Industries: Bookbinding

Pages 201-203

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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The art of binding flourished in England from a very early period, and in the 12th century (fn. 1) English binders were in advance of all foreign workers in this craft. Several distinct schools of binding of this period may be traced, by the beautiful examples of their work which have survived, to certain important towns and religious houses; of chief interest among these were the schools of London, Durham, and Winchester. The decoration of the book covers consisted of very small stamps, delicately cut and arranged in formal patterns of infinite variety. The design frequently consists of a parallelogram, the lines of which are formed by dies, the centre being filled with circles and segments of circles, these being characteristic of English work. The 13th and 14th centuries do not mark any distinct progress in English binding, and very few examples of that period have survived, but the excessive use of dies appears to have decreased.

There is an early example of the panel stamp on a loose binding in the library of Westminster Abbey. The covers are tooled at their edges with small tools, and in the centre is a twice-repeated stamp with the arms presumably of Edward IV. (fn. 2)

With the invention of printing, binding became much more in request. The binding of the earliest English printed books differed in a very marked way from that of the manuscripts which they gradually superseded. The latter had reached a point of great excellence in 1476-7, when Caxton produced his first book printed at Westminster, and their bindings were correspondingly rich, ornamented with enamels, carved ivory, and other materials of the most costly kind. But printed books had at first a very sober covering of plain leather, calf or deerskin, and sometimes of parchment. The covers were wooden boards and the backs were of leather, which was also drawn wholly or partly over the wooden covers, the latter being usually fitted with clasps. A short title is often found written on the fore-edge, the book being placed on the shelf with the fore-edge displayed to view. The bindings of books printed by Caxton, and perhaps bound in his workshop, have a simple decoration composed of straight lines variously arranged, and sometimes inclosing impressions of small stamps made up into a simple pattern. Caxton's successors produced a more ambitious style of decoration by the use of large heraldic stamps.

After his death in 1491 these stamps were used by Wynkyn de Worde until the beginning of the 16th century; some of them were used even later by the stationer Henry Jacobi. Wynkyn de Worde also used a small stamp of the Royal Arms. This style was distinctly English, for though heraldic decoration was employed by contemporary foreign binders, the designs were produced in quite a different way, either in cut or tooled leather. Where the printer was his own binder his device or initials are often found on the binding as well as on the printed page of the book.

The Royal coat-of-arms used by the early London printers for their bindings was the same during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, except for a difference in the supporters. The dragon and greyhound borne by both sovereigns were changed in 1528 by Henry VIII, who adopted the lion for his dexter and the dragon for his sinister supporter, leaving out the greyhound. The Tudor rose which so frequently occurs on these early bindings was the proudest emblem of the House of Tudor, and used by all its sovereigns. It was adopted by Henry VII on his marriage with Elizabeth of York, and consisted of a double rose with petals of red and white, signifying the union of the houses of York and Lancaster, whose conflicts had desolated England for so many years. Associated with the Royal coat-of-arms the cross of St. George and the arms of the City of London are frequently found upon the same stamp. The City arms indicates that the binder was a citizen, and when this was not the case the citizen shield was replaced by some other device. The panel of the Royal arms was used by many English binders who are only known by their initials; a certain 'G. G.' discarded the more usual supporters and replaced them by two angels.

Wynkyn de Worde employed latterly binders from the Low Countries resident in England; among them was J. Gaver, who was one of the executors to his will, and was probably connected with the large family of Gavere, binders in the Low Countries.

Most of the early printers bound their own books. Richard Pynson, Caxton's pupil, pro duced some highly decorated designs. The British Museum possesses a little volume of Abridgements of the Statutes printed and bound by him in 1499. (fn. 3) The book is bound in wooden boards covered with sheepskin, and shows indications of having been fitted with two clasps of leather. The cover is decorated on the obverse with the monogram R.P. on a shield, supported by two figures and surmounted by a helmet with mantling bearing a fillet and crest of a bird; in the sky are nine stars, and below the shield are a flower and leaf. Surrounding this central design is a handsome floral border, having in each of the two upper corners a bird, and between them a man shooting, probably with a cross-bow. At the base are a figure of the Madonna, and another of a female saint, each crowned and having an aureole, and near the lower righthand corner is the bust of a king crowned and bearing a sceptre. On the reverse is a similar plan of decoration, the central panel in this case having in the centre a double rose, surrounded by a decorative arrangement of vine leaves, grapes, and tendrils. The border is a graceful pattern of flowers and leaves, and has an arabesque at each corner.

Another early printer and binder was Julian Notary, who worked first at Westminster, and afterwards in the City between the years 1498 and 1520. Many books bound by Notary are decorated with two handsome stamps; one such volume, not from his own press, but from that of Jean Petit of Paris, is in the British Museum. It is a copy of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, printed in January 1509, which formerly belonged to Henry VIII. It is bound in wooden boards, covered with leather, sewn on leather bands, and has remains of leather clasps with brass fastenings. The front cover has the arms of Henry VIII, the three fleurs de lis of France quartered with the three lions of England, with the dragon and greyhound as supporters. In the upper part the shield of St. George and the arms of the City of London, with the sun, moon, and stars ; the lower part is decorated with plants of elementary design. The back cover has a similar design with the substitution of a large Tudor rose inclosed by two ribands borne by angels for the Royal coat-of-arms. In the base are the initials I.N. of the binder, and his curious device with the initials repeated in the lower part of it. On larger books bound by Julian Notary both these stamps are sometimes found on the same cover divided by a long panel bearing the initials L.R. and R.L. tied together respectively by a cord, and the Tudor emblems of the pomegranate, rose, portcullis, and lion. The portcullis was used to signify the descent of the Tudors from the House of Beaufort, and is said to represent the castle of De Beaufort at Anjou.

Before the time of Elizabeth the only leather used for binding was brown calf and sheep, the only other materials with very rare exceptions being vellum and velvet. Morocco was not employed until the reign of Elizabeth or that of James I.

English bindings of the 16th and 17th centuries are classified by Miss Prideaux as follows (fn. 4) :-1. Those in material other than leather, and often decorated with enamels and gold and silver pierced and engraved; 2. Stamped vellum and calf bindings; 3. The VenetianLyonese work; 4. Occasional specimens of French Grolier work, very frequent ones of the French semis, and some very good imitations of the delicate Le Gascon, done between 1660 and 1720, the most frequently imitated of all French work; 5. The cottage ornamented bindings, the one distinctively English style belonging to the 17th century.

Although the names of some English binders are known, it is impossible to connect many books with their names. Robert Barker and James Norton were binders to James I, and Eliot and Chapman bound 'in the Harleian style' for Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford. (fn. 5) Other binders of the period were Thomas Hollis and his successor Thomas Brand. Among the French emigrant binders were the Comte de Caumont, Comte de Clermont de Lodeve, Vicomte Gauthier de Brecy, and Du Lau, the friend and bookseller of Chateaubriand. (fn. 6)

The work of Roger Payne in the latter half of the 18th century marks an era in English bookbinding, which had since the beginning of that century fallen to a low ebb. Payne was born at Windsor in 1739, and after a short service with Pote, the Eton bookseller, came to London in 1766, and entered the employment of Thomas Osborne, the bookseller, in Gray's Inn. A few years later he set up in business for himself as a bookbinder, near Leicester Square. Here he was joined by his brother Thomas, who attended to the 'forwarding' part of the business, whilst Roger devoted himself wholly to the 'finishing.' His great artistic talents placed him easily at the head of all the binders of his day, and procured him a number of distinguished patrons, among whom were Earl Spencer, the Duke of Devonshire, Colonel Stanley, and the Rev. Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode. The brothers did not long continue their partnership, and on the departure of Thomas Payne, Roger took as a fellow-worker Richard Wier, whose wife was a clever mender and restorer of old books. The new partnership had one serious drawback, both Payne and Wier being addicted to strong drink; this led to frequent quarrels, and at last to separation. During his association with Wier some of Payne's finest bindings were executed, and they are all characteristically English. Dibdin (fn. 7) gives a sad picture of the condition to which Payne was brought by his intemperance. 'His appearance bespoke either squalid wretchedness or a foolish and fierce indifference to the received opinions of mankind. His hair was unkempt, his visage elongated, his attire wretched, and the interior of his workshop-where, like the Turk, he would "bear no brother near his throne"-harmonized not too justly with the general character and appearance of its owner. With the greatest possible display of humility in speech and in writing, he united quite the spirit of quixotic independence.' Payne died in Duke's Court, St. Martin's Lane, on 20 November 1797, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, at the expense of his friend Thomas Payne, the bookseller. To this friend, who was not a relative, he was indebted for his first start in business on his own account, and for his support during the last eight years of his life.

As an artist in binding Payne certainly shows signs of the influence of Samuel Mearn, who was the English court binder towards the end of the 17th century, but his genius enabled him to originate a style which was quite his own. The covers of his books usually bear a simple design, whilst the backs are elaborately decorated. His bindings also combine elegance and strength, the sheets of the books being often sewn with silk, and the backs lined with leather to give them additional strength. The centre of his covers is usually left vacant, but among the specimens of his work in the Cracherode collection at the British Museum many examples are found in which the centre of the board is embellished with the beautiful and delicatelyengraved Cracherode coat-of-arms. The decoration which he generally employed for his covers consisted of a rectangular line as a border ornamented with beautiful and very delicately stamped corners, and angle-pieces of decorative work. Occasionally he adds ornamental designs which fill or nearly fill the space between the outer edge of the book and the inner panel. Payne's decorative devices are made up chiefly of small stamps, somewhat resembling those of Mearn, interspersed with minute dots, stars, and circles. The stamps he most commonly used were crescents, stars, acorns, running vines, and leaves. To each of his bindings he attached a bill describing the design and the ornaments used, written in a most quaint and precise style. Many of these bills are still preserved in the volumes whose bindings they describe. Payne took considerable care in choosing his leather, usually selecting russia or straight-grained morocco of a dark blue, bright red, or olive colour. The olive morocco which he sometimes used being perhaps the most perfect binding material that is procurable for receiving the impression of a gold stamp. Samuel Mearn and his son Charles, who were binders to Charles II, lived in Little Britain. (fn. 8)

Exigencies of space will only admit of a brief summary of the masters of the art in modern times. Among the later binders of the 18th century were a little colony of Germans-Baumgarten, Benedict, Walther, Staggemeier, Kalthoeber-who continued the traditions of Robert Payne. Charles Herring, a binder of repute, chiefly worked in Payne's style. The excellence of the work of these binders was largely inspired by John Mackinlay, for whom Payne worked before his death. John Whitaker introduced the Etruscan style in which designs from the decoration of Etruscan vases were copied in colours by means of acids instead of in gold. Charles Lewis, in conjunction with Staggemeier, bound most of the Althorp books, and also those for Beckford at Fonthill. Dibdin, who was a great admirer of Lewis's work, says, 'He united the taste of Roger Payne with a freedom of forwarding and squareness of finish peculiar to himself.' Lewis was assisted by Clarke, famous for his tree-marbled calf in binding the library of the Rev. Theodore Williams. Bedford, who has been regarded as the best of all English binders in forwarding, did much important work for Mr. Huth. Of the binders of to-day among the firstclass firms who carry on the traditions of the past, that of Mr. Joseph W. Zaehnsdorf is specially well known.


  • 1. W. H. J. Weale, 'Lectures on Engl. Bookbinding in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII,' Journ. Soc. of Arts, 26 Feb. 1889.
  • 2. Sarah T. Prideaux, Hist. Sketch of Bookbinding (1893), 16.
  • 3. C. J. Davenport, 'Early London Bookbinders,' The Queen, 20 June 1891.
  • 4. Hist. Sketch of Bookbinding, 110.
  • 5. Prideaux, op. cit. 27.
  • 6. Ibid. 128.
  • 7. Bibliographical Decameron (1817), ii, 506-18.
  • 8. An excellent account of Mearn by Mr. Cyril Davenport will be found in Bibliographica, iii, 129 et seq.