From Pigskin to Paper: The Art and Craft of Bookbinding. Online exhibition


The book that has the earliest English binding in New Zealand was printed in Venice in July 1481. Its binding is dark-brown calfskin over wooden boards. The spine has four raised bands, with a late 19th century red label attached. There are remnants of two catches and clasps. The end-leaves are vellum and paper. Within a central block design the blind stamped punches of birds, animals, and floral designs are arranged singly in horizontal rows. There are blind-stamped fillets. Somehow, this book ended up in Oxford, England, where about 1482 it gained its covers from a 15th century bookbinder called the Rood and Hunt Binder. Not only does the text (a Commentary on the Bible) carry the earliest English binding in New Zealand, but it carries within its pages fragments of indulgences printed by William Caxton, England’s first printer, c1480.

Wooden boards, raised bands, end-leaves, vellum, blind-stamped, and fillets are all part of the language of the bookbinder. An exhibition entitled From Pigskin to Paper: The Art and Craft of Bookbinding will begin at Special Collections, University of Otago Library on 20 December 2012. The exhibition aims to decode the jargon used by bookbinders, and showcase the creative ‘art and craft’ skills evident in all aspects of the binding process, from forwarding (construction) to finishing (decoration). To highlight the processes, a wide cross-section of binding styles will be exhibited, from the 1481 Rood and Hunt binding and 16th century European samples, to publisher’s case-bindings and those styled art nouveau. Books bound by local Dunedin binders will also feature. The exhibition runs to 22 March 2013.

There is an increasing amount of scholarly work done on the binders who create the outer garments that contain (and protect) the text-block. There is also more intensive work done examining the structural components of bindings, especially by conservators. Whether they are hand-bound calfskin, pigskin, or vellum examples from the hand-press period (and thereby unique objects), or machine-made mass-produced ones from the early 19th century, bindings do provide information on the book trade, how books were sold, how they were to be used, what were the prevailing fashions, what tools the binder owned, and in cases, the owner’s taste and standing. Indeed, as book historian David Pearson claims: ‘all historic bindings are potentially interesting, however fine (or not) they look’.

Each major library in New Zealand has its fair share of decorative, fine bindings, with the name of the binder often stamped inside: Zaehnsdorf; Sangorski & Sutcliffe; Cockerell. There are also those books known to be bound by famous binders such as Samuel Mearne, Roger Payne, or Charles Lewis. Of course, the vast majority of bindings are simple, plain, and functional, and carry no signature or famous name. If not a recognisable publisher’s house-style, most of them remain anonymous representatives, silent witnesses to the past.


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