Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book

27 February - 21 June 2015
Hunterian Art Gallery
Admission free


The University of Glasgow holds one of the UK's most important collections of early printed books, or ‘incunabula’, published over the fifty years from the invention of printing in the mid-15th century.

The collection is the largest in Scotland and more than half comes from the library of Hunterian founder Dr William Hunter (1718-83).

Showcasing the University’s rich collections and the results of new research from the Glasgow Incunabula Project, this major exhibition charts the development of the early printed book in Europe, exploring the transition from manuscript to print and its impact on late medieval society.

The invention of mechanical movable type printing revolutionised book making in Europe and was instrumental in the emergence of the Renaissance and the spread of learning more generally.

Ingenious Impressions features a number of key themes, including the transition from scribal to print culture, the design, decoration and illustration of the earliest printed books, the technology and challenges of printing, and finally 500 years of book ownership and collecting.

The exhibition also features demonstrations on a replica 15th century printing press, on loan from the University of Reading.

Medieval Mass Production

The revolutionary technique of printing by movable type was perfected by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz in around 1450. This new technology meant that multiple copies could be manufactured with speed and accuracy for the first time. The subsequent mass production and diffusion of texts changed the intellectual face of late medieval Europe.

Printing spread quickly around Europe. A book trade rapidly developed to sell the texts that it was now possible to produce so prolifically. Despite requiring considerable financial investment, organisation and technical skill, many entrepreneurs saw the ingenuity of this new process and realized its huge business potential.

The books produced in the 15th century are known as ‘incunables’, meaning that they were produced in the ‘cradle of printing’. Over 30,300 editions of different texts are known to have been produced during this period, in print runs from 100 to 1400 copies.

The total number of books printed prior to 1501 has been estimated at being anything from 8 million to 20 million items. 1050 of them survive today in the University Library’s Special Collections.

Decoration and Illustration

As in books today, illustrations in incunables were intended to make texts more visually appealing, or for practical purposes.

The pages of many early printed books are interspersed with a variety of differently sized initials. Often elaborate and colourful, these initials performed a practical function, acting as visual cues in assisting contemporary readers access specific parts of the text quickly and easily.

During the early years of printing, it was standard practice for spaces to be left in the text for illustrations to be added by hand. The same artists who provided illuminated decoration and miniatures in manuscripts would have been employed to perform this service.

As printed book making developed, woodcuts were used with increasing frequency. Printed in relief like movable type, it was relatively easy to incorporate woodcuts into the design of a printed page. They became the main medium for book illustration until the end of the 16th century.

Use and Abuse

Studying the signs of use and abuse left by an accumulation of various owners and readers in incunables reveals the numerous ways in which people have engaged with books over more than 500 years.

Each early printed book bears the traces of its own private history, perhaps in the way it has been decorated, or in the binding in which it now survives. Many incunables are annotated and some still bear early ownership inscriptions.

Occasionally, the ways in which previous readers have interacted with their books has proved to be quite dramatic – in censoring text, removing illuminated initials, ‘improving’ books by washing out or deleting all traces of previous ownership, and personalising books by adding to them.

Further Information

G‌lasgow Incunabula Project

This exhibition draws on the extensive research of a five-year project to catalogue the University of Glasgow’s richly diverse collection of 15th century printed books.

The aim of the project has been to promote these important artefacts to a wider audience and to encourage further use and research. Each book has been closely examined and described in detail. The emphasis has been on researching ‘copy specific’ details, including provenances, annotations, decoration, bindings and purchase prices.

An illustrated web catalogue has been produced to make details of all the books available to a worldwide audience. This permanent research resource can be searched from a number of angles, with numerous indexes that provide access to the data to help enquiries relating to book history (provenance), art history (scribal decoration and woodcuts) and readership (annotations).

View the web catalogue.

Exhibition Publication

A beautifully illustrated book accompanies the exhibition.

Ingenious Impressions: Fifteenth-century printed books from the University of Glasgow Library by Julie Gardham.

Special exhibition price: £10.00 (RRP £12.95).

Available from the Hunterian Art Gallery shop from 27 February 2015.


Printing Demonstration
Friday 27 February 2015
10.00am - 12.00 noon or 2.00pm - 4.00pm
Hunterian Art Gallery
Printing demonstration and workshop with Martin Andrews and Alan May from Reading University.
Book your place.

Ingenious Impressions MUSE Tours
From 7 March 2015
Hunterian Art Gallery
Special tours led by our student MUSEs (Museum University Student Educators). Tours run daily (except Mondays) and last approximately 30 minutes.

Glasgow Incunabula Project Launch
Thursday 19 March 2015
Special Collections, University Library
Find out more about the Glasgow Incunabula Project that resulted in our Ingenious Impressions exhibition.

Printing Demonstration
Friday 8 May 2015
10.30am - 12.30pm or 2.00pm - 4.00pm
Meet in the Henry Heany Room, University Library
New dates added by popular demand! Free printing demonstration and workshop with Martin Andrews and Alan May from Reading University. Book your place.

Open Studies Study Day
Ingenious Impressions: Behind the scenes at The Hunterian exhibition
Saturday 9 May 2015
10.15am – 3.30pm
Led by experts from Special Collections, this day event provides an introduction and tour of the Ingenious Impressions exhibition and includes behind the scenes opportunities to explore these remarkable artefacts in more depth. To book call: 0141 330 1835. Visit the Centre for Open Studies website.

Conservation of Incunabula
Friday 15 May 2015
2.00pm - 3.30pm
Special Collections, University Library
Special talk and studio visit to see conservation work in progress.
Book your place.

‌Ingenious Impressions Lunchtime Talks

Wednesdays at 1.00pm in the Hunterian Art Gallery.
Admission free.

4 March 2015
Old Books and Trendy New Culture
Professor Lawrence Grove, School of Modern Languages and Cultures

11 March 2015
‘Wound Man’ from Fasciculus Medicinae
Dr Stuart McDonald, Anatomy

18 March 2015
Italian Embezzlement: The early ownership of Jenson’s Breviary
Julie Gardham, Special Collections

25 March 2015
A student’s view of the exhibition
Catherine O'Neill, Museum Studies Placement Student

1 April 2015
First Printed Map: A medieval bird’s eye view of Palestine
Professor Paul Bishop, School of Geographical
and Earth Sciences

8 April 2015
Repackaging the Classics: 15th century interpretations of ancient texts
Michelle Craig, Special Collections

15 April 2015
Early Illustrated Books
Peter Black, The Hunterian

22 April 2015
The Defacement of Caxton's Golden Legend
Dr Adam Swann, University Library

29 April 2015
Meaningful Mischief: A brief history of cutting-up and scribbling in books
Sarah Hepworth, Special Collections

6 May 2015
Lasting Impressions: Retelling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Print
Dr Johanna Green, English Language

13 May 2015
The Celestial Sphere and Theories of the Universe before Copernicus
Dr Alec McKinnon, Centre for Open Studies

20 May 2015
To Judge a Book by its Cover: The demon binder and a short history of incunabula bindings
Robert MacLean, Special Collections

27 May 2015
Johnny Depp and Old Books: Incunabula in the Movies
Prof Lawrence Grove, School of Modern Languages and Cultures

3 June 2015
Forgotten History: The Long Lost Voice
Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, PhD Candidate-Music

10 June 2015
The Blockbook Apocalypse and the End of Time in the Fifteenth Century
Dr Debra Strickland, History of Art