Books fit for a queen


In pre-revolutionary France, collectors used books to display their wealth and taste rather than their scholarship. Some examples can be found in “Bound for Versailles: The Jayne Wrightsman Bookbindings Collection”, an exhibition which opened on June 25 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The show includes two books from a four-volume set of 18th-century French fables that stand almost 2 feet tall. “It’s not a volume you sit down and read. This is the one you display, ”said John T. McQuillen, exhibition organizer and associate curator of print books and bindings at Morgan.

The exhibition includes more than 100 books, prints and other artifacts from the old French regime, including letters from Marie-Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI. There are prayer books, such as a French translation of the Book of Psalms published in 1725, as well as a 1718 edition of the ancient Greek novel “Daphnis et Chloe”. Expensive and elaborate bindings, fashioned by leading artisans such as Nicolas-Denis Derome and Pierre-Paul Dubuisson, transformed these texts into works of art. The Morgan exhibit features books acquired by Jayne Wrightsman, who, along with her husband, oil baron Charles Wrightsman, amassed a wealth of 18th-century French and decorative arts, including paintings, sculptures, furniture and vases as well as books.

An illustration of ‘The Monkey and the Cat’ from an 18th century edition of La Fontaine’s Fables.


The Morgan Library and Museum, PM

Among the treasures of the exhibition are the two volumes of a set of classic fables by Jean de la Fontaine, whose Aesop-style parables often feature animal protagonists. Booksstand out not only for their size, but also for their artistry and craftsmanship, said McQuillen: “The typography is exceptional, the printing is exceptional, the illustrations… Leather bound, the cover and back bear the coat of arms of the first owner, the statesman of the early 18th century Louis Phélypeaux, the Duke of La Vrillière. The pages are adorned with printed engravings, such as the one depicting “The Monkey and the Cat”. Mr. McQuillen noted that such a magnificent work “does not go on the shelf. It was intended for your visitors so you could say “Look what I got!” “

These large volumes are a highlight, but most of the books in the series are much smaller. There is a section dedicated to credit card sized thumbnails. These small volumes, often containing a calendar or prayers, were usually exchanged as gifts of friendship or tokens of love around New Year’s Day.

Extravagantly bound books were often given as gifts to win favor at court. Two books by Barthélemy Imbert that belonged to Marie-Antoinette commemorate the historic 1783 test flight of a hot air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers. The two leather-bound books bear the initials of Marie-Antoinette and the hot-air balloon decorated with gilding.

Many bindings are made of goatskin, a material called morocco because it originates from North Africa. “It’s a very soft leather and doesn’t get stiff like cowhide sometimes can,” Mr. McQuillen said. Craftsmen could dye the leather different colors and decorate it with stamped designs, often adding the owner’s initials or coat of arms in gold.

After her husband’s death in 1986, Ms Wrightsman continued her collection and philanthropy, displaying a few acquisitions in the couple’s New York apartment. When decorating the Fifth Avenue home, Ms Wrightsman drew inspiration from Versailles and 18th-century French palaces, Mr McQuillen said. This meant displaying period volumes on tables and desks, rather than storing them in bookcases.

Ms Wrightsman passed away in 2019, bequeathing a few pounds to the Morgan. Mr. McQuillen was among those who went to take inventory and pack them up. Walking around the apartment and looking for the books “was a bit like an Easter egg hunt,” he recalls.

In this exhibition, he wanted to share this feeling with visitors to the Morgan. “We try to give the visitor in person a little of that flavor of the experience of being in Ms. Wrightsman’s apartment,” he said. This means using architectural elements in the layout of the exhibition, such as wall panels representative of 18th century French interiors and Wrightsman’s house. Period consoles and candelabra also set the scene.

The exhibition pays homage to Ms. Wrightsman’s background in the book collection, including Madame de Pompadour, patron of the arts and mistress of King Louis XV. She had a printing press in her apartments in Versailles, Mr. McQuillen said, and learned to engrave prints. “I think she had about 15,000 or 20,000 books in her library,” he said.

At Le Morgan, visitors can view drawings by François Boucher to illustrate Madame de Pompadour’s edition of “Rodogune”, by classical French playwright Pierre Corneille. Madame de Pompadour herself engraves one of Boucher’s drawings for the frontispiece of the book. According to Mr. McQuillen, she was “the greatest woman bibliophile of the Ancien Régime”.

Write to Brenda Cronin at [email protected]

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