Artists' books

Photo of an artist's book
An artist's book:
'The Eagle Sings'
© Jean Johnstone
Larger book photo

At first glance, the definition of an artist's book is quite clear: it is simply 'a book designed, produced, or illustrated by an artist' (Jane Greenfield, 'ABC of Bookbinding' (Oak Knoll Press, 1998). But as with other kinds of art, artists' books ultimately resist definition. Is an artist's book a unique item, or can there be an edition of a number of copies? Must the artist produce the book single-handedly from concept through printing to binding? It is generally held that there is a difference from the traditional 'livre d'artiste', where the emphasis is on an artist illustrating a conventional book. Perhaps the only key point is that as opposed to traditional fine book design, the artist's book is an attempt to challenge the form of the book itself.

The Art Libraries Society of the United Kingdom and Ireland (ARLIS/UK and Ireland) has produced a definition to help librarians catalogue their holdings: 'a book or book-like object in which an artist has had a major input beyond illustration or authorship; where the final appearance of the book owes much to an author's interference/participation: where the book is a work of art in itself.' (cited in Bettley, pp.164-165).

Artist's book detail
Detail of 'The Eagle
Sings' © Jean Johnstone
Larger photo of detail

The artist's book as a form began in the 20th century, developed further particularly in its latter half, and still flourishes today. The National Library of Scotland has examples of artists' books scattered throughout its modern collections. Some are acquired through legal deposit, but some fall outside the scope of the legal deposit laws. Of these, the Library selectively acquires those which have Scottish connections relating to author, artist, theme or production. The Library usually only acquires artists' books which belong to editions (even if only of two or three copies) and include text. These typically involve collaboration or interaction between text and image, whether this means a writer and an artist working together or an artist providing both text and image. These books are included in our catalogues, sometimes, but not always, subject-indexed as 'artists' books'.

Modern Scottish producers of artists' books include Jean Johnstone and Elizabeth Hobbs. All the images on this page come from 'The Eagle Sings', produced by Jean Johnstone in 1998 in a limited edition of seven copies. The text consists of a poem by Harvey Holton and the hand-crafted oak box was produced by Phil Butler (shelfmark: FB.s.736).

Among our special collections, some artists' books can be found under the shelfmark FB (for Fine Books). We also have the Ian Hamilton Finlay Collection, in which the Library's existing holdings of the printed works of the Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay have been brought together. Finlay is famous for his innovative concrete poetry of the 1960s and examples of this genre are present in the collection, as well as the wide-ranging productions of his Wild Hawthorn Press in the succeeding decades. This collection (shelfmark IHF) is fully listed on our main catalogue.

UCABLIS

The Union Catalogue of Art Books in Libraries in Scotland (UCABLIS) is a listing of art books in major Scottish libraries. There is an online searchable catalogue which was closed in 2001, although some items from its early years are recorded in slip binders only available in the National Library of Scotland. It contains examples of artists' books, exhibition catalogues, and secondary works about them. Further details, and a link to the catalogue search screen, are given in the Library's Online Resources list.

Images on this page are used with kind permission of Jean Johnstone.

Further reading
  • Exhibition catalogues are a major source of information about artists' books and are listed on our main catalogue
  • Bettley, James. 'The Art of the Book: From Medieval Manuscript to Graphic Novel'. London: V&A Publications, 2001 (shelfmark: GME.2002.4.13)
  • Bury, Stephen. 'Artists' Books: the Book as a Work of Art, 1963-1995'. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995 (H8.96.185)
  • Castleman, Riva. 'A Century of Artists' Books'. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994 (H8.96.78)
  • Lyons, Joan. 'Artists' books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook'. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985 (H3.87.838)
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