Tag Archives: Cataloguing

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:






Hide and seek

[Or, if you prefer, Haydn seek. I absolve myself of all responsibility for this pun.]

The fun of cataloguing rare books is in the detective work. It’s like hide and seek at times, following tracks to work out where a particular item belongs. You chase up a reference here, another there, encountering any number of dark alleys and dead ends along the way, eliminating the possibilities one by one, until eventually whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

I’ve been cataloguing rare music recently, most of it from the 1780s. The usual suspects: Davaux and Dalayrac, Tarchi and Tozzi, Sulzer, Schroeter and Schetky. Names that have the ring of familiarity even now. Occasionally, something out of the ordinary comes up, like a 1786 edition of Mozart piano sonatas printed in London by John Bland. Or this:

Title page 1

Most title pages have a publisher’s imprint, giving the cataloguer useful details of the place of publication, the name of the publisher, and even (in cases of great good fortune) the publication date. These are all standard on modern books, but in the 1780s they weren’t, especially on printed music.

Where to look, then, if your edition of Haydn’s Overture for the Piano Forte has no publication information? Well, in the first instance, major reference sources like the British Union-Catalogue of Early Music (BUCEM) and Répertoire international des sources musicales (RISM). In this case, though, the increasingly mysterious overture was listed in neither.

Haydn, happily, is a composer important enough to have his own thematic catalogue, which was compiled by Anthony van Hoboken and published in 1957. Hoboken arranges Haydn’s works by form (symphony, string quartet, piano sonata), and then chronologically by publication within sections. My heart sank at the prospect of having to wade through all of Haydn’s orchestral music to identify the overture in question. My first thought was that a piece of piano music calling itself an overture might just as easily be an arrangement of a symphony movement, and Haydn wrote a hell of a lot of symphonies.

Incipit 1

The task was to match the incipit (in plain English, the opening) of the score to one in Hoboken’s catalogue. After at least two minutes of tireless browsing, lo and behold, there it was in the Overtures section! Hob. Ia:7, Overture in D major. I hadn’t expected it to be so straightforward. Hoboken lists early editions of the piece, and includes the one I was cataloguing. But in the place where you would normally find the name of the publisher, one word: ‘Anonym’. Sigh.

When the reference works let you down, it doesn’t have to be the end of the trail. You still have your own wits to rely on, and (more pertinently) the item itself. In this case, a major clue was provided by the plate number. Sets of music printed from engraved plates often have a number at the foot of each page, identical across all plates in a set, and here the style of the plate number (a number 13 in parentheses), combined with its proximity to a similar Plate number 1plate number (the item bound after it having a number 14 in the same style), led me to infer with some confidence that the unidentified publishers of this edition were Edinburgh’s Corri & Sutherland.

This in turn facilitated the task of assigning a publication date. Humphries & Smith’s Music Publishing in the British Isles, an invaluable ‘dictionary of engravers, printers, publishers and music sellers’, says Corri & Sutherland operated from 1780 until 1790, which fits neatly with Hoboken’s stated composition date of 1777.

So there you have it: the cataloguing of an early edition from cradle to grave. There’s more to it than that, of course, but one has to keep something exciting in reserve for future posts.