Marsh's Library and its early fine bindings: formed by scholars and gentleman.
NARCISSUS MARSH WAS A 17th-century English Protestant and Oxford man born in 1638 in Wiltshire. His was a dynamic career as theologian, yet his main interests were scholarly and included mathematics, music, and oriental languages. After having served as chaplain to the Bishop of Exeter, he became chaplain to Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor at Oxford, then Principal at St. Alban Hall where he instituted a weekly meeting for music. He was appointed Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1678/79; there, he studied and promoted the Irish language. More interested in learning than in power, Marsh was also a founding member of the Dublin Philosophical Society to which he contributed a paper on acoustics.
He weathered complex political upheavals in the 1680s after the Catholic James II became king of England, and Marsh, by then a bishop who was driven from his see of Ferns and Leighlin, fled to England after James' flight to France and William of Orange's crossing from England to Ireland. Marsh became a canon at St. Asaph but returned to Dublin after the Battle of the Boyne and was translated to the Archbishopric of Cashel in 1691. He soon became Archbishop of Dublin in 1694 where he also served as Lord Justice of Ireland six times from 1698 and, in 1703, became Primate of Armagh. In the meantime, in 1701, Marsh finally realized his ambition to found a library for public use.
Marsh obtained permission to build on a small tract of land extending into St. Patrick's cathedral churchyard and hired Surveyor General of Ireland, William Robinson to design what became the Public Library in St. Patrick's Close. The foundations of the library's holdings were from three major sources: the immense personal library of Edward Stillingfleet, Dean of St. Paul's and Bishop of Worcester who had died in 1699; the bequest of John Stearne, Bishop of Clogher who died in 1745; and the library of Elias Bouhereau (a Hugenot who became Marsh's first librarian). Marsh's own personal library (excepting the mss on oriental languages, which went to Oxford's Bodleian) augmented these important collections.
Stillingfleet's 10,000 volumes were purchased by Marsh for 2,500 [pounds sterling] in 1705. These, along with Stearne's bequest of 3,000 volumes, and Bouhereau's and Marsh's collections, provided a strong and varied library that includes theology, history, classics, music, law, medicine, travel, science and medicine, classical authors, languages, and religious controversy. However, not all of these volumes were in fine or decorated bindings. And many bills in the library's Account Book (1731-1953) refer to binding books in plain calf, sheepskin, or half bindings.
(Additional large gifts to the library include those of the bibliographer Ernest Reginald McClintock Dix who presented a number of fine Irish bindings in 1905.)
The Library's governors first met in July 1708. The first visitation followed on 14 October of that year. By that time, Bouhereau had begun his immense task of cataloguing. By 1711 Marsh fell ill and died in November of 1713; he is buried in a vault close to his library.
Following her informative Introduction, Mrs. Foot's chapters are devoted to the early decorated bindings by country of origin: Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain/Italy/Russia, and The Netherlands/ Germany. A brief Afterword states that there are several more decorated bindings in the library not discussed here, "largely dating from the 16th century, largely tooled in blind with panels or rolls, and largely originating from England and Germany."
Mrs. Foot gives the reader not only historical backgrounds of the Library's founders, but also explains the methods and customs of hand-binding in the 15th through 18th centuries during the period of hand presses.
Her bibliographical sources are impeccable, citing for example, B. Middleton and Nicholas Pickwoad. She reminds us that the binding of books (except for some very popular titles that might be bound in soft utilitarian parchment or paper covers) was the responsibility of the buyer. Thus, a variety of bindings for the same book would be bespoke, depending on the purse and tastes of the owner.
Marsh, the scholar, was not especially interested in bindings in and for themselves, but in books and their contents. Yet fine bindings appeared as gifts or as part of large collections he acquired. As she concludes, "The bindings are accidental, but a happy accident."
Her descriptions of methods of binding includes mention of the materials--this reviewer would have appreciated a clearer distinction made between parchment and vellum with regard to their sources (vellum from calf, parchment from sheepskin), or whether the method of curing skins results in these distinctions (e.g., alum & salt tawing). However, she describes with clarity the various methods, both luxurious and economical, for constructing a decorated binding for a large book: the methods of sewing signatures, of gluing, constructing bands and false bands, spines, tailpieces, fore-edge paintings, book presses--all the marvelous paraphernalia of the craft. Her illustrations include both blind-stamping and tooling with gold and color on a variety of leathers. Such decorated bindings are gems in themselves, and her scholarship does great service to book lovers.
One interesting detail is that books were bound according to whether they were to be laid flat on a table or slanted lectern, or to be shelved upright with spines showing. The strength of the spine was an issue here. And, many large books not only had "furniture" or clasps to keep them closed (due to the thickness of the signatures at the sewn edge) but also were fitted with chains. A number of the bindings in Marsh's had been chained to tables but the chains were removed in 1762-63 and marks of the old furniture remain.
This book itself is produced in sturdy green buckram library binding with gold stamping on the front board (sans dj). Text, eight color plates and fifty-two black and white figures (photos) are all on high grade acid-free enamelled paper. The text is set in Times New Roman. This is a pleasant book to handle and congenial to read with a variety of useful and enchanting information contained in its modest size. One could wish for more color--some of the figures in black and white are of bindings with gorgeous combinations: green goatskin, red morocco with gold, etc. [e.g., figs. 2.5, a Dublin binding 1772, green hair-sheep tooled in gold; 2.7, a Dublin binding c1788, red goatskin tooled in gold]. But this edition, generously funded by the late Sir Paul Getty, is a valuable source book for bibliophiles and an informative look into a vanishing craft.
--New York City