The volume celebrates a thousand years of the bookbinder's art with exquisite examples from around the world.

As an Indian I couldn't help noticing to my dismay, even as I gazed transfixed at this illustrated book of hundred stunning examples of beautiful bookbindings from the British Library, that the only bookbinding objects showcased here that looked to be in a slightly blemished condition are the Indian books. I feel quite sure that this is the condition the bindings were found in when the British Library first acquired them. And if they hadn't looked after them, we — and the world — would have lost these treasures forever.

Origin in India

Another instance, I thought to myself, of our indifference to caring for the physical book. It would seem, and not for the first time, that we hadn't preserved our heritage books with the care and attention we otherwise devote to preserving and curating our heritage art.

Books as objects have counted for very little in our culture. This is particularly galling and especially saddening when you learn from this book that some scholars think it's very likely that the origin of the craft of bookbinding began in India. The reference is to the Indian practice in the first century B.C. of “Buddhist monks copying religious sutras on palm leaves which are then threaded on to twines enclosed by two wooden boards”. This pioneering technique of binding spread to Persia and China but while they invented newer and more sophisticated binding methods, in India the craft didn't change much for a very long time, leaving us quite behind and stunted.

Only now with the work of Indian book scholars and historians exhuming our print culture are we beginning to get a sense of our book culture past and the individuals behind it. The forgotten or neglected heroes of our — and every — book culture are the typesetters and the printers. And to this we should now include bookbinders. Beautiful Bookbindings, published jointly by The British Library and the Oak Knoll Press, celebrates a thousand years of the bookbinder's art with exquisite examples of bindings from around the world. They are, each one, finely photographed in full page spreads with detailed notes on the intricacies of binding, the bindery and the binder.

This is the kind of book that even non-bibliophiles will look at and go: Wow. You can imagine then how much more of a delight it is to the connoisseur of the printed book, the lover of fine bindings. A book to look at and lose yourself in images of some of the most accomplished, artistic bindings in the world. The focus of the book is to show binding as a decorative art than as protective covering. The book's author, P.J.M. Marks, curator at the library, showcases hundred of the most exquisite and bespoke bindings from the British Library's collection, spanning more than ten centuries.

Philippa Marks' scholarly and engaging introduction notes that bookbinding is a craft that is more than 2,000 years old. And yet well into the 19th century, binders were still seen as craftsmen not artists, and remained for the most part anonymous. A notable exception to such anonymity, notes Marks, were the miniature painters of Islamic lacquered bindings. The glory of making beautiful bindings first belongs to Islamic binders and calligraphers. The 13th century Islamic practice from Morocco of gold tooling on leather was adopted by Italy in the 15th century. It was common for Arab rulers to study calligraphy and binding.

Eastern treasures

Some fine Eastern treasures from the British Library collection I want to single out is a late 16th century Indian binding with “varnished and gold painted binding covering a manuscript copy of five narrative poems copied in 1595 for Akbar (showing animals, birds, foliage, thronging with natural figures). A lacquered binding characteristic of the Safavid period in Persia of royal attendants in the garden with detail by Sayyid Ali who travelled to India and helped found the Mughal school of painting. A 1650 book from the Ishfan school showing the work of the best known miniature painter and calligrapher, Reza Abassi: brown goatskin doublures adorned with gold paint, blue paper filigree inlays and cut out compartments, figures of animals, forest on a powdered gold background. And a 1760 Southern Indian binding from Deccan Plateau, fanciful poems with 157 miniatures, by Hakim Multani.”

A range of other magnificent bindings are on display in the book: the incandescent Lindisfarne gospels, the bespoke bindings commissioned by Jean Grolier, Japanese ukiyo-e books, medieval Book of Hours, illuminated Latin Psalters, dazzling Venetian, Parisian and English bindings, the renowned Zaehnsdorf bindings, North African Korans, the fabled Sangkorski Omar Khayyam, the Alphonse Simier Don Quixote, the Cosway- Rievere bindings, sacred books encrusted with precious metals and ivory, medallions, clasps, painted edges and embroidered bindings.

And radiant displays of the modern binders I am especially besotted with: William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, Cobden-Sanderson and the Doves Bindery, Douglas Cockerell and the Golden Cockerell Press, the delicate and yet intrepid work of women binders such as Katherine Adams, Sybil Pye, Rose Adler, and 21st century hand bookbinding by contemporary books artists who see “the primary focus of the book as artefact, rather than as text.”

Fine scholarship

Like me, if you've been attracted to terms like gilt, gauffered, tooled, edge decorations, gold blocked, onlays, doreur, doublures, watered silk and desired to learn more, this is the book to give you delightful instruction. Marks concludes her introduction by remarking: “The advantages of the electronic book may be many, but who can deny the visual and tactile appeal of a beautifully bound book?”

This sumptuously illustrated book on bookbinding is also informed by fine scholarship. Most books on the subject of bookbinding tend to be either pretty pictures without the scholarship or scholarship (usually technical) without the nice pictures. By intelligently and deeply drawing from both, Beautiful Bookbindings becomes not just the most exciting, but also the most illuminating, introduction to the art and craft of fine bindings.

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At WorkSeptember 24, 2010