The binders behind the books

We all too often read books without noticing their bindings. Particularly when the books are old, brown volumes like those from Nicholas Crouch’s library. However, the binding as a physical object can tell so many stories: they are the products of seventeenth-century craftsmanship, and through the leather or the sewing structure, the decorated edges and the coloured endbands, we can read so much more beyond the pages.

Book conservators are well trained in how to read a book’s binding for clues as to its history. We trace materials and techniques to particular places and times, reading repairs and damage as indicators of how the object has been used. In conservation work, we document each object that comes into the studio: taking note of how it is sewn, its size, materials used. For the Nicholas Crouch project, the documentation took the form of digital spreadsheets, allowing us to build up a body of data on the collection. By the end of the project, we had documented 132 volumes.  This data is now available to researchers by contacting Balliol Library.

One of Crouch’s legacies to us, are his detailed contents pages that list not only the items and their costs, but also the cost of the binding, and in some cases who the binder was and the date of the binding. By including these notes in the object documentation, we were able to link specific named binders with the decorative tools on the cover, sewing style, and edge decoration. These markers can be read like binders’ signatures, and by building up a body of data, patterns and comparisons could be drawn up throughout the collection. Here are some of the binders that can be traced in Crouch’s books

Dollive

Alum tawed sewing supports, sometimes cord; edge colouring on all edges.

binder 2

Ingram

Alum tawed or tanned sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, fore edge coloured (red, plain).

binder 2

Terrill

Alum tawed sewing supports; edge colouring on all edges (blue, red, yellow)

binder 3

Doe

Mostly cord sewing supports; head and tail edges sprinkled, for edge coloured (red, yellow)

binder 4

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Anatomy of a binding

Each aspect of a book’s binding holds information about its history:  from the materials used, to the mechanical structure. A key part of this project is documenting specific aspects of Crouch’s bindings, both to understand their damage and to trace the history of the collection.

The following diagram illustrates some of the key components of a binding:

Key components of a binding (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)

Book bindings can vary hugely, and often certain styles and techniques will be specific to one bindery. Crouch’s collection was probably commissioned by Crouch himself, from an Oxford binder. There are clear stylistic similarities throughout the collection. The following diagrams illustrate some of the typical features of a Crouch binding:

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However, among these common stylistic features there is still a great deal of variation: from the tool of the corner fleuron used, to the material of the sewing support and the colours of the endbands.

Examples of different tools used (Sketch and photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
Examples of different tools used
A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be (Photograph by Nikki Tomkins)
A selection of Crouch bindings displayed fore edge out, as they were probably intended to be

Each of these details are documented when an item comes into the studio in order to build up a body of data on the bindings and begin to trace a timeline of when, where and how they were bound together. It will teach us a little more about the mind of Nicholas Crouch, a man who evidently took pride in the organisation of his collection.

By Nikki Tomkins
Project Conservator

Illuminated Incunabula

Most people are familiar with illumination, the beautiful colours and intricate elaborations of initials and margins in medieval manuscripts. But it is less common to come across illuminated printed books.

A four-volume incunabula set of the Bible with commentary, Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra, in Balliol Library is an example of this rarer illumination from the early days of the hand press.

This edition of the Vulgate Bible was published in Venice in 1481 by the master printer, Nicholas Jenson. The volumes were evidently owned by one Henry Clifford, though his signature appears to be 15th century.

clifford-signature
‘Henricus Clifford me possidet’: inscription on first leaf of volume 1 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

One assumes that to own this set of books so soon after the invention of printing Clifford would have been a wealthy man. One candidate might be Henry Clifford, tenth Baron Clifford (1454–1523), who, the Dictionary of National Biography  notes, was ‘…not just literate but even bookish, owning volumes on law and medicine, and developing a taste for astronomy and alchemy’. However the books themselves have no other marks of ownership.

The illuminations are a reminder how much the printed book borrowed from the manuscript. It was usual for print fonts to emulate handwriting. Here, this additional characteristic of the manuscript is borrowed.

There is one striking feature of the pattern of illuminations: many are incomplete, some hardly started. While some glitter lavishly others are no more than the rough drafts in black ink.

Clearly there is a story contained in this set that we will never be privy to. Why break off halfway through? Was this some sort of practice set that was never intended to be finished? The more complete illuminations seem to have had too much trouble taken over them for that. Did the illuminator who took on the job simply die before he could finish? But then why did the owner not go to someone else to finish the job? Or was it the owner himself who died, the gospels being laid to one side in the craftsman’s workshop and ultimately forgotten?

We will never know. The rather rough and ready plain paper-covered boards, a dull purple familiar in Oxford college libraries, suggests that their later history was not as grand as it once had been.

Cover and binding of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra Vol 4 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 595 c 1-4

By Jeremy Hinchliff

A golden hind

Martin Bucer’s Scripta Anglicana (1577)

Our copy of Martin Bucer’s Scripta Anglicana (1577) came via the large bequest of Sir Thomas Wendy in 1677. The gold-tooled centrepiece on the boards of this book shows a ‘hind statant’. It is believed this is the armorial device of the Hatton family, politicians and bibliophiles of the 16th and 17th century. Books from their collections can be found in a number of college libraries in Oxford.

Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) helped finance Sir Francis Drake’s voyages of circumnavigation from 1577-1580. In 1580 Drake changed the name of his vessel mid-voyage from The Pelican to The Golden Hinde to honour Hatton.

Identification by Paul W. Nash