A Letter from America XXXI: My Color Plate Book Show (March)

From the Rare Book Review  

About a decade ago I decided to form a collection of books with color plates printed in the Americas before 1900. Like many a collector before me, I entered on the project light-heartedly and with no real intention of bankrupting myself, becoming an arbiter of taste, or adding to the sum of human knowledge. Ten years later I have escaped all of these potential pitfalls and had a lot of fun to boot. Some of the results will be on display at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas beginning on January 29, 2005 and running into mid-May.

In 1999, I put on an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York called Stamped with a National Character: Nineteenth Century American Color Plate Books. While I was very pleased with that show, it had two problems. First, the exhibition spaces at the Grolier are quite inflexible and not well suited to displaying the many awkward sizes these books come in. Second, all too few persons besides members see these shows, although they are open to the public. This latter problem is endemic to book exhibitions in general; most of them take place in libraries where they are visited by users but not the public at large. Only a few research institutions, like the New York Public Library, have dedicated exhibition space and enough advertising clout, to bring people in off the street. I have long felt that general interest in books and printed material generally would broaden if it could be presented in a museum context.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of museum curators and directors don’t perceive book exhibitions as worth doing. After the Grolier show I approached a number of American museums, most of whom made no bones about telling me how boring such a show would be to their patrons. The grand exception is the Amon Carter, one of the great museums of American Art in this country, which has from its founding seen the interest in, and exhibition potential of, prints and illustrated books. Through their enthusiasm and  largesse, I have been able to produce a version of my 1999 show, on steroids so to speak, with about twice as many individual pieces, and presented in an expansive museum context. Now you just have to go to Fort Worth and see it.

What exactly is an American color plate book? In my lexicon, the first requirement is that the plates were actually printed in the Americas (a surprising number of books have texts printed over here, with plates imported from Europe), that the plates be fully colored (tinted don’t make it), and there be a least four plates in the book (a criteria I picked up from earlier bibliographers). Although recognizing that they qualify on these counts, I have stayed away from children’s books and atlases, because they are genres with passionate coteries of collectors and bibliographers of their own. After this the edges get fuzzier. Many items, such as trade catalogues or loose portfolios of prints, really become judgment calls on the part of the collector. This is half the fun. Having acquired most of the standard books by this time, most of my additions to the collection these days are things I have never heard of before.

The genres that dominate the exhibition are natural history, led by the works of the Audubons, but with many glorious books on botany as well; view books, beginning with William Birch’s The City of Philadelphia…in the Year 1800; ethnology, with the famous productions of McKenney and Hall and Catlin; and science and medicine (Damien Hirst would be proud of some of these plates). But there is lots more, including art instruction books, illustrated literature, sporting, military costume books, gift books, fashion plates, architecture and landscape books, interior decoration, typography, and art history. There is an equally broad range of mediums, beginning with hand-colored copper plate engravings (work done almost entirely by hand) at the beginning of the century, and progressing to the first trichromatic half-tones, an entirely mechanical process, by the mid-1890s.  The show traces the evolution of processes as well as the dominant themes in American color plate books.

Fort Worth is easy to get to and well worth the visit. The Amon Carter (www.cartermuseum.org) is right next door to two other world class museums, the Kimbell Museum of Art (www.kimbellart.org) and the brand new and much praised Fort Worth Modern (www.mamfw.org). And, since the West begins there, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame! Y’all come on down!