Anyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare, as well as in the art of miniature books and bindings, should be fascinated by the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” exhibit at the distinguished Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York City from March 24-May 28, 2016. The colorful display is from the collection of Neale and Margaret Albert.
There are cases of miniature Shakespeare books with a vast array of creative and colorful bindings by crafts-persons specializing in the art. Neale Albert, professionally a distinguished lawyer, has long been captivated by miniatures, including mini furnished rooms. And if you have a bookcase in a miniature room, you need books to go inside them. Right?
For years the Alberts have acquired miniature books, and the latest exhibition, which I had the pleasure of attending at the invitee opening last night (March 23, 2016), is striking. Before attendees looked at the exhibit itself, they heard a lecture on the subject, along with projections of assorted bindings, by an expert in the field, James Reid-Cunningham. The title was “Enigmatic Devices: The Art of Contemporary Designer Bookbinding.” The speaker is author of an essay in Elisabeth R. Fairman’s book, “The Poet of Them All: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert,” published by the Yale Center for British Art and distributed by Yale University Press.
In addition to miniature bindings acquired by the Alberts over the years, the current exhibition is highlighted by bindings that Neale Albert commissioned from various sources, all around the theme of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” with the bindings reflecting in various ways the renowned song by Cole Porter from the musical “Kiss Me Kate.” The bindings are remarkably varied. In discussing such commissions, Albert says he never tries to tell an artist what he wants but always awaits to be surprised when he receives the finished binding.
Porter’s lyrics for “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” are arguably the cleverest lyrics ever written for a Broadway musical. Two examples from the number extolling the art of winning women with knowledge of the Bard:
“Just declaim a few lines from 'Othella'
And they think you're a heckuva fella
If your blond won't respond when you flatter 'er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer”
“If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the 'Coriolanus'
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they'll all kowtow"
Can you do any better than that?
The exhibition takes some time to peruse. Each binding is so distinctive that one is tempted to examine the individual achievements with extra care to fully appreciate the artistry involved.
Neale Albert makes a point that the miniature bindings are not to be viewed merely as technical achievements but as works of art. The books may be small but the creativity is large. Many of those pursuing the art form work in the UK.
The Grolier Club exhibit will be followed by another exhibition in New Haven, Conn. under the auspices of the Yale Center for British Art, on view June 16-August 21, 2016. Posted March 24, 2016.