A friend rang me last week to tell me about the annual book sale at the Courtauld. Every year academics, students and private libraries donate art books for the sale to which everyone is welcome. In the entrance hall of the Institute I found tables covered with cardboard boxes full of books. Scribbled on the sides were rough categories, Renaissance, Impressionists, Sculpture or simply Contemporary. I joined a group of people trawling through these boxes of delights. Were these browsers academics, finally getting a chance to rifle through their professor’s libraries, or students desperate for cheap art books? I noticed a couple of middle-aged women, who I imagined where writing a definitive tome on an unknown artist, as they examined each box with increasing despondency looking for that rare out of print monograph.
Art books have a physical presence all their own; they come in every possible shape and size. They don’t stand neatly beside each other nor do they pile up satisfactorily in boxes like novels or biographies might. Sometimes it’s impossible to read the spines because the book is so thin. Large format paperbacks bend and twist and resist examination. Large format hardbacks can be so heavy it’s like lifting weights. After about ten minutes of struggling to read spines and handle the books I realised that this was going to be a very physical process, which required determination and a trust that it would be worth it. Curiosity has an energy all its own and having shed my coat and backpack I methodically went through the boxes that interested me. I eventually came away with a small book on Andy Goldsworthy who is frequently, and I think inappropriately compared to Richard Long, whom I have been writing about and a recent catalogue of the Grosvenor School of Linocuts, because my great uncle Claude Flight was the founder of the movement, and also a book about the Omega workshops full of startling designs for furniture, rugs and pottery. A good haul it turned out to be for £8 all in.
The Courtauld’s Book Sale happens every October and the proceeds go towards funding student trips abroad.