This is the first in the Small Books of September series, highlighting miniature books in the Penn Libraries collection.
The experience of reading a book may often be said to be a reflective one, but seldom is the term “reflective” applied as literally to a book as it can be to the little 18th century volume shown in the image to the left bearing the title, Toujours de l’amour: Almanach nouveau sur les plus jolis airs (Penn Libraries PQ1989.J36 T68 1792). This tiny book, produced in the 1790’s in France, and only 3.75 inches high by 2.25 inches wide, has a small mirror attached to the inside of the front cover, which is lined in pink silk and trimmed with gold braid. The book is just the size of a make-up compact, and it is easy to imagine it serving the purpose of allowing an 18th century owner to discretely powder her nose, or perhaps to catch a reflected view of someone interesting in another part of the room without being too obvious. And, as you can see, this mirror reflects a sexy little image of a nude lady sitting on a stack of books while an elaborately dressed suitor bows before her, plumed hat in hand.
This image, however, was not an original part of the book. When the book was first made, the little mirror would have reflected the slightly more demure scene on the title page, which depicts a fully dressed lady walking through a grove of trees with a cupid at her hip (or, possibly emerging from the folds of her dress?). What appears to be the first page of the book opposite the mirror on the inside cover is, in fact, a bookplate, which has been neatly attached to the frontispiece of the book with a thin line of adhesive along the left side, making it appear to be a page in the book itself. The words “ex libris” appear in the fan adorning the top of the bookplate, and in the bottom right hand corner the engraving is signed Ch. Jouas, meaning the plate was most likely engraved by Charles Jouas, an artist and illustrator perhaps best known today for his pen and inks of the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Below the nude lady and her suitor on the bookplate appear the words “Et Beauvillain?/ Toujours il vous aime” (And Beauvillain? He loves you always). The lines come from the opening scene of Victor Hugo’s play, Marion de Lorme (click here for the full French Text or English Text) about a famous 18th century courtesan. In the scene Marion is playfully asking a besotted Marquis about the state of her many lovers, and receiving assurance that they are all hopelessly in love with her. Since it quotes the play, the bookplate had to have been created after Hugo wrote it in about 1828 and, more likely, after the play was first performed in 1831.
The owner of the bookplate (and, at one time, this book) remains a mystery, since no name appears on the ex libris. Perhaps someone with the name Beauvillain who quoted the Hugo lines as a clever play on his own name? Perhaps someone else who felt that the quote conveyed his own personal mad devotion to beautiful women and beautiful books? In any case, the bookplate is certainly an appropriate one for the book itself. The pocket sized volume presents a collection of love poems with suggestions of popular songs the verses might be sung to and several page sized engravings throughout. The jewel-like vellum covers of the book are adorned with watercolor paintings, each covered in a thin protective sheet of transparent mica (the mirror on the inside cover is also made of mica) and surrounded by gold tooled leather and papier mache ornaments painted with a metallic sheen of silver, gold and ruby tones. The back cover depicts a hunting scene, while the front cover depicts a group of fashionable and decorous looking people sitting down to a meal.
Even if the unclad woman depicted in the added bookplate contrasts with the more presentable woman in the book’s frontispiece, she and her adoring suitor are certainly compatible with some of the other engravings in the book, which include this illustration of a buff looking topless Zeus figure and a similarly topless woman wearing butterfly wings:
or this engraving of a nearly nude winged man:
However, perhaps the most entertaining engraving appears at the end of the book, which depicts a drunken dinner party with a young man dancing on the table and at least one woman spilling out of her dress. Clearly the designer of the front cover had a sense of humor when creating the painting of the proper looking group sitting down to dine, which is the first image a person coming to the book would see, and acts in dialogue with the bacchanalian revels around a similar round table in the last image of the book.
It is an especially striking fact that this compact celebration of love, beauty, pleasure, and excess was produced by the publisher Pierre Etienne Janet in France in the last decade of the 18th century while the country was being rocked by the violence of the French revolution. In this context, it almost seems to be making a statement, a refusal to recognize the turmoil of the times and an insistence upon creating a fanciful world in which well dressed (and partially undressed) people have nothing more weighty on their minds than dinner, dancing and dating. Whoever the lady was who once checked her makeup in the mirror in the front of the book, and whoever the owner was who pasted in the sexy bookplate that now serves as the first page of the book, they shared in common the pleasures of escaping the troubles of the present world in favor of l’amour among the bon vivants.
Do you know who this sexy bookplate belonged to? If you have ideas, post a comment on the POP Flickr feed.