Diarist and bibliophile Samuel Pepys is known to have cared deeply about the appearance of his personal library, arranging and rearranging it based on the height of each book and even commissioning stands to elevate smaller books so that each shelf appeared to contain only volumes of identical height. Like many book collectors both before and after him, he often had books rebound to suit his taste and match the rest of his collection. Somewhat less commonly, perhaps, he valued his relationship with his bookbinder so highly that he bequeathed mourning rings both to the binder and to one of the binder’s employees.
Books as Art: Fine Bindings and Book Design highlights the historical significance of fine bindings to book collectors by emphasizing the ways in which, for Pepys and other collectors like him, past and present, the value and interest of a book is not limited to the information it contains. Rather, the bindings of these volumes communicate the collector’s taste, the binder’s skill, and, in some cases, the author’s artistic vision.
Until fairly recently, a visitor to a private library would struggle to judge the books found there by their covers, as bindings generally shed no light (beyond a title) on the contents of a book. It was, however, possible to judge the owner of a library by the books’ covers. Before the mid-19th century, bindings were generally chosen by the owner of the book, rather than by its publisher, and it was common practice for collectors to do as Pepys did by having books bound to suit their preference. Thus, the type of material used in a binding, the nature and extent of any ornamentation, the presence or absence of an armorial stamp, and other choices all served as indicators of an individual’s wealth, taste, and status.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, publishers and private binders increasingly began to design bindings that echoed themes or even depicted characters in the work to be bound. The late-19th century rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, and particularly the loud acclaim which welcomed works such as the Kelmscott Chaucer, published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, prompted a proliferation of fine limited editions of classic texts by private presses and larger publishing companies alike. In designing the bindings for these editions, publishers turned to materials and techniques, such as vellum and extensive gilt ornamentation, traditionally found in fine bindings, incorporating designs inspired by the text. These works were intended to appeal to the growing community of collectors able to afford the luxury of beautiful editions of works available from other sources in less costly editions. In the 20th century, the increasingly close relationship between fine binding and text deepened with the rise of bindings designed or modified by the authors of the texts themselves to personalize the work or to provide additional visual commentary on themes they developed in their writing.
Books as Art brings together bindings from Europe and America created in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries to showcase the array of materials, techniques, and styles encompassed in the category of “fine bindings.” The works presented here range from 18th-century full calf bindings with elaborate gilt tooling, to 19th-century bindings featuring onlays and inlays of leather and even mother-of-pearl, to more recent hand-painted bindings. The diverse selection emphasizes the range of ways in which a binding embodies the preferences, craftsmanship, and vision of the work’s owners and creators.