At a series of auctions after World War II, Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), noted book collector, philanthropist and businessman, participated in the venerable practice of purchasing highlights from a collection formed by a book collector of an earlier generation. Mr. Rosenwald, the retired chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, was adding to his collection important examples of books illustrated with woodcuts owned by C.W. Dyson Perrins (1864-1958), an heir to the Lea and Perrins fortune, and another noted philanthropist and collector of early printed books and English porcelain. Mr. Dyson Perrins sold his collection of woodcut books to secure the financial future of the Royal Worcester porcelain factory. Mr. Rosenwald purchased eighty-four titles at this sale and was the most important single buyer.
The Library of Congress exhibition A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books presents for the first time all the woodcut-illustrated books purchased by Mr. Rosenwald at the Dyson Perrins sale, now part of the legendary Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library. These books were printed within the first century after Gutenberg mastered the art of printing with moveable type. They represent the evolution of this pictorial art form during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods and document significant features of various national styles and tastes.
This exhibition explores the development in technique, composition, perspective, and coloration of the woodcut as it evolved in Western Europe through examples from German, Italian, French, Spanish and Netherlandish printers, designers, and woodcutters. Augmenting the books are documents from the Rosenwald Archive that illuminate Rosenwald's thoughts about the Dyson Perrins Collection and record his determination to purchase as many lots as possible at the London auctions that took place between 1946 and 1948.
A Heavenly Craft also celebrates the impulse of the collector to use his collection for the greater good. Through the sale of his collection of woodcut books, Mr. Dyson Perrins saved the Royal Worcester Company, a symbol of England's industrial revolution. Mr. Rosenwald's purpose was contributing to the rare book collections at the Library of Congress. In 1943, Mr. Rosenwald signed the first of four deeds of gift that would transfer his collection of rare and valuable books to the Library upon his death. The books he purchased from the Dyson Perrins Collection added significantly to his collection of early printed books and helped establish the Library of Congress as one of the great repositories of woodcut-illustrated books and a center for research on the subject of book illustration.