C.W. Dyson Perrins (1864-1958)
Although separated by a generation and the vast distance of the Atlantic Ocean, Charles William Dyson Perrins and Lessing J. Rosenwald had much in common. Both men inherited significant wealth from ancestors who founded well-known companies, both men were important collectors of rare books, woodcut prints, and objets d'art, and both became noted philanthropists who made generous gifts to the public institutions of their respective countries. Mr. Dyson Perrins gave or bequeathed objects of high artistic value and historic interest to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum, and the British Museum, among others.
C.W. Dyson Perrins's grandfather was one of the original partners in the firm of Lea and Perrins, makers of Worcestershire sauce and the source of his wealth. In his own right, Mr. Dyson Perrins was more involved in another famous English firm, the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company, formed in 1753. In addition to early printed books illustrated with woodcuts, Mr. Dyson Perrins became a great collector of English porcelain. After World War I, when the Royal Worcester factory was experiencing economic difficulty, Mr. Dyson Perrins took over its management and kept the company operating at his own expense. In 1934, he bought the company outright After World War II, Mr. Dyson Perrins decided to sell his collection of printed books at a series of auctions at Sotheby's in London between June 1946 and June 1947 in order to re-equip the Royal Worcester factory, which had been converted to manufacturing electrical parts for the war effort. The sale of his illustrated books saved for the British people one of the few remaining companies that had survived from the early years of Great Britain's industrial revolution.
The Dyson Perrins sales were among the first important book auctions to take place after World War II. They attracted many prominent American book buyers, including Lessing J. Rosenwald for the Library of Congress, Philip Hofer for Harvard University, and Belle da Costa Greene for the Pierpont Morgan Library. Many of the books Mr. Rosenwald purchased are known in only a few copies, and, in a few cases, they are unique. The exhibition A Heavenly Craft demonstrates both Mr. Rosenwald's determination to preserve for the American public many of the highlights collected by Mr. Dyson Perrins, now held in perpetuity at the Library of Congress, and his knowledge of early printing and book illustration.
Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979)
Lessing J. Rosenwald, like C.W. Dyson Perrins, was not only a formidable collector but also an important philanthropist. In 1943, Mr. Rosenwald signed the first in a series of deeds of gift that would divide his collection of illustrated books and prints between the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art. According to Paul Needham, Schiede Librarian at Princeton University, Mr. Rosenwald's gift to the nation is "one of the great acts of cultural philanthropy in the history of the United States."
Born in Chicago in 1891, Mr. Rosenwald was the son of Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), the organizational genius who created the retail giant Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Lessing Rosenwald attended Cornell University, but left before graduation to work with his father at Sears. He began as a clerk in the shipping department and worked his way up through various departments of the firm before moving in 1920 to Philadelphia and taking charge of a new Sears branch plant. When his father died in 1932, Lessing Rosenwald took control of the company as chairman of the board. In 1939, at the age of forty-eight, he retired from Sears, Roebuck to devote himself to philanthropic work and the further development of his collection.
In the late 1920s, Mr. Rosenwald began collecting prints and illustrated books. By the 1940s, with the help of Philadelphia bookseller A.W.S. Rosenbach, he had assembled one of the preeminent collections in the United States. In 1946, Mr. Rosenwald saw an opportunity to add to his already impressive collection of early printed books by participating in the sale of the Dyson Perrins collections at Sotheby's. Mr. Rosenwald was the most important buyer at this sale. He purchased eighty-four titles, including all of the books that appear in this exhibition.
After Mr. Rosenwald's death in 1979, his books, a collection of 2,653 titles, plus much of his archive and reference library was delivered to the Library of Congress. Fred Goff, former chief of the Rare Book and Special Collection Division, called the Rosenwald Collection "the jewel in the crown" of the Library of Congress. This exhibition is a testament to this statement. It is representative of the largest, and, by many standards one of the most important, parts of Mr. Rosenwald's unparalleled library--his collection of early printed books illustrated with woodcuts.
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Pages 16-17 with Rosenwald’s notes from the Catalogue of the Magnificent Library Principally of Early Printed and Early Illustrated Books Formed by C.W. Dyson Perrins, Esq, the catalogue for the first sale at Sotheby’s in London on June 17 and 18, 1946. Rosenwald Archive. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (78)
Lessing J. Rosenwald's inventory book, July 1946, showing purchases made at the first Dyson Perrins sale. Rosenwald Archive. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (79)
Creating a Woodcut
All but two of the images displayed in this exhibition are woodcuts created in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Woodcut images were used extensively during this period to illustrate books. The process of creating a woodcut has changed little over the intervening six centuries. Although the quality and shape of the knives used today are somewhat different, the action of making a woodblock is essentially the same.
Choosing wood for the block is the first step in creating a woodcut. In the fifteenth century wood from fruit trees, especially pear trees, was used because of the strength of the wood's grain. These hardwoods could withstand the pressure the printing press exerted on the block and insured that the woodblock could be used repeatedly. Hundreds of legible images could be produced before a new block had to be cut.
Once the block is planed and sanded flat, an image is either drawn directly onto the surface of the block or transferred from another drawing or print. The woodcut artist then uses the lines of the block as a guide, cutting away all the wood that surrounds the lines and leaving the lines in relief. The woodblock is then set onto the bed of a printing press along with type, and ink is applied to the lines on the block and the type. Finally paper is set on top of the block and the action of the printing press forces a transfer of ink to paper, revealing an image which is the reverse of the image on the block. The areas that have been cut away read white, and the lines in relief read black.
The woodblock illustrating Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles (B) was recently cut by Margaret Adams Parker, an artist from Alexandria, Virginia. It is copied from the image in exhibition item number 3, originally printed in Augsburg in 1490. Ms. Parker is a printmaker whose primary medium is woodcut. She has a special interest in late medieval graphic arts, and some of her most important works are in the collections of the Library of Congress.
The new block that Ms. Parker cut is made of poplar, a hardwood somewhat softer than the fruit woods used in many early woodcuts. Ms. Parker executed the woodcut by transferring a copy of the original image onto the block and cutting away all the wood surrounding the lines, leaving the image in relief. She then inked the lines, placed paper on top of the block, and put the woodblock through her press.
Ms. Parker made two woodcut prints (A) from the newly cut woodblock. The first, printed in black ink but not colored, demonstrates the transfer of the inked lines of the block to the paper. The second print, hand-colored with watercolor wash, demonstrates how a black-and-white image can be highlighted with color, enhancing its readability while at the same time providing a decorative touch to the page. Comparison of Ms. Parker's images with the 1490 original evidences the skill with which Ms. Parker executed her cuts.