Tag Archives: Bookbinding

Video: Conserving Rare Books at King’s College, Cambridge

As part of our HLF-supported Thackeray Project, we have produced a video that looks at rare book conservation generally, before moving on to a case study of the repairs performed on a single book from the Thackeray Collection (Le rime di Francesco Petrarca, Thackeray.L.3.40).




Thackeray Project Digital Library

It might seem that we have been a little quiet here recently, but that is because we have been working hard behind the scenes on our digital library which we are now able to share with everyone.

Rare book spines (from left): vellum (gatherings exposed), three with raised bands and decorative gold-tooled panels, the last without raised bands, but with coloured leather spine labels tooled in gold.

One of the objectives of our HLF-funded project, which is centred around the rare book collection of former King’s Provost George Thackeray (1777-1850), is the creation of a corpus of digital content that will last well beyond the lifetime of the two-year project. This can now be viewed on the King’s website here.

Title within woodcut architectural border (McKerrow and Ferguson 278). William Gouge, The Saints sacrifice (London: George Miller, 1632; Thackeray.I.7.5)

The digital library, which we will continue to add to during the project, currently includes a gallery of book bindings, title pages, a gallery showing the stages of book conservation and a page devoted to the first and early editions of Jane Austen.

Title page of the first English edition of Emma (Thackeray.J.57.10)

Stay tuned for many more images from the Thackeray collection!


“Only connect”: Laura Mary Forster and Charles Darwin

Amongst our fascinating collection of books from the personal library of E.M. Forster (1879-1970) are some which were passed down to him by relations. These include a number of volumes which once belonged to his aunt, Laura Mary Forster (1839-1924):

Laura Mary Forster's bookplate

The bookplate of Laura Mary Forster (1839-1924)

In his biography of Marianne Thornton, Laura’s aunt, E.M. Forster provides a brief outline of Laura’s character:

“Miss Forster never married … she followed the Thornton pattern of intellectual and philanthropic activity, but she could be censorious of her elders, and is constantly taking them up and dusting them before she replaces them, with a word of c0mmendation, on their shelf. In her later life she changed – became gentler, wiser, greater.”

Some of the volumes formerly owned by Laura are especially interesting, since they feature bindings with blind-tooled and stamped leatherwork of her own design. These include a volume by John Ruskin on the medieval Italian artist Giotto, which has a design based around circles, making reference to Giotto’s reputed ability to draw a perfect circle freehand without the aid of a compass.

Binding of Ruskin's work on Giotto

Front cover of: John Ruskin “Giotto and his works in Padua …” (London: Arundel Society, 1854. Forster.RUS.Gio.1854)

It is possible that Laura’s designs were influenced by her association with the arts and crafts designer William Morris (1834-1896), with whom she is known to have corresponded and sent samples of her work. The Arts and Crafts Exhibitions Society exhibit for 1889 featured several of Laura’s book-bindings and also embossed leather chair seats produced by Morris and Co. from her designs.

Another work, a three volume set of “The life and letters of Charles Darwin”, which was given to Laura by the editor, Darwin’s son Francis, features a floral design based on poppies.

Binding of volume 2 of "Life and letters of Charles Darwin"

Front cover of volume two of: Francis Darwin (ed.) “The life and letters of Charles Darwin…” (London: John Murray, 1887. Forster.DARW.Lif/2.1887)

This set is one of the jewels of the Forster collection, since attached inside the front cover of the first volume is an autograph letter from Charles Darwin himself, addressed to Laura and thanking her for allowing him to stay at her house in Surrey in 1879. A transcript of the letter appears in a footnote on page 224 of the third volume.

Darwin letter page 1

First page of a letter to Laura Mary Forster from Charles Darwin, written in 1879

Forster.DARW.Lif1.1887 letter page 02

Second page of Darwin’s letter to Laura

Transcript of Darwin letter

Transcript of Darwin’s letter, from volume three of “The life and letters of Charles Darwin”

Laura was a lifelong friend of Darwin’s eldest daughter Henrietta, with whom she conducted a lively correspondence. Many of these letters survive, including some which convey Laura’s leaning towards Darwinism. Whilst stating that: “it is against one’s taste to come from furry animals, tidal or otherwise”, and remaining steadfast in her Christian faith, she nevertheless believed that: “it is of practical use to get a just estimate of one’s place in creation”. Other relations regarded Darwinism with horror, and Laura relates wryly that one family acquaintance: “…expects every time he comes down to see me hung up on one of the large oaks opposite our house…”


Forster, E.M. Marianne Thornton (André Deutsch, 2000)

Kelvin, N. (ed.) The collected letters of William Morris, Volume II, Part B: 1885-1888 (Princeton University Press, 1987)




Judging a Book by its Cover

While most of the books in the Keynes Bequest have been acquired for their intellectual content, charting the history of European thought, there is one section in which the items have been collected primarily because of their physical characteristics, namely the binding. Every book bound before the early 19th century is a unique handcrafted object, so no two bindings can be genuinely identical. Recording the binding information when cataloguing a rare book is important as it gives us an indication of its provenance as well as how the book was used, regarded and circulated. Below is a selection of some of the most interesting items in the ‘binding’ section of the Keynes Library.

This copy of Les Pseaumes de David (1668) features an ornamental binding in goat-skin from the atelier de Charenton, characterised by corner-pieces and fleurons incorporating several pointillé motifs; on the board edges is a decorative roll in the style of the binder Antoine Ruette (1609-1669). Four stud holes are visible at the centre:


Keynes.Ec.7.4.11: Les Pseaumes de David mis en rime franc̜oise par Clement Marot, et Theodore de Beze (Charenton: Estienne Lucas, 1668).

Keynes.Ec.7.4.13 is an example of a book judged solely by its cover, being a copy of an obscure Italian play on St. John the Baptist which seems to have been consigned to oblivion by literary history, but whose binding features an aesthetically pleasing symmetrical double-panel design with drawer-handle and leaf ornaments tooled in gold:


Keynes.Ec.7.4.13: Niccolò Lippi, La verità conosciuta, e non seguita: overo la decollazione del glorioso S. Gio. Battista (Naples: Eredi di Laino, 1721).

There are also a number of armorial bindings in this section with interesting historical associations. We have a copy of Notizie per l’anno 1759, a volume of a statistical and administrative annual printed in Rome from 1716 to 1849, the precursor of the Annuario pontificio. Again, the content of the book is probably less interesting than the binding, which features the arms of the book’s dedicatee Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico (1724-1799), nephew of Pope Clement XIII, gold-stamped at the centre, and corner-pieces with elaborate floral decorations:


Keynes.Ec.7.4.12: Notizie per l’anno 1759 (Rome: Chracas, 1759).

Going back to France, this copy of René Budel’s De monetis, et re numaria (1591) has the coat of arms of the noted French historian and bibliophile Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553-1617) and of his second wife Gasparde de la Chastre blocked in gold at the centre of each cover. The fact that de Thou and his wife were already dead when this volume was added to their library is indicated by the addition of an urn above the two coats of arms. Underneath them, and on each spine panel, is the couple’s monogram IAGG. De Thou’s son François continued to add books to his late father’s library using this version of his coat of arms:


Keynes.Ec.7.4.6: René Budel, De monetis, et re numaria, libri duo (Cologne: Johann Gymnich, 1591). Detail from the cover and spine.

And finally something closer to home: a 16th-century English blind-stamped volume bound by Garret Godfrey of Cambridge (d. 1539), with a panel design formed by a roll containing a lion, a wyvern, and a gryphon; the floral ornaments feature the binder’s initials G. G. The metal clasps, catch plates and leather straps are intact:


Keynes.Ec.7.4.7: Petrus Comestor, Historia scholastica (Paris: Jean Frellon, 1513).

Some useful online resources on bookbinding: