By Stacia Stein
Michael Widener & Mark S. Weiner. Law’s Picture Books – The Yale Law Library Collection (Talbot Publishing, 2017). 220 p. Paperback $39.95.
The exhibition catalog of Law’s Picture Books is almost as beautiful as the exhibit itself. In curating the exhibit Michael Widener and Mark S. Weiner were interested in, not just the pictures in the books, but the book as object as well. As Weiner notes in his introduction, the images “generally weren’t experienced independently of the books in which they appeared.” Therefore, viewing the images in an exhibition catalog, unmoored from their books might, at first, seem contrary to the spirit of the exhibit. However in bringing together pictorial highlights of the Yale Law Library Collection, the images are given a new context and the catalog itself becomes its own book as object to be appreciated. With lady justice smiling enigmatically from its jaunty blue cover, and with its thick glossy pages and squat square shape, Law’s Picture Books is a standout on any bookshelf. As to be expected of a catalog from such an exhibit, the pictures are indeed a delight. However, adding to the books charm, is the warmth, humor, and erudition of the curators which is revealed in the commentary.
Among the many illustrations Widener and Weiner included in the exhibition is a woodcut from De alluvionum iure universo, a 16th century treatise on riparian water rights by Battista Aimo. This centuries-old image surely sheds light upon historical laws, but it also sheds light upon Mike Widener’s collection development practice. For it was this woodcut, which simply and succinctly illustrates the effects of alluvium upon the size and shape of a piece of land, that inspired Widener to begin his decades long quest, first at University of Texas’s Tarlton Law Library and currently at Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Law Library, to uncover the legal illustrations of the past. Because of exhibitions like “Law’s Picture Books” these illustrations are now able to inspire further generations throughout the world to engage with legal history.
The images run the spectrum from the informative (who owns the fruit of a tree that grows at the intersection of several pieces of property) to the tawdry (a woman losing her inheritance for sleeping with a musician) to the mundane (the unlawful disposal of household garbage). The pictures bring the past alive, and the captions bring the pictures alive, highlighting fascinating details, raising interesting questions, and sometimes even engaging in word play.
The catalog, like the exhibit, is organized into 10 groupings: (1) Symbolizing the Law; (2) Depicting the Law; (3) Diagramming the Law; (4) Calculating the Law; (5) Staging the Law; (6) Inflicting the Law; (7) Arguing the Law; (8) Teaching the Law; (9) Laughing – and Crying – at the Law; and (10) Beautifying the Law. There are no chronological or geographical limits, although the majority of the illustrations are from the U.S. and western Europe with dates ranging from 1473-2015.
In addition to reflections by the two curators and authors, the book includes essays by Jolanda E. Goldberg and Erin C. Blake which address the medieval history of the ars memoria and the history of book illustrations, respectively. These essays both add to the reader’s appreciation and understanding of the illustrations that follow and add to the value of Laws Picture Books as a valuable pictorial and textual resource.