English Bookbinding Styles, 1450–1800
By David Pearson
New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 1584561408 Price: $65.00
Binding styles remains an area in which even rare-book specialists often feel under equipped or under-trained and it is one that is often poorly served in catalogs
I know less about bookbindings than I like to admit, a gap in my training that I suspect is shared by many of my colleagues in special collections libraries. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I am not alone, according to David Pearson, who states in his recent book on English binding styles that the subject “remains an area in which even rare book specialists often feel under-equipped or under-trained, and one that is often poorly served in catalogues.”
Pearson’s new book is printed in a large format (8H by 11 inches), with hundreds of illustrations, a generous font size for easy reading, and a helpful index. The main sections cover the meaning and interpretation of bookbindings, materials and construction techniques, decorative styles, the development of tool shapes over time, and the relationship between bookbinders and the book trade.
Pearson wrote the book to “provide a toolkit of information which will enable anyone working with or handling historic bindings to know better what they are dealing with, and to create a platform on which greater understanding can be built.” I decided to test this claim by opening the toolkit, so to speak, and using its contents to answer a question that has bothered me in a niggling way for years about a specific binding in the John Carter Brown Library, where I work.
The volume contains two works by John Smith of Pocahontas fame. The first is The True Travels (London, 1630), and the second is The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, 1627). I normally present this book in classes as being the copy owned by Charles I of England, based on a statement to that effect on the green morocco slipcase that protects the book, as well as our catalog record. This attribution of provenance was based on the fact that the arms of Charles I are stamped on the front and back covers in gold (I later learned that James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II all had the same coat of arms).
I am not a binding historian, and so had no particular reason to doubt that the stamp of royal arms meant royal ownership—and it was nice to discuss the book’s contents in relation to such an owner. Pearson burst my bubble on page forty-seven, when in a general aside he says that “throughout the timespan covered by this book…royal insignia on bindings do not normally indicate royal ownership—the use of royal arms or emblems was not uncommon as a decorative device.” A search of the archives revealed that the claim of royal ownership rested on a bookseller’s shoulders and was part of his sales pitch. Henry Stevens offered this copy to John Nicholas Brown on October 5, 1892:
Stevens was a master at painting a grand picture in just a few strokes, deftly turning a defect into a potential selling point. His claim that Charles I owned the book is not necessarily false, but in light of Pearson’s statement there is no specific evidence that it is true. What I have in hand is at best a sophisticated (repaired) volume, rebound in its original boards and spine. However, evidence can still be extracted from what remains of the original binding.
Pearson’s book contains over 760 images (diagrams, details of ornaments, pictures of bindings in black and white and in color), and with it I assembled a nice file of evidence about this binding, which, admittedly, is not one in which either text was issued. To my mind, however, this fact makes the binding even more interesting to understand as an artifact.
According to what I can determine from Pearson, it is a typical early seventeenth-century centerpiece binding: the royal arms in the center, within two concentric quintuple fillets (the middle or third fillet is in gold, the rest are blind-tooled), the inner fillet having gold-tooled fleurons at the corners. These fleurons are identical to one of those shown in Pearson, who dates this ornament as being in common use between 1590 and 1655. His cost information for types of tanned leathers is another useful tidbit. Goatskin was most expensive, followed by calfskin. Sheepskin was the cheapest leather. Thus, the calfskin covers and the overall design mark the Smith binding as of a type commonly found in a mid-market product manufactured in Cambridge between 1630 and 1655.
I must confess that I have withheld one piece of evidence that is not part of the binding. There is a note, in a seventeenth- century hand, at the top of the title-page of the first work that seems to be related to the binding. It is dated 12 February 1648, nicely within the range suggested by Pearson. Much like the original bookseller’s optimistic cataloging, this statement was of uncertain value without the other, confirming evidence from the physical object, which English Bookbinding Styles has allowed me to compile, present, and interpret. I can’t think of better criteria by which to judge a great reference book.