Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Our Lady of the Bookshop, 1782

 Beauty in Search of Knowledge
London: Printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett 30th Decr. 1782.
Single sheet mezzotint hand-colored in gouache.
Artist unknown.

It's a story not found in any collection of classic fairy tales. Forget the beast, this is Beauty and the Bookshop.

One of the most attractive and informative illustrations of an eighteenth century bookshop, Beauty in Search of Knowledge serves as a keen reminder that going to a bookshop - many of the period doubling as  circulating libraries - was the place to go to cultivate one's mind; it was the smart thing to do. It still is.

"Circulating libraries were privately run, usually by booksellers or publishers and were a primary outlet for much of the popular fiction of the period and were often viewed with suspicion by the church and with some snobbery by the literati. This separately-issued print, in the popular ‘posture’ format and its provocative title, is clearly not without a degree of satire;" the idea that a woman could be as intelligent as a man was, at the time (and for far too long afterward), something of a joke, and their education beyond domestic skills and arts considered something of a royal waste of time. Women who spent too much time with books were considered oddballs sabotaging their marriage prospects. No man wants a brain in bed with them. Unless, of course, the man is smart enough to not be intimidated; beauty and brains make for a very alluring woman, and our Lady of the Bookshop clearly has sex appeal.

The shelves in the window are filled with an attractive and tempting selection of books of various sizes, in bindings in various formats, and small and large prints; the typical stock of a contemporary book shop. Our fashionably dressed Beauty holds in her left hand what appears to be an octavo volume bound in red leather with gilt tooled borders. The lady has fine taste.

The print is fairly common. Yet this example is most certainly not: the fine quality of the mezzotint and the contemporary hand-coloring in gouache make this one very special. Most in private and institutional collections are uncolored or, if so, executed in dull, muted tones. You will likely never see another so vivid, fresh, and attractive.

In this world of Internet dating, where success is dependent upon a n optimistic click of the mouse, let us not forget that book shops and libraries are great pick-up spots for intelligent, book-loving people seeking same. They beat bars and the produce section of a supermarket. We will gloss over shenanigans in the stacks. Who knows, perhaps our beauty, with such a coy, knowing smile, is preparing for an assignation - a Booktryst - with a paramour?

Image courtesy of Justin Croft Antiquarian Books. Quoted text from the Croft catalog description.

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