Monday 24 February 2014

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Nowadays many books are produced with a ‘perfect’ binding where the pages are stuck to the spine and invariably split open as soon as any pressure is applied. They are still the common book shape we are all familiar with but they are very different to books printed before 1801. Until the early nineteenth century bindings were all made by hand so each one is unique.

Books were produced by printing on a large sheet of paper and then folding, cutting and sewing the sheets to make the familiar book shape.  The size of the book depends on how many folds are made, so for a quarto the page is folded four times and for an octavo eight times, and so on. The text block that has now been created needs something to protect it and keep it clean and the best and most efficient way of doing this is to provide a rigid board front and back covered with a material such as leather.  You end up with a space that can be decorated in any way you want.
Sewing Structure of a Binding
Sewing Structure of a binding
This picture shows a book which has lost its spine showing the sewing structure. You can see the different gatherings of pages laid next to each other. The large thick cord is what is holding the boards on and providing a stable mount for the pages to be sewn onto.

There are many different sorts of bindings and fine bindings actually only represent a tiny proportion of those surviving, but their beauty and craftsmanship mean that they never fail to delight. There have been many wonderful binders through the ages some known only through their distinctive work such as the ‘Centre Rectangle Binder’, or the ‘Small Carnation Binder’ but there are other names that we can identify.



This is an early binding designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was for a book of his sister Christina’s poems.  

Rossetti was a poet, painter, and  illustrator among many other talents. His work with its clean pure lines influenced the generation that came after him including artists such as William Morris. Rossetti’s art was also characterised by his love of all things medieval and this binding is a good example of that.  The book is bound in smooth green cloth and has then been gilded, the design pressed into the surface with hot tools with gold leaf between the tool and the leather. The design wraps round the spine so is best seen when the book is open. The lines coming out from the spine top and bottom suggest ornate hinges and the small gold circles could represent the nail heads that would have held book clasps or furniture on a medieval binding. The design was developed over several months in 1865-1866. Rossetti had also done the design for Christina’s first book of poetry, Goblin Market, and this is similar in style with the small gold circles, although the lines for that book were straight not gently curved as in this binding.
The second named binding is from the beginning of the 20th century.
Sangorski & Sutcliffe were early 20th century bookbinders famous for using precious stones and metals in their extravagant bindings. One of their most famous creations was on a copy of the Omar Khayyam and was known as the Great Omar. It was a beautiful binding featuring golden peacocks with jewelled tails but sadly Great Omar went down with the Titanic and has never been recovered. A second copy was made but was then destroyed during the Blitz in World War Two. Undaunted, third copy was produced and, to date, this resides safely in the British Library.
Although, at first sight, this seems one of their less ornate bindings the design, fashioned by inlaying different coloured leathers, creates a real sense of movement among the rose stems.

Sangorsko and Sutcliffe binding for The Hind and the Panther
Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding for The Hind and The Panther by Dryden
The binding is not contemporary with the book which was published in 1697. It is a poem by John Dryden called The Hind and the Panther and was written after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The poem is an allegory with the hind representing the Catholic Church and the panther the Church of England.
It is interesting to speculate as to why this style of binding was chosen for the book. The tortuous thorny rose stems ending in the tight red rosebuds might be a metaphor for the struggle Dryden had to undergo, hiding his true religious beliefs until he was able to openly convert under James II. The use of roses as a symbol of achievement and completion is well established. After having battled with the long thorny stems, the toiler is rewarded with the beauty and the fragrance of the flowers. The rosebud represents beauty and purity and the rose leaves denote hope.  However the binding was put on over 200 years after the books first publication so perhaps the owner just liked the design!
These and many other examples of fine binding can be found in the display cases along the Harry Fairhurst corridor in the University of York library.  The exhibition will be in place until the end of April 2014. For more information please contact Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian at
This post was written by Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian at the University of York.
Don't miss Sarah's free talk on the Special Collections of the University of York, "A Journey Through the Pages" on Thursday 6th March 6.30pm (drinks and canapés from 6.00pm), in LFA 204/205
To register for tickets go to


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.