The book beautiful

What makes a book beautiful? Part of the answer lies in the eye of the beholder. Most people will acknowledge that a medieval Book of Hours with its illuminated pages is gorgeous to look at, as are the luminous hand-coloured lithographed illustrations in Sharpe’s monograph of birds of paradise and bower-birds, and most people will also acknowledge that a silver bookbinding engraved with flowers and foliage is also an object of beauty.

For the Wellington-based reader of this blog, or the traveller passing through, there is an opportunity to feast their eyes on some of these items at first hand in the current exhibition The Book Beautiful at the Turnbull Gallery.

But what of the less obvious things that didn’t make it into the exhibition, such as inscriptions and bookplates, or aspects of bookbinding, such as sewing and manuscript titles, or even flaws in the vellum surface of an early manuscript? All can be beautiful in different ways to different people.

Marbled papers

Comb hand-marbled paper showing a scale-like pattern.Comb hand-marbled paper from the Trianon Press, a French press founded in the 1940s, which made a feature of using exquisite marbled papers in their fine printed works. Ref: fRPr TRIA BLAKE 1974. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.

Marbled papers have been used by bookbinders in the West since the introduction of the art into Europe from the East around 1600. These papers, in their infinite varieties are often found as colourful outer covers, or as linings on the inside of covers, and marbling was also applied to text edges of books. Paper marbling may be defined simply as the floating of colours on a liquid to form a pattern, which may be lifted by placing a sheet of paper (or the text edges of a book) on the floating colours and then removing it.

There are many different styles and patterns, but they are basically variations of either spot (thrown) designs or combed designs. France was the earliest western country to employ marbled paper for book and bookbinding decoration, the art subsequently moving into Germany and then in the middle of the 18th century to other European countries including England.

Early printing

Francesco de Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), a very early printed book made by the Venetian Aldus Manutius, is recognised for its clear typeface and innovative text layout. The creator of the elegant woodcuts is unknown, but they have been associated by some scholars with artists such as Bellini and the young Raphael.

Page of an early printed book, headed 'PRIMUS', and showing a woodcut scene of a procession and centred text in lines of decreasing length.Innovative page layout, elegant woodcuts, and a clear typeface in Hypnerotomachia (1499). Ref: qRInc COLO Hypn 1499.

To the uninitiated eye, the beauty of a page such as this title page in the Baskerville Bible (below) with its somewhat dated appearance may not be immediately apparent. It was produced at a time when a book was judged by the quality of the illustrator and engraver rather than the typography and the art of the printer.

Title page of the Baskerville Bible, showing highly detailed typography.Title page of the Baskerville Bible (1763). Ref: fREng BIBLE 1763.

However, this 1763 folio bible was considered by the 20th-century bibliographer Philip Gaskell as ‘one of the finest books of the whole 18th century’. It was the masterpiece of English printer John Baskerville, who insisted that typography alone could be the means of achieving a fine book. Only 1,250 were printed at the time.

Gift books

At the end of the 19th century the gift book appeared on the market as a genre. The chosen texts were often children’s stories, or other pleasant but undemanding subject matter. These books were produced in limited editions as collectors’ items by several of the large English publishing firms, including Hodder & Stoughton, Constable, Dent, and Heinemann.

Illustration showing a women with a worm-like creature wrapped around her, in front of two large candles.‘She saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side’. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, in the gift book East of the sun and west of the moon (1914). Ref: qRPr HODD NIEL 1914. View this image on Flickr.

Visual presentation was paramount. The limited special editions were bound in white vellum decorated in gold and sometimes colour, with full page illustrations printed on glossy art paper by the four-colour process, and then mounted onto brown or blue card and bound into the book.

Additional black and white line drawings were sometimes interspersed in the text. The artists were the best illustrators of the time such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Hugh Thomson, Heath Robinson, Kay Nielsen, and Willy Pogany.

East of the sun and west of the moon (1914), a book of Scandinavian fairy stories illustrated by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen is considered by some to be one of the most beautiful children’s books ever published.

Victorian Book Design

The illuminated gift book, while not classed as the most beautiful example of book making today, at the time of production it was at the forefront of book design, prefiguring the famous and much-loved Kelmscott Press openings of thirty years later.

Double page spread showing drawn text and illustration, and highly detailed borders.Chromolithographed opening pages in Thomas Moore, Paradise and the Peri (1860). Ref: G q821.7 MOO 1860.

Thomas Moore’s Paradise and the Peri (1860) was illuminated by Owen Jones and Henry Warren, the former one of the most influential and well-known designers of mid-19th century Britain. It was drawn on stone by Albert Warren. The book has double-page spreads, consisting of drawn (not typeset) text on the left and illustration on the right, both within wide highly-decorated borders. The style exploits the new medium of chromolithography to the full and uses from six to thirteen colours on each page.


One can’t help but admire the flowing lines of this hand. Not all inscriptions in books are of the same quality, but Thomas Mainwaring clearly treasured his books and knew how to write well. The book containing this inscription, Allestree The art of contentment (1675), is showing in the Book beautiful exhibition, but for its Restoration binding rather than for the inscription inside. Sir Thomas Mainwaring (1623-1689), was a High Sheriff of Cheshire, England, in the 17th century.

Signature of Thomas Manning, and 'his book, 1687' in fine handwriting.Ownership inscription of Sir Thomas Mainwaring. Ref: REng ALLE Art 1675. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.

Heavily annotated book

Not all inscriptions are to do with ownership, sometimes they can be comments on the text, and often these comments can be found in the margins or sometimes written between the lines of type. They can include underlining and the use of the manicule (pointing hand) to highlight a section of text, much as we do today.

Detail of a late medieval manuscript, showing a small illustration of a hand pointing to text from the gutter.Manicule (pointing hand) on f.5 in Clemens, Constitutiones (1471). Record page. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.

To the scholar the more heavily annotated a book, the more interesting and beautiful in their eyes, since these marks show how a particular text was received and used by the reader. The 16th century text on Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics by Pietro Vermigli (1499-1562) below is heavily marked up throughout the book by an early owner.

Heavily annotated text, with marginalia, underlining, and indicative lines.Heavily annotated text. In primum, secundum, et initum tertii libri Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nichomachum (1563). Ref: RGr ARIS In 1563. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.


Bookplates come in many shapes and sizes and some can be more imposing than others. There are two basic types: armorial and pictorial. Usually they are rectangular in shape, but circular or seal-shaped bookplates became popular in the 19th century. The example shown below belongs to Yorkshire antiquarian, Edward Hailstone (1818-1890). The background colour of this one is black, but Hailstone had his bookplate produced in a variety of colours.

Circular bookplate in black and gold, with a heraldic shield-based design.Gilt-stamped leather bookplate of Edward Hailstone. Ref: REng FIEL Auth 1730. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.


Apart from the obvious gold tooling on a leather cover, the natural surfaces of the various leathers frequently demand a second glance: the smoothness of polished calfskin for example, or the pebble-like grain of crushed goatskin in particular.

Differences in calf and goat leather in book bindings.A selection of tanned leathers. Details of covers of (L-R): Mr Thomson, A poem (REng THOM Poem 1737); William Wordsworth, Peter Bell (REng WORDS Peter 1819); Mr Young, Plutus, the god of riches (REng FIELD ARIS Plut 1742).

The flattened surface which enhances the grained pattern of goatskin is obtained through the process of rolling and ironing the skin. This also means that the leather can accept gold tooling more readily, if that is required.

Differences in goat leather in book bindings.More tanned leathers. Details of covers of (L-R): William Wordsworth, A letter to a friend of Robert Burns (REng WORDS Letter 1816); John Milton, Paradise regain'd (REng MIL 1671 Para 1791); John Webster, The deuils law-case (REng WEBS Devils 1632).

Re-use of material

Just the mere re-use of existing material as a binding can be a fascination. This vellum manuscript page below from a Psalter (c.13th century), has been wrapped around a 16th century book to cover the boards and the spine. The manuscript is written in black ink in textura quadrata, or Gothic book hand, with capitals in red, blue, and green.

Vellum manscript reused as a book binding. Red and blue initials can be seen.Vellum manuscript re-used as binding on a book printed in 1530. Ref: qRFr ALCI Verb 1530.

The lines of text from Psalm 90 are complete, although the right-hand margin has been trimmed to fit the cover. It was not uncommon to re-use earlier manuscript material in this way.

Neat sewing of hole in Boethius

A flaw in an otherwise flawless page of manuscript is appreciated by some. This 12th century manuscript was created with much care by the monks of the Christ Church Cathedral Priory in Canterbury, England. The hole in the image below was sewn up before the skin was made into a book.

Sewn hold in the skin used to make a page of this book.A hole in the skin which has been neatly sewn. Boethius, De Musica, f.75v. Ref: MSR-05.

Sometimes holes went un-noticed, or were not repaired for one reason or another, and in the case below, the scribe has worked his way around the gap. These flaws were either natural to the animal or occurred during the processing of the skin.

Unsewn hole.This hole was not repaired and the scribe has worked his way around it. Notice the animal hairs which escaped removal in the scraping process. Boethius, De Musica, f. 85.

‘The Book Beautiful’ is open until 22 May 2015. It is free and well worth a visit.

Further reading

J.R. Abbey, Travel in aquatint and lithography, 1770-1860: from the library of J.R. Abbey: a bibliographical catalogue (London: Privately printed at the Curwen Press, 1956-1957).
Record page| This book in New Zealand libraries

Martin Hardie, English coloured books, with an introduction by James Laver (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973)
Record page

Susan Scollay, ed., Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond (Oxford; Bodleian Library, 2012)
Record page

R.V. Tooley, English books with coloured plates, 1790-1860: a bibliographical account of the most important books illustrated by English artists in colour aquatint and colour lithography, rev. ed. (Folkestone: Dawson, 1979)
Record page

Richard J. Wolfe, Marbled paper: its history, techniques, and patterns (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)
Record page

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

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