ENGLISH EMBROIDERED BOOKBINDINGS
EDITED BY ALFRED POLLARD
ENGLISH EMBROIDERED BOOKBINDINGS
BY CYRIL DAVENPORT, F. S. A
AUTHOR OF 'THE ENGLISH REGALIA' ETC.
LONDON KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUeBNER AND COMPANY, LIMITED
The English Bookman's Library Edinburgh: T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to Her Majesty
CONTENTS AND LIST OF PLATES
PAGE GENERAL INTRODUCTION, ix By Alfred W. Pollard.
ENGLISH EMBROIDERED BINDINGS By Cyril Davenport.
CHAPTER I.—Introductory, 1
PLATES. 1. Embroidered Bag for Psalms. London, 1633, 17 2. Embroidered Cover for New Testament. London, 1640, 18
CHAPTER II.—Books Bound in Canvas, 28
PLATES. 3. The Felbrigge Psalter. 13th-century MS., 29 4. The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul. MS. by the Princess Elizabeth. 1544, 32 5. Prayers of Queen Katherine Parr. MS. by the Princess Elizabeth. 1545, 33 6. Christian Prayers. London, 1581, 37 7. Psalms and Common Praier. London, 1606, 38 8. Bible, etc. London, 1612, 39 9. Sermons by Samuel Ward. London, 1626-7, 41 10. New Testament, etc. London, 1625-35, 42 11. The Daily Exercise of a Christian. London, 1623, 44 12. Bible. London, 1626, 45 13. Bible, etc. London, 1642, 48 14. Bible. London, 1648, 49
CHAPTER III.—Books Bound in Velvet, 52
PLATES. 15. Tres ample description de toute la terre Saincte, etc. MS. 1540, 52 16. Biblia. Tiguri, 1543, 54 17. Il Petrarcha. Venetia, 1544, 55 18. Queen Mary's Psalter. 14th century MS., 57 19. Christopherson, Historia Ecclesiastica. Lovanii, 1569, Frontispiece 20. Christian Prayers. London, 1570, 59 21. Parker, De antiquitate Ecclesiae Britannicae. London, 1572, 60 22. The Epistles of St. Paul. London, 1578, 63 23. Christian Prayers, etc. London, 1584, 65 24. Orationis Dominicae Explicatio, etc. Genevae, 1583, 67 25. Bible. London, 1583, 68 26. The Commonplaces of Peter Martyr. London, 1583, 69 27. Biblia. Antverpiae, 1590, 70 28. Udall, Sermons. London, 1596, 71 29. Collection of Sixteenth-Century Tracts, 72 30. Bacon, Opera. Londini, 1623, 75 31. Bacon, Essays. 1625, 76 32. Common Prayer. London, 1638, 77 33. Bible. Cambridge, 1674, 78
CHAPTER IV.—Books Bound in Satin, 80
PLATES. 34. Collection of Sixteenth-Century Tracts, 80 35. New Testament in Greek. Leyden, 1576, 81 36. Bible. London, 1619, 84 37. Emblemes Chrestiens. MS. 1624, 85 38. New Testament. London, 1625, 86 39. New Testament and Psalms. London, 1630, 89 40. Henshaw, Horae Successivae. London, 1632, 90 41. Psalms. London, 1633, 91 42. Psalms. London, 1635, 92 43. Psalms. London, 1633, 94 44. Bible. London, 1638, 96 45. Psalms. London, 1639, 98 46. The Way to True Happiness. London, 1639, 99 47. New Testament. London, 1640, 101 48. Psalms. London, 1641, 103 49. Psalms. London, 1643, 105 50. Psalms. London, 1643, 106 51. Psalms. London, 1646, 108 52. Bible. London, 1646, 109
A new series of 'Books about Books,' exclusively English in its aims, may seem to savour of the patriotism which, in matters of art and historical research, is, with reason enough, often scoffed at as a treacherous guide. No doubt in these pleasant studies patriotism acts as a magnifying-glass, making us unduly exaggerate details. On the other hand, it encourages us to try to discover them, and just at present this encouragement seems to be needed. There are so many gaps in our knowledge of the history of books in England that we can hardly claim that our own dwelling is set in order, and yet many of our bookmen appear more inclined to re-decorate their neighbours' houses than to do work that still urgently needs to be done at home. The reasons for this transference of energy are not far to seek. It is quite easy to be struck with the inferiority of English books and their accessories, such as bindings and illustrations, to those produced on the Continent. To compare the books printed by Caxton with the best work of his German or Italian contemporaries, to compare the books bound for Henry, Prince of Wales, with those bound for the Kings of France, to try to find even a dozen English books printed before 1640 with woodcuts (not imported from abroad) of any real artistic merit—if any one is anxious to reinforce his national modesty, here are three very efficacious methods of doing it! On the other hand, English book-collectors have always been cosmopolitan in their tastes, and without leaving England it is possible to study to some effect, in public or private libraries, the finest books of almost any foreign country. It is small wonder, therefore, that our bookmen, when they have been minded to write on their hobbies, have sought beauty and stateliness of work where they could most readily find them, and that the labourers in the book-field of our own country are not numerous. Touchstone's remark, 'a poor thing, but mine own,' might, on the worst view of the case, have suggested greater diligence at home; but on a wider view English book-work is by no means a 'poor thing.' Its excellence at certain periods is as striking as its inferiority at others, and it is a literal fact that there is no art or craft connected with books in which England, at one time or another, has not held the primacy in Europe.
It would certainly be unreasonable to complain that printing with movable types was not invented at a time better suited to our national convenience. Yet the fact that the invention was made just in the middle of the fifteenth century constituted a handicap by which the printing trade in this country was for generations overweighted. At almost any earlier period, more particularly from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the first quarter of the fifteenth, England would have been as well equipped as any foreign country to take its part in the race. From the production of Queen Mary's Psalter at the earlier date to that of the Sherborne Missal at the later, English manuscripts, if we may judge from the scanty specimens which the evil days of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. have left us, may vie in beauty of writing and decoration with the finest examples of Continental art. If John Siferwas, instead of William Caxton, had introduced printing into England, our English incunabula would have taken a far higher place. But the sixty odd years which separate the two men were absolutely disastrous to the English book-trade. After her exhausting and futile struggle with France, England was torn asunder by the wars of the Roses, and by the time these were ended the school of illumination, so full of promise, and seemingly so firmly established, had absolutely died out. When printing was introduced England possessed no trained illuminators or skilful scribes such as in other countries were forced to make the best of the new art in order not to lose their living, nor were there any native wood-engravers ready to illustrate the new books. I have never myself seen or heard of a 'Caxton' in which an illuminator has painted a preliminary border or initial letters; even the rubrication, where it exists, is usually a disfigurement; while as for pictures, it has been unkindly said that inquiry whence they were obtained is superfluous, since any boy with a knife could have cut them as well.
Making its start under these unfavourable conditions, the English book-trade was exposed at once to the full competition of the Continental presses, Richard III. expressly excluding it from the protection which was given to other industries. Practically all learned books of every sort, the great majority of our service-books, most grammars for use in English schools, and even a few popular books of the kind to which Caxton devoted himself, were produced abroad for the English market and freely imported. Only those who mistake the shadow for the substance will regret this free trade, to which we owe the development of scholarship in England during the sixteenth century. None the less, it was hard on a young industry, and though Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, the Faques, Berthelet, Wolfe, John Day, and others produced fine books in England during the sixteenth century, the start given to the Continental presses was too great, and before our printers had fully caught up their competitors, they too were seized with the carelessness and almost incredible bad taste which marks the books of the first half of the seventeenth century in every country of Europe.
Towards the close of the eighteenth century, as is well known, the French thought sufficiently well of Baskerville's types to purchase a fount after his death for the printing of an important edition of the works of Voltaire. But the merits of Baskerville as a printer, never very cordially admitted, are now more hotly disputed than ever; and if I am asked at what period English printing has attained that occasional primacy which I have claimed for our exponents of all the bookish arts, I would boldly say that it possesses it at the present day. On the one hand, the Kelmscott Press books, on their own lines, are the finest and the most harmonious which have ever been produced; on the other, the book-work turned out in the ordinary way of business by the five or six leading printers of England and Scotland seems to me, both in technical qualities and in excellence of taste, the finest in the world, and with no rival worth mentioning, except in the work of one or two of the best firms in the United States. Moreover, as far as I can learn, it is only in Great Britain and America that the form of books is now the subject of the ceaseless experiment and ingenuity which are the signs of a period of artistic activity.
As regards book-illustration the same claim may be put forward, though with a little more hesitation. We have been taught lately, with insistence, that 'the sixties' marked an epoch in English art, solely from the black and white work in illustrated books. At that period our book-pictures are said to have been the best in the world; unfortunately our book-decoration, whether better or worse than that of other countries, was almost unmitigatedly bad. In the last quarter of a century our decorative work has improved in the most striking manner; our illustrations, if judged merely for their pictorial qualities, have not advanced. In the eyes of artists the sketches for book-work now being produced in other countries are probably as good as our own. But an illustration is not merely a picture, it is a picture to be placed in a certain position in a printed book, and in due relation to the size of the page and the character of the type. English book-illustrators by no means always realise this distinction, yet there is on the whole a greater feeling for these proprieties in English books than in those of other countries, and this is an important point in estimating merits. Another important point is that the rule of the 'tint' or 'half-tone' block, with its inevitable accompaniment of loaded paper, ugly to the eye and heavy in the hand, though it has seriously damaged English illustrated work, has not yet gained the predominance it has in other countries. Our best illustrated books are printed from line-blocks, and there are even signs of a possible revival of artistic wood-engraving.
In endeavouring to make good my assertion of what I have called the occasional primacy of English book-work, I am not unaware of the danger of trying, or seeming to try, to play the strains of 'Rule Britannia' on my own poor penny whistle. As regards manuscripts, therefore, it is a pleasure to be able to seek shelter behind the authority of Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, whose words in this connection carry all the more weight, because he has shown himself a severe critic of the claims which have been put forward on behalf of several fine manuscripts to be regarded as English. In the closing paragraphs of his monograph on English Illuminated Manuscripts he thus sums up the pretensions of the English school:—
'The freehand drawing of our artists under the Anglo-Saxon kings was incomparably superior to the dead copies from Byzantine models which were in favour abroad. The artistic instinct was not destroyed, but rather strengthened, by the incoming of Norman influence; and of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there is abundant material to show that English book-decoration was then at least equal to that of neighbouring countries. For our art of the early fourteenth century we claim a still higher position, and contend that no other nation could at that time produce such graceful drawing. Certainly inferior to this high standard of drawing was the work of the latter part of that century; but still, as we have seen, in the miniatures of this time we have examples of a rising school of painting which bid fair to attain to a high standard of excellence, and which only failed for political causes.'
To this judicial pronouncement on the excellence of English manuscripts on their decorative side, we may fairly add the fact that manuscripts of literary importance begin at an earlier date in England than in any other country, and that the Cotton MS. of Beowulf and the miscellanies which go by the names of the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book have no contemporary parallels in the rest of Europe.
[Footnote 1: English Illuminated Manuscripts. By Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K. C. B. (Kegan Paul, 1895), pp. 66, 67.]
When we turn from books, printed or in manuscript, to their possessors, it is only just to begin with a compliment to our neighbours across the Channel. No English bookman holds the unique position of Jean Grolier, and 'les femmes bibliophiles' of England have been few and undistinguished compared with those of France. Grolier, however, and his fair imitators, as a rule, bought only the books of their own day, giving them distinction by the handsome liveries which they made them don. Our English collectors have more often been of the omnivorous type, and though Lords Lumley and Arundel in the sixteenth century cannot, even when their forces are joined, stand up against De Thou, in Sir Robert Cotton, Harley, Thomas Rawlinson, Lord Spencer, Heber, Grenville, and Sir Thomas Phillips (and the list might be doubled without much relaxation of the standard), we have a succession of English collectors to whom it would be difficult to produce foreign counterparts. Round these dii majores have clustered innumerable demigods of the book-market, and certainly in no other country has collecting been as widely diffused, and pursued with so much zest, as in England during the present century. It is to be regretted that so few English collectors have cared to leave their marks of ownership on the books they have taken so much pleasure in bringing together. Michael Wodhull was a model in this respect, for his book-stamp is one of the most pleasing of English origin, and his autograph notes recording the prices he paid for his treasures, and his assiduous collation of them, make them doubly precious in the eyes of subsequent owners. Mr. Grenville also had his book-stamp, though there is little joy to be won from it, for it is unpleasing in itself, and is too often found spoiling a fine old binding. Mr. Cracherode's stamp was as graceful as Wodhull's; but, as a rule, our English collectors, though, as Mr. Fletcher is discovering, many more of them than is generally known have possessed a stamp, have not often troubled to use it, and their collections have never obtained the reputation which they deserve, mainly for lack of marks of ownership to keep them green in the memory of later possessors. That this should be so in a country where book-plates have been so common may at first seem surprising. But book-plates everywhere have been used rather by the small collectors than the great ones, and the regrettable peculiarity of our English bookmen is, not that they despised this rather fugitive sign of possession, but that for the most part they despised book-stamps as well.
Of book-plates themselves I have no claim to speak; but for good taste and grace of design the best English Jacobean and Chippendale specimens seem to me the most pleasing of their kind, and certainly in our own day the work of Mr. Sherborn has no rival, except in that of Mr. French, who, in technique, would, I imagine, not refuse to call himself his disciple.
I have purposely left to the last the subject of Bindings, as this, being more immediately cognate to Mr. Davenport's book, may fairly be treated at rather greater length. If the French dictum 'la reliure est un art tout francais' is not without its historical justification, it is at least possible to show that England has done much admirable work, and that now and again, as in the other bookish arts, she has attained preeminence.
The first point which may fairly be made is that England is the only country besides France in which the art has been consistently practised. In Italy, binding, like printing, flourished for a little over half a century with extraordinary vigour and grace, and then fell suddenly and completely from its high estate. From 1465 to the death of Aldus the books printed in Italy were the finest in the world; from the beginning of the work of Aldus to about 1560 Italian bindings possess a freedom of graceful design which even the superior technical skill quickly gained by the French does not altogether outbalance. But just as after about 1520 a finely printed Italian book can hardly be met with, so after 1560, save for a brief period during which certain fan-shaped designs attained prettiness, there have been no good Italian bindings. In Germany, when in the fifteenth century, before the introduction of gold tooling, there was a thriving school of binders working in the mediaeval manner, the Renaissance brought with it an absolute decline. Holland, again, which in the fifteenth century had made a charming use of large panel stamps, has since that period had only two binders of any reputation, Magnus and Poncyn, of Amsterdam, who worked for the Elzeviers and Louis XIV. Of Spanish bindings few fine specimens have been unearthed, and these are all early. Only England can boast that, like France, she has possessed one school of binders after another, working with varying success from the earliest times down to the present century, in which bookbinding all over Europe has suffered from the servility with which the old designs, now for the first time fully appreciated, have been copied and imitated.
In this length of pedigree it must be noted that England far surpasses even France herself. The magnificent illuminated manuscripts, the finest of their age, which were produced at Winchester during the tenth century, were no doubt bound in the jewelled metal covers of which the rapacity of the sixteenth century has left hardly a single trace in this country. But early in the twelfth century, if not before, the Winchester bookmen turned their attention also to leather binding, and the school of design which they started, spreading to Durham, London, and Oxford, did not die out in England until it was ousted by the large panel stamps introduced from France at the end of the fifteenth. The predominant feature of these Winchester bindings (of which a fine example from the library of William Morris recently sold for L180), and of their successors, is the employment of small stamps, from half an inch to an inch in size, sometimes circular, more often square or pear-shaped, and containing figures, grotesques, or purely conventional designs. A circle, or two half-circles, formed by the repetition of one stamp, within one or more rectangles formed by others, is perhaps the commonest scheme of decoration, but it is the characteristic of these bindings, as of the finest in gold tooling, that by the repetition of a few small patterns an endless variety of designs could be built up. The British Museum possesses a few good examples of this stamp-work, but the finest collections of them are in the Cathedral libraries at Durham and Hereford. Any one, however, who is interested in this work can easily acquaint himself with it by consulting the unique collection of rubbings carefully taken by Mr. Weale and deposited in the National Art Library at the South Kensington Museum. In these rubbings, as in no other way, the history of English binding can be studied from the earliest Winchester books to the charming Oxford bindings executed by Thomas Hunt, the English partner of the Cologne printer, Rood, about 1481.
During the first half of this period the English leather binders were the finest in Europe; during the second, the Germans pressed them hard, and when the large panel stamps, three or four inches square and more, were introduced in Holland and France, the English adaptations of them were distinctly inferior to the originals. The earliest English bindings with gold tooling were, of course, also imitative. The use of gold reached this country but slowly, as the first known English binding, in which it occurs, is on a book printed in 1541, by which time the art had been common in Italy for a generation. The English bindings found on books bound for Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Mary I., all of which are roughly assigned to Berthelet as the Royal binder, resemble the current Italian designs of the day, with sufficient differences to make it probable that they were produced by Englishmen. We know, however, that until the close of the century there were occasional complaints of the presence of foreign binders in London, and it is probable that the Grolieresque bindings executed for Wotton were foreign rather than English. Where, however, we find work on English books distinctly unlike anything in France or Italy, it is reasonable to assign it to a native school, and such a school seems to have grown up about 1570, in the workshop of John Day, the helper of Archbishop Parker in so many of his literary undertakings. These bindings attributed to Day, especially those in which he worked with white leather on brown, although they have none of the French delicacy of tooling, perhaps for this reason attack the problem of decoration with a greater sense of the difference between the styles suitable for a large book and a small than is always found in France, where the greatest binders, such as Nicholas Eve and Le Gascon, often covered large folios with endless repetitions of minute tools whose full beauty can only be appreciated on duodecimos or octavos. The English designs with a large centre ornament and corner-pieces are rich and impressive, and we may fairly give Day and his fellows the palm for originality and effectiveness among Elizabethan binders. In the next reign the French use of the seme or powder, a single small stamp, of a fleur-de-lys, a thistle, a crown, or the like, impressed in rows all over the cover, was increasingly imitated in England, very unsuccessfully, and, save for a few traces of the style of Day, the leather bindings of the first third of the century deserve the worst epithets which can be given them.
Until, however, French fashions came into vogue after the Restoration, English binders had never been content to regard leather as the sole material in which they could work. Embroidered bindings had come early into use in England, and a Psalter embroidered by Anne Felbrigge towards the close of the fourteenth century is preserved at the British Museum, and shown in one of Mr. Davenport's illustrations. In the sixteenth century embroidered work was very popular with the Tudor princesses, gold and silver thread and pearls being largely used, often with very decorative effect. The simplest of these covers are also the best—but great elaboration was often employed, and on a presentation copy of Archbishop Parker's De Antiquitate Ecclesiae Britannicae we find a clever but rather grotesque representation of a deer-paddock. Under the Stuarts the lighter feather-stitch was preferred, and there seems to have been a regular trade in embroidered Bibles and Prayer-books of small size, sometimes with floral patterns, sometimes with portraits of the King, or Scriptural scenes. A dealer's freak which compelled the British Museum to buy a pair of elaborate gloves of the period rather than lose a finely embroidered Psalter, with which they went, was certainly a fortunate one, enabling us to realise that in hands thus gloved these little bindings, always pretty, often really artistic, must have looked exactly right, while their vivid colours must have been admirably in harmony with the gay Cavalier dresses.
Besides furnishing a ground for embroidery, velvet bindings were often decorated, in England, with goldsmith work. One of the most beautiful little bookcovers in existence is on a book of prayers, bound for Queen Elizabeth in red velvet, with a centre and corner pieces delicately enamelled on gold. Under the Stuarts, again, we frequently find similar ornaments in engraved silver, and their charm is incontestable.
Thus while for English bindings of this period in gilt leather we can only claim that Berthelet's show some freedom in their adaptation of Italian models, and Day's a more decided originality, we are entitled to set side by side with this scanty record a host of charming bindings in more feminine materials, which have no parallel in France, and certainly deserve some recognition. After the Restoration, however, leather quickly ousted its competitors, and a school of designers and gilders arose in England, which, while taking its first inspiration from Le Gascon, soon developed an individual style. In effectiveness, though not in minute accuracy of execution, this may rank with the best in Europe. We can trace the beginnings of this lighter and most graceful work as early as the thirties, and it might be contended with a certain plausibility that it began at the Universities. Certainly the two earliest examples known to me—the copy of her Statutes presented to Charles I. by Oxford in 1634, and the Little Gidding Harmony of 1635, the tools employed in which have been shown by Mr. Davenport to have been used also by Buck, of Cambridge—are two of the finest English bindings in existence, and in both cases, despite the multiplicity of the tiny tools employed, there is a unity and largeness of design which, as I have ventured to hint, is not always found even in the best French work. The chief English bindings after the Restoration, those associated with the name of Samuel Mearne, the King's Binder, preserve this character, though the attempt to break the formality of the rectangle by the bulges at the side and the little penthouses at foot and head (whence its name, the 'cottage' style) was not wholly successful. The use of the labour-saving device of the 'roll,' in preference to impressing each section of the pattern by hand, is another blot. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to find an English or Scotch binding of this period which is less than charming, and the best of them are admirable. At the beginning of the eighteenth century a new grace was added by the inlaying of a leather of a second colour. These inlaid English bindings are few in number (the British Museum has not a single fine example), but those who know the specimens exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, two of which are figured in its Catalogue, will readily allow that their grace has never been surpassed. The fine Harleian bindings let us down gently from this eminence, and then, after a period of mere dulness, with the rise of Roger Payne we have again an English school (for Payne's traditions were worthily followed by Charles Lewis) which, by common consent, was the finest of its time. Payne's originality is, perhaps, not quite so absolute as has been maintained, for some of his tools were cut in the pattern of Mearne's, and it would be possible to find suggestions for some of his schemes of arrangement in earlier English work. If he borrowed, however, he borrowed from his English predecessors, and he brought to his task an individuality and an artistic instinct which cannot be denied.
After Payne and Lewis, English binding, like French, became purely imitative in its designs; but while in our own decade the French artists have endeavoured to shake themselves free from old traditions by mere eccentricity, in England we have several living binders, such as Mr. Cobden Sanderson and Mr. Douglas Cockerell, who work with notable originality and yet with the strictest observance of the canons of their art.
Moreover in the application of decorative designs to cloth cases England has invented, and England and America have brought to perfection, an inexpensive and very pleasing form of book-cover, which gives the bookman ample time to consider whether his purchase is worth the more permanent honours of gilded leather, and also, by the facts that it is avowedly temporary, and that its decoration is cheaply and easily effected by large stamps, renders forgivable vagaries of design, which when translated, as they have been of late years in France, into the time-honoured and solemn leather, seem merely incongruous and irreverent.
In binding, then, as in the other bookish arts, the part which English workers have played has been no insignificant or unworthy one, and the development of this art, as of the others, in our own country is worthy of study. In this case much has already been done, for the illustrations of English Bookbindings at the British Museum, edited, with introduction and descriptions by Mr. W. Y. Fletcher, present the student with the best possible survey of the whole subject, while the excellent treatises of Miss Prideaux and Mr. Horne bring English bookbinding into relation with that of other countries. Here, then, there is no need of a new general history, but rather of special monographs, treating more in detail of the periods at which our English binders have done the best work. The old stamped bindings of the days of manuscript, the embroidered bindings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the leather bindings of Mearne and his fellows under the later Stuarts, and the work of Roger Payne—all these seem to offer excellent subjects for unpretentious monographs, and it is hoped that others of them besides the English Embroidered Bindings, with which Mr. Davenport has made a beginning, may be treated in this series.
In other subjects the ground has not yet been cleared to the same extent, and for the history of English Book-Collectors and English Printing, not special monographs, but good general surveys are the first need. To say much on this subject might bring me perilously near to re-writing the prospectus of this series. It is enough to have pointed out that the bookish arts in England are well worth more study than they have yet been given, and that the pioneers who are endeavouring to enlarge knowledge, each in his own section, may fairly hope that their efforts will be received with indulgence and good-will.
ALFRED W. POLLARD.
The application of needlework to the embellishment of the bindings of books has hitherto almost escaped special notice. In most of the works on the subject of English Bookbinding, considered from the decorative point of view in distinction from the technical, a few examples of embroidered covers have indeed received some share of attention. Thus in both Mr. H. B. Wheatley's and Mr. W. Y. Fletcher's works on the bindings in the British Museum, in Mr. Salt Brassington's Historic Bindings in the Bodleian Library and History of the Art of Bookbinding, and in my own Portfolio monograph on 'Royal English Bookbindings,' some of the finer specimens of embroidered books still existing are illustrated and described. But up to the present no attempt has been made to deal with them as a separate subject. In the course, however, of the many lectures on Decorative Bookbinding which it has been my pleasure and honour to deliver during the past few years, I have invariably noticed that the pictures and descriptions of embroidered specimens have been the most keenly appreciated, and this favourable sign has led me to examine and consider such examples as have come in my way more carefully than I might otherwise have done. Very little study sufficed to show that in England alone there was for a considerable period a regular and large production of embroidered books, and further, that the different styles of these embroideries are clearly defined, equally from the chronological and artistic points of view. A peculiarly English art which thus lends itself to orderly treatment may fairly be made the subject of a brief monograph.
With the exception of point-lace, which is sometimes made in small pieces for such purposes as ladies' cuffs or collars, decorative work produced by the aid of the needle is generally large. Certainly this is so in its finest forms, which are probably to be found in the ecclesiastical vestments and in the altar frontals of the Renaissance period, or even earlier. On the other hand, such work as exists on books is always of small size, and, unlike the point-lace, it almost invariably has more than one kind of 'stitchery' upon it—chain, split, tapestry, satin, or what not.
Thus it can be claimed as a distinction for embroidered book-covers that as a class they are the smallest complete embroideries existing, ranging upwards from about 6 inches by 3-1/2 inches—the size of the smallest specimen known to me, when opened out to its fullest extent, sides and back in one. This covers a copy of the Psalms, printed in London in 1635, and is of white satin, with a small tulip worked in coloured silk on each side.
An 'Embroidered Book,' it should be said, means for my purpose a book which is covered, sides and back, by a piece of material ornamented with needlework, following a design made for the purpose of adorning that particular book. A cover consisting of merely a piece of woven stuff, or even a piece of true embroidery cut from a larger piece, is not, from my point of view, properly to be considered an 'embroidered book,' it being essential that the design as well as the workmanship should have been specially made for the book on which they are found; and this, in the large majority of instances, is certainly the case.
With regard to the transference of bindings to books other than those for which they were originally made, such a transference has often taken place in the case of mediaeval books bound in ornamental metal, but even in these instances it must be recognised that such a change can seldom be made without serious detriment. It is chiefly indeed from some incongruity of style or technical mistake in the re-putting together that we are led to guess that the covers have been thus tampered with. Now and then such a transference occurs in the case of leather-bound books, and in such instances is usually easy for a trained binder to detect. Embroidered covers, on the other hand, have rarely been changed, the motive for such a proceeding never having been strong, and the risk attending it being obvious enough. We may, in fact, feel tolerably sure that the large majority of embroidered covers still remain on the boards of the books they were originally made for.
All the embroidered books now extant dating from before the reign of Queen Elizabeth have gone through the very unfortunate operation of 're-backing,' in the course of which the old embroidered work is replaced by new leather. The old head and tail bands, technically very interesting, have been replaced by modern imitations, and considerable damage has been done in distorting the work left on the sides of the book. It would seem obvious that a canvas, velvet, or satin embroidered binding, if it really must be re-backed or repaired at all, should be mended with a material as nearly as possible of the same make and colour as that of the original covering; but this has rarely been done, the large majority of such repairs being executed in leather. But in the case of such old bindings we must be grateful for small mercies, and feel thankful that even the sides are left in so many cases. It is indeed surprising that we still possess as much as we do. If all our great collectors had been of the same mind as Henry Prince of Wales, the Right Hon. Thomas Grenville, or even King George III., we should have been far worse off, as although several fine old bindings exist in their libraries, many which would now be priceless have been destroyed, only to be replaced by comparatively modern bindings, sometimes the best of their kind, but often in bad taste.
Division of Embroidered Books according to the designs upon them.
The designs on embroidered books may be roughly divided into four classes—Heraldic, Figure, Floral, and Arabesque.
The Heraldic designs always denote ownership, and are most frequently found on Royal books bound in velvet, rarely occurring on silk or satin, and never, as far as I have been able to ascertain, on canvas. The Figure designs may be subdivided into three smaller classes, viz.:—
I. Scriptural, e.g. representations of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Jacob wrestling with the Angel, David, etc.
II. Symbolical, e.g. figures of Faith, Hope, Peace, Plenty, etc.
III. Portraits, e.g. of Charles I., Queen Henrietta Maria, Duke of Buckingham, etc.
The Scriptural designs are most generally found on canvas-bound books; the Symbolical figures, and Portraits, on satin, rarely on velvet. The Floral and Arabesque designs are most common on small and unimportant works bound in satin, but they occur now and then on both canvas and velvet books. The true arabesques have no animal or insect forms among them, the prophet Mohammed having forbidden his followers to imitate any living thing.
It may further be noted that heraldic designs on embroidered books are early, having been made chiefly during the sixteenth century, and that the figure, floral, and arabesque designs most usually belong to the seventeenth century. There are, of course, exceptions to these divisions, notably in the case of the earliest existing embroidered book, which has figure designs on both sides, but also maintains its heraldic position, inasmuch as its edges are decorated with coats-of-arms.
Naturally, again, it may be sometimes difficult to decide whether a design should be classed as heraldic or floral. Such a difficulty occurs as to the large Bible at Oxford bound in red velvet for Queen Elizabeth, and bearing a design of Tudor and York roses. I consider it heraldic, but it might, with no less appropriateness, be called floral. If it had belonged to any one not a member of the Royal family it would undoubtedly be properly counted as a floral specimen. Again, in many of the portrait bindings flowers and arabesques are introduced, but they are clearly subordinate, and the chief decorative motive of such designs must be looked for, and the work classed accordingly. Thus it is evident that the arrangement of the embroidered books by their designs cannot be too rigidly applied, although it should not be lost sight of altogether.
Division of Embroidered Books according to the material on which they are worked.
A more useful and accurate classification may however be found by help of the material on which the embroidered work is done, and this division is obvious and easy. With very few exceptions all embroidered books, ancient and modern, are worked on canvas, velvet, or satin, and while canvas was used continuously from the fourteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth century, velvet was most largely used during the Tudor period, and satin during that of the early Stuarts.
Broadly speaking, the essential differences in the kind of work found upon these three materials follow the peculiarities of the materials themselves. Canvas, in itself of no decorative value, is always completely covered with needlework. Velvet, beautiful even when alone, but difficult to work upon, usually has a large proportion of applique, laid, or couched work, in coloured silk or satin, upon it, showing always large spaces unworked upon, and such actual work as occurs directly on the velvet is always in thick guimp or gold cord. Satin, equally beautiful in its way, is also freely left unornamented in places; the needlework directly upon it is often very fine and delicate in coloured floss silks, generally closely protected by thick raised frames or edges of metallic threads or fine gold or silver cords.
By 'metallic' threads, when they are not simply fine wires, I mean strands of silk closely (Fig. 1) or loosely (Fig. 2) wound round with narrow coils of thin metal, mostly silver or silver gilt. The use of such threads, alone, or twisted into cords, is common on all styles of embroidered books, and it is largely due to their use that pieces of work apparently of the greatest delicacy are really extremely durable—far more so than is generally supposed. Certainly if it had not been for the efficient protection of these little metal walls we should not possess, as we actually do, delicate-looking embroidered books, hundreds of years old, in almost as good condition, except in the matter of colour, as when they were originally made.
Thin pieces of metal are sometimes used alone, caught down at regular intervals by small cross stitches; this is, I believe, called 'Lizzarding' (Fig. 3). Metal is also found in the form of 'guimp,' in flattened spirals (Fig. 4), and also in the 'Purl,' or copper wire covered with silk (Fig. 5), so common on the later satin books (compare p. 46).
Spangles appear to have been introduced during the reign of Elizabeth, but they were never freely used on velvet, finding their proper place ultimately on the satin books of a later time. The spangles are generally kept in position either by a small section of purl (Fig. 6) or a seed pearl (Fig. 7), in both cases very efficaciously, so that the use of guimp or pearl was not only ornamental but served the same protective purpose as the bosses on a shield, or those so commonly found upon the sides of the stamped leather bindings of mediaeval books.
It may be mentioned that the seventeenth-century Dutch binders, Magnus and Poncyn, both of Amsterdam, invented a new tool for gilding on leather bindings, used, of course, in combination with others. This was cut to imitate the small circular spangles of the embroidered books (Fig. 8), and the English and French finishers of a later period used the same device with excellent effect for filling up obtrusive spaces on the sides and backs of their decorative bindings. Thus it may be taken as an axiom that, for the proper working of an embroidered book, except it be tapestry-stitch or tent-stitch, on canvas, which is flat and strong of itself, there should invariably be a liberal use of metal threads, these being not only very decorative in themselves, but also providing a valuable protection to the more delicate needlework at a lower level, and to the material of the ground itself.
The earliest examples of embroidered bindings still existing are not by any means such as would lead to the inference that they were exceptional productions—made when the idea of the application of needlework to the decoration of books was in its infancy. On the contrary, they are instances of very skilled workmanship, so that it is probable that the art was practised at an earlier date than we now have recorded. There are, indeed, frequent notes in 'Wardrobe Accounts' and elsewhere of books bound in velvet and satin at a date anterior to any now existing, but there is no mention of embroidered work upon them.
The Forwarding of Embroidered Books.
The processes used in the binding of embroidered books are the same as in the case of leather-bound books; but there is one invariable peculiarity—the bands upon which the different sections of the paper are sewn are never in relief, so that it was always possible to paste down a piece of material easily along the back without having to allow for the projecting bands so familiar on leather bindings (Fig. 9). The backs, moreover, are only rounded very slightly, if at all.
This flatness has been attained on the earlier books either by sewing on flat bands, thin strips of leather or vellum (Fig. 10), or by flattening the usual hempen bands as much as they will bear by the hammer, and afterwards filling up the intermediate spaces with padding of some suitable material, linen or thin leather.
In several instances the difficulty of flattening the bands has been solved, in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century embroidered books, in a way which cannot be too strongly condemned from a constructive point of view, although it has served its immediate purpose admirably.
A small trench has been cut with a sharp knife for each band, deep enough to sink it to the general level of the inner edges of the sections (Fig. 11).
This cutting of the back to make room for the bands was afterwards more easily effected by means of a saw—as it is done now—and in the eighteenth century was especially used by the French binder Derome le Jeune, who is usually made responsible for its invention.
The existence of the sunken bands on early embroidered books probably marks the beginning of this vicious system, but here there is some excuse for it, whereas in the case of ordinary leather-bound books there is none, except from the commercial standpoint.
In the case of vellum books there may be some reason for using the 'sawn in' bands, as it is certainly difficult to get vellum to fit comfortably over raised bands, although numerous early instances exist in which it has been successfully done. Again in the case of 'hollow backs,' the bands are kept flat with some reason. But for all valuable or finely bound books the system of 'sawing in' cannot be too strongly condemned.
'Sawing in' can be detected by looking at the threads in the centre of any section of a bound book from the inside. It will show as a small hole with a piece of hemp or leather lying transversely across it, under which the thread passes (Fig. 12).
In the case of a properly sewn book, the bands themselves cannot be seen at all from the inside of the sections, unless, indeed, the book is damaged (Fig. 13). If the covering of the back is off, or even loose, the method of sewing that has been used can very easily be seen; and if it appears that the bands are sunk in a small trench, that is the form of sewing that is called 'sawn in,' or analogous to it.
Although in the embroidered books the bands of the backs do not show on the surface, it is common enough to find the lines they probably follow indicated in the work on the back, which is divided into panels by as many transverse lines, braid or cord, as there are bands underneath them. But in some cases the designer has used the back as one long panel, and decorated it accordingly as one space. The headbands in some of the earlier books were sewn at the same time as the other bands on the sewing-press and drawn in to the boards, but in most early bindings the ravaging repairer has been at work and made it impossible to know for certain what was the state of the headbands before the book came into his hands. Most of the existing headbands are made by hand in the usual way, with the ends simply cut off, not indeed a very satisfactory finish. It would be better if these ends were somehow drawn in to the leather of the back, as for instance they still often are on thin vellum books.
The great majority of embroidered books, both large and small, have had ties of silk on their front edges—generally two, but sometimes only one, which wraps round. These ties have generally worn away from the outer side of the boards, but their ends can usually be traced (if the book has not been repaired) in the inner side, covered only by a thin piece of paper; and if this paper is loose, as often happens, and the ends show well, it may often be advisable not to paste it down again at that particular place.
The backs of old embroidered books are by far the weakest parts about them. If they exist at all in their old forms they are always much worn, and the work upon them so much damaged that it is often difficult to make out even the general character of the design, to say nothing of the details of the workmanship.
The edges of the leaves of books bound in England in embroidered bindings are always ornamentally treated, sometimes simply gilded, often further adorned with 'gauffred' work, that is to say, small patterns impressed on the gold, and sometimes beautifully decorated with elaborate designs having colour in parts as well. The earliest English ornamentation of this kind in colour is found on the Felbrigge Psalter and on some of the books embroidered for Henry VIII., one of which is richly painted on the fore edges with heraldic designs, and another with a motto written in gold on a delicately coloured ground.
Cases for Embroidered Books.
Common though the small satin embroidered books must have been in England during the earlier part of the seventeenth century, it is still certain that the finer specimens were highly prized, and beautifully worked bags were often made for their protection. These bags are always of canvas, and most of them are decorated in the same way, the backgrounds of silver thread with a design in tapestry-or tent-stitch, and having ornamental strings and tassels. To describe one of these is almost to describe all. The best preserved specimen I know belongs to a little satin embroidered copy of the Psalms, printed in London in 1633, and measures 5 inches long by 4 inches in depth.
The same design is repeated on each side. A parrot on a small grass-plot is in the middle of the lower edge. Behind the bird grow two curving stems of thick gold braid, each curve containing a beautifully-worked flower or fruit. In the centre is a carnation, and round it are arranged consecutively a bunch of grapes, a pansy, a honeysuckle, and a double rose, green leaves occurring at intervals. From the lower edge depend three ornamental tassels of silver loops, with small acorns in silver and coloured silks, one from the centre and one from each corner.
The top edge has two draw-strings of gold and red braid, each ending in an ornamental oval acorn of silver thread and coloured silks, probably worked on canvas over a wooden core, ending in a tassel similar to those on the lower edge.
A long loop of gold and silver braid serves as a handle, or means of attachment to a belt, and is fixed at each side near a strong double loop of silver thread, used when pulling the bag open. The lining is of pink silk. This particular bag is perfect in colour as well as condition, but usually the silver has turned black, or nearly so. Besides these very ornamental bags, others of quite simple workmanship are occasionally found, worked in outline with coloured silks. As well as the embroidered bags, certain rectangular cloths variously ornamented, some richly, some plainly, were made and used for the protection of embroidered books, when being read. These, like the bags, only seem to have been used during the seventeenth century. A particularly fine example belongs to a New Testament bound in embroidered satin in 1640. It is of fine linen, measuring 16-1/2 by 9-1/4 inches, and is beautifully embroidered in a floral design, with thick stalks of gold braid arranged in curves and bearing conventional flowers and leaves, all worked in needle-point lace with coloured silks in a wonderfully skilful manner.
In the centre is a double red rose with separate petals, and among the other flowers are corn-flowers, honeysuckles, carnations, strawberries, and several leaves, all worked in the same way, and appliques at their edges. Some, however, of the larger leaves and petals are ornamentally fastened down to the linen by small coloured stitches arranged in lines or patterns over their surfaces, as well as by the edge stitches. There are several spangles scattered about in the spaces on the linen, and the edge is bound with green silk and gold. On the book itself to which this cover belongs there is a good deal of the same needle-point work, probably executed by the same hand; but the cover is a finer piece altogether than the book,—in fact it is the finest example of such work I have ever seen.
Abroad there have been made at various times embroidered bindings for books, but in no country except England has there been any regular production of them. I have come across a few cases in England of foreign work, the most important of which I will shortly describe. In the British Museum is an interesting specimen bound in red satin, and embroidered with the arms of Felice Peretti, Cardinal de Montalt, who was afterwards Pope Sixtus V.; the coat-of-arms has a little coloured silk upon it, but the border and the cardinal's hat with tassels are all outlined in gold cord. The work is of an elementary character. The book itself is a beautiful illuminated vellum copy of Fichet's Rhetoric, printed in Paris in 1471, and presented to the then Pope, Sixtus IV. In the same collection are a few more instances of Italian embroidered bindings, always heraldic in their main designs, the workmanship not being of any particular excellence or character. Perhaps altogether the most interesting Italian work of this kind was done on books bound for Cardinal York, several of which still remain, embroidered with his coat-of-arms, one of them being now in the Royal Library at Windsor. Although the actual workmanship on these books is foreign, we may perhaps claim them as having been suggested or made by the order of the English Prince himself, inheriting the liking for embroidered books from his Stuart ancestors.
French embroidered books are very rare, and I do not know of any examples in England. Two interesting specimens, at least, are in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and are described and figured in Bouchot's work on the artistic bindings in that library. The earlier is on a book of prayers of the fifteenth century, bound in canvas, and worked with 'tapisserie de soie au petit point,' or as I should call it, tent-, or tapestry-, stitch. It represents the Crucifixion and a saint, but M. Bouchot remarks of it, 'La composition est grossiere et les figures des plus rudimentaires.'
The other instance occurs on a sixteenth-century manuscript, 'Les Gestes de Blanche de Castille.' It is bound in black velvet, much worn, and ornamented with applique embroideries in coloured silks, in shading stitch, probably done on fine linen. The design on the upper cover shows the author of the book, Etienne le Blanc, in the left-hand corner, kneeling at the feet of Louise de Savoie, Regent of France, to whom the book is dedicated. Near her is a fountain into which an antlered stag is jumping, pursued by three hounds.
The Dutch, in the numerous excellent styles of bindings they have so freely imitated from other nations, have not failed to include the English embroidered books. In the South Kensington Museum is a charming specimen of their work on satin, finely worked in coloured silks with small masses of pearls in a rather too elaborate design of flowers and animals. In the British Museum, besides other instances of Dutch needlework, there is a very handsome volume of the Acta Synodalis Nationalis Dordrechti habitae, printed at Leyden in 1620, and bound in crimson velvet. It has the royal coat-of-arms of England within the Garter, with crest, supporters, and motto, all worked in various kinds of gold thread; in the corners are sprays of roses and thistles alternately, and above and below the coat are the crowned initials J. R., all worked in gold thread.
Hints for Modern Broiderers.
Many book-covers have been embroidered during the last few years in England by ladies working on their own account, or by some of the students at one or other of the many excellent centres now existing for the study and practice of the fascinating art of bookbinding.
Although a large proportion of modern work of this kind has been only copied from older work, I see no reason why original designs should not be freely and successfully invented. But I think that the ancient work may be advantageously studied and carefully copied as far as choice of threads and manner of working them goes. The workers of our old embroidered books were people of great skill and large experience, and from a long and careful examination of much of their work, I am impressed with the conviction that they worked on definite principles. If I allude briefly to some of these I may perhaps give intending workwomen a hint or two as to some minor points which may assist their work to show to the best advantage when in situ, and also insure, as far as possible, that it will not be unduly damaged during the operation of fixing to the back and boards of the book for which it is intended.
(1) Before the operation of fixing on the book is begun, it will always be found best to mount the embroidered work on a backing of strong fine linen. The stage at which it is best to add the linen will vary according to the kind of work it is to strengthen. In the case of canvas it will only be necessary to tack it on quite at the last; with velvet a backing from the first may be used with advantage, all the stitches being taken through both materials. As to satin, it will be best to do all the very fine work, if any, in coloured silks first, and when the stronger work in cord or braid comes on, the linen may be then added. The value of the linen is twofold: it strengthens the entire work and protects the finer material from the paste with which it is ultimately fastened on to the book.
(2) A book must be sewn, the edges cut, and the boards fixed, before the sizes of the sides and back can be accurately measured. These sizes must be given to the designer most carefully, as a very small difference between the real size and the embroidered size will entirely spoil the finished effect, however fine the details of the workmanship may be. When the exact size is known the designer will fill the spaces at his disposal according to his taste and skill, making his sketches on paper, and, when these are complete, transferring the outlines to the material on which the work is to be done. If the designer is also to be the worker it is artistically right, and he, or she, will put in the proper stitches as the work progresses; but if another person is to execute the needlework it will be best that very detailed description of all the threads and stitches that are to be used should be given, as every designer of an embroidery design intends it to be carried out in a particular way, and unless this way is followed, the design does not have full justice done to it.
(3) In the working itself the greatest care must be taken, especially as to two points: the first and perhaps the more important, because the more difficult to remedy, is that the needlework on the under side of the material must be as small and flat as possible, and all knots, lumps, or irregularities here, if they cannot be avoided or safely cut off, had best be brought to the upper side and worked over. With satin, especially, attention to this point is most necessary, as unless the plain spaces lie quite flat, which they are very apt not to do, the proper appearance of the finished work is spoiled, and however good it may be in all other points, can never be considered first-rate.
The second pitfall to avoid is any pulling or straining of the material during the operation of embroidering it. Success in avoiding this depends primarily upon the various threads being drawn at each stitch to the proper tension, so that it may just have the proper pull to keep it in its place and no more—and although a stitch too loose is bad enough, one too tight is infinitely worse.
(4) The preponderance of applique work, and raised work in metal guimps on embroidered books, especially on velvet, is easily accounted for when the principles they illustrate are understood, the truth being that in both these operations the maximum of surface effect is produced with the minimum of under work.
If the piece applique is not very large, a series of small stitches along all the edges is generally enough to keep it firm; such edge stitches are in most cases afterwards masked by a gold cord laid over them. If, however, the applique piece is large it will be necessary to fix it as well with some supplementary stitches through the central portions. These stitches will generally be so managed that they fit in with, or under, some of the ornamental work; at the same time, if necessary, they may be symmetrically arranged so as to become themselves of a decorative character.
The Embroidered Books here illustrated.
For the purposes of illustration I have chosen the most typical specimens possible from such collections as I have had access to. The chief collections in England are, undoubtedly, those at the British Museum and at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The collection at the British Museum is especially rich, the earlier and finer specimens almost invariably having formed part of the old Royal Library of England given by George II. to the Museum in 1757.
The more recent specimens have been acquired either by purchase or donation, but as there has been no special intention at any time to collect these bindings, it is remarkable that such a number of them exist in our National Library. The Bodleian is rich in a few fine specimens only, and most of these are exhibited. My illustrations are made from photographs from the books themselves in all instances; to show them properly, however, all should be in colour, and it should not be forgotten that an embroidered book represented only by a half-tint print, however good, inevitably loses its greatest charm. However, if the half-tint is unworthy, the colour prints are distinctly flattering. I think that almost any old book well reproduced in colour gains in appearance, and in two of my colour plates I have actually restored some parts. In the beautiful fourteenth century psalter, supposed to have been worked by Anne de Felbrigge, I have made the colours purposely much clearer than they are at present. If it were possible to clean this volume, the colours would show very nearly as they do on my plate; but, actually, they are all much darker and more indistinct, being in fact overlaid with the accumulated dirt of centuries. The other instance where I have added more than at present exists on the original is the green velvet book which belonged to Queen Elizabeth, and forms my frontispiece. Here I have put in the missing pearls, each of which has left its little impression on the velvet, so nothing is added for which there is not the fullest authority. Moreover, some of the gold cord is gone on each of the three volumes of this work, but I have put it in its proper place for the purpose of illustration. The other plates are not in any way materially altered, but it may be allowed that the colour plates show their originals at their best.
The books illustrated are selected out of a large number, and I think it may fairly be considered that the most favourable typical specimens now left in England are shown. It may well be that a few finer instances than I have been able to find may still be discovered hidden away in private collections, but it is now so rarely that a really fine ancient embroidered book comes into the sale-room, that we may safely conclude the best of them are already safely housed in one or other of our great national collections. Where not otherwise stated, the specimens described are in the British Museum.
In the following detailed descriptions I have used the words 'sides' and 'boards' to mean the same thing, and the measurements refer to the size of the boards themselves, not including the back. These measurements must be taken as approximate only, as from wear and other causes the actual sizes would only be truly given by the use of small fractions of inches.
BOOKS BOUND IN CANVAS
English books bound in embroidered canvas range over a period of about two hundred and fifty years, the earliest known specimen dating from the fourteenth century, and instances of the work occurring with some frequency from this time until the middle of the seventeenth century. The majority of these bindings are worked in tapestry-stitch, or tent-stitch, in designs illustrating Scriptural subjects in differently coloured threads.
Very often the outlines of these designs are marked by gold threads and cords, of various kinds, and parts of the work are also frequently enriched with further work upon them in metal threads. Spangles are very rarely found on canvas-bound books. The backgrounds of several of the later specimens are worked in silver threads, sometimes in chain-stitch and sometimes in tapestry-stitch; others again have the groundwork of silver threads laid along the surface of the canvas and caught down at regular intervals by small stitches—this kind of work is called 'laid' or 'couched' work. Books bound with this metal ground have always strong work superimposed, usually executed in metal strips, cords, and thread. The silver is now generally oxidised and much darkened, but when new these bindings must have been very brilliant.
The Felbrigge Psalter. 13th-century MS. Probably bound in the 14th century.
The earliest example of an embroidered book in existence is, I believe, the manuscript English Psalter written in the thirteenth century, which afterwards belonged to Anne, daughter of Sir Simon de Felbrigge, K. G., standard-bearer to Richard II. Anne de Felbrigge was a nun in the convent of Minoresses at Bruisyard in Suffolk, during the latter half of the fourteenth century, and it is quite likely that she herself worked the cover—such work having probably been largely done in monasteries and convents during the middle ages.
On the upper side is a very charming design of the Annunciation, and, on the under, another of the Crucifixion, each measuring 7-3/4 by 5-3/4 inches. In both cases the ground is worked with fine gold threads 'couched' in a zigzag pattern, the rest of the work being very finely executed in split-stitch by the use of which apparently continuous lines can be made, each successive stitch beginning a little within that immediately preceding it—the effect in some places being that of a very fine chain-stitch. The lines of this work do not in any way follow the meshes of the linen or canvas, as is mostly the case with book-work upon such material, but they curve freely according to the lines and folds of the design. It will be recognised I think by art workwomen skilled in this kind of small embroidery, that the methods used for ornamenting the canvas binding of this book are the most artistic of any of the various means employed for a similar purpose, and I know of no other instance which for appropriateness of workmanship, or charm of design, can compare with this, the earliest of all.
The figure of the Virgin Mary, on the upper side, is dressed in a pale red robe, with an upper garment or cloak of blue with a gold border. On her head is a white head-dress, and round it a yellow halo; just above is a white dove flying downwards, its head having a small red nimbus or cloud round it. The Virgin holds a red book in her hand. The figure of the angel is winged, and wears an under robe of blue with an upper garment of yellow; round his head he has a green and yellow nimbus, his wings are crimson and white.
Between these two figures is a large yellow vase, banded with blue and red; out of it grows a tall lily, with a crown of three red blossoms.
The drawing of both of the figures is good, the attitudes and the management of the folds of the drapery being excellently rendered, and the execution of the technical part is in no way inferior to the design.
On the lower side, on a groundwork of gold similar to that on the upper cover, is a design of the Crucifixion. Our Saviour wears a red garment round the loins, and round his head is a red and yellow nimbus, his feet being crossed in a manner often seen in illuminations in ancient manuscripts.
The cross is yellow with a green edge, the foot widening out into a triple arch, within which is a small angel kneeling in the attitude of prayer. On the right of the cross is a figure of the Virgin Mary, in robes of pale blue and yellow, with a white head-dress and green and yellow nimbus. On the left is another figure, probably representing St. John, dressed in robes of red and blue, and having a nimbus round his head of concentric rings of red and yellow. This figure is unfortunately in very bad condition. The edges of the leaves of the book are painted with heraldic bearings in diamond-shaped spaces, that of the Felbrigge family 'Gules, a lion rampant, or' alternately with another 'azure, a fleur-de-lys, or.' The embroidered sides have been badly damaged by time and probably more so by repair. The book has been rebound in leather, the old embroidered back quite done away with, and the worked sides pulled away from their original boards and ruinously flattened out on the new ones. After the Felbrigge Psalter no other embroidered binding has been preserved till we come to one dating about 1536, which is in satin, and will be described under that head.
The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul. MS. by the Princess Elizabeth. 1544.
The Princess Elizabeth, afterwards Queen, in her eleventh year, copied out in her own handwriting the Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul. She says it is translated 'out of frenche ryme into english prose, joyning the sentences together as well as the capacitie of my symple witte and small lerning coulde extende themselves.' It is also most prettily dedicated: 'From Assherige, the last daye of the yeare of our Lord God 1544 ... To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye.'
The book is now one of the great treasures of the Bodleian Library; it is bound in canvas, measures about 7 by 5 inches, and was embroidered in all probability by the hands of the Princess herself. The Countess of Wilton in her book on the art of needlework says that 'Elizabeth was an accomplished needlewoman,' and that 'in her time embroidery was much thought of.' The Rev. W. Dunn Macray in his Annals of the Bodleian Library considers this binding to be one of 'Elizabeth's bibliopegic achievements.'
The design is the same upon both sides. The ground is all worked over in a large kind of tapestry-stitch in thick pale blue silk, very evenly and well done, so well that it has been considered more than once to be a piece of woven material. On this is a cleverly designed interlacing scroll-work of gold and silver braid, in the centre of which are the joined initials K. P.
In each corner is a heartsease worked in thick coloured silks, purple and yellow, interwoven with fine gold threads, and a small green leaflet between each of the petals. The back is very much worn, but it probably had small flowers embroidered upon it.
Prayers of Queen Katherine Parr. MS. by the Princess Elizabeth. 1545.
Another manuscript beautifully written by the Princess Elizabeth about a year later is now at the British Museum. It is on vellum, and contains prayers or meditations, composed originally by Queen Katherine Parr in English, and translated by the Princess into Latin, French, and Italian. The title as given in the book reads, 'Precationes ... ex piis scriptoribus per nobiliss. et pientiss. D. Catharinam Anglie, Francie, Hibernieq. reginam collecte, et per D. Elizabetam ex anglico converse.' It is, moreover, dedicated to Henry VIII., the wording being, 'Illustrissimo Henrico octavo, Anglie, Francie, Hibernieq. regi,' etc., and dated Hertford, 20th December 1545.
It is bound in canvas, and measures 5-3/4 by 4 inches, the groundwork being broadly worked in tapestry-stitch, or some stitch analogous to it, in red silk, resembling in method the work on the ground of The Miroir of the Synneful Soul already described. On this, in the centre of each side, is a large monogram worked in blue silk, interwoven with silver thread, containing the letters K, probably standing for Katherine, A, F, H, and R, possibly meaning 'Anglie, Francie, Hibernieque, Reginae,' but like most monograms this one can doubtless be otherwise interpreted. Above and below the monogram are smaller H's, worked in red silk, interwoven with gold thread. In each corner is a heartsease of yellow and purple silk, interwoven with gold thread, and having small green leaves between each of the petals. The work which was once on the back is now so worn that it cannot be traced sufficiently to tell what it originally was. The designs of these two volumes, credited to the Princess Elizabeth, resemble each other to some extent; they both have a monogram in the centre, they both have heartsease in the corners and groundwork of a like character. They are, as far as workmanship goes, still more alike, similar thick silk is used for the ground, and threads and braids of a thick nature, with metal interwoven, are used on both for the ornamental work. Speaking of this British Museum book, the Countess of Wilton says, 'there is little doubt that Elizabeth's own needle wrought the ornaments thereon.'
Books embroidered by the Princess Elizabeth.
It cannot be said that there is any actual authority for saying that the two covers just described are really the work of Elizabeth's own hand, although she is known to have been fond of embroidery, it being recorded that she made and embroidered a shirt for her brother Edward when she was six. There is little doubt, however, that the same designer and the same workwoman worked both these covers, and the technique, as well as the design, are peculiar for the time in which they were done. Canvas bindings were rare—most of the embroidered work on books of that period were splendid works on velvet—so that if these two manuscripts had been 'given out' to be bound in embroidered covers we should have expected to find them in rich velvet, like Brion's Holy Land, or Christopherson's Historia Ecclesiastica, instead of a very elementary braid work. Without attaching too much importance to the various statements concerning their royal origin, I am inclined to think that there is no impossibility, or even improbability, in the supposition that the Princess designed and worked them herself, thereby adding to her exquisite manuscript the further charm of her clever needle. The idea of both writing and embroidering such valued presents as these two books must have been is likely to have strongly appealed to an affectionate and humble daughter, and there is an artistic completeness in the idea which, I think, tells strongly in its favour.
Probably enough no proof of their having been worked by Elizabeth will now ever be forthcoming, but it is equally unlikely that any positive disproof will be found.
The two 'Elizabeth' books stand alone—there are no others resembling them; but the next kind of embroidered work I shall describe is one which includes a large number of books, generally small in size, and usually copies of the Bible or the Psalms. The canvas in these cases is embroidered all over in small tapestry-stitch, the design being shown by means of the different colours of the silks used. The work being all flat it is very strong, and often books bound in this way are in a marvellous state of preservation. The most interesting designs are those which represent Scriptural scenes. Some of these are very curious and almost grotesque, but there is much excuse for this. To work a face any way in embroidery is troublesome enough, but to work it on a small scale in tent-stitch is especially difficult, the result being somewhat similar in effect to that of a glass or marble mosaic, each little stitch being nearly square and of an uniform colour. The designers of these embroideries do not appear to have had a very fertile imagination, as again and again the same subject is represented. Perhaps the most favourite of all is Jacob wrestling with the angel; of figure subjects 'Faith and Hope' are the most frequently met with, but 'Peace and Plenty' are also common enough.
Christian Prayers. London, 1581.
A Book of Christian Prayers with illustrated borders, printed in London in 1581, is bound in coarse canvas worked in tapestry-stitch in colours, and measures 7 by 5 inches. The same design is on each side—a kind of flower-basket in two stories, out of the lower part of which, rectangular in shape, grow two branches, one with lilies and another with white flowers, and out of the upper, oval in shape, rise two sprays of roses, one white the other red.
In the lower corners are a large lily, a blue flower, and a large double-rose spray. All the design is outlined with silver cord or thread, and the veinings of the leaves are indicated in the same way. There are remains of two green velvet ties on the front edges of each of the boards. The back is not divided into panels, but has a design upon it of the letters E and S repeated five times. The edges are gilt and gauffred.
Psalms and Common Praier. London, 1606-7.
During the seventeenth century little 'double' books were rather favourite forms for Common Prayer and Psalms especially. These curious bindings open opposite ways and have two backs, two ornamental boards, and one unornamented board enclosed between the two books, which are always of the same size.
There are several instances where embroidered books have been bound in this way, the earliest I know being a copy of the Psalms and Common Prayer, printed in 1606-7.
This is bound in canvas, and measures 3-1/4 by 2 inches, each side having the same design embroidered on each of the ornamented sides and backs. The flowers and leaves are worked in long straight stitches in coloured silks, outlined with silver twist. A large pansy plant occupies the place of honour, growing out of a small green mound, from which also spring two short plants with five-petalled yellow flowers. The main stems and ribs of the leaves are made with strong silver twist. Round about the central spray are several coloured buds. On the backs are four panels, each containing a small four-petalled flower. The ground is worked all over with silver thread irregularly stitched, and the edges are bound with a broad silver thread. There was originally one ribbon to twist round both books and keep them together, but it is now quite gone. The edges are gilt, gauffred, and slightly coloured.
Bible, etc. London, 1612.
A copy of the Bible, with the Psalms, printed in London in 1612, and measuring 6-3/4 by 4-1/4 inches, is bound in fine canvas, and bears upon it designs embroidered in coloured silks in tapestry-stitch.
On the upper side is King Solomon seated in an elaborate throne on a dais, all outlined with gold cord. He wears a golden crown and a dress which more nearly approaches the style worn at the date of the production of the book than that which was probably worn by Solomon himself. Before the King kneels a figure, no doubt intended for the Queen of Sheba, in a red and orange robe of a curious fashion. She holds out two white and red roses to the King, who bends to take them. The ground is patterned in green and blue diamonds. The distant landscape shows a castle with turrets, trees, a tower, a house, and a sun with rays. The groundwork on both sides and the back is worked in silver thread.
The lower side has in the centre Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob has a beard and a blue cloak; his staff lies on the ground. The angel wears a red flowing robe, and his wings are many-coloured, and enriched with various threads and spirals of gold. The landscape is elaborate. In the foreground is a river with a bridge of planks, a gabled cottage, hospitably smoking from its chimneys, a red lily, and a tree. In the middle distance is a castle with tower and flag, and on the horizon are a windmill, a castle with two towers, and some trees, above all a red cloud. The back is divided into six panels, on each of which is a different design in coloured silks. These designs are small, and although they are in perfectly good condition, the subjects represented are doubtful. The upper and lower panels seem to represent only castles with towers. Then apparently come Jonah and the whale, the creation, the temple, and the deluge with the ark, but it is quite possible that other interpretations might be made. There are remains of two red silk ties on the front edges of each board, and the edges of the leaves are gilded simply.
Sermons by Samuel Ward. London, 1626-7.
Mr. Yates Thompson has kindly allowed me to describe and illustrate an embroidered book belonging to him, bound in canvas, and measuring 5-3/4 by 4-1/4 inches. It is a collection of sermons preached by 'Samuel Ward, Bachelour of Divinity,' and printed in London, 1626-7, the binding being probably of about the latter date. On the upper cover is a lady in a blue dress, seated, and holding a hawk on her left wrist, and a branch with apples in her right. Round her are scattered flower sprays, honeysuckle, foxglove, a stalk with two large pears, a cluster of grapes, a twig with a butterfly upon it, and a wild-rose spray. The lady, the petals of the flowers, and the leaves are all worked in tapestry-stitch; the bird and the lady's hair in long straight stitches; the stalks, fruits, and grasses are worked in variously coloured silk threads, thickly and strongly bound round with very fine silver wire. The lady has a coif, cuff, and belt of short pieces of silver and gold guimp arranged like a plait.
The under side shows a seated lady in a green dress, playing a lute left-handed. This most unusual position is probably not really intentional, but the drawing has accidentally been reversed. She is surrounded, like her companion with the hawk, by flower sprays, a thistle, cornflower, strawberries, a rose, lily, bluebell, and small bunch of grapes, making a kind of arbour, with a wreath of red cloud at the top. The lady, the petals of the flowers, and the leaves are worked in fine tapestry-stitch; the stalks and fruits in coloured silks, mixed with silver wire. The lady has a coif and a cuff of silver guimp arranged in the same way as that on the other side.
The back is divided into four panels by silver guimp, each containing a flower worked in tapestry-stitch, a blue flower, a wild rose, a pansy, and a thistle. The ground of the whole is loosely overcast with silver thread, the constructive lines of the book being marked by rows of silver guimp arranged in small arches. The edges are bound by a strong silver braid. The head and tail bands are worked in silver thread—an unusual method—and the edges are gilt and gauffred.
There are two ties on each board of striped silk, much frayed and worn, but the embroidered work itself is in excellent condition, and very strong.
New Testament, etc. London, 1625-35.
A small copy of the New Testament, printed in London in 1625, bound together with the Psalms, 1635, is covered with canvas, all worked in tapestry-stitch, and measures 4-1/4 by 3 inches.
On the upper cover is a full-length figure of Hope, with dark hair, dressed in a red dress with large falling collar, having a blue flower at the point. In her left hand she holds an anchor. In the distant background is a cottage and a gibbet on a hill, the sun with rays just appearing under a cloud. On the hilly foreground is a red lily, and further afield a caterpillar and a strawberry plant. On the lower cover is a full-length figure of Faith, with fair hair, dressed in a blue dress with large falling collar, having a red flower at the point. In her left hand she holds an open book with the word 'FAITH' written across it. On the hilly foreground is a large red tulip and a plant with red blooms, further afield are a pear-tree and two caterpillars.
On the back are four panels, containing respectively a bird, a blue flower, a squirrel, and a red flower.
On the front edge of the upper cover can be seen the remains of one tie of green silk, and the edges are protected all round by a piece of green silk braid. The edges of the leaves are plainly gilt.
This cover is one of the rare instances of a book bound in embroidered work not made for it, the embroidery being clearly made for a book of about half the present thickness. It is possible that it was intended for either the New Testament or the Psalms separately, and, as an after-thought, was made to do double duty. But as it now is, the worked back is just a strip down the middle of the back itself, the designs of the sides encroaching considerably inwards.
The Daily Exercise of a Christian. London, 1623.
The Daily Exercise of a Christian, printed in London in 1623, and measuring 4-3/4 by 2-3/4 inches, is ornamented with a single flower spray, with buds and leaves. The flower is a double rose with curving stem, one large half-opened bud and one smaller, and a few leaves, all worked in tent-stitch. The spray rises from a small bed of grass, out of which grows a small blue flower. In the upper right-hand corner is a small blue cloud. The same design is on both sides. The back is divided into four panels, the divisions being marked and bounded by a thick silver braid, which is also used as an edging all round the book; the designs, beginning at the top, are a fly and a flower alternately, differently coloured.
The background is all worked in with silver thread in chain-stitch. With this book is one of the now rare ornamental markers, which, no doubt, often went with embroidered books. It is fastened to an ornamental oblong cushion, probably made of light wood, and is worked in silver thread and coloured silks in the same manner as the rest of the embroidered work, and finished off at the ends with small red tassels.
Bible. London, 1626-28.
A copy of the Bible, printed in London in 1626, is bound in canvas, and measures 6 by 3-1/2 inches.
The embroidery is in coloured silks, silver cords and threads, and silver guimp. On the upper cover is a small full-length figure of St. Peter, with short beard, holding a key in his left hand. He is dressed in a blue under-garment, with red and orange robe over it, all the edges being marked by a silver twist, some of which has come off. The ground is green and in hillocks. All this work is done in coloured silks and silver threads in shading stitch.
On the under side is a figure of St. Paul, with long beard, holding a silver sword in his right hand. He wears a blue under-garment, with red and orange upper robe, all edged with silver twist. The feet of both figures are bare. The rest of the design is the same on both sides. The skies are worked in large stitches of blue and yellow silk and silver threads, graduating from dark to light; above these are canopies of silver thread, couched, and vandyked at the edge. Enclosing the figures are arches with columns, in high relief in silver cords and threads. The inner edge of the arch is curiously marked by a line of brown silk worked over a strip of vellum in the manner used for hand-worked head-bands, and the outer edge has 'crockets' of silver guimp. The columns rest upon 'rams-horn' curves, heavily worked in relief with silver threads, the insides of the curves worked in brown silk over vellum like the inner edge of the arch.
Metal Threads used on Embroidered Books.
Guimp and gold threads are largely used, as has already been noticed, in embroidered books from early times, but on the next specimen of a canvas-bound book I have chosen for description, dated 1642, a kind of metal thread occurs which is very curious. It is used at an earlier date on satin books, and it is also found more commonly upon them; but as I have put the canvas books first for the purpose of description, and the 'thread' occurs in one of them, this is the best place to put its description. This thread I call 'Purl,' and a thread with this name is mentioned in several places as having been used in England in the seventeenth century; but there is no description of it, so that this thread may not be the 'purl' mentioned by the seventeenth-century writers, but if it is not, I do not know what purl is, neither do I know any other special name for the thread. In order that there may be no doubt as to what I mean by purl, I will shortly describe the thread as I know it.
First there is a very fine copper wire; this is closely bound round with coloured silk, also very fine, and in this state it looks simply like a coloured thread. Then this coloured thread is itself closely coiled round something like a fine knitting-needle—in fact I have made it on one—and then pushed off in the form of a fine coiled tube. The thread is always cut into short lengths for use, and on books these short lengths are generally threaded and drawn together at their ends, making, so to speak, little arches—so that although on the under side of the material there is only a tiny thread, on the upper side there is a strong arch, practically of copper. On boxes and other ornamental productions of this same period, pieces of purl are not infrequently found laid flat like little bricks; and houses, castles, etc., are often represented by means of it; but on books the general use is either for flowers, grounds, or (in very small pieces) to keep on spangles. Obviously any coloured silk can be used in making this thread, so that it may be said that for coloured silk work, where strength is required, flowers worked in purl are the best. The colours used when roses are represented are usually graduated,—yellow or white in the centre, then gradually darkening outward, yellow, pale pink, and red, or pale yellow, pale blue, and dark blue. Purl flowers are usually accessories to some regular design, but, in one instance at least, to be described later on, it supplies the entire decoration of a small satin book.
Bible, etc. London, 1642.
The design on a Bible with Psalms, printed in London in 1642, bound in fine canvas, and measuring 6 by 3-1/2 inches, is the same on both sides. The ground is all laid, or couched, with silver threads, caught down at intervals by small white stitches. In the centre is a circular silver boss, and out of this grow four lilies worked with silver thread in button-hole stitch; each of these lilies has a shape similar to its own underneath it, outlined with fine gold cord, and filled in with red silk; representing altogether white flowers with a red lining. These four red and white lilies make together the form of a Maltese cross, and between each of the arms is a purl rose with yellow centre and graduated blue petals. A double oval, with the upper and lower curves larger than the side ones, marked with a thick gold cord, encloses the central cross, and the remaining spaces are filled with ovals and lines of gold guimp, with here and there a little patch of red or yellow purl, the extremities of the upper and lower ovals being filled with threads of green silk loosely bound with a silver spiral, worked to represent a green plot.