The Art of the Library: inside the Royal Academy of Arts

Kingston University MA Publishing student Amanda Howser gives us a peek inside the Royal Academy of Arts Research and Library Archive in London.

Royal Academy of Arts in London

Royal Academy of Arts in London. Image: Flickr/Mark Hillary

Being a lover of books, it’s often assumed that I grew up with an innate appreciation for libraries. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When I think back to my memories as a young child, I recall dreading the days our tutors would drag us into the school library and make us listen to an incredibly dry tutorial on cataloguing. Though I loved reading, the simple system of organization seemed to drain me of my enthusiasm. I was also positive that it had turned the librarian into a banshee; Mrs. S was an uncommonly tall woman with a long face and even longer fingers that snapped maniacally if anyone was caught not reading, or worse… talking.

It wasn’t until my mother began taking me to the city library that I gained a deeper understanding of why anyone would visit one willingly. When I wasn’t being forced to locate a book, I seemed to find all the ones I wanted. The once-intimidating columns of categorization became turrets of imagination that I desperately wanted to climb. As I ventured into adulthood I found myself mentally noting the location of libraries in every city I visited, making it my goal to discover a rare book in each one; particularly, varying copies of Lewis Carroll’s work.

RA Library

Kingston students explore the Royal Academy Library. Image: Amanda Howser

Recently, my fellow students and I were given the opportunity to explore one of the most unique and historic libraries in the UK, The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) Research Library and Archive. The facility houses important and influential works in the fields of art, illustration, architecture, print & drawing, photography, and philosophy. For a student, it was a rare opportunity. For a book lover, it was a dream come true.

When we arrived we were guided personally by the Head of Collections and Library, Nick Savage, to the vault-like chamber that harbors over 60,000 items. Inside, two-storey-high shelving lined with antique leather bound books encompassed a row of tables neatly laid out with works selected by Nick. Their focus was the progression and varying styles of editorial production and design – over several centuries.

The first book Nick highlighted was a second edition print of Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream by Francesco Colonna, dated 1525. The Italian romance was first printed in 1499, and is thought to have been one of the first examples of a cohesive approach to text and illustration, incorporating over five languages and 168 woodcut illustrations. It was produced by the Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius, who was also known for pioneering small, handheld books and new typefaces, such as italic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art describe the book as:

Exquisite…, a complex tale of love and antiquarianism and a prime document of the Renaissance rediscovery of classical antiquity.”

 The fact that we were allowed to touch the book, let alone see it, is testament to the RA’s dedication to truly sharing art and knowledge.

From here we were given examples of unique typesetting and design, demonstrated by everything fromtThe RA’s first-purchased Bible to 1930s advertising material published by Guinness. The array of material Nick showed us exemplified the vast range of what the library considers influential.

However, what seemed to grab the most attention was a design and layout book entitled Mise En Page: The Theory and Practice of Lay-Out, by Alfred Tolmer. Now considered a design bible by many in the field, the book has quickly risen in value due to its unique and unusual layout and production methods. Incorporating everything from intricate stenciling to paper layering and 3D imagery, the book was printed by Tolmer himself in 1931 when he was head of a small press in France called Maison Tolmer; it was later printed in English by The Studio magazine of London.

  “The volume deals with photography, typography, and illustration, using unusual techniques of collage, pochoir, and coated papers.” – Julie Melby, Princeton University Blog, Mise En Page

Royal Academy

A spread from Alfred Tolmer’s Mise En Page. Image: Amanda Howser

After hearing Nick’s informative insights, we were given the opportunity to walk around and explore the library for ourselves. I spent some time looking over the interesting collection of “mini” books that laid protected within sheets of plastic. Each one a reproduction of its full sized brother, yet somehow more interesting. The carefully chosen spine and binding, the use of color to make smaller objects pop, even the choice in page number size was fascinating.

I made my way back towards the tables of selected works, noticing a large book that had not been laid out before. As I inched closer I spotted two portly characters with hideous olive-green overalls, illustrated to look even more obnoxious than their personalities: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

Through the Looking Glass Artists’ Choice Edition illustrated by John Vernon Lord

Somehow, as if by miracle, Nick had decided to pull a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass from a shelf. Illustrated by John Vernon Lord, the rare edition was published by Artists’ Choice Editions and selected by the library for its magnificent illustration involving the game of chess.

I spent the next 20 minutes glued to my seat, silently flipping through the pages, and admiring the details of the illustration and design. I’ve spent years looking for rare prints of this story; to be handed such a special edition without even asking was as good as being handed a free iPad. I wondered hopefully if the RA was like other libraries in which I could simply give them my name and address and walk out with the book for two weeks. Something told me no, so I begrudgingly passed the book to one of my peers and took the rest of the visit to absorb the personality of the library.

The sharp contrast of stainless steel against aging page reminded me of being inside a museum of sorts. Modern fixtures protect the most precious of pieces, prints and illustrations from selected works hang on the walls between shelves, and every book around me is a masterpiece in its own right. It was at this point that I realized why The Royal Academy has succeeded in maintaining such a perfectly crafted and well maintained collection: to them, books are art. Making the library I had stood in an art gallery, and the authors around me some of the most influential artists of our time.

A special thank you to Nick Savage and the staff of The Royal Academy of Arts for giving us such a personalized and well-planned tour of their magnificent collection.

Amanda HowserHailing from Milwaukee, Amanda Howser is currently an MA Publishing student at Kingston University.


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