The art of extra-illustration is one of those little side channels of scholarship which the Folger Shakespeare Library pursues without apology. Shakespeare is both a huge subject, as large as the Elizabethan world, which was large indeed, and yet a specialty too. Mounting several exhibitions on subjects related to Shakespeare or his time can’t be easy. But curiosity of the Folger’s curators and guest curators is inexhaustible, and some of their best exhibits are also some of their most arcane.
The current exhibition on extra-illustration—the passion for inserting images and other visual material into old books—covers a small but fascinating chapter in the history of bibliophilia and Shakespeare scholarship. That’s why I enjoyed it so much.
It also fit well with another exhibition, about handcrafted letters sent to Radio Azadi in Afghanistan. This may be even more arcane. But when I visited Afghanistan in 2004, I wrote about a small radio station that also received some of these astonishing homemade works of art. I still have a letter, the back of which is covered in perfectly aligned plastic flowers and the front of which has been carefully decorated along its borders with golden stickers. For the authors of these letters, it’s part of the appeal as they reach out with a tangible written letter to touch the voices that cut through the electronic ether and lessen the isolation of life in a poor and scattered country.
Illustration: In 1903, Percy Fitzgerald’s Life of David Garrick was expanded by an extra-illustrator from two volumes to 17 volumes. The expanded 1868 biography is on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy the FSL.