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Books and Their Covers: Decorative Bindings, Beautiful Books – Spring 2010

Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room

Welcome to an exhibit of beautiful books. Unlike most of our exhibits, this one focuses not on the intellectual content of the books in our collection, but rather on what they look like. One often thinks of law books in utilitarian terms, but this exhibit proves they can be objects of delight and desire as well. Over the centuries their owners must have loved and appreciated them as works of art, just as we do today.

Below are a few highlights from the exhibit. A handout describing the entire exhibit is available here.

The exhibit was curated by Karen Beck, Curator of Rare Books / Collection Development Librarian. It will be on view through May 2010.


DECORATED VELLUM – GOLD TOOLING

The Life of Sir Thomas More
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JAMES MACKINTOSH. THE LIFE OF SIR THOMAS MORE. London: 1844.

While most law books are bound in brown calf leather or humble cloth, a sizeable minority are bound in vellum. Elaborate gold designs cover the entire front and back covers of this beautiful book.


MARBLED PAPER

Samuel Romilly's Observations
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SAMUEL ROMILLY. OBSERVATIONS ON A LATE PUBLICATION, INTITULED, THOUGHTS ON EXECUTIVE JUSTICE.
London: 1786.

Probably no category of bound books receives more attention from our visitors than the books bound in marbled paper. It is easy to see why: books bound in these papers are striking, unique, and eyecatching. Marbled papers were a particular favorite of our beloved friend and benefactor, Kitty Preyer, and we think of her every time we pull one of these beautiful books off the shelves.

Gift of Kitty Preyer.


LEATHER – TREE CALF

Francis Bacon's Essays 
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FRANCIS BACON. ESSAYS: MORAL, ECONOMICAL, AND POLITICAL.
Boston: 1807.

Tanned leather (usually calf) has been a very common bookbinding material for centuries. In addition to plain brown leather, book artists treated the leather, usually with ferrous sulfate, to produce a variety of interesting effects. Most of these design effects have descriptive and rather self-explanatory names, such as speckled calf, spotted calf, or mottled calf. Most unusual is tree calf, in which the calfskin was treated to create a tree or tree trunk pattern on the book’s cover.

Gift of Daniel R. Coquillette.


DECORATED LEATHER

Statutes Relating to High Treason 
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A COLLECTION OF THE SEVERAL STATUTES, AND PARTS OF STATUTES, NOW IN FORCE, RELATING TO HIGH TREASON.
London: 1709.

This beautiful little volume features ornate gold lines, floral ornaments, and crests. The gold stands out brilliantly against the black calfskin binding.

Gift of Frank Williams Oliver.


CLOTH

The Comic Blackstone 
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ARTHUR WILLIAM A’BECKETT. THE COMIC BLACKSTONE.
London: 1887.

In nineteenth-century England and America, book artists began to create books bound in highly decorated cloth. While we have many cloth-bound books in our collection, most are humble and utilitarian – typical law books. However, a few of them feature attractive designs, such as this one.