Ursus Rare Books has released a new catalogue entitled 50 Books 50 Years (Catalogue 353). It celebrates 50 years in the business for proprietor Peter Kraus. Naturally, he has seen a lot of changes and advances in the book trade. A native of England, he explains that at the age of 18, he had the great opportunity to move to America, stay with and learn the trade from his father's cousin, the legendary New York bookseller Hans Peter Kraus. After nine years of apprenticeship, he struck out on his own, forming Ursus Rare Books, with which he has spent most of his life. He sums up that life, and the many people with whom he has shared those years, by saying “To spend one's life surrounded by books and the people who love them is an enormous privilege, and one for which I am profoundly grateful.”
Ursus Rare Books carries “illustrated books of all periods,” noting specialties in color theory, Japanese illustrated books, Russian Avant-Garde, and Livres d'Artistes. Actually, they cover a lot more. Here are a few samples.
One doesn't think of the 16th century as a time when people needed to exercise, most working their bodies long days in the fields and such, but for nobility, life was different. This may be the first book on gymnastics and floor exercises. The author was Arcangelo Tuccaro, an Italian acrobat and gymnast, who lived from 1535-1602. Not much else is known about him. He was asked by Austrian Emperor Maxmilian II to accompany his daughter Isabel to France in 1570 for her marriage to King Charles IX. He then became an instructor in tumbling and gymnastics to Charles IX. Unfortunately, the young King was involved in a massacre between Catholics and Huguenots, went mad, and also contracted tuberculosis. He was dead four years later at the age of 23. What happened next to Tuccaro is unclear, as this book was published 25 years later, in 1599. The title is Trois dialogues de l’exercise de sauter et voltiger en l’air (three dialogues of jumping and flying in the air). In those days, explanations were often given in the form of dialogues (think Galileo). The text is accompanied by 87 woodcuts which illustrate how to do these acrobatic exercises. Item 4. Priced at $25,000.
This book comes from August Heinrich Christian Gelpke, a 19th century professor and astronomer who held some controversial ideas. He was best known for his theory that changes on the earth's surface resulted from comets crashing into it, a theory not held today by anyone I know. Item 15 is Allgemeine Darstellung der Oberflaechen der Weltkoerper unseres Sonnengebietes, besonders der Erde, des Mondes, der Venus und des Merkur's zur Vergleichung ihrer wundervollen Naturbaue und merkwuerdigen Naturkraefte, published in 1811. That's a mouthful. It translates to “General representation of the surfaces of the celestial bodies of our solar region, especially the earth, the moon, Venus and Mercury, for the comparison of their wonderful natural structures and remarkable natural forces.” What Gelpke has provided is a comparison between the sizes of mountains on Earth with those on the moon, Venus and Mercury. How he figured this out is beyond me but I wouldn't assume he got everything right. What is remarkable about this book are the two large, hand-colored, fold-out charts that display his comparisons. The first is a comparison of mountains in various earthly locations, the second compares them with those on the other celestial bodies. Accuracy aside they really are amazing. $4,750.
Here is another odd book featuring spectacular color illustrations, though it was meant to be a mathematical text. The title is The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid in which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are used instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners, by Oliver Byrne, published in 1847. Byrne replaced letters normally used in formulas with color boxes. So, for example, a+b might be a red box + a black box. Why this is easier to understand escapes me. I find it more confusing, but Byrne believed one could learn Euclid in a third of the normal time this way. Ruari McLean described it as “one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the whole century.” It is, as he said, a riot of colors, and its use of colored shapes resembles cubist art, though that was still half a century away. The book was also quite a triumph for printer Charles Whittingham as the small shapes and angles required perfect registration. Item 19. $22,500.
As long as we are on a run of unusual books, here is another. The title is Die Verkehrte Welt. Ein Komisches Kinderbuch (The wrong world. A funny children's book). Author Carl Reinhardt has turned the world upside down. The book is read from back to front. In its rhymes and illustrations (both the work of Reinhardt), we see such things as fish angling for humans, instruments playing musicians, a top spinning a boy, and a kite flying a boy. Surprisingly for such a clever and appealing book for children, this book is quite rare and it appears this 1863 edition is the only one published. Item 25. $4,750.
Continuing the thread of unusual books is Kachesdtvennaya Stal' SSSR (the quality of steel in the USSR) by Solomon Telingater, published in 1935. This is a book in praise of one of the Soviet Union's failed five-year plans and at a particularly brutal time as Stalin, the Putin of his day, was killing millions of his own people. Self-preservation required groveling before Stalin as the talented artist Solomon Telingater undoubtedly understood. He has used a steel binding for this book on Soviet steel production. Additionally, the frontispiece consists of two sheets of a heavy stock paper with a thin plate of steel between them. On the paper, there is a cutout of Stalin's face in profile, thereby displaying it in steel. This is particularly appropriate as “Stalin” translates to man of steel. The recto also shows a graph of rapidly rising steel production in the Soviet Union, the accuracy for which I cannot vouch. The 30 pages include illustrations, photographs, photomontages and drawings that “make it less a piece of technical literature than a work of art, an artefact.” Presumably, Stalin was pleased with the work as Telingater managed to outlive him. Item 39. $25,000.