Mirjam M. Foot. The Henry Davis Gift: A Collection of Bookbindings.
This volume completes the catalogue of books given to the British Library by Henry Davis in 1968. A manufacturer of telephone cables, Davis (1897-1977) collected books for about 25 years. The British Library received the part of his collection which had been acquired mainly as examples of fine bookbinding. The Library published the first two volumes recording Davis's gift in 1978 and 1983. Volume I contains 25 essays by Mirjam Foot on particular bookbindings and bookbinders; in volume 2, she catalogued the Northern European (mainly British, Dutch, and German) bookbindings. The present volume covers bookbindings from France (22.2 entries), Switzerland (14, mainly from Geneva), Italy (157, mainly from northern Italy and Rome), Spain and Portugal (15), and a miscellany of other countries, including Persia (5). All research libraries should already possess volumes 1 and 2 of The Henry Davis Girl, and acquire this third volume. Its price also makes it affordable to anyone interested in the history of the book, and to bookbinders.
The Catalogue of South European Bindings follows the format of volume z. Each book or multivolume work is given an identifying heading. This is followed by the author, title, and publication details; the dimensions; and a systematic description of its appearance, including materials, tooling, sewing structure, endpapers, endbands, and fastenings; chronological lists of provenance, literature, and references; mention of related bindings; and notes giving biographical information about previous owners and about the bookbinder. This detailed scrutiny of the physical appearance, combined with the literature review, allows the binding to be assigned a date and a location. However, as with many decorative arts, the evidence is often insufficient to divide a body of similar work into watertight compartments attributed to particular artisans. In her introduction, Foot emphasizes that the descriptions are fuller than in volume 2, in response to the perceived needs of the students she has taught. This is a welcome improvement. Each entry now includes a description of the decoration of board edges and turn-ins, and structural details such as endbands and sewing supports. She notes the contribution these details make to dating a bookbinding. For example, French fine binders used alum-tawed sewing supports until 1560 (with a few examples as late as 1580), split leather supports during the 1570s through 1590s, and gradually replaced these by cords, particularly after 1580. Italian bookbinders continued using alum-tawed sewing supports until the 1570s, with some examples as late as 1590. Foot also scrupulously notes repairs to joints and corners, and later additions, such as new endbands, and tooling on the spine. In one case, she exposes a fake: a plain early seventeenth-century Italian binding was "enhanced" in the late eighteenth century with a pictorial scene of two saintly monks. Each entry condenses a large amount of material acquired by painstaking examination of the volume. Study of these entries will help cataloguers to describe and analyze what they see, and will provide a model for the information that should be recorded for fine bookbindings in their collection, and a consistent terminology. Either the upper or lower cover of each book is reproduced. Books measuring 30 cm or more in height generally receive a full page; those of about 20 cm, two-thirds to half of a page. As a result, individual tools and even the texture of the leather are visible. The few exceptions are some blind-tooled bindings, a category that is exceptionally difficult to photograph.
The earliest bookbinding in this volume is from early thirteenthcentury Paris, of blind-stamped calf over wooden boards. The most recent is another French bookbinding, from 1962. Between these two dates, the distribution of examples is very uneven. The collection is strongest in sixteenth-century bookbindings: altogether there are about 250, with 116 from France and 112 from Italy. In contrast, there are only 63 seventeenth-century bookbindings (38 of them French); and a mere seven from the twentieth century, with six of them French.
It is a pleasure to look through the examples reproduced in this volume. From about 1530, fine bindings provide a feast of gold tooling. The designs show how much can be done on a small flat surface in the way of symmetrical decoration. The chronological arrangement shows changes in fashionable taste in this minor but vital decorative art. On the whole, bookbinding is conservative. Traditional patterns coexisted with innovations. A favourite scheme consisted of a border with a central motif (in the shape of a circle, an oval or a diamond, or a coat of arms). The binders emphasized corners with tools set on a diagonal, or with quarter-pie shapes on the inside. Sometimes they expanded the border to a wide frame; sometimes they filled the field between the border and central motif with ribbon interlace, leafy arabesques, and gold dots. Davis did not collect examples of all the changes in taste from the eighteenth to twentieth century. There are no rococo fantasies, no symbolic French liberty bonnets (although one book has a stamp commemorating the events of 6 October 1789), and few bindings whose pictorial tools reflect the book's contents. However, there are some unexpected inclusions: eight nineteenthcentury French publishers' gift books in over-dressed gold-embossed paper; two entries with naturalistic views of classical ruins painted on Italian vellum bindings from about 1790 and 1830; and a few eighteenth-century Italian embroidered bindings. Even so, Davis's preference was clearly for gold-tooled leather in classic styles.
In volume I, Foot expressed her admiration for sixteenth-century French bookbindings. Her sustained enthusiasm for the subject is demonstrated in her negotiation ofthe complexities of reattributions, and new names and nicknames for French workshops of this period. These are summarized in her introductory essay and in the individual entries. Immediately after this introduction, she gives a useful general bibliography of 227 books and articles; individual entries list additional articles. Foot herself has written much on bookbinding and is known for her original research. This catalogue benefits from her informed understanding of the background and her ability to weigh the evidence and to focus on the minutiae. One source which Foot does not list in the bibliography is the British Library's own Database of Bookbindings. Recently, L.A. Miller provided evidence that led the Library to change the attribution of one of its featured bookbindings, Foot's cat. no. 172 (Davis 541) which in 1978 and 2010 she attributed to J.-A. or N.-D. Derome. Miller's "Virtual Bookbinding" web site compares enlarged impressions of the finishing tools of 13 seventeenthand eighteenth-century French bookbinders. These show that Davis 541 was tooled by Pierre-Paul Dubuisson, whose designs and tools Derome le jeune closely imitated.
In volume 1, the books were usually photographed so that the spine was visible as well as the cover. Volumes 2 and 3 show only the cover. Yet, from the mid-sixteenth century, the tooled spine was sometimes part of the design. Reproducing the spines, and even details of some doublures and text-block edge treatments, would have given a better idea of the tout ensemble than the descriptive text on its own. Such photographs can help cataloguers with identification as well as do justice to the aesthetic qualities of these bindings. Again, to give these handsome objects their due, some of the bindings, particularly those with onlays, could have been reproduced in colour. These additions would have made this volume weightier and a little more expensive, but both would have been justified. While in this critical vein, I should mention that the binding of this volume is inferior to that of the previous volumes. Before opening it, readers should position supports for the covers, as the 32-page signatures are so heavy that the middle signatures have a tendency to fall forward, cracking the spine liner.
A small selection of the Davis gift was displayed in a purpose-built case in the old British Museum soon after the collection was donated. I remember coming across it in the midst of a sea of manuscripts and printed books, and being impressed by the beauty and colour of these bookbindings. This was a reminder that collectors are not motivated only by intellectual considerations, or by the interior of the book. Like Pepys, who confessed in his diary on 15 May 1660 while at The Hague, "Bought, for the love of the bindings, three books," collectors can be seduced into acquisition by the cover. This volume gives many examples of such books, valued for their elegant and sumptuous outsides as much or more than for the text.
Foot has produced a rich, factually precise catalogue, which is more than a compilation. It will, as Foot promised in the previous volume, be of use to binding historians, librarians, booksellers, collectors, and other book lovers. It should also inspire the next generation of book historians.
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|Publication:||Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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