Cloth, gold, ink, and style

Victorian publishers’ bindings, as they are sometimes known, are making a comeback. Regarded as beautiful in their own time, they were considered old-fashioned by the end of the First World War and subsequently fell from favour and many were destroyed or thrown out for their more modern and simpler-looking successors.

They survive in private collections or in libraries like the Turnbull, where tracing the history of book development is important and where superseded styles are cherished rather than discarded. These 19th- and early 20th-century bindings have been described as being among the most beautiful mass-produced objects of the Victorian period.

Images taken by Alicia Tolley.

A selection of Victorian publishers' bindings, showing their colourful and illustrated covers and spines.A selection of Victorian publishers’ bookbindings from the Turnbull Library General Collection.

For the purposes of this blog the Victorian period (1837-1901) is extended to the end of the First World War when the pictorial dust jacket resulted in a fundamental change and a return to a plain cloth binding.

A selection of spines from  Victorian publishers' bindings.Spines of Victorian publishers' bindings.

Take a more detailed look at some publishers’ bindings in the Turnbull General Collection. There are some stunning examples of the art.

What is a publishers’ binding?

Sometimes called edition bindings, publishers’ cased bindings (bindings made separately from the book) are book covers designed and produced by machine in multiple numbers, as opposed to a binding created by hand for an individual book.

These cloth-covered and later gilt-blocked covers were a product of technical developments in the 1820s and 1830s. There were several main reasons for the rise of publishers’ bindings: the increased demand for books, the ability to print books more quickly and in larger numbers, and the development of machine binding, cased covers, and the introduction of cloth in the 1820s as a suitable cover for books.

A decorated cloth cover from the 1890s, showing a fairy.A decorated cloth cover from the 1890s. The yellow fairy book, Andrew Lang, ed, with numerous illustrations by H.J. Ford (Longmans, Green and Co, 1894). Henry J. Ford collaborated with Andrew Lang on all twelve of his ‘rainbow’ or ‘coloured’ fairy books. Each volume was covered in a gold-blocked cover in the colour of its title (e.g. blue, brown, crimson, lilac, olive etc). The complete set was collected by Alexander Turnbull and although he had these rebound in the appropriately-coloured leather, he retained the original gold-blocked covers on the insides of the boards. This has ensured their mint condition. Ref: G J398.4 LAN 1894.

Introduction of cloth

Cloth was the material of choice for the binding of multiple copies because it was cheap and could be retained as a permanent binding in place of the more expensive leather binding of the past. A specially-designed book cloth, developed in the first quarter of the 19th century, was a bleached woven base-cloth (almost always cotton) that has been ‘filled’ several times with coloured starch and then calendered to give a smooth finish. This combined with the adoption of casing revolutionised publishing as it put the responsibility for binding on the publisher, rather than as previously on the bookseller or purchaser.

To make the plain weave of cloth look more interesting to eyes accustomed to leather, machines were developed in the 1830s which could impress a grain into cloth, and where additional designs could be stamped on the cloth from blocks cut to size.

Bead-grained dark green cloth with additional decoration blocked in blind on the cover.Bead-grained dark green cloth with additional decoration blocked in blind on the cover; the author and title has been blocked in gold on the spine. This particular type of grain, the bead grain, was introduced around the 1850s . M. Guizot, History of Richard Cromwell, vol.2 (Richard Bentley, 1856). Ref: G 942.06 GUI 1856.

The colour of the cloth was the simplest form of decoration, and to begin with dark colours were the preferred choice, but in the 1840s and 1850s, lighter and more venturesome colours were introduced such as orange and emerald. Patterned cloth also made an appearance from time to time (striped, spotted, plush, and unglazed chintz), but tended to remain outside the mainstream.

Introduction of gold

At the same time as the development of book cloth, a method of applying gold to cloth easily and in sufficient quantities for commercial purposes was also developed. At first it was just lettering with a combination of some or all of title, author, publisher, and date, usually on the spine (replacing earlier paper labels). But from 1840 there was a growth in gold cover decoration, not only with lettering, but with pictures or designs.

Red cloth blocked in gold with a central sunken panel.Red cloth blocked in gold with a central sunken panel. The sunken panel was popular with the gift book introduced from the 1840s. Gift books were designed to be seen, not stored on a shelf, thus the cover was an important feature. Binder’s ticket: Leighton Son & Hodge, Shoe Lane, London. Christmas with the poets (D. Bogue, 1855). Ref 821.08 CHR 1855.

Because great pressure and heat was required for the gold to adhere to the cloth the blocks had to be cut on brass, rather than the more usual wood. These elaborate hand-engraved brass plates would have been a considerable investment for publishers, and the plates were sometimes re-used for a later and completely different book in a cut down form, or with certain sections cut out.

Gold and colours

Once the addition of gold was accomplished, there arose the desire to blend colours with the gold. The mid-1840s saw the development of a process for blocking black ink straight on to cloth (other colours could be blocked from the 1870s), and as ink was cheaper than gold, this was ideal for publishers wanting to issue cheaper editions. In addition, wood blocks which were suitable for ink were cheaper and easier to engrave than brass.

But it was soon realised that combining black ink and gold could produce a very handsome result. Sometimes there was an additional decoration, the colour-printed paper onlay, and there are some beautiful examples of this.

Orange cloth, blocked in gold and black ink, with an oval colour printed paper onlay.Orange cloth, blocked in gold and black ink, with an oval colour printed paper onlay. Flora symbolica (F.W.Warne and Co, [1869]). Ref: G 398.3.ING 1869.

In the 1860s symmetrical compositions were much in evidence such as in Flora symbolica above and also the series An English Garner below, which was published between 1877 and 1896.

Blue cloth blocked in gold and black in a symmetrical design.Blue cloth blocked in gold and black in a symmetrical design. Edward Arber, An English Garner, vol.4 (E. Arber, 1882). Ref: G 820.8. ENG 1877-96.

Pictorial cover design

By the 1880s, many cover designs were unashamedly pictorial and could extend across the entire cover.

Pictorial design extending across the cover. Blue cloth, blocked in gold, red, black, white, and light brown.Pictorial design extending across the cover. Blue cloth, blocked in gold, red, black, white, and light brown. Taprell Dorling, All about ships (Cassell and Company, [1912?]) Ref: G 387 DOR 1912.

Usually these designs were related to the content of the book, but sometimes there was some artistic licence. The upper cover of Myths and legends of Japan (1912) has an almost Persian influence, despite its title.

Blue cloth, blocked in gold.F. Hadland Davis, Myths and legends of Japan (George G. Harrap, 1912). Blue cloth, blocked in gold. Ref: G 398.2. DAV 1912.

Who created these designs?

The variety and richness in style of publishers’ bindings is wide. Some were signed by their creator, but most were unsigned. Some covers were created by re-using an illustration from within the book itself - this occurred particularly in the 1870s when pictorial covers were in vogue - others were specially designed for the purpose. Sometimes an unsigned cover features a design that is clearly the work of the book’s illustrator.

An example is Dobson’s The Story of Rosina (below) illustrated by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920). It was one of two books Thomson worked on for his life-long friend Austin Dobson. The cover is adapted from an illustration at the head of the first chapter.

Dark red cloth blocked in gold.Cover designed by Hugh Thomson who was also the illustrator of the book. Austin Dobson, Story of Rosina (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trűbner & Co, 1895). Dark red cloth blocked in gold. This book was also issued in a green and blue cloth with identical cover design. Ref: G 821.8. DOB 1895.

Sometimes the cover was designed by another person altogether. Frank Calderon (1865-1943) illustrated numerous books such as The most delectable history of Reynard the Fox (1895). The cover of this book, however, was designed by A. A. Turbayne (1866-1940), an American book designer and book binding artist who worked largely in London. Turbayne’s principal work was the design of books and bindings and Reynard is considered to be one of his most charming designs.

Dark blue cloth blocked in gold.Cover designed by A.A. Turbayne. Dark blue cloth blocked in gold. The most delectable history of Reynard the Fox (Macmillan and Co, 1895). Ref: G 398.2 JAC 1895.

Another artist known for her cover designs is Althea Gyles (1868-1949). Her fame today is mostly related to her outstanding book covers for three of W.B. Yeats’ works: The secret rose (1897), Poems (1899), and The wind in the willows (1899). She has been defined as ‘the genius who invented a symbolic personality for Yeats and as one of the few artists really able to understand, decode, and translate Yeats’ magical symbolism, his Irishness and Pre-Raphaelitism into her plastic forms’.

Blue cloth blocked in gold.Blue cloth blocked in gold. Binding design by Althea Gyles (1868-1949), an Irish artist who knew Yeats and designed covers for some of his other publications in the 1890s. W.B. Yeats, Poems (T. Fisher Unwin, 1899, reprinted 1912). Ref: G 821.91. YEA 1912.

Art Nouveau and cover design

A movement which strongly influenced book illustration and ornamentation from the late 19th century, including cover design, was Art Nouveau. Two exponents were Frederick Shields (1833-1911) and Charles Ricketts (1866-1931).

Frederick Shields was an artist, illustrator, and designer who had associations with the Pre-Raphaelite group and also with the family of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This cover for Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake is considered a significant example of his work in book design and represents an early example of Art Nouveau.

Blue cloth blocked in gold.Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake vol.1 (Macmillan, 1880). Blue cloth blocked in gold. Cover designed by Frederick Shields. Ref: G 821.6 BLA 1880.

Although designed by Shields, the inspiration for the cover came from Rossetti, who had been advising Gilchrist’s wife on a new edition of Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake. Rossetti observed that the binding for the 1st edition was an ‘ill-concocted thing’ and that a fairy design in a Blake manuscript in Rossetti’s own possession would make an admirable design for a binding.

A later example of Art Nouveau is the cover for the first edition of In the key of blue (1892) designed by Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) and his partner Charles Shannon (1863-1937). This talented duo, key figures in the London art world at the time, designed and illustrated books, established the art journal The Dial in 1889, and founded the Vale Press in 1894. In the key of blue, with its elongated floral forms and stylized ornamentation lines, is one of their most typical Art Nouveau designs.

Cream cloth blocked in gold.John Addington Symonds, In the key of blue 3rd ed (Elkin Mathews, 1896). Cream cloth blocked in gold. Signed by Charles Ricketts in the lower left hand corner and by his partner, Charles Shannon, in the lower right. Ref: G821.8 SYM 1896.

For those interested in finding more examples of these publishers’ bindings, the Wood Collection held at the Library provides another resource, as does the Rare Books and Fine Printing Collection.

Further reading

Arianna Antonielli, ‘Althea Gyles' symbolic (de)codification of William Butler Yeats' “Rose and Wind Poetry”’, Studi Irlandesi: A journal of Irish studies vol.1 n.1 (2011): 271-301

Giles Barber, ‘Rossetti, Ricketts, and some English publishers’ bindings of the nineties’, The Library, 5th series, v.25 n.4 (December 1970): 314-330

Douglas Ball, Victorian publishers’ bindings (London: Library Association, 1985)

Ruari McLean, Victorian book design and colour printing (London: Faber & Faber, 1963).

Ruari McLean, Victorian publishers’ book-bindings in cloth and leather (London, Gordon Fraser, 1974)

Ellen K. Morris and Edward S. Levin, The art of publishers’ bookbindings 1815-1915 (Los Angeles: William Dailey Rare Books Ltd, 2000)

Michael Sadleir, Evolution of publishers’ binding styles: 1770-1900 (London: Constable, 1930)

William Tomlinson and Richard Masters, Bookcloth 1823-1980 (Stockport, Cheshire: Dorothy Tomlinson, 1996)

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

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Rachel Sonius December 8th at 4:10PM

These are glorious Ruth, thank you so much - what a treat!

p.d.r.lindsay-salmon December 9th at 11:08AM

Lovely to see these covers. I have a few books with publishers' bindings and they are cherished. Thank you for putting this together and I shall follow up your links with gratitude.

laura jones December 10th at 11:15AM

Fascinating - thanks Ruth. Hope to see some make their way into your upcoming exhibition...!

Raewyn Timmins December 11th at 9:13AM

Beautiful works of art.

Jenny McDonald December 11th at 9:17AM

Facinating and beautiful. Thankyou

Peter Hallinan December 18th at 10:37AM

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever". Thank you, Ruth and Alicia, for keeping the flame of beauty burning brightly today.

merrily smith May 25th at 3:15PM

Thank you for this interesting and beautifully illustrated essay on publisher's bindings.