Copy by Freeman Francesca Albini
On 23 May a group of Stationers had the rare opportunity to visit the Paul Getty Library at Wormsley, in the Chiltern Hills. After being escorted through the idyllic estate, which includes what is said to be one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, we reached the building that houses the Library – a castellated extension to the main house built with local flint, which fits seamlessly in its environments.
The inside of the library is also impressive, the heads of two giant 10,000 year old extinct deer with enormous antlers, busts of 20th Century writers, a starry ceiling that shows the sky over Genoa the day Paul Getty was born, and a clock which is not a clock but a wind marker attached to the wind vane on the roof, which swings around over a map of the estate. But our main focus, obviously, were the books, and Robert Harding of Maggs, the Antiquarian Book Dealers, and fellow Stationer, was our expert guide.
Sir John Paul Getty started collecting books as a young man mostly because he wanted to read 20th century fiction, such as Scott Fitzgerald, and had to go to second hand bookshops in order to find them. In his visits he encountered the earlier editions and got to appreciate the paper, the type and the bindings. Out of that grew a passion for the Art of the Book, or, as our guide defined it, the ‘book beautiful’. Getty’s collection grew to represent the Art of the Book in all its aspects, from medieval illumination and calligraphy, to the beginning of printing, through to modern calligraphy, 20th century designers, book illustrations, and the best and rarest book bindings.
In the main library room, over a number of tables, a display of books was laid open, or showing their magnificent covers, for our perusal. One of the most typographically beautiful books of the 15th century, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, sat next to an incredible Ptolemy printed on vellum, open at the British Isles, with a sparkling blue sea made of ground lapis lazuli.
On another table there were examples of printing from the very beginning of print, including a section of the Gutenberg Bible, with the Sermon of the Mount. There was also a wonderful Boccaccio, the first book to be illustrated with copperplate engravings, printed in Bruges by Colard Mansion – who taught Caxton.
A glass cabinet held the finest copy in private hands of Caxton’s Chaucer, the first book printed in England, next to the first Shakespeare Folio, published in 1623. Opposite there was a great Kelmscott Press Chaucer, printed by William Morris, and illustrated by Burne-Jones. Both Chaucers were open at the beginning of The Wife of Bath’s Tale for comparison.
We saw extraordinary French Livres d’Artistes and English designer bindings of the 20th century, wonderful medieval manuscripts, including a fragment of a leaf from 8th century Northumberland. Also, a table with splendid examples of modern calligraphy.
There was a little show of gardening books, including Humphrey Repton’s designs with flaps that lift up.
For many of us, though, the favourite display was a selection of small almanacs and books of psalms printed for and sold by the Stationers, including a Freemason’s Calendar, bound for the Prince of Wales, George.