This exhibition explored the works of William Shakespeare from a fresh perspective, placing the literary giant within a tradition of fine craftsmanship on a completely different scale. Nearly one hundred exquisitely bound miniature editions of plays, sonnets, and books inspired by Shakespeare—each measuring three inches high or less and selected from the singular collection of Neale and Margaret Albert—were on display. The exhibition included miniature editions of Shakespeare’s works published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by William Pickering, Knickerbocker Press, and others, all bound with artistic designer bindings commissioned by Neale Albert (Yale JD 1961) during the past decade. Designer bookbinding is an aspect of the book arts too often overlooked and this exhibition offered a unique opportunity for visitors to examine these works closely. All of the books included in the exhibition were a promised gift to the Center from Neale and Margaret Albert.
The title “The Poet of Them All” is taken from a line in the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” from Cole Porter’s lively musical from 1948, Kiss Me, Kate. At the heart of the Alberts’ collection, and of this exhibition, are thirty-nine copies of a miniature book illustrating the lyrics and music to that song, published by Albert at his Piccolo Press in 2009. Designed by Leonard Seastone, with drawings by Seymour Chwast, every copy has a unique artistic binding. For these bindings, as well as the others on display, Albert commissioned some of the most talented designer bookbinders working today in the United Kingdom, the United States, and throughout the world. As in all his commissions, Albert asked every artist to craft their own interpretation, offering no guidelines and imposing no restrictions. He wrote to one artist, slightly tongue-in-cheek: “My only instructions are to make this the finest binding you have ever done. How is that for pressure?” Every artist, whether working in leather, paper, cloth, wood, or metal, rose to the occasion.
“The Poet of Them All”: William Shakespeare and Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert was curated by Elisabeth Fairman, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art. A fully illustrated book, published by the Center in association with the Yale University Press, accompanied the exhibition. Edited by Fairman and designed by Miko McGinty, the volume features an essay by the book historian and designer binder James Reid-Cunningham, written from his perspective as a practitioner as well as a historian of contemporary book arts. The Wendy’s Company generously supported the production of the publication.
The Grolier Club in New York City exhibited a version of this display in spring 2016, entitled “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”: Miniature Designer Bindings from the Collection of Neale and Margaret Albert.