Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, ‘Unfinished Business: Incomplete Bindings Made for the Book Trade from the 15th to the 19th Century’

Professor Nicholas Pickwoad started his presentation with his discovery of a two volume Histoire by Jean LeClerc, printed in Amsterdam in 1723, which contained neither boards nor covers. His first guess was that certain book blocks were withdrawn unfinished from a binder’s workshop; however, regarding this collection’s history, he became convinced that these two volumes were part of long-established practice which books were prepared for sale by being sold in a condition ready for ‘conventional binding’, sometimes with or without boards attached but always without covers.

The forms in which books were sold, bound or unbound, are still debatable. What we can be sure of is that in the late medieval and early modern periods, the age of the hand press, it was possible to buy books in a variety of states, from unbound sheets, through a variety of temporary structures. It is difficult to interpret the position surviving bindings occupied in the book trade, given that there is little contemporary archival evidence of how they were sold.

The problem of defining the status of binding can be clearly demonstrated by the phenomenon of the uncut edge, as the presence of deckle (feathered) edge on a book block is always an indication of the temporary status of a binding before machine press. However the question here is whether a binding is an end in itself or a means to an end, which points to the phrase ‘unfinished business’. The majority of uncut edges were found in simple, inexpensive structures and covers, and the main purpose was to protect the book from the journey made through market from printer to customers. Cheap wrappers were often used and sold in blue and therefore there was no intention to retain the structure in more elaborate bindings.

The bindings Professor Pickwoad explored in this lecture are quite different, since they are not temporary: though the staging which they are left might be described as temporary, their structures are quite permanent and were made with the intention of attaching boards or covers in the future. As they remained in order to be completed, the book blocks survived in this vulnerable state are rare, but given the fact that a hundred examples without boards and thirty with boards are in existence, Pickwoad suggested that this condition of booking binding was a common phenomenon, undiscovered until now.

These ‘unfinished’ bindings had several advantages. They were relatively cheap to make since the fee was only paid for sewing, and the weight of books was lighter so that the cost of shipping was lower. It also left a choice for a final cover, which allowed booksellers to follow what customers want. The earliest example of this binding status Pickwoad has seen is Casus Summarii Decretalium Sexti et Clementinarum, the Strasbourg Edition 1485 from the Benedictine Abbey in Bavaria Germany, with the evidence of untwisted ends of sewing supports, no marks or damages which would be results of using attached boards, and parchment free from signs of covers or boards materials. Two examples of books printed in France in 1540s add another layer of complexity, suggesting a possibility that a significant proportion of books may have had two binders instead of one — in different places, countries, and in different dates.

Following a series of careful investigations of typical features shown in spines and edge colouring, and a detailed examination of different binding techniques used by multiple examples of book editions found in Britain and Europe, Pickwoad demonstrated that these unfinished and temporary bindings were normal business practice in the book trade from the late 15th to the early 19th century. Unfinished and temporary bindings had particular advantages, such as providing enough stabilisation and protection to book blocks in long transporting journeys, while making it relatively easy to complete books’ bindings at a later stage.

Examples from Sicily, in which the title of a book was written on spine landings under the laced-on covers, suggested that the book was sold without covers, to be titled and then put into covers much later. An advertisement from London bookseller William Leek, and traces of the paper used to wrap up the copies of the 8-volume folio edition of ‘St Chrysostom’ published in 1612, again suggested that books were stored and sewn as book blocks but ready to be completed at a later date.

Professor Pickwoad finished his lecture with the conclusion that despite a lack of documentary evidence that books were sold with boards but without covers, evidence of surviving bindings themselves is enough to prove that the book trade used book bindings in these ways. The number of examples Pickwoad has found proves that unfinished bindings were a widespread and common practice. Pickwoad’s findings also highlight the need to re-examine the premise that bound books were always the work of single craftsman or single workshops. Knowledge and understanding of different binding techniques in various European nations would allow one to recognise that bookbinding was a splintered process, and that a single conventional binding may actually have been the work of different craftsmen, in different times and places.

Professor Nicholas Pickwoad is Professor of the History of Book Binding and Director of the Ligatus Research Centre at the University of the Arts London. He has been an Advisor on book conservation to the National Trust since 1978.

Report by Mengyuan Chen, MSc Student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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