Miniature bookbindings showcase Shakespeare on a different scale

Miniature editions of works by William Shakespeare or influenced by the literary giant are on view in the Yale Center for British Art’s newest exhibition.

“ ‘The Poet of Them All’: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert” features nearly 100 artistically bound miniature editions of plays, sonnets, and books inspired by the Bard — each measuring three inches high or less. All of the items on view were selected from the singular collection of Neale and Margaret Albert.

The exhibition, on view through Aug. 21, includes miniature editions of Shakespeare’s works published from the 19thto the 21st centuries by William Pickering, Knickerbocker Press, and others, all bound with artistic designer bindings commissioned by Neale Albert (Yale J.D. 1961) during the past decade. Focusing on designer bookbinding, an aspect of the book arts often overlooked, this exhibition offers an opportunity for visitors to examine these works closely. All of the books in the exhibition are a promised gift to the Yale Center for British Art from Neale and Margaret Albert.

The title “The Poet of Them All” is taken from a line in the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s 1948 musical “Kiss Me Kate.” At the heart of the Alberts’ collection, and the exhibition, are 39 copies of a miniature book illustrating the lyrics and music to that song, published by Neale Albert at his Piccolo Press in 2009.  Designed by Leonard Seastone, with drawings by Seymour Chwast, every copy has a unique artistic binding. For these bindings, as well as others on display, Albert commissioned some of the most talented designer bookbinders working today in the United Kingdom, the United States, and throughout the world. As in all his commissions, Albert asked every artist to craft his or her own interpretation, offering no guidelines and imposing no restrictions. He wrote to one artist, slightly tongue-in-cheek: “My only instructions are to make this the finest binding you have ever done. How is that for pressure?” Every artist, whether working in leather, paper, cloth, wood, or metal, worked to achieve that.

Albert, who served two terms as president of the international Miniature Book Society, continues to support designer binders. In 2014, he was elected an honorary fellow of Designer Bookbinders, the principal society in Great Britain devoted to artistic bookbinding.

The exhibition is augmented by a number of other works from the Alberts’ collection, including pieces by the London bespoke furniture designer Tim Gosling, among them a scale model of the Globe Theatre and miniature bookcases.

The collection of miniature books on display illuminates the wide array of artistic responses that Shakespeare’s plays and poems have continued to inspire in the 400 years since he wrote them, and provides an overview of a branch of 21st-century practice in the book arts. The exhibition and an accompanying fully illustrated publication explore these books in depth and provide a glimpse into the heart and mind of a collector.

The exhibition has been curated by Elisabeth Fairman, chief curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, who also edited the exhibition catalog. The catalog was designed by Miko McGinty and published by the center in association with Yale University Press. The book features an essay by the book historian and designer binder James Reid-Cunningham, written from his perspective as a practitioner as well as a historian of contemporary book arts.

There have been several exhibition-related programs. Next up will be a concert, “Cole Porter and His Contemporaries,” on Saturday, July 16, during which cabaret singer Steve Ross will perform many of the composer’s songs, as well as other music from the American Songbook. The concert will take place at 3 p.m. at the center.

The Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

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