If it were up to me, probably never. No, that’s not true, I’ve taken some Anne Anderson Mother Goose illustrations and framed them. The book was missing half of the other plates, and already damaged. So, if the book is damaged, is it OK to remove plates? And how damaged is damaged enough? And once out–then what? Framing them for your viewing pleasure is one thing, but cutting them to pieces for ‘craft’ or ‘altered art’ projects, another.
I have a real bee in my bonnet, bone to pick, pet peeve, downright disgust at people who purchase beautiful old books and then mutilate them for what they consider fun and/or profit. And I’m not talking about all first editions in pristine condition, obviously the book itself would be too expensive to buy just to take apart. The ten plates or so wouldn’t make enough profit to justify that kind of purchase. But what about 2nd or 3rd printings, or in the case of a children’s book company called Volland, the 16th or 20th? Volland created apparelled gorgeous lushly illustrated books with top notch illustrators such as Raggedy Ann’s Johnny Gruelle, and Art Deco style artist, Janet Laura Scott. They were extremely popular and had many printings. They even had some titles reprinted by another publishing company. So, if on bookfinder one finds an intact, but worn copy of say, Tales of Little Dogs for 15 dollars, is it alright to cut out the most desirable illustrations and sell them? What if the binding is battered, there is writing on the endpapers, and some pages are a bit smudged? Now is it OK to remove plates? Ok, what if the covers are badly scuffed, the title page missing, a child colored in many of the black and white illustrations–is this copy OK to be pulled apart? And finally, if the book is missing half the text but all the plates–what then?
First, let me explain why so many seem to be doing this to books lately. For some unknown reason, there is a thing called ‘altered art’ which takes various sources of illustration and pulls them apart to put back together again in odd, weird and inexplicable ways. Ok, fine, whatever one enjoys–but many, if not most of the people who indulge in this practice MUST use ONLY vintage illustrations. Why they believe their work is somehow, ‘less than’ if the source isn’t yanked from an actual Victorian flower book or 30s cookbook, or 50s Golden Book, I cannot answer, because I’ve tried asking, and no one seems to want to give a logical reply. Being ‘authentic altered art’ is probably what flits through an individual’s mind that believes this stuff. What is so important about using only vintage pieces? They’re only being destroyed anyway! And yes, I get it, you destroy to create–something that will never be original because you are using someone else’s ingenuity and talent and just reconfiguring it. Naturally, those who do altered art would disagree with me.
Another reason people are mutilating otherwise perfectly fine editions–to sell the plates to people who create altered art. Yes, it’s a vicious circle. And to use for jewelry, or any other kind of craft project where the crafter doesn’t believe the piece is ‘real’ unless they’ve bought a Edmund Dulac plate from a reprint Sleeping Beauty and cut out the wanted bits, leaving whatever else was there on the floor.
Then, of course, there’s the people who simply want to sell the plates for as much money as they can get. They almost lie, on ebay, as to what it is people are purchasing. They love to use words like ‘original lithograph’ for a plate out of a Thomas Maybank fairy book. Or ‘print’ is bandied about quite often. Technically, they aren’t lying–yes the printing process may have used lithograph and it is ‘original’ for the book it came in, but hardly original, original. It isn’t the watercolor or pen and ink, or oil painting before used in the printing process–now that’s the original. I’ve seen plates from all the Golden Age children’s illustrators in one ebay shop–they are matted, and sold this way–for 50. 6o, 80 bucks, a piece! Yes, quite an incentive to mutilate an otherwise perfectly fine book if you can pawn them off on people for loads of cash.
So, where is the line drawn–and, should there be a line to begin with? Why do I feel so strongly that there must be?
Because the plates were meant to be with the text, and vice versa. That is the entire piece of art. A book, the entire thing, is the creation. To pull pieces of it off, you’re left with a hollow book. Yes, it can still be read, but the original intention to augment and express the story via beautiful art is destroyed. This is one reason, and I believe the strongest, but another is sooner or later we will run out of copies of these precious books to destroy, or, even read. How many copies of a Fern Bisel Peat doll book were printed? How many are still out there? How many will still be intact for generations to come, if we keep mutilating them? I’m aware that many people seem to believe we have unending supplies of these books, that to tear one apart for the treasures within is not a big deal. There’s always another copy out there somewhere. Maybe some books, this is true. But for so many others, the copies are dwindling. . My skin crawls thinking about some unthinking individual pulling plates from one of Kay Nielsen’s masterpieces–so few copies remain.
So back to the original suppositions. When is it OK to use the plates for things other than enjoying within a book? My rather strict belief is only if the book is literally falling apart, or so many pages of text and or artwork is missing, that the book cannot be considered the complete piece anymore. Then, and only then, may a plate be slit or pulled or cut from the binding and framed, snipped, ‘altered’ or turned into a refrigerator magnet.
And big surprise, the ‘crafters’ at etsy and ebay would hardly agree. Some look at a title and if the slightest defect is visible it’s justifiable to remove whatever they want from the book. Or if the binding is rough, or some pages split, maybe a stray pencil mark or two, it can be ‘upcycled’ without a twinge of conscience.
Once a person replied to my query as to why they thought it Ok to destroy a book for the plates and this individual replied that not all books deserve saving, that most aren’t worth anything, and that if the plates are removed, at least some use is gotten out of it. What a crock!
Practically every book has someone somewhere who would be interested in it, and even if for some bizarre reason no one is, its value is its very being, its historical context.
I’ve seen the boards of books used for miniature settings, with the entire centers cut out–whole lines of old encyclopedias. Is this any different from removing plates? I don’t know. Outdated info is useless, but the historical context is not–being able to assess what the ‘facts’ were at a particular time is history. On the other hand, so few people have any interest in old titles such as these, that turning a group of books into a fascinating tableau, seems somehow less offensive. The entire piece is being used, not just the pictures. But the other way of looking at is, the entire book is destroyed, only the boards are left.
You see how confusing it can and does get? The question of when it’s OK to remove illustration plates from a book is a little litmus test of morals. If someone is mutilating an otherwise intact title for their own mercenary or ‘artistic’ reasons, without a backward glance, they fail my test miserably. If, however, they think long and hard and decide they would only remove plates if the book was well beyond saving, then their morals are of high standard. The grey in between is when some pages are a bit torn, but the plates are fine; or some of the black and white illustrations were colored by a kid long ago; or the endpapers are missing. What makes a book no longer a viable piece for someone to read and enjoy? Sure, it’s subjective. What I believe is the graveyard for books will not jive with someone else’s view. But when it’s a matter of vultures looking for carcasses, helping the process along a little so they can feast upon the remains, I am strongly in favor of a standard being created within the bookselling and buying community, which outlines when mutilating a book is a horrible biblio sin.
In my dreamworld. There’s nothing that can be said, or done to stop individuals from this practice, and believe me, if you confront some with a question or two about the morality or the reasons behind it, be prepared for hostility and denial that they are doing a thing wrong. after all, it is their property, they paid for it, they’ve the right to do what they wish with it.
I don’t buy that argument either. As I said, my viewpoint is the entire book is a work of art, the story including the illustrations are not ‘owned’ by one person, but is ‘borrowed’ in a way, until the next generation is able to read and enjoy. To me, it’s like colorizing black and white films. Sure, Ted Turner paid for all the classics, but does he have the right to alter art in this fashion? And no, turning down the color on the tv is not the same thing, Shadows and perceptions the camera made specifically for black and white are destroyed with colorization, therefore turning color off, does nothing to restore the original piece.
And I believe that illustrated books are like classic films. Tear out pieces, and you’ve altered art, alright, You’ve altered a piece of art, forever.
In the spirit of full disclosure, although I’m not sure why, I have had a business selling vintage illustration jewelry for the last 10 or so years. Do I use original plates from books? No. Have I ever? No. Do I think the work is any less legit? NO. I use scans of my books and other found illustrations and print them out–a very simple process–an altered art fanatic can cut out the printouts to their heart’s content this way, and nary a book will be harmed in the process. ‘Nuf said.