The Ancient Art of Bookbinding

This week we hear from Library Officer, Philip Wilde, who highlights some amazing examples of bookbinding in the Central Library collections…

There is currently a small display outside the Information and Research department on the second floor of the Leeds Central Library that shows just a small selection of some of the fascinating bindings that are held here in our collections.

The ancient art of bookbinding has been a craft for over 2,000 years. Originally the binding served the purely practical purpose of protecting the book however, book coverings were later to be seen as works of art in their own right.

There have been and still are many different types of bookbinding materials such as parchment, leather, cloth, paper, vinyl, linen, textiles etc.

The Black Prince (1849) and The Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing (1853)

Both of these books are by the British illustrator, naturalist, entomologist and numismatist, Henry Noel Humphries (1810-1879). The books have been bound using black pierced covers moulded from a mixture of papier-mâché and plaster to imitate a Gothic carved wood binding.

I Frutti Della Gratia Divina e Discorsi (1677)

The binding of this book is an excellent example of 17th century Italian work. The front cover bears the coat of arms of Pope Clement XI. His original name was Gianfrancesco Albani (1649-1721) who was a patron of the arts and science and a great benefactor of the Vatican Library.

A sales catalogue clipping inside the front cover of the book suggests that this book was originally kept in the library of the Pope. It is likely then to have been part of the great Albani Library of Urbino and Rome which was largely the creation of Pope Clement XI. Upon the death of the last of the Albani family in 1852 the library whose printed books at that time numbered some thirty five thousand began to be broken up and sold. In 1857 some twenty thousand of these came up for auction in Rome. It is possible that our copy was one of these however, what happened to the book between then and 1939 when it was acquired by Leeds Central Library remains a mystery for the present. One further mystery may possibly be solved by a reader of this article. One of the flyleaves at the front of the book contains a number of classmarks that had been used at one point or another throughout the book’s life. Perhaps these give us a clue as to the book’s whereabouts since it was published in 1677.

Giardino di Divozioni ad uso del Cristiano and Della imitazione di Cristo

Printed in Milan in 1893 and 1895 respectively both these books share the same style of binding. Carved leather with gold embossed text blocks.

A possible Icilio Federico Joni forged bookbinding

It is believed that this is an example of one of Icilio Federico Joni’s forged bookbindings. He painted wooden boards, used to cover the Tavole di Biccherna, the elaborately gilt and painted fourteenth-century Sienese tax registers. Joni was an Italian painter and counterfeiter, a highly celebrated self-professed forger whose speciality was as a counterfeiter of ancient paintings. Based in Siena, his birthplace, he was the head of a ‘school of forgers’ who specialized in reproducing imitations of old masters on bookbindings.

The detail on the Leeds binding has been taken from Guidoriccio da Fogliano at the siege of Montemassi, painted by Simone Martini in 1330. It is not yet known with absolute certainty if the Leeds Central Library copy seen here is an actual Joni or if it is a copy of his work by one of his followers. This, of course, would then make it ‘a fake of a fake’!

Joni published his autobiography in 1932, The Memoirs of a Painter of Ancient Paintings, despite great opposition from the world of art.

Icilio Federico Joni (1866-1946)

In fact one famous art historian, Bernard Berenson, who had been taken in by Joni, even purchasing and selling on some of his work in the belief that it was genuine, was very likely to have been behind the book vanishing rapidly from sale. It is said that one of his colleague’s managed to purchase and destroy most of the copies.

The Holy Bible (1613) and Old and New Hull (1889)

Here we have a large and weighty copy of a 1613 bible in English which has a tooled leather binding decorated with a diamond lozenge pattern and has elaborate brass corner pieces and clasps.

Old and New Hull has a binding made of Grammar School Oak from 1583 rescued from oak beams during restoration work to the school in 1884.

Arbor Aniciana

Published in Viennæ, Austriæ in 1613 this work was written by Joannes Seifredus, Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery at Zwettel. However, it is not so much the book that is of interest here but rather the dust jacket it is bound with.

The re-cycling of materials is not just a modern day phenomenon. In times past good materials such as paper, vellum, parchment etc. were expensive and not to be wasted once their original purpose had been served. For example vellum would have the writing and images scrapped off in order for it to be used again.

Here can be seen on the Leeds copy of the Arbor Aniciana – just such an example of re-cycling where a page from a medieval Psalter containing musical notations, Gloria patri’s and so on has been used as a dust jacket to help protect the original binding of the book.

Tes Kaines Diathekes Apanta – Novum Iesu Christi Testamentum

This two volume set of the New Testament written in Greek was published in Basileæ in the year 1552. At only twelve centimetres tall the bindings are of tooled leather with brass fittings and clasps.

Lloyds Register of Shipping

Throughout the war years of 1939-1945 Lloyd’s Register of shipping became subject to the Official Secrets Acts. This resulted in the registers issued at that time having the word ‘SECRET’ embossed on the front cover and also the spine. This can be seen on our copy of the 1943-44 edition shown here.

The reference ‘See Notice Inside Cover’ states that:

“The information contained in this register and its supplements is issued under the provisions of the Official Secrets Acts and/or their equivalent overseas. Any failure adequately to safeguard the information contained therein will render the subscriber liable to the penalties provided for by these acts.

The book and its supplements are invariably to be kept locked up in the safest place available when not in use. Every effort must be taken to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

Loss of this register or of any supplements must be reported at once to Lloyd’s register of shipping and to the nearest British naval authority or British consul.”

To view any of the books mentioned here, please contact our Information and Research department at the Central Library.

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