One of the themes our exhibition explored was the importance of the new technology of print in disseminating scientific knowledge and information accurately in multiple copies for the first time. One of the ‘stars of the show’ was the Calendar of Regiomontanus, printed in Venice in 1482 by Erhard Ratdolt, with its moving instrument of volvelles to show the motions of the moon – still intact after more than five hundred years. Educated at the Universities of Leipzig and Vienna, Regiomontanus (Johannes Müller von Königsberg) was a formidable scholar who mixed with some of the greatest humanist scholars of the day and had access to Cardinal Bessarion’s great library of manuscripts. Lou Robertson ACR used magnets and inert conservation material to safely show the different volvelles during the display.

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A personal favourite of the conservation department is the Apocalypse, one of two blockbooks in the incunable collection. It consists of 42 woodcut plates that are enlivened with watercolour washes. It was one of the larger conservation projects, as pages were splitting near the guards, lifting from the lining paper or deteriorating/detaching at the spine. After discussions between curators and conservators, it was not deemed appropriate to rebind the textblock before the exhibition, so weak areas were reinforced using a variety of high-quality conservation papers in situ. The Japanese paper applied is very fine and can be used on top of the illustrations without greatly altering the appearance.

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Where the pages were completely detached, a length of Japanese tissue was adhered to the edge of the leaf and re-attached to the guard. The result of this treatment was a volume stable enough for four months of display and handling afterwards in the reading room.

The exhibition was a great opportunity to highlight the incunabula collection and inform students, academics and the public about this fascinating shift in technology from manuscript to print. It was also an exciting opportunity to have some of these beautiful books in conservation, and display them in a safe but atmospheric gallery space. More information about the exhibition can be found on the University of Glasgow Special Collections’ blog page.

Sarah Graham, Conservation Intern, Special Collections, University of Glasgow, and Julie Gardham, Senior Librarian, Special Collections, University of Glasgow

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