Posing with a book gives individuals a studious air but photographers also kept books handy as a means steadying the sitter. Exposure time was much longer with early cameras and keeping still to avoid blurring was a real problem. Bracing an elbow to furniture, a very common pose, is made less awkward by using a book. The stack of books under the elbow in one photo can be increased or decreased to accommodate leaning on the bench by sitters of different heights. In the photo of husband and wife, he is given the book and the seat as he is the master; she is standing and steadies herself by holding onto his arm. He must still have wobbled as the photographer has inked in his pupils to make the photograph look sharper than it is. The teenage boy can hold his head still as his elbow and hand support it, a pose enabled by the book. The awkwardness of the dangling hand below the arm on the table is reduced by the way the photographer has asked the sitter to place her index finger in between the pages as if she is holding her place in the book.
Holding an open book enables an embracing composition of mother and child; the mother can also hold the child steady and prevent wriggling. As cameras got smaller and faster, these exterior portraits become more naturalistic as the book is no longer required as a physical steadier. The position of the hands holding the book is more natural and suggests that the books are actually being read. In these portraits, the sitter has been given more freedom to choose their position and the books look as if they belong to the sitter, rather than being handed out as props to support a pose.
Fifteenth- century paintings by Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck take religious subjects and use formal compositions but there’s an unexpected touch of realism, typical of the Renaissance. The Christ child is shown riffling the pages of the Bible – like all small children he explores the world through physical touch and finds turning book pages irresistible.
Marking all the volumes in your personal library with an Ex libris ownership stamp - from the library of [add your name] - is now a thing of the past. But when books represented a far more costly investment as a part of household income, this was a way of ensuring that if you lent a treasured volume to a friend you would be more likely to get it back. It also asserts that you have a collection, not just a few titles. Today only some institutions feel the need to brand their goods with a mark of ownership but we can still enjoy the decorative artwork used to individualise personal property. If you could afford to print your Ex libris, they would have your name on as three of these do; or you could buy a blank set and add your name by hand in the space available. These examples from 1890-1910 include a depiction of a book though often the illustration was unrelated to reading and could be simply a landscape or a decorative plant.