Rare & Beautiful

Desert Island Books

Eight rare art and design books to remind you of the beauty of the world beyond your walls while you’re self-isolating.

By Peter Kraus May 5, 2020

When I was growing up, one of my favorite radio programs was Desert Island Discs, broadcast on the BBC, in which celebrities were asked to imagine being stranded on an island, and to choose eight musical recordings, one book (not including the Bible or Shakespeare), and one luxury to have with them in isolation.

In the spirit of the times, I’ve created my own version, which allows for eight books that have passed through my hands, one recording, and one luxury.

The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid by Oliver Byrne (1847).

I have been truly fortunate to have spent my entire professional life as a bookseller, having started work the day after my eighteenth birthday. Apart from the aesthetic, and almost physical pleasure books have given me, is the fact that through them I have been able to meet the most remarkable people. One of the most appealing aspects of great books is that they do not have to be expensive.

Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

My clients have ranged from two waiters and an elevator operator to two presidents of the United States, and have included movie stars, athletes, Nobel Prize winners, and even a celebrated individual who was tried and acquitted for murder. The books I’ve selected will help to remind me of some of these people, ideas, and images while I’m on my desert island.

The first book I’ve chosen is a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) in superb publisher's color and binding. I first became aware of the world of rare books when I spent time with my cousin Hans Kraus during his visits to England, and from receiving his catalogues. The result was the mistaken belief that this world consisted of illuminated manuscripts and incunables (books printed in the fifteenth century). The Nuremberg Chronicle is probably the most well-known incunable after the Gutenberg Bible, and is not a rare book. However, my copy was one of the few known such copies and I sold it to Jay Walker, a passionate book collector whose vision has created a unique library.

Hortus Eystettensis by Basilius Besler (1613).

Book number two will remind me of the wonders of nature. It consists of the Spring and Autumn sections from the Hortus Eystettensis by Basilius Besler (1613). The copy I am thinking of is dedicated to the Bishop of Eichstätt, whose garden the book records, in splendid original color. The Winter and Summer sections belong to the library at Uppsala University. I was asked to sell this incredible book, usually considered the greatest of all flower catalogues, by my friend the distinguished bookseller Rick Watson. Alas, I failed to find a buyer, but having custody, even briefly, of this treasure was one of the highlights of my bookselling career.

Number three is a set of the twelve-volume Blaeu Atlas Maior (1662–72) in the publisher’s binding, containing almost 600 maps in original color. While marooned this will help me see the world as it was in the seventeenth century. In 1986,

Blaeu Atlas Maior (1662–72).

I was able to purchase the contents of the venerable Dutch bookshop of Meijer Elte in The Hague. Among the many treasures on the shelves was a set of the Blaeu Atlas, which I then owned jointly with Nico Israel, who had been the partner of the shop’s then-owner, Max Elte. Nico ended up selling it, however, so I am not aware of who the buyer was.

Number four is Jacques Gamelin’s Nouveau Recueil d’Ostéologie et de Myologie (A new collection of bones and muscles) (1779)—one of the greatest and rarest of all anatomy books. Although I have never dealt in medical books per se, I have handled many of the books dealing with anatomy because they seem to attract artists, and often combine a degree of hyperrealism with a sense of the surreal, as is the case with Gamelin. I would like to think that the plate of the skeleton reading symbolizes the triumph of the book over life. The book is a great rarity and I am lucky enough to have had two copies, the first going to an American collector of scientific and medical books, and the second to the brilliant German collector Reiner Speck, whose collections of art and books are legendary.

Nouveau Recueil d’Ostéologie et de Myologie (A new collection of bones and muscles) by Jacques Gamelin (1779).

For number five I would choose The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid by Oliver Byrne (1847), also known as the Pickering Euclid. Leonard Schlosser, a dedicated collector, introduced me to the book early in my career, and I have had three exceptional copies in my possession. I sold one to the remarkable collector Ladislaus von Hoffmann, a benefactor of two of my favorite institutions, The Morgan Library and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; one to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; and one to the artist Frank Stella. It is a visionary book, and more than appropriate for a desert island, since the author had spent time on the Falkland Islands.

Number six is Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856). First published in a giant format in the nineteenth century, and endlessly reissued in a smaller format, it is, in fact, still in print. The 100 plates printed by means of chromolithography in dazzling colors make this one of the monuments of book-making. As a result of its massive size, most copies have fallen apart, and copies in the distinctive publisher's binding are rare. I sold one of my finest copies to the Los Angeles collector Jay Last, one of the outstanding collectors of the past fifty years, and the smartest man I ever met.

The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (1856).

Number seven is Momoyagusa by Kamisaka Sekka (1910). I was introduced to Japanese books by the English bookseller Colin Franklin, whom I met in 1967, and who is my oldest friend in the book trade. Japanese illustrated books are among the most beautiful produced anywhere, and Sekka's work stands out as a tour de force of both design and craftsmanship. I have only had one copy and sold it to the Library of Congress.

Last, number eight is the one book I would choose if I could have only one: La Prose du Transsibérien by the French poet Blaise Cendrars, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay (1913). It is a truly magical work, and one, that despite its rarity, I have had seven copies of. I sold my finest copy to the great South African book collector Jack Ginsberg, who has donated his library to the University of Johannesburg. A desert island would be the perfect place to contemplate Cendrars’s epic journey and the masterpiece created by Sonia Delaunay.

Momoyagusa by Kamisaka Sekka (1910).

Then there’s my recording and my luxury. For a recording I would pick Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti and including Kiri te Kanawa and Samuel Ramey in the cast. I first heard it when I was about age nine, and have been passionate about opera ever since. I don't think one could ever tire of listening to this incredible expression of human genius.

La Prose du Transsibérien by Blaise Cendrars, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay (1913).

My choice of luxury would be a piano. This is not very original, but alone on an island I would finally have the time to learn to play, without making anyone suffer while doing so. As a teenager I played the trumpet and French horn, both very badly, but with great enthusiasm, and probably causing acute discomfort to anyone within hearing distance.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition (The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid is available for acquisition), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the ninth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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