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THE National Art Library at the V&A is a treasure, except when you arrive to work on a piece of research needed yesterday to find that the library is closed for its annual three-week stock-take. Note: this year it runs from August 24 to September 18.

The collections are huge, over a million volumes on the art, craft and design of the book, plus annual acquisitions of some 12,000 titles. Many of them are available to all visitors, not only researchers, who will find among the holdings illuminated manuscripts, comics, fine bindings, artists’ monographs, children’s classics and designers’ working documents.

Edited by Dr James Bettley, until last year the Head of Collection Development at the NAL, Art of the Book touches on major aspects of book production and the documentation of art and design, from an illuminated manuscript of 1350 to the private view-card of an avant-garde exhibition of 1998. The chapters include pictures and descriptions of a beautiful piece of illuminated work, the Two Trials of Joan of Arc commissioned c.1538 for Diane de Poitiers, and Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament, one of the masterpieces of 19th century chromolithography, first published in 1856 in 10 parts, each selling at 14 shillings, with the bound volume at £19.12. Never before had so many illustrations of ornament from so many countries and periods been shown in one work. Bindings next and a piece on Matisse as livre d’artiste with his famous Jazz, 1947 (the cover binding by one of the 20th century’s great binders, Paul Bonet shows to perfection Matisse’s love of colour and richness) and ‘Bond in Paperback, 1964’ with the cover of From Russia With Love, the Pan paperback whose jacket is diecut to imitate the holes in a film strip.

The NAL has more than 8000 children’s books of all periods including a Beatrix Potter collection, now the largest in the world – will this happen to JK Rowling and Harry Potter? – while the introduction to comics suggests that for many people “comics have been their first visual aesthetic appearance”, as in “The weight O’ The World’s on Him, But does he Quit? Nah! He’s like Atlas, He can Take It!” from Watchmen, NY 1987.

A chapter on book art includes Keith Smith’s 1982 String Book and the 1989 Killing III by Denise Hawrysio, in which the artist uses rabbit fur to create five pages by gluing them back-to-back. Not one for lovers of Beatrix Potter.

Published as a tie-in to a V&A exhibition opening in September, this book is but a glimmer of what’s available at the National Art Library, and for that it’s worth noting that the NAL catalogue is available on the Web on www.nal.vam.ac.uk though you will still have to go to the Library in South Kensington, London to look at what you find on the Web.