Monday, November 9, 2009

Michael Suarez, New Director of UV’s Rare Book School, Wows With Lecture on Plate-Subscription Books

William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles

Michael Suarez, S.J., new Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, presented the Fifth Annual Kenneth Karmiole Lecture on the History of the Book Trade at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 7th to an enraptured audience.

One of the Reading Rooms at the Clark Library

His subject, Learned Book Illustrations, their Patrons, and the Vagaries of the Trade in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England, might, in the wrong hands, have held the potential to desiccate cortexes. But Michael Suarez, a Jesuit priest who received his doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University, has held research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, is no ordinary lecturer.

No ordinary lecture room: The lavishly decorated salon at the Clark
Library where the Kenneth Karmiole Lectures occur. It is a testament
to the superlative lecture performance of Michael Suarez
that all eyes were upon him and not upon the ceiling.

The most passionate and enthusiastic speaker I have ever had the pleasure to listen to, Professor Suarez (or Father Suarez, or Michael - he’s very casual about the titles he possesses) demonstrated complete mastery of his subject during his talk, which, miraculously (as a Jesuit priest he gets an extra helping hand unavailable to most), was delivered without text or notes of any kind.

It was a breathtaking performance.

“From the mid-seventeenth century, English antiquaries, cartographers, classicists, and scientists increasingly sought to produce large folios with elaborate illustrations. But how to pay for the enormous production costs of such works?

“Engravings by the leading practitioners of the day—whether depicting the beauties of the great cathedrals, the epic glories of classical antiquity, or the finer points of natural history—required significant investments in both men and materials.

This lecture...considers the commercial and cultural expedients that self-publishing authors, learned societies, and projecting booksellers developed to finance their books, many of exceeding beauty and genuine importance. Examining these ‘books for looking’ produced for cultural elites and chiefly underwritten by their intended readerships, we encounter narratives of fiscal irresponsibility, signal innovation, shameless advertising, remarkable networking, outright deception, outstanding loyalty, and brazen vanity” (Hannah P. Clark, from her lecture summary).

Oh, brother, do we ever.

Modern direct-marketers have nothing over these author-publisher-booksellers, who, armed with a list of likely prospects amongst the peerage and the rich, shamelessly appealed to the vanity and ego of their marks, er, patrons, to con them into sponsoring, through subscription, the production of each plate within these massive folio showpiece volumes. In exchange, the sponsor-subscriber would have their coat of arms engraved into the plate with a florid dedication extolling the virtues of the sponsor. The cost for this personal ad, as it were, was £5, a sum worth $1,176 today. Each plate-subscriber received a "free" copy of the book.

The publisher-authors were subscription-sales sharks who really knew how to put the bite on prospects.

If the book was reprinted, the publisher hit the original plate sponsors up for a £3 “renewal” fee. If the original subscriber objected, he would be informed that another sponsor for the particular plate that the original subscriber thought he “owned” would be solicited. If the original patron still refused, the plate would be re-sponsored, and the original patron’s armorial device and dedication to the original plate would be replaced with that the new sponsor's.

Or, another publisher would issue a different edition of the same book, use the same engraved plates from the earlier volume, and re-sell sponsorship-subscriptions.

Plate from The Works of Publius Virgilius Maro. Translated, adorn'd
with Sculpture,
and illustrated with Annotations, by John Ogilby.
London: Thomas Warren for the Author, 1654. The armorial device and
dedication have been cropped from this image. Plate re-printed for
Tonson's edition of 1697, with a new subscriber.

The most famous example of this practice is John Ogilby’s 1654 translation of Virgil. For this edition, Ogilby commissioned 101 engraved plates (!), found 101 subscribers to pay for them, and did very well.

An engraving from The Works of Virgil: Containing his Pastorals,
Georgics, and Aeneis.
Translated into English Verse by Mr. Dryden ….
London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1697. Reprint of the engraving
found in Ogilby's 1654 edition. Note the sponsor's armorial device
and the dedication to the sponsor at lower edge
of plate, replaceable, if necessary.

In 1697, printer Jacob Tonson issued his own edition of Virgil. Translated by John Dryden, Tonson used the exact same, sumptuous plates that had been executed by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) for Ogilby but found new subscribers for them. In some cases, he arranged for the new patron’s face to replace a character’s in the plate, thereby dramatically increasing added-value to vanity already over-valued by these members of the Restoration glitteratti seeking to advertise their wonderfulness to one and all, particularly their friends.

No family armorial coat of arms? No problem. Through royal contacts, arrangements would be made for a coat of arms to be officially issued. The publishing slick didn't miss a trick in the quest for great whales, their skills with a harpoon rivaling Queequeg's.

As there were many author-publishers with plate-book subscriptions to hawk but only a limited number of people in England with the wherewithal to afford such extravagance on vanity, the same people would invariably be called upon to cough-up cash. And, as with today's incessant telephone marketing calls, complaints were common.

Michael Suarez’s resume is deep and rich. One thing you will not find in his official bio is the fact that he was formerly a prison chaplain who played a major role in quelling a prison riot. According to Stephen Tabor (Michael does not advertise this incident), Curator of Early Printed Books at the Huntington Library, during the melee Suarez very gently, almost imperceptibly, hugged the ringleader from behind and with soft voice and delicate physical prompting led him away.

His lecture blew me away.

A gentle and charming intellectual giant, Michael Suarez, S.J. won the 2008 Foley Poetry Contest with his poem, Going. He thinks religious poetry should embrace humor.

I think we should embrace Michael Suarez. 

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