Learning to judge a book by its cover: HLF bookbindings workshop at Palace Green

I entered David Pearson’s bookbindings workshop at Palace Green in November as a complete novice, as I know next to nothing about rare books and even less about bindings. However, any anxieties I had were allayed as a varied group of attendees assembled: librarians, binders and enthusiasts, many of whom had travelled to Durham from Scotland and all over England.

A late 17th-century binding of black goatskin with gilt “tooling” or decoration. R. Perrinchief, The royal martyr or The life and death of Charles I. London : printed by J. Macock. for R. Royston, bookseller to His most Sacred Majesty, 1676. (DUL SB 1139)

The first question you may be prompted to ask when studying bookbindings is: what’s the point? Aren’t librarians supposed to be concerned with the inside of a book rather than the outside? The study of elaborate and expensive bookbindings by art historians is fairly established, but as David Pearson pointed out, ‘every historic binding represents a choice’. If a book was bound before the early 19th century then it exists as an entirely unique object and its history can often be explored through examining its bindings. For example, you may be able to find out who owned the book, where and when they lived, how much money they had, how much the book had been read, and whether it was judged to be a precious ornamental object or a throwaway purchase. As a librarian working with rare books, this is information that can inform and alter the way you catalogue, restore, and display the book. Occasionally, you might even find another text hidden inside the bindings, as until the 17th century it was very common for binders to use discarded scraps of other books to make endleaves and pastedowns – some medieval manuscripts have been discovered this way!

After making the case for the importance of studying historic bookbindings, David Pearson took us on a whistle stop tour of English and European bindings from 1450-1800, covering a wide range of materials and styles. We learned that there were three main materials used in binding books during this time period: calf, sheep, and goat skin. These leathers vary in price as well as texture and colour, with imported goatskin (or ‘Moroccan leather’) representing the more luxurious end of the spectrum, tanned calfskin as the most commonly used leather, and sheepskin as the cheapest, and least hardwearing of the three. Bindings could also be made from parchment and vellum (stretched, de-haired and dried animal skin), or occasionally cloth.

The New Testament of our Lord and sauiour Iesus Christ. Newly translated out of the original Greeke: and with the former translations diligently compared and reuised, by His Maiesties speciall commandment. London: Bonham Norton and Iohn Bill, printers to the Kings most excellent Maiestie, 1623 (DUL SB 1185)

After a book had been bound, it was decorated, or ‘tooled’. Binders would use heated metal tools in order to roll or stamp designs onto the bindings, sometimes using gold leaf to gilt the covers. These designs ranged from the very simple to the intricate, with diamond shaped grids, tree shapes and royal coats of arms being popular, and it was not expected that the design of the binding would in any way represent the content of the text. Design trends changed and altered, often in line with changes in the architecture or fashion of the day. It was also not always the case that the more costly bindings had more intricate designs, as something as simple as a gilt rectangle on a binding (also called the Cambridge panel) could indicate a fashion-conscious and wealthy owner.

By the 1830s, prefabricated and mass-produced cloth bindings began to become the norm, and eventually dominated the book trade during the Victorian era. These developed into the plasticized paper bindings we see today.

A highlight of the workshop was being able to see real-life examples of bindings that are housed in Palace Green’s collection. We were able to inspect and (carefully!) handle books bound in various materials, some with incredibly detailed and beautiful tooling. My personal favourite was a small ladies devotional book, covered in an embroidered cloth binding. During the day, the most important thing I learned (as well as the fact that there probably aren’t any vegan book binders!) is to value a historic book, not just for its content, but for its cover that can teach the librarian, cataloguer or user about the individual who owned it and the society in which it was produced.

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