Law’s Picture Books (2017)

Your blogger recently mentioned the paintings in what was once the consistory court room in Dunkeld Cathedral. Such matter is very important for legal historians, as the material relics and material culture of the law an be very informative. For example, though one does not want to enter into the complexity of editions of the Scottish statutes by Sir Thomas Murray of Glendook, some imprints of his folio edition of the Scottish statutes of 1681 (see Wing S1265) have a title page with the royal coat of arms, and medallions depicting the Stewart monarchs from James I to Charles II (at the top), the latter with depictions of “Majesty” and “Justice” on either side. The statutes are presented as made by the kings, and as the foundations of Scots law. The whole is supporting the divine right of monarchs, and underscoring the importance in the law of the Stewart monarchy. Unfortunately, such iconography and imagery rarely occurs in Scots law books, though it would be valuable to study what there is, as indeed to examine court rooms, mercat crosses, portraits and the like. Other legal printing and manuscript traditions are, however, much richer.

The Grolier Club in New York is currently hosting an exhibition, “Law’s Picture Books”, which explores images in legal books, and manuscripts of all types, ages, and origins. Curated by Michael Widener of of Yale Law School with Mark S. Weiner of Rutgers Law School, the Exhibition (17 September to 18 November), draws on the riches of the Yale Rare Law Book Collection to explore imagery in legal texts. The exhibition displays not only rare historic texts, but also modern ones. For example, there is a splendid and witty graphic-art depiction of the terms and conditions of iTunes. Not all the illustrations present the law and its practitioners as noble; many provide a critique, obvious or concealed.

The Catalogue of the exhibition has recently been appeared under the imprint of Talbot Publishing. it is splendidly illustrated. It contains essays by Widener and Weiner, respectively on the formation of the collection at Yale and the choices made for the exhibition, as well as one on “Ars Memoria in Early Law: Looking beneath the Pictures” by Yolanda E. Goldberg of the Law Library of Congress”, which explores the world with the issue of memory in mind, and one on “Laws Picture Books and the History of Book Illustration” by Erin C. Blake of the Folger Library, contextualising and explaining the images in the history of book illustration. The Catalogue, like the exhibition, is divided into topics, with some introductory and explanatory matter; this does not overwhelm and the reader/viewer can reflect on the images splendidly reproduced. Images are interestingly juxtaposed to promote questioning and new readings, such as the normative hierarchy of law from a contemporary German textbook, with older “trees” to set out norms and rules on affinity.

The modestly-priced Catalogue, Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection, is comprehensive enough to be used with classes to help them reflect on the iconography of the law. Two of the images of court rooms have dogs in them. The common appearance of dogs in court rooms scenes from the Dutch golden age has always provoked the curiosity of this blogger. Why are they there? Contemporary paintings of the vast, empty, Dutch protestant churches also often have dogs in them. Of course, dogs are traditional subjects for art form the ancient world to the modern; they can carry many meanings. But in a court scene they presumably symbolise fidelity, loyalty, and truth. Readers and students could reflect on the differing images of justice. There is much here.

Images below are courtesy of Talbot Publishing: ISBN-13: 9781616191603. ISBN-10:1616191600. Paperback. New. $39.95