The Story of the RBS Lions

The following text, by RBS Founding Director Terry Belanger, appeared in slightly different form in the 2008 Book Arts Press Address Book (which in turn was drawn from the 2002 RBS Christmas card; some of the earlier text has been re-incorporated).

The RBS Lions

texas lionBack in our Columbia days, I used to keep a folder con­taining pictures of interesting lions I came across in per­iod­i­cals and cat­alogs, for potential use on posters and bro­chures: Columbia University (founded as King­’s College in the 1750s) had long as­so­cia­ted it­self with British royal in­sig­nia, crowns and lions in par­ticular. Twen­ty-five years ago, when I needed an image to help ad­ver­tise the first Rare Book School, I went to this fold­er, pulled out the engagingly goofy-look­ing lion shown to the left, and in­cor­por­ated it into the flyer for RBS 1983, published in December 1982.

wm lion origI used this lion again on the RBS 1984 flyer—but this time around, the mailing prompt­ed a letter from one Dave Oli­phant, Sen­ior Editor of Humanities Research Center Pub­li­cations at the University of Tex­as. “Dear Sir or Ma­dam,” he wrote, “to­day we received a copy of a brochure publiciz­ing your Rare Book School. On this brochure there appears a re­prod­uc­tion of what we take to be a copy of a rare c16 image from our collections here at the Hum­an­ities Research Center. This image from a German broad­side presents a full-sized lion with anthro­pomor­phic fea­tures in the face. Since the image you have re­pro­duced contains the exact hair­line tear that appears in our broad­­side, we find it like­ly that this is in fact a copy of our image.” Mr Oli­phant continued, “So far we have found no record of your having asked per­mis­sion to use this image.”

It turned out the lion in my folder had appeared in a bro­chure advertising the Uni­versity of Tex­as’s quarterly Library Chron­icle. At some point before December 1982, I must have received a copy of this flyer in the mail, cut the lion out, and filed it, without think­ing of the copy­right implications. I wrote at once to apologize to Decherd Turn­er, then Director of HRC, and threw myself on his mer­cy. He replied very kind­ly: “I like lions,” he said, “and I think the ambience of the king of beasts is suffi­ciently large for all of our needs. … There is no charge for usage.”

The RBS 1984 flyer grew from legal to tabloid size in order to provide room for 20 course de­scrip­tions (up twelve from the year be­fore; when he re­ceived the ex­pand­­ed list of cour­ses, Ro­bert Rosen­thal pre­­dicted that we would soon be bank­rupt). Be­cause of its lar­g­er di­men­sions, the RBS 1984 flyer had room for a sec­ond lion, and I found an appealing one on a sheet of 1823 Eng­­lish water­marked pa­per we had re­cent­ly ac­quired as part of a port­folio of paper sam­ples—par­ti­cu­lar­ly suit­able be­cause the wa­ter­mark con­tained not only a lion but al­so the Brit­ish royal crown.

We all liked the watermark lion, and we began to use him on a regular basis in RBS publicity, both alone and in conjunc­tion with a var­i­ety of other lion images, some­times with lettering (de­signed by John Down­er) in the sur­rounding oval pro­viding Co­lum­bia iden­tification, and some­times on his own. NY_L_REV

In 1984, Justin Schiller showed a circus advertisement with some splendid lions in it at an antiquarian book fair; he very kindly lent us one of these images for the RBS 1985 brochure. David Cundy designed the RBS 1988 flyer, with the intelligent result that we shifted from a poster to a four-page 8.5 x 11 inch format, that year using a Thomas Bewick lion with a r-r-roar that Cundy told me later he never thought he could get approved (but did: RBS is serious, but not too serious). For the RBS 1989 brochure, we took a lion (at right) off the decorated cloth cover of a 1902 novel by M. L. Luther called The Henchman, remarkable for its clever incorporation of a sitting lion within the outline of New York State.

brett lionThis design seemed appropriate in a Columbia context, as did the lion we used for the RBS 1990 brochure, a magnificent wood-engraving (at left) that James Davis commissioned for us from the well-known Eng­lish artist/wood-en­gra­ver Simon Brett. The crown and cap­i­tal C seemed just right at the time—but as it hap­­pened we were able to use the wood engraving only once in its original form on a brochure; when RBS and self moved to the University of Virginia in 1992, the Columbia insignia were no longer wanted.

main_avatarIn 1993, the water­mark lion walked permanently out of his oval frame and crown, lost his batons, and ac­quired a V platf­orm. Once out of his cage he never looked back: he be­gan to teach (RBS 1994); he mastered octavo for­mat (RBS 1995); he played ringmast­er in a three ring-cir­cus (RBS 1996); he ran a com­mon prin­ting press (RBS 1997); and he other­wise made him­­­self generally useful both summer and winter on both RBS bro­chures and notions (first on mugs, then on ap­rons, then on tape mea­sures and T-shirts, then on cloth bags and key chains, and most re­cently on polo shirts), as well as in the RBS Trav­el and Hous­ing Guide, the RBS Stu­dent’s Vade Me­cum, and the RBS web­site.

What is a fairly serious scholarly in­stitute doing with a cartoon mascot? Not the world’s most original icon, our lion: San Marco and Löwenbräu and Trafalgar Square and NYPL and the Art Institute of Chicago and (God bless us, every one) Columbia Uni­ver­sity all beat us to it … to say nothing of The Lion King. Richard Wendorf once put as his entire reason for wishing to take an RBS course, “No good reason”: like Dech­erd Tur­ner, I guess we just like lions.

See the RBS Lions page for a large sampling of the various iterations of the lion over the years.