"Most people would not look for illustrations in law books." So begins the description of two exhibitions curated by the Yale Law Library in one of the greater understatements you will hear. The exhibitions are designed to disprove the underlying assumptions behind that quote. There is one exhibition in New York, another in New Haven, and for those not close to either, there are some accompanying videos that can be viewed online.
Most people expect books about the law to be boring texts filled with legalese and certainly many are. A connection between artistic expression, the feelings and emotions they elicit, with the cold, brutal logic of the law seems a contradiction. However, Michael Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Yale Law School Library, has put together a collection of law books that feature illustrations. Many are feats of artistic expression, while others are more technical in nature, some even comic. There are over a thousand items in the collection, compiled over the past decade, some of which are displayed in the exhibitions. The New York City exhibit, Law's Picture Books, "features 140 books and manuscripts containing a surprising and beguiling range of images that symbolize, describe, teach, argue, or criticize the law." The companion exhibition in New Haven, Around the World With Law's Picture Books, "showcases illustrated law books from fifteen countries on six continents in ten different languages."
Some illustrations can be soaring art. Frontispiece images were often depictions of Lady Justice, her balancing scales, or even more dramatic allegorical pictures of heavenly creatures bringing truth and justice for all. Deeper into the text, images were more likely to illustrate a particular facet of the law. Others feature cartoon characters, often used to satirize the law. After all, everyone knows what the law is.
The exhibition of Law's Picture Books is being hosted at the Grolier Club in New York and runs from now through November 18. Hours are 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday. There is no charge. The Grolier is located at 47 East 60th Street. The exhibition is curated by Michael Widener and Mark S. Weiner, filmmaker and professor on leave from Rutgers University.
Around the World with Law's Picture Books is on exhibit at the Yale Law Library in New Haven through December 15. It is curated by Michael Widener and Emma Molina Widener.
Five videos by Mark Weiner are shown on a big screen at the New York City exhibition. However, if you can't make it to New York, you can view them at home through the following link: worldsoflaw.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/laws-picture-books-on-video-with-open-captions-for-the-deaf/
Those involved in the book trade, either as booksellers or collectors, even those without a particular interest in the law, will find this particular video of much interest. It is Mr. Widener's trip to the annual ABAA New York Antiquarian Book Fair. It's a chance to see the fair and the interactions between an institutional buyer and numerous of the dealers from around the world with which he meets. vimeo.com/195856227
There is also a book available entitled Law's Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection, by Michael Widener and Mark S. Weiner. It is filled with information about illustrations in law books, and, of course, it is highly illustrated itself, with 166 color illustrations. For more information, see the review elsewhere in this month's issue of Rare Book Monthly.