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01 July 2014

Books depicted in art

After a glorious week of studying European Bookbinding (1450-1820) at the London Rare Books School with Director of the Ligatus Research Centre, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad,  it quickly became apparent that works of art have been one of the best methods of recording details of techniques used in bookbinding.

The majority of books throughout history are not the heavily decorated and spectacular versions we tend to hear most about, but instead are plain, and fairly ordinary book blocks (which some people still find quite exciting - author included!). For this reason, the techniques are perhaps not as well understood or documented. Luckily the keen eye of the artist has captured precise details when depicting books throughout history, showing sewing structures, stitch types, supports, covers and even how they were stored. In this post we will look at some examples of books depicted in art.


While we now consider spine outwards as ‘the right way around’ to display books, this was not always the case. In the oil on canvas painting ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’ by Guercino (1626- 28) we see doctor of laws Fracesco Righetti depicted in his library. His law books are tail-edge outwards showing endband detail with titles written on the volume.

On the left is a painting of a man holding a book. The man has curly hair, a moustache, and a goatee, and he is wearing a black top with a white collar and white cuffs. Behind the man is a shelf of books stacked on their boards (as opposed to shelved spine-out as we typically see books today). On the right is a close-up crop of the books on his shelf.

Figure 1:  Guercino’s ‘Portrait of Lawyer Francesco Righetti’.

The engraved ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’ (from ‘Comedies, tragi-comedies, with other poems’) was printed in London for Humphrey Moseley in 1651. Cartwright is shown wearing a collar and gown leaning on an open book. The books on the wall behind him are shelved fore-edge out; a common practice in the 16th and early 17th century. Gilded-edge books stored spine away would gleam off the shelves quite spectacularly. Many medieval books have their title written in several places such as the spine, tail-edge or fore-edge as storage locations changed over time.

On the left a man sits at a desk with his elbow resting on an open book and his head resting on his hand. Above him sits two shelves on books on the wall. On the right is a closeup of those books.

Figure 2:  ‘Portrait of William Cartwright’. See the full engraving digitised on the British Museum's Image Gallery.


How binderies operated

Hendrik de Haas’s print ‘De Boekbinder’ (1806) shows a bookbinder's workshop. On the left is the beating stone where gatherings were pounded with a mallet for compaction. Second from the left a man is shown bent over a special shaving knife which is drawn along the text block to trim the pages. The shavings are shown on the floor. In the centre on a stool a binder is sewing the gatherings next to a young boy taking a book to a client. The master of the workshop (as determined by his smart attire and rather dashing wig) burnishes the leather by working and smoothing it. The finisher, working for the aristocracy, made more money than the binder – it is unusual to see him wearing Hessian boots. (With tassels? On a binder? The outrage!)

This engraving shows the goings-on at a bookbinding workshop. Five workers are present, doing various tasks related to bookbinding.

Figure 3: Bookbinder’s workshop in print by Hendrik de Haas, ‘De Boekbinder’, Dordrect, 1806.

A closeup of one of the workers who is beating part of a book on a pedastol.. A closeup of one of the workers who is using a tool that resembles a wooden vice with a sharp blade attached. A textblock rests in the vice and the blade is dragged over the edges of the textblock to shave them down to a uniform size.

Figure 4: Left: Beating the gatherings. Right: Shaving the book block.

Books are stacked in a wooden press which is leaning against a wall.

Figure 5: Pressing the books in Bookbinder’s workshop in print by Hendrik de Haas, ‘De Boekbinder’, Dordrect, 1806. 

Leaning against the shelving unit in the far right is a wooden book press where several books are packed tightly. It was possible to apply guilt edges to several books at a time when stored in this way.

Life and social status

Dutch painter Marinus van Reymerswale’s early 16th century oil on canvas painting ‘St Jerome in his Study’ shows St Jerome surrounded by curious objects which represent attributes referring to his life and status. St Jerome was famed for translating the Bible into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. The Vulgate, as his translation was known, became the official Latin version of the Holy Script in the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason he is nearly always depicted around books and in his study.

An expensively bound volume with clasps is shelved behind St Jerome, while on his table are several working copies with various sewing structures and tacketed bindings. A sewn book block is apparent which never had covers, adhesive, or a spine lining. The gatherings are visible with long stitch through separate supports rather than covering the whole spine. There is no adhesive used in long stitch bindings, making them very useful for music manuscripts as the book stays open easily and is very flexible. Long stitch was rare in England but common in the Low Countries as a cheap and quick way to produce almanacs. The variety of books in his study suggest St Jerome was highly-literate with a great depth of knowledge.

St Jerome sits at his desk with an illuminated manuscript open. In front of him rests a skull. Around him are things like other paperwork, a hat, a candle, etc.

Figure 6: Marinus van Reymerswale’s ‘St Jerome in his Study’, 16th century.

Left: A close up of a red book with clasps. This sits above the open illuminated manuscript and next to the candle. Right: A stack of textblocks which haven't been covered yet--the sewing structures are visible along the spine.

Figure 7: Left: Leather bound volume with metal clasps. Right: Visible sewing structures, long stitch and tacketed binding. 

Textblocks could be sold without significant covers, just held together with an "endless cover". Jean Antoinette Poisson (Madame de Pompadour) was the mistress of King Louis XV, as well as a prominent patron of Francois Boucher. In Francois Boucher’s 1756 oil on canvas portrait ‘Madame de Pompadour’ the lady is sumptuously dressed and surrounded by opulent things - apart from the book she holds in her hand. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block. It was a cheap and quick way to bind books and there are a lot of French books bound in this way. Madame de Pompadour is displaying a casual relationship with literature, in a sense saying to the viewer ‘Look at me, I read books because they are interesting. If I like it, I will keep it” (and pay more money for the binding!).

In this portrait, a woman in a lavish turqoise dress with peach-coloured roses lounges with a book in her hand. Behind her you can see other elements of the room including a bookcase and grand clock. Next to her is a small table with a candle on it. It's all very opulent!

Figure 8: Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, 1756, oil on canvas portrait.

A closeup of the book in the woman's hands--the book is open.

Figure 9: Francois Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, 1756, oil on canvas portrait. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block.


Street vendors/book peddlers

'Bealux abc belles heures’ is part of the ‘le Cris de Paris’ genre illustrating Parisian street vendors. It is a woodcut engraving ca 1500 showing a moment in time when prayer books, once restricted to the wealthy aristocracy, became affordable to the bourgeois with the advent of the printing press. Thin, printed copies were sold on the streets. In the vendor’s right hand is a Book of Hours showing a limp cover. Underneath his left hand we can see detail of a leather binding.

A print of a man with a box of books wrapped around his shoulders and resting in front of him. He is shown walking on top of a small area of grass and with an open book in one hand. A man holds a basket of books in one hand and an open book out in the other.

Figure 6: Street vendors and book peddlers were often depicted in artworks. Left: Beaulx abc belles heures. Right: Tavolette, e Libri per li putti.

Similarly in Annibale Carracci’s 1646 print ‘Tavolette, e Libri per li putti’ a man is depicted selling books from a basket that he carries over his shoulder. The book in his right hand has a cover which follows the spine when open and is bound using long-stitch.

Evidence-based research

While written documentation of binding styles and techniques is not always available, we can gather a lot of information from paintings, prints, engravings and illuminations. Sometimes they can tell us more than current literature on a subject – for example in Lorenzo Lotto’s oil on canvas ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), the sitter is more likely to be a merchant than a student as the volume he is perusing is bound with a fore-edge flap – this style was used for account books and book-keeping, not for great works of literature.

A man sits at a desk with an open book. He is wearing a black jacket with a white shirt just visible underneath. What appears to be a window showing an evening sky (setting sun) is behind him. In general this painting is very dark in colour. A closeup showing the man flipping through the open book.

Figure 7:  Lorenzo Lotto, ‘Portrait of a Young Man in his Study’ (c. 1530), oil on canvas.

Visual depictions can also be useful in filling in missing parts of our understanding. Folio 291v of the great 9th century illuminated gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells, shows Christ holding a red binding decorated with blind twilling. With the original binding of the manuscript now lost, it is possible that this is what it may have originally looked like.

On the left is the full illuminated page which shows Christ holding a red book. Around him is a geometric design. On the right is a closeup of the book in his hands.

Figure 8: The Book of Kells, f. 291v; a 9th century gospel manuscript containing the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD. It has been fully digitised by Trinity College Dublin.

While bookbinding may be considered the Cinderella of the bibliographical trade (i.e. given little care or attention) it is a fascinating area of research, based on the logic of commerce – techniques and styles were not varied unless they needed to be. For more information on bookbindings see the British Library Database of Bookbindings or the Ligatus website.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)


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