Mortimer Rare Book Room Staff Picks

It was fall 1962 when the Rare Book Room moved to the third floor of Neilson Library, where it remains today. The resource was named the Mortimer Rare Book Room, after Ruth Mortimer ’53, in 1994. The Mortimer Rare Book Room fetes 50 years in Neilson with an anniversary celebration on Friday, Oct. 12, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., in the Book Arts Gallery, Neilson third floor; open to all.

The celebration centers on an exhibition, “A Room of Our Own,” on display in the Book Arts Gallery through December 20. The Gate asked Mortimer Rare Book Room staff members to designate and discuss some of their favorite items from the collection. Below are their selections, with images and comments.

Mel Carson, cataloger: The Peacock at Home by Catherine Dorset

“The Peacock at Home, a children’s poem first published in 1807, found a worthy illustrator in Isabel Harriet Kerrich. Miss Kerrich worked on this presentation manuscript from April 1875 to Christmas 1876, inscribing the poem in fine italic hand. Her ink and water-colored illustrations frame these poetic lines in exquisitely shaded colors and details that accurately reflect the images of birds and flora with a luminescent quality that delights the eye.”

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Mark Morford, Mortimer Rare Book Room Salloch Fellow: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1896.

“The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was published in 1896, two months before the death of William Morris, who founded the Kelmscott Press; 425 copies were printed on white hand-made paper, and 20 on vellum. Of Smith College’s two copies one was bound in the mid-20th century by Peter Franck. Morris designed the “Chaucer” type and the designs for the decorative borders with their intricate tracery of floral motifs. His friend Edward Burne-Jones provided 87 illustrations, whose pencil drawings were painted over in white and Indian ink and then cut onto wooden blocks and engraved for printing. This monumental volume is an inspiration to anyone fortunate enough to open it.”

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Barbara Blumenthal, rare book specialist: Nuremburg Chronicle

“I first saw the Nuremberg Chronicle, a history of the world from biblical Creation to the late 15th century, in the Rare Book Room as a Smith freshman in 1971. It is still my favorite book here, actually my two favorites, since Smith has editions in Latin and German, both printed in Germany in 1493. I am continually amazed by the elaborate design, typesetting, and printing achieved in the infancy of letterpress printing in Europe, and by the hundreds of woodcuts for which the book is justly famous. In 2001, I assisted in the restoration of the Latin edition.”

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Martin Antonetti, director of rare books, and exhibition curator: Evidence of Compression by Julie Chen

“Asking me to pick a favorite book is like asking an oenophile to choose a favorite wine. I don’t really have a ‘favorite’—I love them all! But I especially love Julie Chen’s Evidence of Compression, an artist’s book from 2001 in which text, image and structure have been skillfully crafted into an enigmatic and truly magical typographical/topographical object that never ceases to beguile and challenge. It makes possible a whole new way of ‘reading;’ a satisfying respite from digital buzz.”

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John Lancaster, cataloguer: Libellus contra beneficiorum reservationes by Antonius de Raymundia; on display with Epistola Luciferi, by Petrus de Ceffons (circa 1498).

John Lancaster says: “Mark Morford’s succinct statement sums up the content: ‘This obscure book by obscure authors concerns subjects that were of burning interest in the fifteenth century.’ The satirical letter from the Devil is, however, even today an entertaining example of a popular genre of the time. It is my favorite for three reasons: it was one of the last acquisitions made by my late wife, Ruth Mortimer; it was acquired through the good offices of Hosea Baskin, son of Leonard and Lisa Baskin; and it is a unique survival—unlike the other 12 known copies of the text, this one alone has the device of the Paris bookseller and publisher Jean Petit.”

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Karen Kukil, associate curator of special collections: Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf

“I love all the iterations of Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf in our Bloomsbury Collection. Kew Gardens is a modernist sketch set in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which Virginia Woolf could see from her house in Richmond. The text was hand-set and bound by Virginia Woolf in 1919 with decorative paper covers hand-painted by Roger Fry and illustrated with two woodcuts by Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. An abstract cover was designed by Vanessa Bell and hand-printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1921 for Monday or Tuesday, in which ‘Kew Gardens’ appeared with other experimental short fiction. Finally, lavish full-page illustrations and text perfectly integrated Virginia Woolf’s words and Vanessa Bell’s designs in the 1927 Hogarth Press edition of Kew Gardens.”

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