Looking through a binding

Detail of binding on Bodleian 4o A 111 Th. BS., Psalms, 1593
Detail of binding on Bodleian 4o A 111 Th. BS., Psalms, 1593

Francesca Galligan, Rare Books, writes…

The difficulties in reassembling information relating to a particular copy of a printed book were a significant theme during the autumn of last year, in the Rare Books masterclasses on printed books. My search for information about this pierced vellum binding provides a brief illustrated example.

The card index of bindings in the Rare Books office.
Curiosity over this card from our bindings index led me on a circuitous path, starting and ending with different Bodleian resources.

Binding of 4o A 111 Th. BS., Psalms, 1593
Binding of 4o A 111 Th. BS., Psalms, 1593

The card refers to a binding of blind-tooled vellum with cut-out compartments, laid over green silk, the edges gilt and gauffered, shelfmark 4° A 111 Th.BS.

It covers a Latin translation of the Psalms by Moritz Langrave, printed in Smalkalden (Michael Schmück, 1593). The work is dedicated to Moritz’s father, Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Cassel, who died in 1592. The Landgrave family arms form the centrepiece on the upper board, and are printed on the title page and at the colophon.

An initial search of the British Library’s database of bookbindings gave a similar example of pierced vellum over red silk. It also covers a copy of the 1593 edition of Landgrave’s Psalms, and is attributed to a binder from Erfurt, Hans Bapest.

The database provided references to three more bindings attributed to Bapest, illustrated in Bickell’s Bookbindings from the Hessian historical exhibition (Leipzig, 1893).

Bickell’s Bookbindings from the Hessian historical exhibition (Leipzig, 1893)
Bickell’s Bookbindings from the Hessian historical exhibition (Leipzig, 1893)

Bickell mentions two other bindings by Bapest, covering the 1593 Psalms, one in calf and one in red paper. A similar style of tooling on these provides the attribution to Bapest, who is named on a tooled tablet on the calf binding: “Hans. Bapest. Von. Erffurt. / Buchbinder. In. Schmalkalden.” (Bickell, p. 10).

The three pierced vellum bindings in Bickell all bear autograph dedication inscriptions, from different months of 1595. While the Bodleian copy has no such dedication, it does have a note in a contemporary hand on the lower pastedown under four headings for 1595, and includes German names (Urban von Boersburgh is the first), and mottos in French and Latin (“mort ou l’honneur”, and “virtus post funera vivit”).

Notes on the lower pastedown of Bodleian Library 4o A 111 Th. BS.
Notes on the lower pastedown of Bodleian Library 4o A 111 Th. BS.

The only other indication of provenance is a bookplate of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773–1843).

A computer search for more information on the binder produced some sales records for a later example of pierced vellum tentatively attributed by Sotheby’s to Bapest, sold from the Sunderland library in 1922 for £10 10s, and now part of the Henry Davis Gift. On a 1612 edition of the Psalms, now in the British Library, the vellum is over variegated silks, with gauffered edges, and fore-edge paintings of Miriam, David, and an unidentified female saint, of a rather different style.

Finally, Google books offered a review by Philip Gaskell of a Bodleian exhibition in 1968. The catalogue of Fine bindings 1500-1700 from Oxford Libraries, lists 4° A 111 Th.BS. as number 115, provides the attribution to Bapest, and mentions Boersburgh and Sussex. The answers had been sitting in plain sight, on the shelf just above me.

The Western Manuscripts section at the Bodleian keeps a card index of published references to individual manuscripts, as an aide to later scholars who may wonder what has already been established about the origins and provenance of these unique items. There is no equivalent to “Bodley Refs.” for printed books; yet, as in this case, even printed books may encompass unique features. However, references to Bodleian exhibition catalogues, starting with the most recent, are gradually being added into early printed book records on SOLO. We have some way to go before reaching back as far as the Fine Bindings exhibition of 1968.

As for the significance of the binding, we know from Bickell that Moritz’s father Wilhelm established the library at Cassel, enjoyed fine binding, and had his own court bindery: “It is impossible here to give even a summary of the results arrived at, to describe the types which were developed under him and his son Moritz within the limits of mediaeval blind tooling” (Bickell, p. 4). His verdict on the pierced vellum work is, however, that it was a rather limited experiment: “Original, but without influence on later binding” (Bickell, p. 4).

There are nevertheless examples of other binders using pierced vellum in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The British Library has a 16th-century binding from the Netherlands and the Bodleian holds an English example, from around 1600, bearing the arms of Elizabeth I. It was on display in the Bodleian’s 2009 exhibition An Artful Craft, where it was described as “one of the finest examples of English pierced vellum in existence”. [Kelsey Jackson Williams and Geri Della Rocca de Candal, A selection of bindings from the Broxbourne Collection, Bodleian Library (published online, 2009:)]

1 thought on “Looking through a binding”

  1. Fascinating! The “piercing” looks strikingly similar to patterns used in cutting metal clasps for leather bindings to have coloured fabric (silk, leather or parchment) shining through, probably to achieve a jewel-like quality; several examples from the Northern German convent, e.g. HAB Wolfenbüttel, Guelf. 81. 2 Aug.8°, Latin treatises from the convent of Medingen bound around 1484 either in the convent itself or nearby (Lüneburg or Hildesheim)

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