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. 

Be that as it may, Reynes ( a Dutchman who was born Jan Rijens and who was naturalized in 1510), who was also a stationer, bookseller and publisher based in London, and who, though probably not a bookbinder himself but someone at the head f a binding firm, is still a highly regarded figure in the history of English binding. Mirjam Foot selects  some of his work in her account of the Henry Davies Gift of bindings in a paper published in the British Library Journal in the Autumn of 1977. Davies ‘s collection included many of the wonderful class of continental bindings lovingly described by Slater and indeed by Foot, but when we see an example of what Reynes produced it’s obvious what Slater is getting at when he compares English bindings unfavourably to those of the continent. Even the best of Reynes’ work is a bit dull and uninspiring , although doubtless Davies felt he had to include an example of it in his collection.

Slater goes on to discuss those English book collectors of means who could be said to rival the great patrons of the continent. One was the Elizabethan statesman Rober Dudley, Earl of Leicester, called by Slater ‘ the first English book collector  who was possessed of any degree of taste ‘, which is a bit depressing when one considers all the magnificent libraries assembled on the continent from the fifteenth  century onwards. Other figures of the same period who had good libraries of well-bound books were Archbishop Parker, the stalwart Anglican, and Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s right hand man. Another connoisseur of fine bindings was the Earl of Bothwell, who was notoriously implicated in the fate of Mary Queen of Scots, and here Slater points out that one particular book from his library is known to exist. This is Larismetique et Geometrie, printed in Lyons in 1538 and bound in calf gilt with gauffre edges. Books from Bothwell’s library, according to Slater, are ‘excessively rare ‘ which is presumably why this volume fetched the eye-watering sum ( for that time) of £81 in the Gibson-Craig sale of 1887- 1888.

King James 1st of England ( ‘ the wisest man in Christendom ‘and certainly a scholar) was a bibliophile who ‘ paid much attention to the binding of his books ‘, some of which, ornamented appropriately with thistles, ended up in the British Library. Lord Clarendon, that somewhat tedious chronicler of the English Civil War, who wrote some of the longest sentences in the history of English literature, patronised the same binder as Samuel Pepys, whose library can be seen in Magdalene College , Cambridge. His name was Notts, but presently nothing on him can be found online. 

To be continued.


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