Skip to Main Content

Lady Margaret Hall Library: Bookbindings


This is a previous exhibition, but if you are interested in viewing one of the objects you can make an appointment (email Exhibitions in the library rotate once or twice a year. Have a look at our current exhibitions to see what's on at the moment.

Bookbindings: introduction

It is not just the bindings of particularly old or expensive books that can tell us something about the history and development of this practice, and for this reason a number of books from open shelves have been included in the exhibition. At the same time, several gems of our collection, such as our 17th-century Qur’an manuscript, one of our two 16th-century Venetian Missals, and an early 16th-century publication by the famous Aldine Press, are also on display.

The exhibition is by no means exhaustive. Rather than presenting a detailed history of book bindings, it is conceived more as an overview of the range of ways in which a book can be bound, exemplified by a range of bindings representative of the history and variety of this aspect of book history. The displays cover the different materials used in bookbinding, elements of binding such as clasps and ties, and a number of techniques employed to decorate the finished product. The woodcut from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, also on display, illustrates the range of tasks undertaken in a bookbinder’s workshop.

By Martyna Grzesiak

Clasps, flaps and ties

Metallic book clasp shaped as a human figure.

1 of 3 | A pocket-sized prayer book

Originally conceived as a way to prevent the parchment leaves of medieval manuscripts from warping, the use of clasps continued for ornamental purposes throughout the ages, as in the case of the filigree human figure used in the binding of this 19th-century Book of Common Prayer. The upper board of the leather binding is further decorated with silver cornerpieces and a cross centrepiece.

The book was published by Oxford’s own University Press, which, alongside academic works, was noted in its earlier days for publications of biblical texts and prayer books. Cynthia M. Borough, LMH student in 1918-22 and later librarian at the Bodleian, bequeathed this volume to the college alongside a number of other antiquarian books.

Red leather bookbinding, with a flap so the book is covered all the way round.

2 of 3 | An example of Islamic bookbinding

This early 17th-century Qur’an is one of the few manuscripts held by our library. It was donated to the college by Lynda Grier (Principal, 1921-45).

The vibrant red morocco leather binding includes a fore-edge flap, a typical element of Islamic binding, intended to provide protection the book when it is closed. Interestingly, the depth of the flap is smaller than required by this book; this particular binding seems to have been repurposed from another book of similar size. To accommodate for this, the book has been rebacked: the spine is covered with leather of a similar red hue.

One smaller, beige and one larger, off-white book, both held closed with ties.

3 of 3 | Ties and yapp edges

The purpose of ties is similar to that of clasps: to prevent the pages of the text, as well as the covers, from warping or gaping over time. Materials used as ties range from leather to linen and even silk. The late 16th-century publication of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War here is bound in a simple limp parchment binding (that is, with the parchment as the standalone material, rather than a ‘hardback’ with pasteboards covered by parchment or leather), a material that is particularly prone to changing shape over time.

Alongside it is a late, decorative example of book ties from the workshop of William Morris, also on a limp parchment binding, this time in a pale blue cloth. The binding also has yapp fore-edges, which extend beyond the covers to provide additional protection to the fore-edge of the text block. Named after a London bookseller, William Yapp (active in the second half of the 19th century), this element of limp bindings was already in use in the 16th century. The book was donated to the college in memory of Morris by his widow Jane. Hand-printed, with typefaces and illustrations designed by Morris himself, the Kelmscott Press books are some of the gems of Lady Margaret Hall’s library collections.

Bookbinding materials and decoration

Two leather-bound books: one pale red, one dark brown and square.

1 of 6 | Bookbinding materials and decoration

The popularity of leather in bookbinding can be ascribed to its durability and, initially, its availability. As a waste material of the meat industry, it was fairly abundant until demand began to outstrip supply as a growing number of books were printed and bound. The standard types of leather in use in English bookbindings are calf, goat, and sheep.

The first example, [1], in polished calf with a border of two gilt fillets with small fleurons in the corners, shows the smoothness of calf leather. This material takes decoration well, and many ways of dyeing and decorating it have been devised. Calf leather is usually dyed in various shades of brown, including dark brown [2].

Four leather-bound books (described in caption).

2 of 6 | Styles of leather

Speckled leather [3], was created through the use of salts and acids on the tanned skin. The distinctive ‘tree calf’ style was achieved using similar agents, and so called regardless of whether the resulting visual effect is that of a tree [4], or a more abstract shape [5]. The Cambridge panel binding style [6], originated in the Restoration period, and was not exclusive to the work of Cambridge binders, as the name might suggest. This example of an 18th-century binding on an early 16th-century publication is a good reminder that books of that age rarely retained their original bindings.

Two gilt-tooled book covers (described in caption).

3 of 6 | Gilt-tooling

Following its arrival in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, gilt-tooling proved to be one of the most popular decoration styles, becoming more filigree and fine as the technique developed [7]. The final example in this display, [8], shows how this could also be used to put a stamp of ownership on one’s book collections. Matched by an armorial bookplate on the inside of the front cover, the coat of arms tooled onto the front cover indicates the ownership of Pierre Daniel Huet, French cleric and scholar, with the characteristic 10-tasseled galero hat pointing to his status as archbishop.

Example of pigskin binding.

4 of 6 | Pigskin binding

This Latin missal is a very good example of a 17th-century alum-tawed German pigskin binding. At first glance rather similar to parchment due to its creamy colour, pigskin is much sturdier and was typically used for bindings in Central and Northern Europe. The boards are decorated with blind tooling and the original brass clasps have survived.

The subject matter of the bound text is interesting considering the origins of its binding. The title identifies this as a version of the Catholic Missal approved by the Congregation of the Council of Trent – the council convoked as a response to the Protestant Reformation. For this reason, the missal was most likely used in Western or Southern Germany, regions that remained predominantly Catholic.

Book bound in blue leather and close up of another book bound in textured blue leather with gilt details.

5 of 6 | Morocco leather

Imported from northern Africa, goatskin was the material used to produce the highest quality bindings, its popularity growing from the 17th century onwards. One of the key characteristics of goatskin is that it can be dyed in a range of colours, including the vibrant cobalt blue seen here. The straightforward, clean-cut decoration on the binding reflects the late 19th-century preference for simpler high quality binding design. This particular binding is characteristic of several books presented to Lady Margaret Hall by John Ruskin (1819-1900), eminent art critic and early benefactor of the college. Ruskin was a strong supporter of women’s education, and, following his visit in 1884, donated a selection of books to the library that included works by himself and by the 18th century novelist Maria Edgeworth.

The Book of Common Prayer on display alongside it is in straight grain morocco, characterised by the line pattern achieved through working the leather to lend it this new, artificial grain.

Two cloth-bound books (described in caption).

6 of 6 | Cloth bindings

As the book industry continued to expand, and leather was in ever shorter supply, alternatives for providing covering material for bookbindings were explored. Paper provided one option, and a selection of decorative marbled papers used for this purpose can be seen in another part of this exhibition. Another option was cloth. This began to be used during the Victorian era, alongside the increased mechanisation of the book making process. William Pickering, a London-based publisher, was the first to issue cloth-bound books in 1821. Initially these were very plain, but soon techniques were developed that paved the way for a wave of decorated Victorian cloth bindings, such as the scene on the cover of The Cunning Woman’s Grandson.

Next to it, an example of a fine cloth binding on the Nonesuch Press edition of George Herbert’s Temple. The press produced high quality work, applying the ideals of earlier Victorian private handpresses such as that on William Morris to new technology – without sacrificing on the quality of the finished product. The tapestry-like handwoven fabric used for the covers lends a luxurious feel to the publication, and its pattern includes the typographic device of Nonesuch.

The bookbinder’s workshop

Book pages with illustrations of a bindery with staff at work and various bookbinding tools.

1 of 2 | The bindery

Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, and published in the years 1751-1766, the Encyclopédie, subtitled the Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts, was one of the greatest achievements of the French Enlightenment. The complete Encyclopédie consists of 71,818 articles accompanied by 3,129 illustrations over a total of 28 volumes. Entries were contributed by the likes of Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. One of the aims of the editors was to bridge the gap between liberal and mechanical arts: full-page plates, such as the view of the bindery, introduced the public to the tools and processes of various trades, in order to foster greater appreciation of their work.

Close up of the illustration of the bindery, showing a woman sitting at a sewing frame.

2 of 2 | The seamstress

It is interesting to note the presence of a female worker in the bindery. While many aspects of the bookbinding process became mechanised, the sewing together of gatherings of paper remained a manual process; seamstresses continued to be employed for this task even in the first decades of the 20th century.

Book edges and marbled paper

Book edges showing examples of the techniques described in the caption.

1 of 3 | Book edges

A variety of techniques have been in use to decorate the edges of the book block, ranging from specks of colour to marbling. Edge decoration dates back to the earliest codices. It was only between the 17th and 18th centuries that books started to be stored vertically with the spine facing outwards, as we do today. For this reason, early books often have information such as the title or shelfmark written on the edges of the text block, as in the case of Budé’s Summaire, which has the author’s name written on the fore-edge.

As with many aspects of bookbinding, the initial practical benefits of such practice have paved the way for decorative convention. In particular, the application of gilt to the edges of the text block, with a glaze of egg yolk used to bind the gold leaf to the paper edges, has a beneficial effect on the book’s conservation: its presence limits the amount of dust that can enter between the pages. For particularly lavish bindings, the gilt edge could then be gauffered, i.e. decorated with heated tools, like in the diminutively-sized Suetonius on display.

Two examples of books with marbled paper (described in caption).

2 of 3 | Ebru – the art of marbling paper

The origins of marbled paper are disputed. Some trace it back to the art of suminagashi, a Japanese method of ‘painting on water’ that dates back to the 10th century. In the 15th century, a similar technique was developed in the Ottoman Empire under the name of ebru. Soon it arrived in Europe: by the 17th century, marbled paper was produced throughout much of the continent.

Given the high price of leather, from the 18th century onwards bindings became common that only used the material to cover the spine (known as quarter-leather bindings), or the spine and corners (half-leather), with the remaining part of the bookboard covered in a cheaper material, such as marbled paper. Sometimes, for more temporary bindings, the bookboard was done away with and only the covering material, such as marbled paper, served as the book cover. Another common use of this technique in bookmaking is for the book’s endpapers (i.e. the paper leaves placed between the covers and the text block). The endpaper in the Roman bourgeois by Antoine Furètiere originates from this period, and is one of the earliest examples of a marbled paper in the library’s collections.  Book edges can also be marbled, as can be seen in some of the examples on display, in particular the copy of Esopus with matching marbling on the covers, endpapers and text block edges in a striking black, red and white.

Eleven examples of marbled paper.

3 of 3 | Marbled paper patterns

To produce marbled paper, splashes of paint are applied to a base, or size (water mixed with a thickening agent).

Patterns can be created by combing through and swirling the paint. A piece of paper is then carefully placed on the surface, lifted and hung up to dry. Different styles of paper marbling have developed over the centuries, with two main groups: Spot (or Thrown) and Combed.

The Spot pattern [1] forms the basis of a number of more intricate designs: combed through it becomes a Nonpareil pattern [2] [3], and with some more modification, the Peacock [4] [5]. The French Curl pattern [6] is achieved by creating swirls through a Spot base.

Variation in the dyes and substances used, as well as the order in which they are applied to the size, can be used to achieve patterns such as the Gold Vein [7], Gloucester [8] or Papier Tourniquet [9].

Finally, when the paper is placed on the paint, gentle movements of the paper can be used to create a pattern, such as the Spanish [10], and Spanish moiré [11].

Books on display, in order of appearance

The Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1850-1900]). Briggs Room [=BR] 264.03 20 [Al-Qurʹān al-majīd]. BR 297.5 1; The eight books of Caius Iulius Caesar: conteyning his martiall exployts in the realme of Gallia… (London: Thomas East, 1590). BR 973.132 3; William of Tyre, The history of Godefrey of Boloyne and of the conquest of Iherusalem (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1893). BR 23.29 1F; Thomas Noon Talfourd, Dramatic Works (London: Edward Moxon, 1852). Gallery Floor 822.69 6; A direction for the English traviller, by which he shal be inabled to coast about all England and Wales ([London]: Jenner, 1843). BR 912.42 17; Lucian of Samosata, Œuvres de Lucien: traduction nouvelle, in 6 vols (Paris: Moutard, 1781-1787), v.3. BR 888.72 3; Arabian Nights, in 3 vols (Edinburgh: Donaldson, 1870), v.1. LS 892.73 1; William Hayley, Triumphs of Temper: a poem (London: Cadell and Davies, 1803). LS 821.59 59; Lucretius (Venice: In aedibus Aldi, et Andreae Soceri, MDXV). BR 871.1 7; Christoph Hendreich, Carthago sive Carthaginensium respublica (Francofurti ad Oderam: Andreas Becmanus, 1664). BR 937.73 1; Antoine Matharel, Ad Franc. Hotomani Franco-galliam Antonii Matharelli, Reginae Matris à rebus procurandis primarij responsio (Lutetia [Paris]: Fédéric Morel, 1575). BR 320.1 90; Missale Romanum, ex decreto sacrosancti Concilii Tridentini restitutum (Venice: Haeredes Melchioris Sessae, MDLXXXV). BR 264.025 5 F; John Ruskin, Val d’Arno: ten lectures on the Tuscan art… (Orpington: George Allen, 1882). Locked Stacks 823.91 16; Book of Common Prayer (London: Sold by John Otridge et al., 1816). BR 264.03 15; Charlotte M. Yonge, The Cunning Woman’s Grandson: A Tale of Cheddar a Hundred Years Ago (London: National Society’s Depository; New York: T/ Whittaker, 1889). Gallery Floor 823.99 338; George Herbert, The Temple (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927). BR 821.32 14F; Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéraux, et les arts méchaniques: avec leur explication…, in 11 vols (Paris: Briasson, 1762-1772), vol. 8. Locked Cupboard West 034 25; Massimo d’Azeglio, Niccolò de’ Lapi, ovvero, i Palleschi e i Piagnoni (Paris: Baudri, 1841). Gallery Floor 853.73 2; Thomas Babington Macaulay, The works of Lord Macaulay, complete, in 8 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866), v.4. Gallery Floor 823.84 11; Guillaume Budé, Summaire ou Epitome du livre De asse (Paris: Galliot, 1522). BR 332.4 16; William Wallen, The history and antiquities of the round church at Little Maplestead, Essex (London: John Weale, 1836). BR 942.67 4; Suetonius, Caius Suetonius Tranquillus: cum annotationibus diversorum (Amsterdam: Danel Elzevir, 1671). BR 937.17 5; Antoine Furètiere, Le roman bourgeois: ouvrage comique (Amsterdam: Gerard Kuyper, 1704). BR 843.47 1; Burchard Waldis, Esopus (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1882). Gallery Floor 833.41 1; Ernest Renan, Études d'histoire religieuse (Paris: Lévy, 1880). Gallery Floor, 847.63 1; Carlo Goldoni, Commedie (Paris: Naudry, 1855). Gallery Floor, 852.6 GOL 1855; Basil Montagu, Selections from the works of Taylor, Hooker, Barrow, South, Latimer, Brown Milton and Bacon (London: Pickering, 1829). Gallery Floor, 823.08 11; Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff (Lepzig: Brockhaus, 1972). Gallery Floor 833.36 1; Alain René Le Sage, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, in 4 vols (Paris: 1878, Lemerre), vol. 3. Gallery Floor 843.51 14;  Charles Augustin Saunte-Beuve, Nouveaux lundis, in 10 vols (Paris: Lévy, 1870). Gallery Floor 847.64 23; Dante, Il canzoniere, in 3 vols (Florence: Barberà, 1894), vol. 1. Gallery Floor 851.1 DAN 1894 v.1; Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle (Paris: Plon, 1875), vol. 3. Gallery Floor 847.38 19; Giuseppe Giacosa, Una partita a schacchi e il trionfo d’amore (Turin: Casanova, 1883).

Contact the Library

LMH Special Collections are open to visitors by appointment (email during staffed hours, Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Lady Margaret Hall Library
Norham Gardens
United Kingdom


Telephone: (01865) 274361

The librarian, Jamie

Jamie Fishwick-Ford

(Librarian, they/them)

Sally Hamer

(Assistant Librarian, she/her)