- Word & Image: Art, Books and Design from the National Art Library ed. by Rowan Watson, Elizabeth James and Julius Bryant
The National Art Library has had its ups and downs, and perhaps more than many libraries its fair share of navel-gazing as to its purpose and status. Its title is part of its problem—or its opportunity?—as it is not, and never has been, a national library in the usual sense of the term, and it will not be found represented at the Conference of Directors of National Libraries. It is the library of the Victoria & Albert Museum and its predecessor the School of Design, but was christened the National Art Library around 1865. Since then the title has variously been trumpeted, or discretely played down, according to the relative emphasis given by successive generations of Museum management to the primary aims stated on the website, to be ‘a major public reference library for the fine and decorative arts, and the V&A’s curatorial department for the art, craft and design of the book’. Its public entrance on the first floor of the Museum, shown in this book, has the words in bold capitals across its portal, but the Library has had no Keeper or Chief Librarian since the last such postholder retired in 2000, and it was merged with Prints, Paintings and Drawings to create a new Word and Image Department. The book has been produced to accompany an international touring exhibition, and uses the title of the enlarged department, but is devoted specifically to NAL material. Not that this creates any shortage of choice; the Library has a huge and diverse range of holdings, historic and modern, and beyond its million or so books there are ephemera, trade literature, comics, manuscripts and book art to be explored.
A little over half the book comprises illustrations and captions for the exhibits, but its value is significantly enhanced by introductory essays by each of the three editors, covering the history of the Library, its collections, and its place within the Museum. Julius Bryant outlines the Library’s evolution from the establishment of a resource to support the School of Design, set up in 1837 to train craftsmen, through an Art Manufactures Library and the initiatives following on from the Great Exhibition on 1851, which became the nascent V&A. By the middle of the twentieth century, the users were largely art historians, practitioners, collectors and Museum curators; the 1970s and 80s are noted as decades of change, with an increasing student audience following on from developments in higher education. Rowan Watson chronicles the growth of the collections between 1837 and 1909, noting not only the breadth with which the net was cast, to include prints, photographs and drawings, but also the importance of donations from manufacturers and artists as well as collectors. Printed and archival holdings from the worlds of manufactured design—wallpaper, textiles, furniture, decorative objects of all kinds—have long been a major strength of the NAL. Elizabeth James completes the collecting story down to the present day, taking in calligraphy as well as the ways in which the idea of the book as a work of art has evolved through the twentieth century, from artists’ books and livres d’artiste to book art and book sculpture. It is good to see here an acknowledgement of the collecting vision of Jan van der Wateren, whose work in the 1980s and 90s ensured that the NAL acquired a truly national collection of the more experimental end of that spectrum.
One sense which comes through these essays is of the latter half of the nineteenth century as perhaps the great heyday of the Library. This was the time of becoming [End Page 207] the NAL, of Henry Cole’s great vision for a Universal Catalogue of Books on Art, when the Library catalogue-cum-desiderata-list was one and...