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The World within your Hand: The Bindery

What comes to mind when you think of the Wallace Collection? Old Master Painting? Rococo decadence? Perhaps even the hardened steel in the armouries? Over a series of blogs, Helen Jones, our Library Cataloguer, explored the books in the Collection; the processes and science behind them. Should our books be celebrated? Read on to make up your own mind!

The Bindery

Paper, ink, a printing press and now the end is in sight as we have reached the binders!

Various materials were needed for binding books, depending on the expense the publisher or owner was willing to endure. Simple paper covers might be made for cheap books or books that would later be bound to the taste of the buyer. For quality bindings, however, you’d need thread for sewing together the gatherings of pages and cords to which to sew them; colour, marbling or gold-leaf for the three visible page edges; headbands to make the binding more durable; paper or vellum strips to strengthen the spine; pasteboard (made from pulped paper) or millboard (made from old tarred rope) for the boards; leather (goatskin for fine work, calf or vellum for trade bindings, sheepskin for the cheapest work) to cover the boards; end-papers (often marbled) to cover the inside of the boards and gold-leaf for tooling on the leather covers. On the below image, the spine has worn away at the top so that you can see the stitching of the headbands. You can also see the subtle speckling of red on the page edges.

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Having arrived at the bindery, the individual sheets of paper were folded so that all the pages were in the correct order and could be assembled into books. The folded book was beaten with a hammer and block to achieve the correct thickness and the folded sheets were sewn onto four or five cords,  the endpapers were sewn on, the spine rounded and boards made of rope-fibre millboard added, which were attached by the cords. The three outer edges of the book were then cut so that they were smooth and even; they might be sprinkled or brushed with colour, marbled, gilded, or painted.

Headbands were attached to the head and tail of the spine to make the book more durable, and the boards and spine were covered in leather after a strip of paper or vellum had been pasted onto the spine to strengthen it. Decoration could then be applied to the leather binding by pressing hot metal stamps onto the leather, either blind, or through gold leaf. The book below has had gold tooling applied to the leather; you can also see the raised bands on the spine: under the leather are the cords that are holding the book together.

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Individual owners sending their books to be bound would often have family crests added to spines or front covers, and the colour of the leather and decoration on the spine would be designed to match other books in his possession. Even older books that already had perfectly acceptable bindings were often rebound to the taste of a new owner. This means that the binding of book is not necessarily the same age as the book itself. The images below show a book from Londonderry Cabinet which was bound to the Marquesses of Hertford’s taste and even includes the Hertford family crest on its spine. Several of the books in the Londonderry Cabinet are bound in this way so that they all match.

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And for the reader? Anything might be found between the covers of a book; from prosaic information to flights of fancy. With a book, you can travel to other places (some of them purely imaginary) without stirring from your comfy chair. With a book, you can gain knowledge on every topic you wish, from art to science,  from fact to fiction. With a book, you can, figuratively at least, hold the whole world in your hand.

So the next time you are in the Large Drawing Room, spare a glance and a thought for some of our rare books: every step of their production was completed by hand and with great skill, and they deserve as much attention as some of our showier objects.

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