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The Curator’s Collection

I was first introduced to the beauty of Victorian publisher’s cloth bindings in my early twenties when my Grandmother passed down to me a handful of antique books.  One of those family heirlooms was a remarkable 1646 edition of Desid: Erasmi Roterodami Colloqvia familiaria…by the Dutch theologian, Desiderius Erasmus.  I was completely enthralled with this but strangely enough, I was equally captivated by the other five books, each dating from the 19th century.  Maybe it was the bright cloth covers or the elaborate cover designs or perhaps it was just the liberal use of gold but something about those books really appealed to me.

In fact, I’ve always adored old things – photographs, furniture, ceramics and glassware, anything really.  Nothing brightens my day more than a trip to the second-hand store or the local auction house in search of that covetable piece.  Mostly, I acquire these items for their aesthetic value but, with books it’s different.  The Victorian binding was so much more than just a pretty cover.  Prior to this era, books came in paper wrappers and the purchaser had to pay to have them bound in leather; a luxury afforded to the wealthy few.  Book paper itself was comprised of cotton and linen fibres and its production was neither cheap nor efficient.  Industrialisation of the 1830s and 40s, however, changed all of this.  Books could now be “cased-in”; their covers constructed “en masse” and separately from the textblock.  Paper, too, was being produced more efficiently thanks to the mechanical pulping of wood.  These developments saw the cost of book production plummet and for the first time, most people could actually afford to buy a book.

Interestingly, it’s these advances in paper production and binding methods which fuel my desire to collect the Victorian binding, specifically.  It just so happens, that these books aren’t fairing very well.  Unlike their 18th and 17th century counterparts, their pages have a high acid content, short cellulose grains and often include lignin, a wood pulp component that promotes acid degradation which usually manifests itself as severe embrittlement and discolouration.  Foxing, too, is common to books of this era.  These small, light-brown spots on the pages are caused by mould or iron contaminants within the paper itself.  Moulds feed on both the paper and other surface matter, including food stains, dead insects and finger marks.  Even small details, such as the regular omission of the headband, contribute to the plight of the publisher’s binding.  Traditionally these silk stitches (sewn around a piece of cord or leather placed at the top and tail of the spine) were also anchored to the textblock, providing the book with added strength and support when opened.  More often than not, the Victorian binding had a faux headband (if it had one at all); that is, a simple piece of machine-stitched cloth glued to the back of the book.  Its value was purely decorative; it served no functional purpose whatsoever.  It is for these reasons and many more, that I feel compelled to collect and preserve such important historical records.

Now, as someone learning the craft of bookbinding and paper conservation, I have a new-found appreciation for the book’s minor design elements which, together, can produce a very special binding.  Whether it’s selecting or dying cloth, hand-sewing page gatherings, cutting boards, backing or “rounding” a book, casing-in, gold-tooling, blocking, stamping or embossing, a great deal of skill and effort goes into binding a book.  Although much of this work was mechanised by the end of the 19th century, most bindings from the Victorian era were surprisingly beautiful.  They were hand-crafted in many ways; they were often colourful and ornate; and they were complex.  They were designed and bound specifically to attract our attention, to encourage us to buy them.

All the more reason to collect them really!

Cabinet 8

The Story of Rosina and Other Verses. Austin Dobson. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 1895 Pictorial gold-stamped burgundy cloth over bevelled boards, with cover image depicting a man and women with sheep and lambs, each ornately framed by flowers and trees. Top edge gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Story of Rosina and Other Verses.  Austin Dobson. 1895

The Poetical Works of John Milton. John Milton. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Undated but circa 1880 Publisher’s green cloth over bevelled boards. Title and author blocked in relief on gold-embellished decorative panels. Floral stamping in black and gold to cover and spine. All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of John Milton.  John Milton. Undated but circa 1880

The Poetical Works of S.T. Coleridge. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Frederick Warne & Co. Undated but circa 1885 Publisher’s royal blue cloth over bevelled boards.  Author’s name blocked in relief on gold decorative panels.  Further black stamping, in a scalloped style, to head and tail of cover and spine.  Note: this cover design was applied uniformly to the Lansdowne Poets series, another example of which can be seen on the adjacent Longfellow book.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of S.T. Coleridge.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Undated but circa 1885

The Poetical Works of Longfellow. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. London: Frederick Warne & Co. Undated but circa 1885 Publisher’s light brown cloth over bevelled boards.  Author’s name blocked in relief on gold decorative panels.  Further black stamping, in a scalloped style, to head and tail of cover and spine.  A classic example of embellished title blocking, commonly associated with Victorian publisher’s bindings.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of Longfellow.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Undated but circa 1885

Venice: Its History, Art, Industries and Modern Life. Charles Yriarte. Translated from the French by F.J. Sitwell. Philadelphia: The International Press, The John C. Winston Co. Undated but circa 1896 Vibrant red cloth, with ornate stamped, gilt border to cover and top and tail of spine.  Cover pictorially illustrated with the monument of General Bartolomeo Colleoni, which appears again as a photogravure between pages 226 and 227.  Note: the condition of this book is near fine; the result of a protective cloth cover or “dust jacket”.
Curator's Collection

Venice: its history, art, industries and modern life.  Charles Yriarte.  Translated from the French by F.J. Sitwell. Undated but circa 1896

The Adventures of Joel Pepper. Margaret Sidney. Boston: Lothrop Publishing Company. 1900 Pale green publisher’s cloth, elaborately stamped with brown ink such that the leaves and coloured fruit stand out in relief.  Children stamped in gold on spine and cover, with title also blocked in gilt decorative panel.
Curator's Collection

The Adventures of Joel Pepper.  Margaret Sidney. 1900

The Poetical Works of George Crabbe: With Life. London: Gall & Inglis. Undated but circa 1890 Publisher’s brown cloth, with gilt and coloured border to head and tail of cover and spine. Gilt medallion, central statue and title block (encapsulating blue relief title) further surrounded by columns in graduated colour. Embellished title block to spine and all edges gilt. A fine example of the use of colour in stamping, common to books of the late 19th century.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of George Crabbe: with life.  Undated but circa 1890

The Poetical Works and Prose of Henry Kirke White: With Life by Robert Southey. London: Gall & Inglis. Undated but circa 1875 Publisher’s green patterned sand-grain cloth over bevelled boards.  Gilt and black-stamped decorative cover border with additional corner floral embellishment.  Central shield with gold-stamped pictorial illustration and embellished title blocks to spine and cover; the latter in brown ink and relief.  All edges gilt. More photos...
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works and Prose of Henry Kirke White: with life by Robert Southey. Undated but circa 1875

Holidays in Home Countries. Edward Walford. London: W.H. Allen & Co. 1899 Brown publisher’s cloth ornately stamped in black and gold with pictorial illustrations of Brambletye House, a mansion near the Sussex border; a small boat moored at Chiswick; and the grand Wolsey’s Palace at Esher, each appearing as again throughout the text.  Top edge gilt.
Curator's Collection

Holidays in Home Countries.  Edward Walford. 1899
Rare Books & Special Collections
Address

The University of Adelaide
Rare Books & Special Collections
Level 1, Barr Smith Library
South Australia 5005
Australia

Contact

Phone: +61 8 8313 5224
library_special@adelaide.edu.au