Beautiful Bookbindings: A Thousand Years of the Bookbinder's Art
The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2011
This is, as the title indicates, a collection of beautiful books from a very long tradition of bookbinding. The earliest book included is from the seventh century, and from there the collection continues along an ambitious timeline, finally reaching the early days of the twenty-first century in the last few pages.
The early books displayed in the first chapter, span about ten centuries so the result is a very brief snapshot of a very long period of history (exhibited over a mere 11 pages). The selections from this period are, indeed, beautiful and show primarily those books which fall into the Western tradition of bookbinding. There are some exceptions to this, with an example of a concertina from Korea (14th C) and an Indian pothi (15th C), like a palm-leaf structure.
The early books are my personal favourites, so I would prefer to see more in this chapter. The next five centuries each get their own chapter, starting with the Sixteenth Century and ending with the Twentieth Century. Each of these chapters has about 30 pages, thus permitting a better overall view of each period compared to the first chapter. Of course, there are far more books surviving from these recent centuries so it is understandable that they would be represented here in greater numbers.
Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder and it must have been very difficult to choose which bindings to include in this book; but, I think the selections are very well made and illustrate the various bookbinding traditions (albeit primarily Western traditions) very nicely. It would be even better to see more books from outside the Western tradition, but I do understand that any collection like this must have boundaries and cannot include everything. The collection is mostly codex format bindings in the English and German traditions with a sprinkle of Asian here and little American there. The collection focuses on the cover decorations used by bookbinders, not the actual binding structures. There is lots of tooling and painting and embroidering and inlaying. As it mentions in the text, the artists (i.e. the bookbinders) behind these amazing works of art, are mostly unknown and individual bookbinders were rarely credited.
The photographs in this book are flawless and there are many close-ups showing amazing details of painting and tooling and texture that can be very difficult to convey on smooth glossy paper. Wonderful detail is shown in a photo of a fabric-covered book (p. 53) where the weave of worn velvet can be seen, almost felt, beautifully intact on the face of the cover, slightly frayed in the hinge area by the spine - complete with a little stain here and there - and embellished with ornate clasps and painted metalwork.
Attention is also given to certain details such as clasps and fore-edge decoration. Various books with exceptional fore-edge decoration are examined in almost every chapter. This is a lovely detail to highlight in a book like this and it is fascinating to see it evolve over the centuries. Chapter 3 (Seventeenth Century), has several stunning examples of fore-edge clasps - another lovely detail on which to focus. Most of the examples are metal clasps, but there is also one example of an embroidered binding made for James II, which has fabric ties rather than metal clasps. As the collection moves forward in time, it is delightful to see how all these ornate bindings influence the trade bindings of the nineteenth century. There are several gorgeous examples of trade bindings in this book, mostly from London, showing the very pretty, colourful covers of the popular literature at the time.
I have enjoyed browsing and reading this book and admiring all the fabulous tomes presented therein. The selections in this collection are all beautiful, certainly, and I suspect that this is a good representation of the entire collection available at the British Library. The final chapter on Twentieth Century bindings showcases a few of the best design bindings of the past hundred years, all very traditional in spite of the experimentation that has been happening in the book arts in recent times; however, another hundred years (or so) must pass before someone can choose the bindings that best represent the current century.
Reviewed by Rhonda Miller, Feb 2013.