Moving to the Left: The Art and Development of the Frontispiece. Online exhibition


Special Collections


December, 2017


What is a frontispiece? When did they first appear in print? Where do they sit in relation to the rest of a book’s contents? These are just some of the questions that this exhibition, ‘Moving to the Left: The Art and Development of the Frontispiece’, hopes to answer, with the help of just a few examples from the printed books in Special Collections, University of Otago.

Debate surrounds the frontispiece, a word coined into the English language about the 1600s (OED). In the early print period, it seems that the frontispiece and the title-page, usually an engraved one, were treated synonymously. The convention was to often find the frontispiece on the recto page, where the title-page would normally be. Some scholars claim that the first frontispieces appeared in print in the late 15th century. Judging from samples in Special Collections, the move to the left certainly occurred before the 1750s.

A whole host of individuals can have a hand in the creation of a frontispiece: authors, publishers, artists, engravers, etchers, and photographers. Sometimes the name of the artist and/or engraver is included. In this exhibition, there is the work of past artists and engravers such as Charles Turner, Samuel Wale, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, William Rogers, Michael vanderGucht, and Wencelaus Hollar. Modern samples include work by Lyn Ward, Agnes Miller Parker, Wayne Seyb, and Marta Chudolinska. The binding process is also an important factor in placement of frontispieces; binders often disregarded instructions. The exhibition is grouped into various subject headings such as Christian Symbolism, Emblematics, Classical Studies, Portraits, and Moderns, among others. Notable works on display include James Howell’s Londinopolis; An Historicall Discourse (1657); John Evelyn’s Sculptura (1662); Robert Nelson’s A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England (1732); Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1682); Edward Chamberlayne’s Angliae Notitia: or the Present State of England (1684); and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1688). Moderns include Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1903); Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1950); and Mickey Spillane’s I’ll Die Tomorrow (2009).

According to the Dutch painter and art theorist, Gerard de Lairesse (1641-1711), in his The Art of Painting, all frontispiece compositions should have three distinctive qualities: one, they must be pleasing to the eye; two, they must reflect well on the author and artist; and three, they must help the book-seller actually sell the book. As you make your way through the exhibition, please consider some of these aspects in the art of the frontispiece.


Special Collections, University of Otago

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