Sunday, 21 January 2018

Celebrating Centennial Celebrations

Frank Leslie's 
Illustrated Historical Register 
of the 
Centennial Exposition 1876

(facsimile edition 1974)

Funny I should choose to look at this book right now. The movie "The Greatest Showman" has just come out. I've been to see it a couple of times—rare for me, because it's so damned expensive at the cinema and I have a nice TV. 

"The Greatest Showman" is a musical about P.T. Barnum. It touches on details of his life, makes a few things up for dramatic purposes and gets us all to fall in love with the wonder of the circus again. One of the things I noticed in the film were the many companies Barnum started, and (of course) the principal means of promoting those, which was at that time detailed illustration and bombastic font.

Frank Leslie was a man by another name entirely (Henry Carter) who loved art. He was born to a wealthy glove family (can't make this stuff up) who defied his father, moved to New York in 1848, followed his heart and went into illustration.

Where he couldn't get a job. So he formed his own illustration company. And that led him to P.T. Barnum, who always had need of large and lavish advertisement. Leslie worked for Barnum on a lot of ad and graphic design needs for Barnum's pursuits, most notably the Jenny Lind tour(s). They even started a newspaper together. That newspaper failed, but Leslie then started his own and found some success. 

This is a big book. 11 inches across, 16 inches high and an inch thick. When I first saw it among my aunt's books, I thought it was a department store catalogue. I suppose in a manner of speaking it is a catalogue, just not of things you order. 

So, how many illustrations are in the book? I don't know. One source claimed over 330 Illustrations another said over 800. I'm not counting them. There are a lot and most are quite beautifully done, even if a few are a little discomforting for my modern eyes (in context, the exploitation and casual racism that's abundant in all such books is part of the fabric of society). 

I haven't read this book closely enough to understand how it was pursued. Surely Leslie himself didn't draw all of it. It was put together for the opening of an expo. There would have been a lot going on at once. And considering how many illustrations are in here of President Grant going to and fro in the Expo, opening this, that or some other exhibit, Leslie would have been crippled trying to keep his pencil going fast enough. 

My aunt, true to the ways of the Wards, took the wrap off the book and saved it inside. While I don't press anything into my books (see an earlier post where I rant about that), I do save damned near everything, and would have kept the wrap, as well—actually "also" since I doubt it would be as well kept. However problematic the wrapper is for the book, the book is a pretty darn good keeper for the wrap.

I've bought several facsimiles for my library. Trying to think of which, now, I can recall at least two botany books, Gray's Anatomy (which I also own the updated edition of), some art books and this fella. Taschen, a publisher of reproduced art books—and let's admit right here, they're mostly on the erotic side—has put out some good reproductions of botanical illustrated books. Illustrations of plants often catch my eye far more than photographs. I adore older botany books, and have many, but when I spotted a Taschen reproduction, I snarfed it up without question. 

I don't think my first facsimile was the Gray's Anatomy or any of the Taschen books. If I recall, it was a medieval book. I'll have to search that out.