When Nick Relph’s Vestiarium Scoticum first landed on my desk, my stomach fluttered in excitement. It revived a familiar feeling from when I worked at the New York Historical Society some years ago, the unmistakable thrill of uncovering some forgotten history. The book reproduces images of Scottish tartans that have been passed down through household and blood, exported across the globe and woven into school uniforms, winter blankets, and men’s kilts. Though Relph’s book may not have the historical aura of a Civil War medal or an 18th century cameo, it does have a distinctly enigmatic presence, deriving from its bizarre historical narrative and its stellar printing quality.
Relph’s Vestiarium Scoticum is based on a book originally published in 1842 by brothers John Sobieski and Charles Edward Stuart. The Stuarts had wangled their way into Scottish society by claiming to be descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, then published the Vestiarium under the pretense that it was based on a document from 1721, which itself was based on an original manuscript dating back to the 16th century. The Vestiarium was presented as historical proof of the connections between tartans and family clans, a link that previously had no record. The Stuarts’ claims were later found to be completely false; the tartans in the book were in fact designed by the brothers themselves. Even still, their fabrications are to this day widely accepted as authentic by manufacturers and families alike.
I delight in the dishonorable facets of human behavior, and this narrative tickles my curiosity in scandal. The brothers’ inventions could very well have been corrected, but instead they were absorbed by industry and society, a society thirsty for traits of tradition, entitlement, and nationalism, for inherently hierarchical social organization woven into the fabric of bloodline. Ultimately, everyone collectively chose not only to turn a blind eye to the Stuarts’ audacious fraudulence, but to embrace their fabrications as genuine.
Relph’s Vestiarium Scoticum is a luxurious bookwork, a testament to the original leather-bound tome. Its printers have coddled the pages, and the result is magnificent. What a pleasure it is to see the Risograph printer employed with such scrutiny. The Risograph is arguably the printing fad of the moment, and there is no shortage of artists’ books born of its drum. I generally associate the Risograph with the European graphic design schools or Bushwick print studios that produce monotone pamphlets suffused with a cool-kid sensibility: beautiful, ephemeral publications that bury their meaning in experimental typography and flattened photography. (For their purposes, the Risograph is an alternative to the photocopier: It reproduces images quickly and inexpensively.) Relph’s experimentation with the capabilities of the medium is particularly welcome, then. He supplemented the more common, subtractive CMYK color model—the acronym referring to cyan, magenta, yellow, and key, or black—with the rarer additive RGB color model, which is premised on red, green, and blue. This is both a nod to the colors that dominate the tartans themselves and, more interestingly, an embedded reference to the computer screen on which Relph first came across these tartans, on the Wikipedia page for the Stuarts’ Vestiarium Scoticum.
The paper stock is heavy and soft, the ink thick and velvety. Each color is layered one by one, constructing patterns through a soaking and mixing of layers. Such meticulous attention to the quality of the interaction of colored inks is truly artisanal and utilizes the Risograph’s mechanical constraints to mimic the weaving of the tartans. This unconventional use of the Risograph is a contorted reflection of the book’s history, an inexpensive, lowbrow method used to produce a finely crafted work. It toys somewhat with the genre of the livre d’artiste in its fine printing, but it is brought back into the realm of artist’s book by an edition size of 500 and an implicit interrogation of its content through its self-evident production. If you manage to get your hands on a copy, be sure to look at it up close, close enough that the powdery ink rubs off on your nose. The complex topography of colors will reward your curious eye.
SANDEEP BHULLER is the co-founder of Cambridge Book, a contemporary art book collection and consultancy firm in MIT's media lab. She is also the art, design, and architecture buyer for McNally Jackson Books in New York.