Listen to the conversations that ensue when a score of librarians gather, and you’ll understand why I scampered over to Columbus College of Art and Design’s Packard Library for an open house.
In the course of the first five minutes, I had shared my source for Donegal tweed skirts, heard about the freeing experience of steeking the London Cityscape cardigan, and admired a pullover sweater with a design that mimicked cat’s-eye glasses hanging on a beaded chain. Then came rapid-fire tips for creating library swag, from Harry Potter-inspired badges to magnetic bookmarks with cover designs created by student employees.
These inspiring conversations were right at home in this equally inspiring setting. In 1930, noted Columbus architect Frank Packard gifted money through his will to provide a library and maintain the collection of what was then known as the Columbus Art School. It was first located in Beaton Hall, the elegant Spanish Revival building next to the Columbus Museum of Art that was the school’s first home.
Today, the Packard Library’s collection includes 55,000 books, together with journal subscriptions; exhibition catalogs; electronic resources like the Bloomsbury Design Library; those works of art in book form known as artists’ books; a stitching library for book artists to study bookbinding techniques; zines, or small self-published books or magazines; a collection of broadsides from the local music scene; drawing aids; and a Materials Library encompassing polymers, ceramics, glass, metals, and other materials, together with Material ConneXion, an online database of material descriptions, images and usage characteristics.
But the rare book collection was really what I came to see. More than 700 gems dating from the late 17th century to the present cover printmaking, book arts, architecture, interior design, pattern and ornament, and the history of costume. As I turned their pages, I learned a plethora of new vocabulary words.
On display were Groot Schilderboek, an influential 18th-century Dutch theoretical manual by Gerard de Lairesse on the art of painting, drawing and engraving; Dame Elisabeth Frink’s illustrated edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; and De Romanorum magnificentia et architectura, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the great 18th-century printmaker who believed that Roman ornament derived from the influence of not the Greeks, but the Etruscans. Eugène Grasset’s Plants and Their Ornamental Applications, a Belle Epoque volume chock-full of stylized floral motifs, offered countless decorative possibilities for wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, needlework, stained glass, tile and furniture.
Have you ever seen such beautiful, vibrant colors as in Variations: Quatre-vingt-six-motifs decoratifs en vingt planghes? Written by Edouard Benedictus, a painter who was a friend of Maurice Ravel and the inventor of safety glass, this 1924 Parisian Art Deco work introduced me to the design technique known as pochoir, from the French word for “stencil.” This method of hand-stenciling with gouache, or opaque watercolor, was popular in Paris between 1910 and 1935, where it was used to decorate everything from fashion magazines and limited-edition books to greeting cards, wallpaper and advertisements. After a craftsman known as a decoupeur would cut different stencils for each sheet, colorists would apply each layer of color using a separate pompon brush.
Conversation turned to complete silence when I spotted Costume of Great Britain, an 1804 book by William Henry Pyne. Commissioned by publisher William Miller as part of a series of costume books, Pyne created 60 hand-colored illustrations, together with accompanying essays, portraying an array of trades and occupations in British society. He used aquatints to reproduce the delicate qualities of watercolors, a technique popular during the golden age of English book illustration before lithography was introduced.
I pored over images of brewers, butter-churners, coal-shovelers, slaughtermen, knife-grinders, lamplighters, cattle-drovers, tartan-sashed Highland shepherds, leather-aproned potters at their wheel, kerchiefed tanners working with animal hides, and a dustman emptying rubbish in his cart to prevent the plague. Women were pictured as brickmakers; worsted-wool winders; itinerant traders of rabbits, ducks and pigeons; and sellers of salop, a popular beverage of the day made from dried, ground orchid root, then sweetened and flavored with rosewater. In contrast, Pyne depicted peers, admirals, mayors, judges, a Knight of the Garter in his ceremonial robes, a member of the Wardmote Inquest dressed in fur-trimmed robes as he regulated the standard of weights and measures, a Chelsea pensioner in his iconic red coat lined with blue, and a beadle, who enforced good behavior during religious services.
A bill-sticker posting an advertisement on a wall symbolizes the future. While proclamation-making heralds and trumpeters in gold-embroidered crimson velvet livery once conveyed important news to Britons, printed bills were then spreading the news rapidly and inexpensively, circulating throughout the kingdom in four or five days.
The volume also documents British traditions like the country fair, with its round-about rides and puppet pantomimes by halfpenny showmen, and the lottery wheel, which was drawn through the streets to collect lottery tickets. It also recalls Guy Fawkes Day, the customary practice on November 5 to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes — one of the traitors involved in a plot to overthrow the reformed religion, the Royal Family and all of Parliament — as people chant, “Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” And it introduces modern readers to wastel and cocket (now known as white and wheat bread); how bakers were penalized if they sold their bread short of the required weight or did not mark their wheat bread with a large “W” and household bread with a large “H”; and how certain types of bread were baked for certain consumers, like loaves given to messengers as a reward for their services, and eleemosynary bread, which was distributed to the poor.
Pyne was also an art critic who published “Wine and Walnuts,” an anthology of his anecdotes about the London art world, in the Literary Gazette in 1823. His Microcosm, in which he presents hundreds of figures in scenes from everyday rural life, was intended to instruct art students. For more on Pyne, see William Henry Pyne and his Microcosm, by Harris Myers.