The Art Key by Tom Flynn. 2009.

The Art Key
by Tom Flynn

Brought to Book: the photographic work of Veronica Bailey

The Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin once remarked that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book represents its rebirth. Every book has its fate, he wrote, but quite what Benjamin would have thought of the digitizing of libraries is a moot point. However, one can be confident that as a committed bibliophile he would have approved of the highly original new body of work by the Jerwood Photographic Prize-winning artist Veronica Bailey currently on view in London's Old Bond Street.

Walking through an art fair a few months ago I was brought up short by one of Bailey's large format photographs, which showed the marbled pattern that appears on the edges of the pages of a hand-bound antiquarian book when closed or slightly ajar. Somehow she had captured something more than just the look of the book. She had alighted on a certain quality of old books that Benjamin so brilliantly described in his now famous essay 'Unpacking My Library'.

A new exhibition of two series of Bailey's photographic works, entitled 'Hours of Devotion' and 'Shelf Life', has just opened at the galleries of London Old Master dealers Colnaghi as a collaboration between Bernheimer Fine Art Photography and GBS Fine Art.

It may seem odd to encounter contemporary photography at the galleries of one of London's oldest Old Master dealerships, but in fact Colnaghi has been exhibiting photography since the 1850s when they showed the Crimean War pictures of pioneering photographer Roger Fenton.

Veronica Bailey provides an interesting historical conjunction between the historical and the contemporary for while her work is lovingly respectful of the nineteenth-century bookbinder's craft, it is also highly conceptual in approach. Under her lens the marbled cards, decorative end papers, gilt-tooled leather spines, and intricate stamping and stitching assume a lapidary quality that manifests a respect for the printed word that long ago fell victim to the blunt apparatus of modern publishing technology.

In a sense Bailey's photographs are the bibilophile's equivalent of the museological studies by photographers such as Richard Ross and Justine Cooper, which focus on the meticulously constructed dioramas and display conceits of Victorian museums. But where those two artists spread their attention across both the collections and the institutions, Bailey homes in on the individual objects that comprise the library.

"Once books have been handled, read and made part of a library, they assume an aura," says Bailey. "I wanted these photographs to retain something of that aura, of the time, as well as of the people who read through the pages of these beautifully crafted books."

Coincidentally, it was also Walter Benjamin who bequeathed us the seminal essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', which drew critical attention to the 'aura' of a work of art and how it comes under threat when a work is subjected to limitless reproduction through technology. Benjamin was referring to paintings and sculptures rather than books, but his essay has a new relevance in the Google era when libraries are poised to become universally accessible via the internet. What effect might that have on the aura of the library as a cultural institution and as a work of art in its own right? And what of the book itself, now being rapidly dematerialized through digitization? Is its aura, the aura of its singular physicality, in danger of being destroyed by this process or somehow mysteriously enhanced?

Bailey's project seems obliquely concerned with all these questions, but above all with a desire to preserve the book's aura. She is clearly bewitched by a numinous quality that somehow inheres in a rare book's material presence and which represents the accumulated essence of all its experiences in the hands of readers down through time.

'Hours of Devotion' resulted from an invitation from Coutts, one of the oldest and most prestigious banks in London, to explore their Old Staff Library, founded by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) in the 1850s as a philanthropic resource for Coutts' staff. The collection consists of largely nineteenth-century works, covering a a wide range of subject matter, many in tooled leather bindings, with lusciously marbled and gilded page edges.

When shown at Colnaghi, 'Hours of Devotion' will be surrounded by another authoritative collection, namely The Colnaghi Library, which claims to be one of the largest art libraries in private hands.

The 'Shelf Life' series, meanwhile, represents a self-contained visual essay stemming from Bailey's involvement with the Coutts' library. Disregarding the books' content, Bailey shifted her focus to the bindings themselves, cropping uniformly to endow particular significance to their spines. The surfaces are testament to the ageing process of time, light and the reader. The titles have been digitally erased from the spines, which emphasizes their visual impact, presenting the viewer with simple fields of colour.

The thirty-three large works by Bailey will hang at Colnaghi's Old Bond Street rooms from 8th May until 6th June, with prices ranging from £950 to £13,500.

All artwork and images © Veronica Bailey 2024.