Monday, 24 March 2014

Judging a book by its cover

Nowadays many books are produced with a ‘perfect’ binding where the pages are stuck to the spine and invariably split open as soon as any pressure is applied. They are still the common book shape we are all familiar with but they are very different to books printed before 1801. Until the early 19th century bindings were all made by hand, so each one is unique.

There are a number of beautiful bindings in the Special Collections and among the best are those created by the Edwards’ workshop in Halifax, Yorkshire.

Image of book front cover
All photos by Paul Shields, used by permission
William Edwards (1722-1808) was the founder of a firm of book sellers and book binders. He had four sons, all of whom followed him into the business, and they made English bookbinding world famous. Edwards’ bindings are still much sought after and the Special Collections hold five of them.

What makes them special is a technique devised by the Edwards’ to make vellum clear. Vellum is untreated animal skin, the same thing that parchment is made out of, and it is normally opaque. At the Edwards bindery the vellum was soaked in pearl ash solution which bleached the vellum and made it transparent. Once treated, images could be painted on the underside of the vellum protecting the picture from dirt and scratches. There are a limited number of designs on Edwards’ books so presumably customers would choose from a book of models.

It is easy to spot Edwards’ books, even without the translucent binding, as they often use the same Grecian influenced design in the border known as metopes and pentaglyphs. Metopes are the concentric circles, and pentaglyphs the lozenges grouped in five.

Also found in Special Collections are some brass tools from the bindery.

Image of Binding tools in Special Collections
Binding tools - click to enlarge
Image of ornate book spine in Special Collections
Spine with gold lettering - click to enlarge
These would have been used to press letters and numbers onto the books. As you can see from the spine, these letters would have been in gold. The tools would be heated and then pressed onto the spine with gold leaf in-between the tool and the spine.

The Edwards’ firm also produced high quality foredge paintings. These were beautifully executed pictures painted on the edge of the book that could only be seen when the pages were fanned out. Ancient ruins and English countryside scenes were popular, and the Edwards’ often used Fountains Abbey.

By adding a foredge painting to an already expensive binding and pink silk linings to the inside of the covers, the firm of Edwards’ were creating the ultimate luxury item for an 18th-century bibliophile.

Image of book foredge with miniature painting
Many other bindings from the Special Collections are on display until 2 May 2014 in the corridor of the Harry Fairhurst building, ground floor.

Please contact the Special Collections Librarian Sarah Griffin for more information.

All photos are by Paul Shields, the University Photographer, and are used by permission. Click on any of them to enlarge the image.


  1. This is really interesting Sarah - thank you

    1. Agreed. Did anyone else catch Sarah's talk about "A journey through the pages" the other evening?

      Can we have a blog post about that one day perhaps??


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