I dread to think how many books I’ve handled in the past decade in and around the book trade, and in my studies at Oxford – where I haunted the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera (Rad Cam!) and the Duke Humphrey’s. It must be reaching the hundreds of thousands. However boastful this is sounding – and reading it back almost makes me ashamed of such gluttony – I don’t intend it to be. Of those say 150,000 books, around 50,000 would have been in early and sometimes ‘fine bindings’ of calf, sheep, goatskin (‘morocco’ or ‘Russia’), pigskin or vellum. Of these 50,000, at least 4/5ths would undoubtedly have been British in origin – the small remainder would have been a mixture of continental and North American.
So in short, whilst I’ve picked up lots of early books, I’m no expert on bookbinding. I’d back myself on identifying the work of few English binders C17-19th – Samuel Mearne, the Naval Binder, Kalthoeber, Riviere, possibly even the Spaniel Binder – and the wonderful, free and illustrated British Library database of bookbindings provides data to help on those I’m ignorant of. But the history of continental bookbinding is an area of my education I’m particularly eager to improve. As luck would have it, the London Rare Book School are holding a week long summer school course on exactly this topic – and registration starts in two hours.
Reading the second chapter of Mirjam M. Foot’s Bookbinders at Work (London, 2006) has reminded me of the continental heritage of the craft, and art, that I now appreciate mainly in the British – and lets be honest, mostly English – form. A 5 day course on its history should be just the ticket. If I can keep up with the tutors and fellow students, I’ll try and share some of the experiences here – stay tuned!