This set weighs almost 21 pounds. The ornately tooled leather bindings stand 15 inches high. The steel engravings are fabulously rich, even after 130 years. What were they thinking, those late Victorians who produced this edition of The New Gallery of British Art
Art education for the children must have been on their minds. The people who had the money to spend on this set most likely lived in a house large enough to have a library; these are not studio apartment or loft-sized books. The text accompanying the engravings is mostly composed of light, easy-to-understand art criticism focusing on composition. There are no Post-Modern Expressionist puzzles here.
"British Art," of course, means the Royal Academy of Arts. Academy members are diligently represented in these volumes, which include engravings after Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Landseer. The Royal Academy has dominated the British art world since its inception in 1768. Here's a look at the annual Exhibition at the Royal Academy in the early 1800s.
This set might have also been used to teach the children history. For example, a discussion about the engraving The Last Toilet of Charlotte Corday could have inspired further reading about the French Revolution, despots, the achievements of constitutional monarchy, and the dermatitis herpetiformis suffered by Marat.
Of course, the best view of the British art world is given by my favorite (fictional) British artist, Gully Jimson, in The Horse's Mouth. His attitude toward the Academy was forged early in his life, as he watched his father, a Royal Academy painter, slip further and further into obscurity and poverty as tastes in art changed.
Books like The New Gallery of British Art just aren't made anymore. Steel engravings are an art form of the past. Intricately tooled morocco bindings are no longer produced. Even Taschen, that maverick of late-20th-century publishing, cannot match the quality of this late Victorian set.
Everything changes, and yet some manage to stay the same. Did you think that Thomas Kinkade invented the "rustic yet charming" painting of the thatched roof cottage? No, he only trademarked it.