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Elegant to Eccentric

Years ago I had the honor of volunteering at the Clements to identify and describe historical bindings in the collection—a real delight to do so—every book held some joyful surprise. In 2007 we used the title “Elegant to Eccentric: Bindings from the Main Room of the William L. Clements Library” for a show of binding treasures from the Clements collection, co-curated by myself and rare books cataloger Oksana Linda, with great assistance by Curator of Graphics Clayton Lewis. Conservator Julie Fremuth did an outstanding and expert job of preparing and arranging the diverse exhibit materials.

And what treasures to choose from! The Clements collection is a book collector’s (and binding historian’s)  dream—William L. Clements eventually gathered an immense variety of binding styles, including many “extra” and fine bindings made by the most famous binders of his time and before, some original to the imprint, some as rebindings, including a Jean Grolier-style strapwork binding of great beauty, bindings done in Harleian and Etruscan style, and signed bindings by John Roulstone (1770 or 1771–1839), Christian Kalthoeber (active 1780–1817), W. T. Morrell, Robert Riviere (1808–1882), Sangorski and Sutcliffe, and Francis Bedford (1799–1883), among others. 

Thinking about the exhibit as I write this reminds me of how things have changed with regard to historical bindings. Usually only the rarest, most expensive, and most beautiful bindings were ever seen; more pedestrian items, unless they contained a very important text or important illustrations, tended not to appear in binding exhibits. Today things are very different: there is abundant interest in the entire history of the book, and this includes not just content, but every aspect of a historical exemplar—the materiality of the book has come into its own. All aspects of the physical book, from paper type, writing and printing qualities, sewing and support structures, cover materials and decoration— all of these elements are examined, identified, described, protected—and shown. This revaluing of even ordinary historical bindings, once ignored, adds value to them in both monetary and intellectual ways—and influences the decisions collection managers make about them. Following are some favorites.

­— Julia Miller
Author, Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings, and Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings.

A Proposal to Determine our Longitude, by Jane Squire (1671?-1743). 2nd ed. London: Printed for the Author . . . , 1743. 

Squire participated in (but was ignored) during the competition to find an accurate way to calculate longitude at sea. She may have failed, but her choice to decorate her book broke a convention long held by binding historians: book decoration did not reflect content before 1800. The black roundel on Squire’s cover, tooled with her invented symbols, did exactly that.

A Declaration of the People’s Natural Right to a Share in the Legislature . . . , by Granville Sharp (1735-1813). London: Printed for B. White, 1774.

A dark pink surface-colored paper binding, tooled in gold. Sharp was well known for his liberalism and anti-slavery beliefs—and his practice of having his arguments printed and bound up in such attractive (and relatively inexpensive) paper bindings—which he gave away.

The Book of Common Prayer . . . . New-York: By Direction of the General Convention, Printed by Hugh Gaine, 1795. 

John Roulstone bound two copies of the Common Prayer, in identical dark-red straight-grained goatskin and signed both in gold inside the lower cover edge. Roulstone’s skill can be seen at once in the craftsmanship and tooling of this magnificent binding; he is arguably the best American binder of his era.

A Libell of Spanish Lies, by Capt. Henry Savile. London: Printed by John Windet, 1596. 

Gold-tooled corner-and-centerpiece design, borrowing the famous Aldine Press centerpiece titling style; the Aldine style of titling became a vogue and is seen on some of Jean Grolier’s bindings. Bound by Rivière and Son, London.

An Theater of Mortality, or, The Illustrious Inscriptions Extant upon the Several Monuments . . . , by Robert Monteith, M.A. Edinburgh: Printed by the heirs . . . , 1704.

A blind-tooled panel binding of sheepskin: a dot-andscallop roll used around the center frame, with an exquisite leaf-shaped fleuron tooled at the corners. The decoration is simple, well-executed and attractive.

Cosmographia Petri Apiani, by Peter Apian (1495–1552). Antwerp: Gregorio Bontio, 1550. 

Gold-tooled Grolier-style strapwork binding, the strapping painted white and black, with small touches of green, red, blue and black; gilt and gauffered edges are by Hagué.

America Painted to the Life, by Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1565?–1647). London: Printed for Nath. Brook, 1658–1659. 

Gold-tooled interlace strapwork design, employing azured tools and colored leather inlays. Bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, London.

A Description of the New World, Or, America Islands and Continent, by George Gardyner. London : Printed for Robert Leybourn, 1651. 

Exquisite gold-tooled cornerpiece style, combining quarter-fan corners and intricate panel borders filled with pointillé, by H. Zucker.