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New exhibition showcases British color plates from the 18th and 19th centuries
Daniel Thomas Egerton, San Augustin de las Cuevas. Hand-colored lithograph. From Egerton’s Views in Mexico: Being a Series of Twelve Coloured Plates. London: D. T. Egerton, 1840

by Emily Judd

PRINCETON, NJ.- In Pursuit of the Picturesque, an exhibition featuring British color plate books published between 1776 and 1868, will open at the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery, located in the Firestone Library lobby, on Jan. 22.

Showcasing selected items from the collection of Leonard L. Milberg, Princeton University Class of 1953, the exhibition includes nearly 40 large books with colorful, detailed imagery from the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century. This selection from Milberg’s collection of 115 color plate books portrays an expanding global empire at the advent of lithographic printing, which captured color and imagery with more beauty and ease than ever before.

Milberg has collected color plate books since the 1980s, though his love of art began in the 1950s. During his Army days in Alaska, he devoted his time to reading American art books. Milberg started collecting American prints, then discovered American printmakers who were English emigres, which led to his interest in British color plates.

“They tell a wonderful story through pictures,” said Milberg. “If you take a book in your hands, you can hold Edward Lear’s parrots and hear the crackling of the old paper. It’s much different from a painting, which is only a visual experience.”

Princeton University Library’s Emma Sarconi, reference professional for Special Collections, who co-curated the exhibition with Stephen Ferguson, associate university librarian for external engagement, and Jennifer Meyer, curatorial assistant for Special Collections, said topics range from history to horticulture, from martial achievements to topographical scenery.

“These color plates were not just beautiful objects,” explained Sarconi. “They also created a vision of empire that could be exotic, romantic, and picturesque.”

To Milberg, “it satisfies traveling because the color plates cover all over the world, from the Mexican Yucatán, to the South Seas, from Sicily to South Africa.”

Beyond their beauty, the color plate illustrations were scientific, political, and historical knowledge during a period of British expansion. “Very often, the books reflect expeditions like Captain Cook’s voyages,” said Milberg, “with the naturalist historian, Sir Joseph Banks, reporting back to England’s Royal Society.”

From the comfort of their homes, the British public could be transported to faraway lands through these lavish, vibrant prints, kindling national pride and patriotism. Meyer commented, “Love of the monarchy and British homeland, as well as pride of a powerful military and expanding global empire, are on full display in these volumes.”

Moreover, the illustrations began to normalize far off places and the people who lived there, envoking a sense of enchantment and exocitism.

According to Sarconi, “At the same time that these images inspired the viewer, they did so by silencing the horrific aspects of colonial expansion, composed without signs of the struggle, strife, and subjugation that made the empire possible.”

In a gesture of great generosity, Milberg has promised to give his collection of color plate books to Princeton University Library. The promised gift will add greatly to the Library's holdings of British art of this period and will be a new resource for students and scholars in art, cultural, and other fields of history.

Milberg declared in his 30th reunion book entry, “I have belatedly, but passionately discovered books, prints, and the Princeton University Rare Book Library.”

During the past 37 years, he has shared the fruits of this passion with our community, said Ferguson. Milberg’s gifts (13,000 items plus) range from 19th-century American prints and drawings to several book collections: American poetry, Irish poetry, prose, and theatre as well as two Judaica collections.

In Pursuit of the Picturesque will be on display through March 1, 2020, open to the public daily, including weekends, from noon to 6 p.m.

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