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An Excerpt from Beautiful Bookbindings

Oak Knoll has been very excited about the arrival of Beautiful Bookbindings: A Thousand Years of the Bookbinder’s Art by P.J.M. Marks. Now available, the book contains beautiful photography displaying the finest bookbindings of the last 1000 years. Celebrating over 100 bindings, it shows exquisite medieval bookbindings made of precious metals and jewels to the imaginative creations of contemporary bookbinders. Check out this excerpt displaying bindings from the family business of Mame in Tours, France, as mechanization began to unfold in the craft of bookbinding.

MAME BINDINGS

Selection of Mame bindings

As with many craft-based processes, the nineteenth century saw the mechanization of bookbinding in western Europe. Some firms came to resemble factories, and this was particularly true of the family business of Mame in Tours, France, which was also known for its publishing and printing activities. Traditional craft bindings continued to be produced, but most workers (including women) were employed from the cloth or cardboard covers and attached by means of endleaves and lining material. This was an inexpensive but colourful format, with gilt, coloured or glazed paper used in combination with lithographic prints to make an immediate visual impact. Such bindings have been likened to chocolate boxes and sweet wrappers, but they were popular enough, often being used for such items as Sunday school prize books. Unusually for the time, Alfred Mame (1811-1893) instituted pensions and profit-sharing schemes for his workers.

The nineteenth century gradually saw the emergence of binding designs that reflected the contents of the book, although traditional abstract or retrospective styles remained popular. An example is the gold-blocked brown calf binding of Don Quijote by Alphonse Simier, which shows the bust of a knight surrounded by cathedral-style motifs. The decoration, although elaborate, was achieved relatively quickly and cheaply, due to the use of engraved plaques (which can be employed to cover the whole space available when applied skilfully). The Simier workshop was famous throughout Europe, partly because its founder, Rene Simier (1772-1843), could turn his hand to different styles. He established his business in Paris in 1798, where his subsequent work found favour with the Emperor Napoleon and the Bourbon Kings, and he received the title ‘Relieur du roi’, which was passed on to his son, Alphonse. Both binder publicized the royal connection in the form of their trade signature, seen here at the foot of the spine (a French custom of the period). In the unlikely event that the viewer overlooked this, a printed trade ticket was pasted to the endleaf inside.

Right: France, late sixteenth century; Left: London, early nineteenth century

Throughout the nineteenth century, wealthy French and British bibliophiles were attracted to imitations of historic binding styles, particularly those of sixteenth-century France. Such bindings were certainly technically accomplished but—inevitably—they lacked the vitality of the original designs. The smaller binding depicted here was probably made in France as part of a travelling library for Pietro Duodo (1555-1611), Venetian ambassador to Henri IV. All the books were gold-tooled in the same way with Duodo’s emblem and motto, ‘Expectat non eludert’ (‘She whom I await with longing will not elude me’), but in different coloured goatskin according to the subject of the text. Theology, philosophy, law and history were in red goatskin, medicine and botany in citron and literature in olve (as seen here).

The bland appearance of the larger, nineteenth-century English work is not due to poor craftsmanship, for the binder, Charles Lewis (1786-1836), was acknowledged as the best London binder of his day. His natural skill responded to two stimuli: the vibrancy of the London trade fuelled by the many knowledgeable book collectors; and the influence of two figures, his father Johann Ludwig, and his apprentice master, Henry Walter. Both were Germans who emigrated to England to take advantage of the flourishing market. Lewis’s large workshop was patronized by the most demanding collectors, including the second Earl Spencer. The author, Brunet, had this copy of his book specially bound for Spencer’s librarian, Thomas Fornall Dibdin. The motto towards the tail edge of the front cover (‘Rosicrucius et amicorum’) alludes to Dibdin’s Bibliomania, in which Dibdin himself appears under the soubriquet Rosicruscius, ‘an ardent an indefatigable book-forger.’

Click here to find out even more about Beautiful Bookbindings and to view more pictures in a slideshow.

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