A few years ago your Jotter invited that celebrated expert on the Western tradition in book binding , Mirjam Foot, to give a talk on bindings to the local literary society. She was then married to the late Michael Foot ( not that Michael Foot, but M.R.D. Foot, the great authority on the SOE as well as William Gladstone , who very likely would have been more to the taste of her audience), but this distinction didn’t have the effect of filling the hall that I had hired. My idea in asking her was an attempt to educate literary types on a subject that few bibliophiles know anything about. I was also keen to discover if any of the audience might recognise the lady with the slight Dutch accent as the woman who for years helped man book stalls at garden fetes in that particular corner of north Hertfordshire. The talk seemed to go well, though I am still not sure whether any of those who heard it could understand what she was talking about with such authority.
I was reminded of Professor Foot when I came upon the section of Slater’s Book Collecting which dealt with bindings. After discussing with great enthusiasm the exquisite and sumptuous bindings created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by great craftsmen for the super rich Popes, kings and aristocrats on the European continent, Sadler turns with less enthusiasm to England, where the art of fine binding had not progressed anything like as far. Presumably in a book aimed at middle and upper middle class collectors he was aware that the average lover of decorated bindings was not likely to encounter any of the class of European bindings he had drooled over in most book stalls or auction hoses here in the UK—at least at prices they could afford. Indeed, Slater is a tad sniffy at the quality and innovation shown by binders ‘ up to the reign of Elizabeth ‘.
‘We seem to have persisted in the use of clumsy oak boards or stiff parchment covers, and when a really choice and expensive binding was required , it took the form of embroidered silks and velvets. Queen Elizabeth herself was very expert in this method of ornamentation, which continued to exist, in all probability, simply because it was fashionable.
The first English bookbinder of any repute was John Reynes, a printer who lived in the reigns of Henry VII and VIII. Specimens of his work are very rare, though, when compared with the French bindings of the same date, they appear miserably inferior. The truth is that England was—and, indeed, is —much behind some other countries in everything relating to bibliography, and binding in particular.Continue reading