Inserted discreetly between a book’s binding and its text, endpapers are easy to overlook. “Under the Covers” — an exhibit at the Beinecke Library dedicated purely to the visual history of these small slips of parchment, textile and silk — felt like a much-needed homage to the neglected underdog of the world of books and book arts.
The exhibit traces the development of endpapers from their utilitarian beginnings through to the 21st century. Samples from the medieval codex of 1450, for example, are rough and pale, made mostly from manuscript waste and serve simply to protect the elaborate illustrations within the book. Moving through the displays to the 18th century, you begin to see endpapers assume an aesthetic role, such as in the intricately wrought veins of more decorative pieces. The marbled endpapers of a volume of letters from John Keats to Fanny Brawne, with their pastel blues and pale pinks, were added in the late 19th century. They serve no other purpose but to complement the beauty of Keats’s naïve and ephemeral love affair.
There is a jarring shift to the 20th century. Pages of Dutch gilt and French marble are replaced with advertisements for everything from medicinal remedies to foodstuffs to legal services. Moving through the displays, it’s easy to feel a progression, not only of the history of endpapers, but of our artistic culture as a whole — from pragmatic to aesthetic to commercial. Finally, we arrive at the nostalgia that defines the art world today. One display shows a collection from Persephone Books — a shop in Bloomsbury, London that has built its entire brand around the art of endpapers. The endpaper of one book, “A Writer’s Diary” by Virginia Woolf, imitates the white of the dust jacket that Vanessa Bell designed for its first edition. We are reminded from this display that endpapers are making a resurgence, attempting to restate the significance of physical, tangible books in the midst of the eBook revolution of the 21st century.
What intrigued me most about the exhibit, however, were the areas of intersection between the physical world of endpapers and the intangible world of ideas and narratives. Walter Crane, a British artist whose works are displayed in the exhibition, championed the marriage of aesthetics and text. He took part in the arts and crafts movement — a reaction against industrialization and the uniformity of machine-made goods — and stated that a book should function like “an architecturally interesting house or museum, in which the author and illustrator work together to take readers by the hand and lead them from ‘room to room’ of the unfolding narrative.” E.H Sheppard’s map of the “100 Aker Wood,” displayed at the end of the exhibit, for example, was integral to A.A. Milne’s narrative. According to Elizabeth Frengel, research services librarian at the Beinecke who put together this exhibition, it was the play between Milne’s story and this illustration that inspired her to explore endpapers in more detail.
But endpapers can do more than just complement the narrative, they can elevate it and transcend it. In the “Imaginary Landscapes” display, the endpapers of a miniature-book edition of William Wordsworth’s poems, covered in soft watercolors reminiscent of a sylvan landscape, perfectly capture the spirit, tranquility, and pastoral elegance of his ballads. A 1969 edition of Rachel Carson’s 1951 Marine study, “The Sea Around Us,” achieved a similar pairing of content and form. Its endpapers, painted seascapes, wrap around the text in a way such that the reader seems perched on the edge of the cliff upon as they open the book. Carson’s work is scientific and yet, thanks to these endpapers, it is imbued with poetry.
When talking to Frengel about the exhibit, she mentioned in passing that endpapers, hidden inside the bindings of books have little direct influence on their sales. When you buy a book, you examine its exterior and the quality of its material, but rarely consider craftsmanship past that. So it’s all the more intriguing to witness that, throughout history, bookbinders and bookmakers have spent meticulous attention and effort on the endpaper’s creation and perfection. The end result is a subtlety pleasant surprise to encounter upon opening the pages of a book; a wink from the craftsman.