The hectic first day – an introductory session, two seminars and a drinks reception – of my first LRBS experience is over. I’ve not picked up a book in anger – but we’ve witnessed approaching a hundred examples on the screen, and benefitted from Nicholas Pickwoad’s experience in the of study, identification and documentation of tens of thousands of examples of bookbinding from the handpress era. Much of this is recorded by the Ligatus Research Unit, a fascinating meeting of the expert study of traditional craft techniques in bookbinding and cutting edge data aggregation.
Study of the underlying structures and materials of European books has long been overshadowed by scholarship into the decoration or ‘finishing’ of bookbindings. The book trade too has traditionally emphasised appearance over historical importance. But scholars are leading the way in the re-evaluation of the position of the large majority of early, workaday bindings that form the bulk of the historic record in books. Method, material, provenance and indications of the training, background and even identity of the crafts-men and women involved can frequently be revealed by detailed study of what Nicholas called the ‘archeology of the book’.
Stuart Bennett, a wonderful bookman and past president of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association who I’m honoured to consider a friend, demonstrates that the best booksellers are beginning to follow suit. His Trade Bookbinding in the British Isles, 1660-1800 (New Castle and London, 2004) swiftly became a classic in the field.
I’m a romantic at heart, and my imagination is always willing to be captured by a fascinating story or two – perhaps why I think I’ll enjoy the social events as much as the formal course this week. One of many raised in discussion of the behaviour of owners eminent and not-so eminent towards the bindings of the books in their libraries remains at the front of my perhaps all too commercial mind. Edward Gibbon insisted that the English books he ordered from London booksellers whilst living in Switzerland were dispatched unbound – such was the cost differential in the transportation of bound books. Books from his library turn up in commerce – but how many in economical Lausanne bindings may remain undiscovered on the continent…
The Travelling Bookman June 21st, 2013
I dread to think how many books I’ve handled in the past decade in and around the book trade, and in my studies at Oxford – where I haunted the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam!) and the Duke Humphrey’s. It must be reaching the hundreds of thousands. However boastful this is sounding – and reading it back almost makes me ashamed of such gluttony – I don’t intend it to be. Of those say 150,000 books, around 50,000 would have been in early and sometimes ‘fine bindings’ of calf, sheep, goatskin (‘morocco’ or ‘Russia’), pigskin or vellum. Of these 50,000, at least 4/5ths would undoubtedly have been British in origin – the small remainder would have been a mixture of continental and North American.
So in short, whilst I’ve picked up lots of early books, I’m no expert on bookbinding. I’d back myself on identifying the work of few English binders C17-19th – Samuel Mearne, the Naval Binder, Kalthoeber, Riviere, possibly even the Spaniel Binder – and the wonderful, free and illustrated British Library database of bookbindings provides data to help on those I’m ignorant of. But the history of continental bookbinding is an area of my education I’m particularly eager to improve. As luck would have it, the London Rare Book School are holding a week long summer school course on exactly this topic – and registration starts in two hours.
Reading the second chapter of Mirjam M. Foot’s Bookbinders at Work (London, 2006) has reminded me of the continental heritage of the craft, and art, that I now appreciate mainly in the British – and lets be honest, mostly English – form. A 5 day course on its history should be just the ticket. If I can keep up with the tutors and fellow students, I’ll try and share some of the experiences here – stay tuned!
The Travelling Bookman June 20th, 2013