UVA Law Library Art Exhibit Showcases the Beauty of Jefferson-Era Legal Texts

Images Are From Titles Thomas Jefferson Personally Approved for Original Library
Law Library art

Images from rare law books will be on public display starting Friday at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. Photos by Julia Davis

September 4, 2018

It’s OK if you come to the library and just look at the pictures.

Images from rare law books — titles chosen by Thomas Jefferson himself — will be on public display starting Friday at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library at the University of Virginia School of Law.

A private reception for the Law School community will be held Thursday night, from 5-7 p.m.

“Art of Law in UVA’s First Law Library” showcases illustrations and printed decorations reproduced from books purchased by the Law Library from a list personally approved by Jefferson at the University’s founding.

“It’s the lighter side of old legal texts,” said Randi Flaherty, the special collections librarian who curated the exhibit. “UVA law librarians have long enjoyed finding and studying the art work in these law books. The first law students at UVA would have encountered these illustrations in the UVA library as part of their legal studies, so it seems particularly fitting that this artwork be on display now in a library exhibition.”

The images and ornamentation range from full-page portraits, to maps, to small, decorated letters. The books were printed between the 16th to 19th centuries.

Flaherty said whether it be an image of “Lady Justice” signifying a book’s legal nature, or illustrative vignettes on title pages, the collection of diverse wood-cut prints and engravings demonstrates the skill and care with which books were then made.

Since the 1980s, the Law Library has been collecting duplicate editions of UVA’s original collection of law books that once lined the shelves in the Rotunda. The original books were lost due to the 1895 Rotunda fire, or over time.

“We call this our 1828 Catalogue Collection, since we base the collection off UVA’s first published catalog of its library in 1828,” Flaherty said. “Reconstructing this historical library has been a core initiative of Law archives for decades, and the collection is the centerpiece of the Law Library’s 12,000-volume rare book collection.”

To date, the library has acquired 578 of the 679 books.

The 1828 collection includes books printed in several languages, including Anglo-Saxon (or Old English). The oldest book in the collection is from 1534, and art from that book is featured in the exhibit.

The images that will be on display are high-resolution reproductions prepared by Loren Moulds, the Law School’s digital collections librarian and head of digital scholarship and preservation, using the Law School’s advanced scanning equipment.

The 1828 Catalogue Collection is also available to the public online.

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Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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