Words Like Paintings: A Kaleidoscope of Beautiful Books

A bibliophile – that is how we refer to people who do not only appreciate a book’s content but also its appearance. This exhibition of the MoneyMuseum is dedicated to all bibliophiles out there. It takes visitors along on a journey through time and space that begins shortly before the era in which books developed from objects of use and status into works of art. Our path takes us from the mid-19th century to the present day, inviting every visitor to ask themselves what they consider to be a beautiful book.

To the Stops
Words Like Paintings: A Kaleidoscope of Beautiful Books
Words Like Paintings: A Kaleidoscope of Beautiful Books


Ursula Kampmann

Station 1 – The Economic Prerequisites

Certain economic developments determined what books looked like in the 19th-century. Station 1 presents two works that illustrate this phenomenon. 

The first of them is Adam Smith’s main work. It is entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In his book, Smith summarised what a bourgeois counter-proposal to an economic system that solely focused on the welfare of the state could look like. The Wealth of Nations became a bible of liberalism. The theoretical foundations for many developments that also affected the book market were established in this work.

The second book that we would like to present deals with the 1851 Great Exhibition. It is an official report in book form on this first trade fair in the modern sense of the word published by the German Customs Union. As the exhibition was covered by media outlets across the globe, the event marked a turning point. After it, nobody could deny that the economic world had changed and that the pace at which these changes took place was set to increase. This aroused much enthusiasm, but some critical voices wondered whether it was right to assume that an object’s price was the only factor that defined it.

1.1 – Adam Smith: A New Way of Economic Thinking

Adam Smith, contemporary work by John Kay.

On 9 March 1776, Adam Smith published his epoch-making work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It only took a few months for a German translation with the title Untersuchung der Natur und Ursachen von Nationalreichthümern to become available. After all, the book was a major success in London. This was not due to the innovative spirit of Smith’s ideas but for the reason that the work summarised everything that the aspiring bourgeoisie wanted in terms of policies and the economy. The Wealth of Nations was a rejection of mercantilism, the economic system of absolutist monarchies.

Smith brought about a paradigm shift. Prior to him, economic policies aimed at generating as much state revenue as possible without consideration for trade and industry. And the revenue was not invested in infrastructure but in the monarch’s image, the military and fortifications. 

In politically liberal Great Britain, on the other hand, the interests of the financial aristocracy played a much more central role. They supported Adam Smith’s ideas and demanded the state to put aside his interests and promote that of its citizens instead. This, they argued, was the only way for the state to generate even more tax revenue.

Female workers at cotton works in Manchester, ca. 1830.

Right in the first chapter, Smith illustrates the advantages of economies of scale by means of a hitherto rather expensive good: sewing needles. He explains that a single person can at best produce a few sewing needles a day, which will be correspondingly expensive. At a manufacture, on the other hand, ten workers can easily produce 48,000 needles a day. This significantly lowers the price for a single sewing needle, even when we take into account the manufacturer’s profit and the interest to investors.

Smith analyses the situation from the perspective of the wealthy bourgeoisie. Therefore, he overlooks the fact that prices will invariably impact wages; at least as long as there are more workers than the market needs. Thus, it is the factory-owners who dictate wages in the 19th century, and the cost of living of their employees is not a factor that plays into their considerations. 

The result is known as Manchester Capitalism, as Friedrich Engels described it in his work The Condition of the Working Class in England. Child labour, starvation wages, long working hours, arbitrary treatment and old-age poverty did not disappear until the state introduced laws to protect the workforce.

Adam Smith, p. 96, chapter Vom Arbeitslohn (Of the wages of labour).

Adam Smith opposed laws that favoured employees. He believed that the market itself would determine an appropriate wage. To him, workers were equal participants in the market who sold their good – labour – to whoever paid most for it.

Adam Smith, p. 130.

According to Smith, a good’s price is determined by supply and demand. And market forces always push developments into the right direction: If there is a shortage, prices will increase until there are so many companies in an industry that there is excess supply. This causes prices to decrease, making the industry unattractive, which is why entrepreneurs will seek other business. This, in turn, creates a shortage and the cycle begins anew.

What it crucial is that a good’s price becomes the only factor that determines whether it is successful or not.

Adam Smith, p. 467.

Adam Smith demands the state to provide for basic education for children. Before they are of working age, they are to learn how to read, write and do maths.

School time. Painting by Winslow Homer depicting a school building in the American province. Smithsonian Museum / Washington

His demand was not implemented on a large scale until the course of the 19th century. Zurich, for example, adopted a school law in 1832 that granted children the right to attend school for six years, with the fees being covered by the state. Those who had learned how to read in school were potential customers of the book market. This significantly increased demand. It could only be met by mass production.

1.2 – A New Era: The Great Exhibition of 1851

The attractive entrance hall of the 1851 Great Exhibition is often depicted. It is not typical of the exhibits that were on display.

On 1 May 1851, Queen Victoria herself opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. It was organised and held by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, in other words: at the Great Exhibition, numerous countries tried to outdo each other by showcasing all sorts of innovations and accomplishments. Producers from Great Britain and abroad came to show off the high quality and low price of their products, hoping to find new customers.

17,062 exhibitors from 28 countries – an incredible number by the standards of the time – presented their goods to an amazed audience that travelled to London from the entire globe. About six million people visited the Crystal Palace.

The booth of the Whitworth machine producer with a grain mill, a crane, a spinning machine, a coin press and a pump.

Among the public were not only interested citizens and private individuals. Numerous entrepreneurs came to the exhibition themselves to find out about their competitors’ products. Trade associations and states sent representatives to report on the exhibits. Many experts systematically went from one booth to the next in order to get information on the latest production methods, the quality of the goods produced this way and the prices. 

The aspiring German Customs Union also sent a group of experts. In the aftermath, they published an extensive report. The three volumes were published in 1852 and 1853. Many industry associations acquired a copy, which was then eagerly discussed by their members. 

Sorted by industries, the report informs about the quality of the raw material, semi-finished and finished products that were on display in London. It comments on the latest technologies and presents the manufactures that developed them.

Table of contents.

A detailed table of contents makes it easy to find the industry you are looking for. Class XVII deals with paper and paper works, stationery and printer’s products as well as the letterpress printing industry and bookbindery. 

Description of machines for paper production.

§ 157 deals with paper production. Regarding newspapers and books, paper remained the most significant factor to determine the price. It was not until the mid-19th century that a method was established to replace rags as the primary material with cellulose from wood pulp. But machines that made expensive manual work superfluous could already be admired at the Great Exhibition.

Description of the Koenig press, a system where almost all steps were carried out automatically thanks to a system of gear wheels.

Regarding the printing process, some steps could already be carried out without manual labour in 1851. Especially in the newspaper industry, the speed of Koenig presses – a system where almost all steps took place automatically thanks to gear wheels – was the subject of hot debates.

To achieve a better quality, hand printing was still necessary in 1851.

However, the quality of the Koenig press was not yet(!) sufficient to create high-quality illustrations. Therefore, modern hand-operated and self-inking printing presses were used.

In 1851, the general goal seemed to be to achieve the quality of manual labour with machines – or even exceed it – in order to lower the price and have an advantage over costly producing rivals. Arts and crafts no longer seemed to have a place in this world.


This is some text inside of a div block.
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer
Published by Philip Lee Warner on behalf of the Medici Society, printed by the Riccardi Press, 1913
Das Stundenbuch
Rainer Maria Rilke
Printed as first print of the Insel publishing house in Leipzig 1905.

Station 2 – What Makes a Book Beautiful?

After the Great Exhibition, critical minds discussed whether machine-made products would ever be able to match the beauty of the creations of the human mind. They argued that human creativity was superior to the brainless perfection of a machine. The social circumstances in factories also encouraged an intellectual elite to demand a return to the working conditions of a romanticised ideal of the Middle Ages: in small workshops, well-paid, highly motivated and perfectly skilled craftsmen were to produce beautiful works.

William Morris (1834-1896) and his extremely successful manufacture was at the head of a counter-movement that is known as Arts and Crafts today. While he originally specialised in furniture and decoration, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891. This printing workshop created the books that Morris dreamed of. It became a role model for all the small presses and printing manufactures that were devoted to a new form of book art.

At Station 2, we show two examples for early works that revived the art of hand-printed books in the early 20th century. In 1913, the Riccardi Press published a hand-printed edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even earlier, in 1905 to be precise, what is probably the first German hand-printed book of this era was created: Rilke’s Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours), published by the Insel publishing house. Both examples illustrate the differences of hand-printed and industrially made works.

2.1 – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of the Riccardi Press: For the Sake of Beauty

Page from the Chaucer edition published by the Kelmscott Press.

With his Kelmscott Press, William Morris defined what made a hand-printed work different from a machine-produced book. Paper played a crucial role in this. In the early 20th century, traditionally produced, hand-made paper was superior to machine-made cellulose paper. It hardly turned yellow and did not get brittle.

For Morris, the most important aspect was typesetting, i.e., the appearance of the letters and the careful distribution of lines. Morris had its own, particularly beautiful types developed. On the other hand, he considered illustrations not as important as they were unreasonably expensive in the production of small editions. Only special prestige objects among his hand-printed works were adorned with illustrations.

Morris created his works with hand-operated machines, although he already made some compromises: he preferred contemporary hand-operated presses made of iron to the wooden presses of the early modern era because their prints were of higher quality. Regarding bookbinding, there was no compromise – the works were bound by hand, using the best materials out there.

Craftsmen at Morris’ workshops operated as they had done prior to the Industrial Revolution.

An important factor regarding hand-printed books is the financial aspect. Morris himself was a strong advocate of fair working conditions. He paid above-average wages to his workers and attractive working conditions were extremely important to him. Moreover, he wrote a utopian work – which was much read during his time – on how one’s work can contribute to finding purpose in life.

Succeeding him, many supporters of the movement that criticised industrialisation, materialism and urbanisation decided to run small workshops themselves in order to flee from the hectic standards of the new economy. Some of them opened “presses”, as were hand-operated printing workshops called. The books produced by them were sold at a price that covered the cost and also provided them with a modest livelihood. Due to the costly materials and the sophisticated production methods, only a few members of the upper class were able to afford such works.

Therefore, the number of issued copies was always small. This means that hand-printed books turned into carefully guarded collectibles: they were too expensive to be read comfortably on the couch.

Printer’s mark of the Riccardi Press.

The Riccardi Press was founded in 1909. Its founder, Herbert P. Horne (1864-1916), was enthusiastic about the Renaissance. He financed his palazzo in Florence as an art agent for museums and private collectors. It was in this context that a cooperation with the Medici Society came about. The company made money by selling affordable copies of great works of art to a broad public.

Page from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, 14th century. University of Arizona Library, Special Collections.

The hand-made works printed on behalf of the Medici Society were supposed to make a profit. Therefore, they opted for the Canterbury Tales – a text that was considered compulsory reading among the educated British readership. At the time, there was a copy of the Canterbury Tales in every (educated) home – although the edition varied depending on their wealth.

Illustrations from the Canterbury Tales by William Russell Flint.

The Riccardi Press employed young William Russel Flint (1880-1969) as an illustrator, who is considered one of the most successful illustrators of his time. His illustrations were used time and again for new and more affordable editions.

The cover was made of precious velin.

Without binding, the three volumes of the Canterbury Tales cost 7 pounds, 6 shillings and a sixpence. Those who wanted to purchase the work including the in-house binding – as the copy exhibited here – had to pay 9 pounds and 9 shillings. Twelve copies were printed on the finest parchment. Their price of 47 pounds and 5 shillings roughly equated to the rent of a London manor for 6 months.

2.2 – Rilke’s Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours): A Windfall for German Literature

Edition notice of the first print of the Insel publishing house of 1905.

In 1899, three art enthusiasts founded a newspaper called “Die Insel” (The Island). In 1901, this project turned into the Insel publishing house. Neither the newspaper nor the publishing house were a financial success. In February 1905, when a then unknown poet named Rainer Maria Rilke approached the company, it was de facto bankrupt.

The man Rilke got in touch with was Carl Ernst Poeschl. He was the managing director because someone had to be and a printer because he loved it. Poeschl had found an advisor named Anton Kippenberg, who turned out to be an ingenious publisher. He advised them to publish Rilke’s Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours).

Poeschl had travelled to England in 1904 and had met leading members of the book art movement. He wanted to initiate something similar in Germany and decided to publish a hand-printed copy in addition to the machine-made copies of Rilke’s work. This was probably the first German hand-printed edition of this movement. It was created by the short-lived Insel publishing house with 440 copies.

Rainer Maria Rilke at the garden of the Strohl-Fern villa in Rome in 1904.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry cycle was written between 1899 and 1903. He dealt with a journey that he had ventured on with the infamous Lou Andreas-Salomé to her Russian homeland. His lover did not only take him to the cities but also to the Taiga, where Rilke experienced the simple life and the deep faith of the peasants. His The Book of Hours put into words how uncomfortable his generation felt about progress and how they yearned for a purposeful existence in the face of God, who was hidden from the modern human.

The printer Poeschl carefully transformed this poetic work into a book, whose design was inspired by medieval works. Rilke was so enthusiastic about the result that he wrote the following to Kippenberg: “Since the Book of Hours, I know for sure that I will tell you about every new work that I complete.”

The joint work bore fruit. The publisher Kippenberg turned Rilke into a well-paid bestselling author. Even during his lifetime, the Insel publishing house sold 60,000 copies of four editions of The Book of Hours.

Pages from Rilke’s Stundenbuch.

Typical for the design of the text are the medieval-looking initials at the beginning of every poem.

Description of the machines for paper production.

Every half leather binding was made of valuable, hand-printed paper, whose tendril pattern picks up art nouveau elements.

Another hand-printed edition of the Stundenbuch, created by the Drugulin Press.

Shortly after, Carl Ernst Poeschl left the Insel publishing house to fulfil a dream of his: he founded the Janus Press, the first private printing company of Germany. This hand-printed edition of the Stundenbuch of 1909, however, was not created by Janus Press but by the Drugulin Press, a workshop that had already been around since 1829.

Cover of the hand-printed edition of the Stundenbuch published in 1909.

Particularly beautiful is the cover, which is reminiscent of early modern works.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Iphigenie auf Tauris
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Published by Bremer Presse in 1922.
Die johanneischen Schriften (The Johannine Writings).
Printed between April and September 1919 by Officina Serpentis.

Station 3 – The Book Art Movement

The golden age of the new hand-printed books spanned from the time shorty before the First World War until Black Thursday of 1929. At the time, many private presses and printing manufactures followed the model of the Kelmscott Press in Germany and produced beautifully made prints of texts that were considered particularly valuable. They focused on the classics. These works promised good sales figures and there was no need to spend money on copyright. By far the most popular texts were those by the German prince of poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

At Station 3, we introduce two of the many small private press businesses as an example. We present the Bremer Presse with their print of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris) and the Officina Serpentis with a precious print of the Johanneische Schriften (Johannine Writings).

At this station, we are particularly interested in how the self-perception of those who created the books changed. They no longer thought of themselves as craftsmen but as artists.

3.1 – The Bremer Presse: Arts and Crafts or Intellectual Property?

Residence of the architect Friedrich von Thiersch at Georgenstrasse, destroyed in the Second World War.

The Bremer Presse was named after the place in which it was founded: Bremen in northern Germany. There, in 1911, two patrician sons from well-off families – Ludwig Wolde, who suffered from a severe heart condition, and lawyer Willy Wiegand, who suffered from extreme displeasure at making a career in the legal field – founded their private press. After an initial success, the First World War interrupted their work. The war made them move to Bavaria, first to Tölz then to Munich, where the legendary art quarter of Schwabing provided them with inspiring surroundings. 

The Bremer Presse found a new home in a garden house at the Schwabing Georgenstrasse. Their landlord was the father of bookbinder Frieda Thiersch. She created the cover bindings for the Bremer Presse in her father’s villa next door. Her book spines were truly unique and became an important selling point for the private press. 

Thiersch had learned her craft from the Scottish bookbinder Charles McLeish. McLeish, in turn, was head of the Dove Press bookbindery, the company that had taken over the legacy of the Kelmscott Press after the death of William Morris. Therefore, Thiersch thought of herself as a legitimate heiress of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Cover by Frieda Thiersch for a German translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, of which 120 copies were issued in 1922. We owe thanks to the picture of this book to M. POLLAK ANTIQUARIAT, Tel Aviv, where this work is available.

For the prints of Bremer Presse, Frieda Thiersch created a binding that combined six traditional bookbinding techniques. Particularly remarkable are the rectangular gold patterns on the book spine and the golden lines on the edges of the cover in combination with the year of the print in the lowest field on the book’s spine. 

Thiersch was confident of her work and knew exactly how valuable her masterly crafted covers were. Many customers tried to save money by acquiring an unbound version of the prints of the Bremer Presse. Then they had them bound in an astonishingly similar manner by a less renowned bookbinder (at a much lower cost).

Frieda Thiersch took the matter to court. She tried an exemplary case against her former apprentice, which received a lot of attention. She argued that the exactly defined combination of a craftsperson’s techniques that were needed to create her covers were her intellectual property. In 1922, she reached a settlement that actually acknowledged her copyright on the book covers. Thus, the law put a bookbinder’s manual work on a par with the oeuvre of an author, a composer or a painter.

Iphigenie auf Tauris, printed by the Bremer Presse in a cover by Charles de Samblanc.

At first glance, the cover by Charles de Samblanc looks very similar to the book spine created by Frieda Thiersch.

Iphigenie auf Tauris, printed by the Bremer Presse in a cover by Charles de Samblanc.

However, the bookbinder’s mark on the cover indicates that this is not the original cover.

Iphigenie auf Tauris, printed by the Bremer Presse in a cover by Charles de Samblanc.

To collectors, this means that it is not as valuable. Books in the original cover of the publisher fetch higher prices on the collector’s market.

Edition notice of Iphigenie auf Tauris published by Bremer Presse.)

Hand-made books are ideal collectibles. They have an edition notice that sums up all the important information about their rarity. This one tells us that 300 copies of Iphigenie auf Tauris were printed and that 280 of them were sold. This copy is number 189.

3.2 – Words Like Paintings: The Works of the Officina Serpentis

Letters are turned into paintings. A double page from the Johanneische Schriften.

The title of the exhibition was inspired by this very book, published in 1919 by Officina Serpentis. This Berlin printing workshop was founded by Wilhelm Tieffenbach. He abandoned a well-paid but monotonous and unsatisfying job at the Berlin Telegraph Research Institution (Telegraphen-Versuchsamt) in order to create beautiful books with hand-operated machines as a self-educated printer. Unlike many other founders of private printing companies, Tieffenbach was not among the intellectual elite who tried to find purpose in life while enjoying the financial stability that their parents offered. He scraped by and lived in a cheap rental apartment in Berlin’s Steglitz district, where he set up his hand-operated press in the basement. 

Tieffenbach’s Tres Epistolae Platonis with translation, published in 1926.

He was inspired by the incunables of the early modern period, i.e., the very first prints whose appearance was still very similar to the manuscripts of the time prior to the invention of letterpress printing. For this purpose, he used images that were complicated to typeset. His Tres Epistolae Platonis was a masterpiece and presented the Greek original by Plato surrounded by a German translation.

Tieffenbach described his work as follows: “The more naturally a book page reads, the more clearly it conveys the work’s content, the less the reader notices how much effort and work and consideration was required to create the book’s physical form, the better the work is.”

Tieffenbach collaborated with the brightest artists of his time, including Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth. He created a total of about 200 works before he had to close his workshop in the late 1930s due to financial reasons. Shortly before the Second World War, he moved to a smaller apartment in the Tempelhof district of Berlin. It was destroyed by nightly bombing. As was Tieffenbach’s artistic estate.

Initial from the Johanneische Schriften.

The initials also are reminiscent of the splendid hand-drawn initials of early modern codices.

Cover of the Johanneische Schriften.

The cover is also similar to the codices of monastery libraries.

Edition notice of Effi Briest, created between 1926 and 1927 for the bibliophile Maximilian Society.

Tieffenbach often collaborated with the Maximilian Society, and he was a member himself. For example, he printed Effi Briest, illustrated with 21 lithographs by Max Lieberman, on behalf of the society. 

Illustration by Max Liebermann for Fontane’s Effi Briest.

Max Liebermann was among the best-known artists of the German Empire. His illustrations bear testimony to his incredibly skill, even as he became older: Liebermann celebrated his 80th birthday on 20 July 1927.

He was fortunate enough to die in 1935, eight years before his widow could only escape being deported to the Theresienstadt extermination camp by taking her own life.


This is some text inside of a div block.
 Liebe und Alter
Francois-René Chateaubriand
Copy XXVI of the third collector’s edition of the Vereinigung Oltener Bücherfreunde, 1948.
Aerzte – Ein paar Erinnerungen
Hermann Hesse
Olten, 1963

Station 4 – Books as Collectibles: The Vereinigung Oltener Bücherfreunde

While the creation of early 20th-century hand-printed works was based on the desire to transfer the old traditions of artisan book printing into the present, their producers found that their clientele did not consist of aspirational readers but of collectors. In contrast to readers, collectors are barely interested in a book’s content. What makes a book special to them is mainly its form and its rarity.

Hand-printed works became popular collectibles because they combined all the features that make a good collectible:

  • There is only a strictly limited number of copies.
  • There are lists that can be used to aim at completing one’s collection.
  • There is a secondary market, i.e., the possibility of re-selling a hand-made print again.

Especially the secondary market is of crucial importance for any collectible. Although most collectors do not admit this, a large part of the joy of collecting is the thrill of finding out whether a collectible purchased at issue price will appreciate or depreciate.

The books of the Vereinigung Oltener Bücherfreunde (VOB, Association of Olten Book Enthusiasts) are an example for how a publisher could use this thrill in his favour. At this station, we use a few examples to show you how William Matheson approached the matter in order to create coveted collectibles with as little effort as possible.

4.1 – William Matheson and His Vereinigung Oltener Bücherfreunde

In 1970, William Mathson published the last collector’s edition of the VOB under the title Dank und Erinnerung.

The Swiss William Matheson was a passionate collector. Not of hand-made prints but of autographs. A father of a family of five and full-time purchaser of the Berna motorcar factory in Olten, he did not have the financial means to afford the autograph collection that he would have liked to acquire. In order to get his hands on cheap autographs, he tried to get in touch with authors that were still alive.

On a visit, Thomas Mann himself is said to have inspired Matheson – at least that is how the latter tells the story – to found the VOB. The grandmaster of literature drew his attention to the bibliophile society of Cologne, Matheson explained. And the latter understood that as a publisher, he would enjoy the regular contact of potential authors. By setting up the VOB as a non-profit on 5 May 1936, he avoided having to deal with time-consuming accounting regulations. Moreover, the charitable element of his organisation provided him with a wonderful reason to lower the prices of anyone who was involved in the process.

Ernst Jünger, hand-written note in Das spanische Mondhorn, published by the VOB in 1962.

This started with the authors – whose works, by the way, were of varying quality. They were rewarded with 600 to 1,200 Swiss Francs for handing over an unpublished work. Every now and then, Matheson convinced them to let him publish a fragment that could not be used otherwise free of charge. Moreover, he used his visits to talk authors into giving him autographs for little money. Andreas Burkhardt described, for example, how Matheson stroke an incredible bargain with the painter Gunther Böhmer. Böhmer had his Tagebuch eines Malers (Diary of a Painter) published by the VOB and illustrated many volumes of the publication. When he came to visit the painter, Matheson purchased a drawn portrait of Hermann Hesse, which had even been signed by the latter. Böhme gave it to him for as little as 130 to 150 Swiss Francs.

Special edition of Chateaubriand’s Liebe und Alter.

Thanks to his experiences as a collector, Matheson knew exactly what made other collectors buy one of his works. His first manoeuvre was to artificially create scarcity by taking a print that could actually be produced in high volumes at low costs and publishing it with bindings of various qualities. The special edition had a binding of patent leather.

Half leather edition of Chateaubriand’s Liebe und Alter.

In addition, there was a more affordable half-leather version and an even more affordable paper edition.

Edition notice of Chateaubriand’s Liebe und Alter.

Matheson took the rarest copies for himself: 3 not numbered copies that were bound in full parchment. Special customers had the privilege of purchasing the 33 copies numbered with Roman numerals. Another 100 copies, with Arabic numerals and bound in half parchment, were offered for a little less money. For the broad public Matheson offered the same work with a paper cover.

Kretz, the responsible bookbinder, lamented the time and cost pressure he had to work under by saying “Every movement of my hand is money!”

Chateaubriand’s Liebe und Alter.

Today, the luxurious edition of the book, which is rather thin given its 44 pages, is sold at 200 to 250 euros, the half-parchment edition for about 80 euros and the simple edition for 20 to 30 euros.

4.2 – What Makes a Coveted Collectible?

The dedication of a deceased? Hesse’s Aerzte was published about half a year after his death.

Every book collector knows that a personal dedication can significantly increase a work’s value. This is due to the fact that it usually takes much effort to obtain such a dedication. Matheson made use of this in order to sell hand-signed books to his best customers at high prices. To this intent, he had his authors sign as if they worked at an assembly line. And they did not sign the work itself but the sheets that were then used in the printing process, and he personally brought them to their homes. This sped up the process and in case they made a spelling mistake, only a sheet had to be thrown away and not an already bound book. Therefore, the paradox occurred that there are hand signed copies of the 99th volume of the VOB with Hesse’s Aerzte (Physicians) although the author had already passed away half a year earlier.

Edition notice for Hesse’s Aerzte.

Although the publications of the VOB had little to do with the working conditions and production methods promoted by William Morris for private printing companies, the edition notice plays into the narrative that their works met the high requirements of this movement. Usually, newspapers were produced at the printing plant of Heinrich Lustig in Gelterkinden. The bibliophile printer, who was also a member of the VOB, probably had a small department that every now and then did hand-printed works. Associating this with private printing workshops such as the Officina Bodoni or the Officina Serpentis is misleading, especially because the books certainly were not made with hand-operated machines. The paper they used was produced in Zerkall and is something completely different from hand-produced paper. Although this type of paper was still made from rags, its production was carried out by machines, just as it was the case regarding cellulose paper.

Die Beichte des Don Juan, written by Rudolf von Hagelstange, illustrated by Gunter Böhmer.

Despite the high cost pressure, there are some true valuables among the sometimes rather unimaginative prints of the VOB. One of their most beautiful works is Die Beichte des Don Juan (Don Juan’s Confession), written by Rudolf von Hagelstange and illustrated by Gunter Böhmer. It was honoured as the most beautiful Swiss book of the year in 1954 by the Swiss Bookseller and Publishers Association.

Autograph of the author and the illustrator on the title page of Die Beichte des Don Juan.

Matheson increased the value of a few copies by means of a double autograph on the title page, where not only the author but also the illustrator signed the work.

Detailed dedication of the author in Die Beichte des Don Juan.

For Matheson’s well-paying customers, the author wrote another, more detailed dedication into the work.

By the way, William Matheson’s collection of poet autographs is quite famous. On the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1975, it was on display at the Olten city library. In the same year, the Swiss Germanist Martin Bircher wrote a laudatory review of the collection for the newspaper of the Swiss Society of Bibliophiles.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Bound edition of the Swiss monthly magazine du.
Publications of the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (Manesse Library of World Literature).

Station 5 – Beauty for Domestic Use

In the 1940s at Conzett & Huber in Zurich, not one but two publications were created that had a lasting impact on what the broad public perceived as a beautiful book: the monthly magazine du and the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (Manesse Library of World Literature). At this station, we will see why it was small and multilingual Switzerland, of all places, that took a leading role in the German-speaking publishing business shortly after the Second World War. Moreover, we will examine the concept behind both publications and see what made them so successful.

5.1 – A Means of Advertising Sets New Standards: The du Magazine

Illustration of intaglio printing. A: paper, B: ink, C: printing plate, 1: ink container, 2: engraved printing roller, 3: doctor blade, 4: roller / presseur, 5: paper. Image: Jailbird, ccby – 2.0.

In the late 1930s, the Swiss printing and publishing world was in crisis. Conzett & Huber made use of this to shift to a completely new technique. They invested in intaglio printing. This process enabled printers to achieve a hitherto impossible quality of printing with half-tone colours. From a technical point of view, this made Conzett & Huber the Swiss market leader in terms of colour printing.

The technique was perfectly suited for elaborate illustrated books. But this first had to be communicated to the publisher’s customers. In order to do so, Conzett & Huber came up with an innovative idea: they planned to launch a monthly magazine. The large-scale publication was to present brilliant colour images of works of art. The planning of the other contents was left to Arnold Kübler.

Title page of the du magazine of September 1947.

Inspired by the Paris weekly magazine Vu, Kübler developed a monthly magazine called du (German for “you”). It was a colourful mixture of ambitious texts, excellent photo reports and perfect reproductions of works of art from around the world. 

The magazine was very successful. We must not forget that in 1941, when du was launched, travelling was a cost-intensive luxury made impossible by the war. There was no television. Once a week, you could see images of what happened around the world at the cinema. And now the du brought the wide world to its interested readers’ homes. For many, this was the first time to experience these great works of art in colour!

One of the articles of the magazine on the topic of Kinder im Krieg (Children in the War) from August 1944.

However, the du magazine wanted to be much more. Arnold Kübler turned it into a moralistic authority. He reported on the social injustice in war-torn countries and appealed to the Swiss to help.

Walter Robert Corti’s appeal in the magazine on the topic of Kinder im Krieg (Children in the War) from August 1944.

Its largest success had the du magazine thanks to an idea of editor-in-chief Walter Robert Corti. The du magazine on the topic of Kinder im Krieg (Children in the War) from August 1944 included an appeal to give shelter to war orphans. A settlement was set up, which became the model for SOS Children’s Villages.

Illustration for Arnold Kübler’s article on a visit to Pablo Picasso’s studio, published in the magazine on the topic of Paris in September 1947.

The idea of magazine issues on particular topics such as Children in the War or Paris was something completely new in the 1940s. And it had a lasting impact – after all, Swiss and German media outlets have similar features to this day. The manner in which du reported on the world of art also became widespread.

du magazine with the title New York East 100th Street from 1969.

In 1969, the then editor-in-chief Manuel Gasser created what became probably the best-known issue of the du magazine. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bruce Davidson documented the daily life of the people in Harlem. His unique black-and-white pictures are considered a milestone of photography and photo report.

5.2 – The Manesse Library of World Literature

Café Odeon in Zurich. Photo: Wikimedia / Otto Normalverbraucher; cc-by 2.0

The idea for the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (Manesse Library of World Literature) came up around 1940, when many intellectuals feared that the Nazi regime would prevail. Due to its strict censorship, National Socialism prevented the print and thus the distribution of crucial literary works. In Switzerland, however, there were no restrictions. This created sort of a “Noah’s Ark” effect. Quite a few intellectuals wanted to save literature and thought about founding a publishing house. One of these committed literature enthusiasts was Dr. Walter Meier. In 1942, he paid a visit to Conzett & Huber in order to present his concept of a library of world literature.

Meier had an extensive network of writers, translators, literary scholars and enthusiastic readers. He met them at the Café Odeon in Zurich, the place to exchange literary news at the time. With the help of his supporters, Meier drew up an ambitious publication programme for which many novels and stories were translated into German for the first time.

Since Conzett & Huber were located in the Zurich Manessestrasse, the new publishing house was called the Manesse Library of World Literature. In 1944, the first three works were published. The very first publication was dedicated to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This was a symbolic decision. Goethe represented another vision of Germany, the Germany of poets and thinkers. Moreover, he had given the definition of world literature. To him, national literature only could be referred to as world literature if it “goes beyond getting to know and referring to each other in that it elaborately portrays the great tasks of a common world and the knowledge of the respective period”. Goethe only considered a few people to be capable of creating world literature, namely the French, Italians, Germans, English and Scots. Today we obviously see things differently.

Walter Meier, too, significantly expanded Goethe’s definition. He did not base his selection on a certain theory but on the readability of the texts. When they came home tired from their daily work, he wanted to provide people with an opportunity to relax and stimulate their minds.

Chaka der Zulu by Thomas Mofolo.

Due to cross-financing, well-known authors such as Thomas Mann, Theodor Fontane, Adalberg Stifter or Charles Dickens helped to translate works that were less known to the general public. As early as in 1953, a classic of African literature, Chaka der Zulu (Chaka) by Thomas Mofolo, was published. To this day, it is considered to be the most important prosaic piece written in the Sesotho language.

Destroyed Berlin, Royal Airforce between 1945 and 1947.

The major success of the Manesse Library of World Literature was also due to the fact that many had to replace their libraries, as they had fallen victim to the war. The Manesse Library of World Literature provided them with affordable yet high-quality version of the classics.

In 1963, the 200th volume of the series was published. In 1976 the 300th. The layout remained the same until 2017. In this way, the Manesse Library of World Literature became a classic in its own right, and its volumes are collected by many readers today.


This is some text inside of a div block.
Le Village inspiré
Jean Vertext
Illustrated by Maurice Utrillo and Lucie Valore. Published by A. & P. Jarach, 1950.
Victor Hugo
llustrated by Hans Erni. Published in 1976 by André et Pierre Gonin, Lausanne.

Station 6 – Artists’ Books

Station 6 is dedicated to artists’ books. However, it must be stated that, so far, no final definition of this term has been adopted. Artists’ books are objects between books and works of art. The world-renowned art theorist Lucy Lippard summarised the issue as follows: “It’s an artists’ book if an artist made it or if an artist says it is.

At this station, we will take a glance at a subgroup of artists’ books. They focus on illustrations. Therefore, there are referred to as “painters’ books” by some art historians.

6.1 – A New Genre of Art: Painters’ Books

Glance into the Fondation Beyeler. Photo: KW

Is this art or can I throw it away?” This question was posed by the German entertainer Mike Krüger in 2010 and is readily used today to express the lack of understanding of an uninformed majority for the artistic concepts of an avant-garde. This lack of understanding is a rather new phenomenon. About a little more than 150 years ago, anyone had the ability to assess whether an artist was good or not. A work of art’s quality was closely connected to how similar it depicted the reality.

This changed with the advent of photography. It created perfect images in a quicker and more affordable way than any artist could.

At this point, artists faced an identity crisis as they had to redefine themselves. They lost many commissions to photographers. Moreover, they became dependent on the appreciation of collectors, gallerists, curators and art critics. 

Van Gogh, Sunflowers. Neue Pinakothek, Munich

The new art market followed its own rules. One of them was that the artist whose works could be seen most frequently were sold at the highest prices. In this regard, it did not matter whether people saw the original or a copy on a postcard, screen saver, cup, silk scarf or a shopping bag.

Artists’ books also have to be seen in this context. They are objects of art that can easily be produced at high volumes that provide an additional opportunity to disseminate artistic works. In this way, an artist (and, of course, its publisher) can make money and promote their work with rather little effort.

But this also comes with an advantage for the average collector: those who could not afford to purchase an original painting now had the possibility – thanks to the latest reproduction techniques – of enjoying a work that was completely similar to the original with the sole difference that it had not been created by the artist themselves.

Edition notice of Le Village inspiré.

Thus, those who take a look at the illustrations of Le Village inspiré need to consider the edition notice to find out that the gouache paints are not original but excellent photo-mechanical facsimiles created by the Daniel Jacomet printing house.

Those involved in the creation of Le Village inspiré.

The illustrations were created by Maurice Utrillo and his wife Lucie Valore. Ultrillo, the son of the painter Suzanne Valadon, had been a severe alcoholic ever since his early youth. At the request of his mother, he married her friend Lucie Valore when he was 52 years old, and she turned out to be a brilliant administrator: She too started to paint and whoever wanted to acquire an Utrillo from then on also had to purchase a painting by her.

Windmills of Montmartre, gouache by Maurice Utrillo.

The selection of the book’s subject was ingenious. It promoted sales by taking up the artistic history of Montmartre. At the time when it was published, in 1950, this time had long been over and done with. But Utrillo was a child of this world. An illegitimate child, he was born on Montmartre. Nobody knew who his father was. It might have been Renoir.

Suzanne Valadon, sketch by Maurice Utrillo.

This image of Suzanne Valadon was already created in 1894, 56 years before it was published. As of 1935, Utrillo only painted works based on post cards and motifs from his memory due to his health.

6.2 – How Does an Ostracised Artist Survive? The Example of Hans Erni

Reverse of the 50-franc banknote designed by Erni that was never issued.

The dream team of the Swiss artists’ book are the publisher André Gonin and the artist Hans Erni. They created their first joint work in 1941. At the time, Erni was an aspiring artist commissioned by the Swiss National Bank to design a new banknote series.

Erni did not adhere to the prevailing political mood. And this became his downfall. A report of the Military and Police Department of the Canton of Lucerne of 25 May 1949 accused him of sympathising with communist ideas. He was dangerous, the report stated, although Erni had a calm attitude “to the outside”. Therefore, the artist no longer received public commissions since the winter of 1950. For Erni this meant less revenue. Moreover, he ran the risk of being forgotten by his Swiss audience.

The artists’ books published by the Gonin publishing house provided Erni with an opportunity to make money and make collectors remember him.

The title of Der Goldene Esel (The Golden Ass), written by Apuleius, illustrated by Hans Erni.

Other publishers also supported Erni, for example the Manesse Library of World Literature. The situation became even worse when Erni exhibited posters in Budapest in 1958. Although it was a strictly artistic collaboration that had been planned long before, the Swiss politician Peter Sager, who was known as “the Cold War in person”, started a media campaign that accused Erni of collaborating with the Hungarian regime.

Perhaps it was for this very reason that the Manesse Library of World Literature decided to illustrate its 1960 edition of Der Goldene Esel (The Golden Ass) with sketches that Hans Erni had produced for an artists’ book.

The slow rehabilitation of the artist began in 1966 with an exhibition at the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen. But since many Swiss art museums continued to boycott Erni, he decided to set up his own museum on the premises of the Lucerne transportation house.

Title page with illustrations for Victor Hugo’s Shakespeare l’Ancien

Erni published a new artists’ book every year. 29 of them were produced by André Gonin. Erni was free to choose the texts he wanted to illustrate. Most of them were Greek and Roman classics.

The procession of maenads in front of a stylised ancient theatre.

At first glance, Victor Hugo’s Shakespeare l’Ancien does not seem to fit into this concept. But this appearance is deceptive: once again, Erni chose to deal with his favourite subject, antiquity. The text written by Victor Hugo is a theoretical work on theatre, which begins in ancient times.

Bastard title with a hand drawing by Hans Erni.

In addition to his autograph, many books by Hans Erni also have small drawings. In this copy there is one on the bastard title and on the page with the signed edition notice.

This brings us to the end of our exhibition. Regardless of whether you display high-quality hand-made works and artists’ books or cheap paperbacks on your bookshelf: 

Do not ever stop reading!