A Review of Edmund King's Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830-1880: A Descriptive Bibliography (2003)

Thomas E. Kinsella, the Literature Program, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

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King, Edmund M. B. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830-1880: A Descriptive Bibliography. The British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2003. Pp. xxiii + 324. Multiple indexes. ISBN 1584560959.

Nineteenth-century novels, bibles, collections of poetry, and gift books are readily found in libraries, bookshops, and private hands. Victorian artifacts with a high survival rate, most of these books are covered with mass-produced, decorated bookbindings — trade bindings. Nineteenth-century bookbindings and their cover art have attracted significant scholarly interest, yet a descriptive bibliography of the scope and detail produced by King has not existed.

William Francis Collier. The Great Events of History from the Beginning of the Christian Era till the Present Time. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1871.

Bookbinding as a decorative art has evolved through the ages. Certain styles have become identifiable by date and place. Fourteenth-century Italian bookbindings differ from fourteenth-century German bindings; both differ dramatically from eighteenth-century American bookbindings. Styles changed, but methods of decoration remained remarkably similar: binders used hand stamps and engraved metal rolls to impress cover designs in blind and sometimes gilt.

In the first third of the nineteenth century, technological advances in printing and bookbinding created a divide between texts of the hand press and hand binding period and those which followed. The first significant development was the introduction of binding cloth around 1823. Its acceptance over the next two decades provided a new medium on which binders and book designers could work. Case binding, the mass production of book covers, also began at this time, almost certainly an outgrowth of the use of cloth. No longer constructed as an integral part of a book's structure, prefabricated case bindings helped binders to keep pace with increasing numbers and sizes of editions.

The 1820s and 1830s were a formative period for cloth cased bindings. Cloth grains were often simple and elaborate tooling was not used. Ornate hand-tooling may have seemed counter intuitive to binders and publishers who first saw cloth as a durable but inexpensive alternative to leather, not worth a finishing binder's best efforts. By the 1840s, however, cloth had become a widely accepted binding material, and case binding allowed binders to begin to use arming presses and later steam presses to emboss covers with engraved metal dies.

Few books from the 1840s through 1880s were left undecorated; nearly all received some level of design consideration. At their simplest, cover designs were made up from routine borders and ornaments impressed in blind or gilt. More elaborate designs used dies created uniquely for a text in conjunction with stock borders and ornaments. The highest level of book design used overall designs created specifically for the book at hand.

W. Haslam. "Full Salvation" as seen in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. London: Morgan and Scott, c. 1880.

Larger binding firms probably had staff for design work, but the highest level of execution called for cover designers. These artists emerged during the 1840s and 1860s; sometimes their work was identified with monograms or initials on the covers but many times not. It is largely the work of these designers that King describes in his bibliography. At the best level their works employ ornament, stylized lettering, line drawings, color, and texture in coherent designs reflecting many different artistic styles.

King has described 752 bindings, the work of 26 identified designers. Covers by the prolific John Leighton account for 455 designs, approximately half of his estimated output (Ball 74). Also included are covers by Robert Dudley, Henry Noel Humphreys, Owen Jones, William Ralston, William Harry Rogers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Sliegh, Albert Henry Warren, and Matthew Digby Wyatt, among others. There are 100 unsigned bindings.

The strength of King's work lies in the descriptions of individual bindings; they are clear and detailed. When appropriate, King provides notes to previous scholarship on covers and designers. The volume is well illustrated with 91 color plates and numerous black and white images. Many intriguing bindings are illustrated, although many more are not.

The slender introductory materials are a disappointment. The study of trade bindings stresses nineteenth-century economics, the book trade, and artistry. It is a rich vein of evidence that illuminates the relationships among cover designers, publishers, binders, and die-cutters. The bindings that King has described provide insight into these relationships, but he leaves the discussion underdeveloped.

William Makepeace Thackeray. Vanity Fair. 2 vol. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1869.

A range of additional information would have been welcome. King provides brief introductions to the work of 12 binders but none for Henry Noel Humphreys, a prolific designer who accounts for the third highest total of bindings described. This becomes troublesome for item 74, attributed to both Humphreys and John Leighton. Leighton's initials appear in the cover design, but the Humphrey's attribution is left unexplained. Whether this represents a collaboration between the two designers or a reuse of designs is uncertain.

In places the need to conserve space trumps clarity. Item 490 describes the 1868 London edition of Thomas Hood's Jingles and Jokes for The Little Folks. The description states: "The upper cover has mostly the same design as blocked on the upper cloth cover of BL 11648.cc.40." It would have been helpful to explain that 11648.cc.40 is the British Library's 1865 London edition of the same work.

In the end, though, I offer slight criticism. The potential for investigation offered by these well-described texts is tantalizing. Many of the designers illustrated texts that they themselves wrote: Charles Henry Bennett, Robert Dudley, Henry Noel Humphreys, John Leighton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Others collaborated on designs. John Leighton, the most prolific designer of the age, was related to two of the more significant bookbinding firms of the mid nineteenth-century: J & J Leighton and also Leighton, Son, & Hodge. Investigation into any or all of these relationships will be of keen interest to scholars in several disciplines.

Additional study may clarify the most tantalizing question: whether the publisher or binder was in charge of cover design. Who commissioned cover designs, chose cloth grain and color, and retained engraved dies? King does not address this question. Instead, he has collected primary materials, aware that tens of thousands of cover designs were executed during the Victorian period, most which remain undescribed. As the years pass, increasing numbers of these covers will deteriorate or be lost to rebinding. King has skillfully begun an ambitious project, describing the more outstanding covers before they are lost.

The Bentley Ballads. Edited by John Doran. London: Richard Bentley, 1858.

This is not a work for the non-specialist. If you want detailed introductions to Victorian bookbinding, look to other works such as those written by Douglas Ball, Ruari McLean, Sybille Pantazzi, Howard Leathlean, and King himself.

King has titled this work a "descriptive bibliography" and fulfills that promise. It is hoped that his work will stimulate further study of Victorian cover designs and lead to a better understanding of the relationships that underline this area of book history.




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Last modified 17 June 2006