Rampant technological progress has teleported humanity from ignorance to understanding in an astonishingly short time. It is exactly 200 years ago that photography was emerging from the mind of French inventor Nicéphore Niépce onto bitumen-coated pewter plates, and for the first time, we could see a picture-perfect representation of what far-away things and events looked like. This story is about the best of the period before photography became mainstream, when human illustration was all we had.
Without it, it would have been almost impossible to comprehend what the world beyond our shores must have looked like just two centuries ago.
The printing press may have automated book production centuries before photography arrived, but in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s eye-witness illustration reached its zenith. This was a time when history and travel were captured by artists, transferred to paper by myriad methods, and distributed in ludicrously small numbers.
This story is about a collection of the very finest examples of that process.
Christie’s began selling the magnificent library of Norman Bobins in New York on 16 June 2023, revealing a collection of illustrated books so broad and deep that it deserves a quick look from anyone interested in eye-witness images of history and travel and the glorious art of illustration.
Chicagoan Bobins is a captain of industry who has soared the heights of personal achievement, yet he has paid his dues to society as a trustee of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, where he is believed to have played a pivotal role in raising the money to purchase “Sue”, the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil that was auctioned in October 1997 for US$8.3 million, the highest amount ever paid for a dinosaur fossil until 2020 when “Stan” the Tyrannosaurus rex fetched US$31.8 million.
Bobins’ has also demonstrated a long term commitment to numerous other cultural, civic and philanthropic institutions. Much has been written about Bobins, with this interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2006 covering his business life, and this introduction by Bobins on Christie’s to the sale of his sublime collection of illustrated books.
Most importantly in relation to this story, Bobins has exercised his passion for the finest illustrated books over four decades, and his collection has yielded one of the great treasures of modern times. Bobins collected the most sumptuous, lavishly illustrated travel and history books that have ever been created and the aim of this article is to provide a directory to those books. In the image gallery, you’ll see one or two images from each of the major books in the collection, and each of the captions on those illustrations links to the auction description of that book.
Bobins’ library of books is comprised almost solely of books with the finest hand-colored copper-plate engravings, mezzotints and aquatints, through to lithography and chromolithography. In his overview of the collection written for Christie’s, Bobins said that the collection’s focus had been books, “which trace the most important developments in the history of color printing—developments that were closely allied with the growth of publishing.”
“The period from the mid-18th century through the 19th century has been the most exciting to me”, wrote Bobins. “It spans the breadth of techniques from copperplate engraving, to developments in the technical methods of printing and aquatinting, to the birth of lithography, to the refinement and eventual method of color lithography. All were processes that stimulated the always entrepreneurial publishing trade into action.
The Collection is so large that it is being auctioned in two parts, with the first auction focusing on the Americas, including Western Americana, Canada, the Arctic, the Caribbean, and South America. That auction was concluded on 16 June 2023 and we have attempted to summarise the finest illustrations in our image gallery for this article, though the entire catalogue is available online here.
Being one of the finest such collections ever assembled, Norman Bobins took it upon himself to create a “best of the best” book which took the finest illustrations from each of the books in his library and he created a four volume set entitled The Exotic and the Beautiful: The World In Colour.
Parts 1 & II were published in 2005, Part III was published in 2010 and Part IV was published in late 2017. Part III can be seen in its entirety online (see issuu copy directly above) and is one of those rare free gems of the internet. It’s also time that Shapero considers reprinting the four-volume set as a boxed collection, because it is the most beautiful and inspiring collection of illustrations we have ever seen.
The Magnificent Library of Norman Bobins: Part Two, The Colourful World will be held in London on 13 July 2023.