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Bookbindings in the British Library - special collections

A wide range of fine and historic bindings can be found in the British Library, both in discrete specialist collections and dispersed individually throughout the Library.

Olga Hirsch Collection

The Olga Hirsch Collection contains over 3,580 sheets of decorated papers, some 130 books in paper wrappers or with decorated end-leaves, and a small collection of reference works. Further details and an index to the collection can be found on the Olga Hirsch Collection web-pages. A paper copy of the index is available for consultation at the Reference Enquiries Desk in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

Henry Davis Gift

The Henry Davis Gift was donated to the British Museum in 1968. The collection contains around 890 bindings, dating from the 12th to the 20th century, from all over the world, with the majority coming from Britain and Continental Europe. The books are generally in very good condition and may be viewed with special permission by the Curator of Bookbindings. Images of bindings from this collection can be found on the Database of Bookbindings (access through the British Library Website home-page: select 'Catalogues').

For more information see: The Henry Davis Gift: A Collection of Bookbindings by MM Foot (2 vols.; London, 1978-83).

John Jaffray Collection

The Jaffray Collection contains around 170 items relating to the English binding trade. It was compiled by the Victorian bookbinder John Jaffray and includes scrapbooks, trade cards and newspaper cuttings. Further information on the collection can be found on The Jaffray Collection web-pages. To view items from this collection, please apply in advance to the Curator of Bookbindings.

Charles Ramsden Collection

The Charles Ramsden Collection was bequeathed to the British Museum in 1958. It comprises around 1,500 signed bindings, mainly English and Continental European from the 18th and 19th centuries. The books may be ordered through Explore the British Library.

Franks Collection of Armorial Bindings

The Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks Collection of Armorial Bindings includes around 260 English and French bindings with armorial bookstamps dating from the 16th to the 18th century. Some books from the Franks Collection can be called up via Explore the British Library, others must be ordered via paper application forms within the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.

For more information see: 'The Franks Collection of Armorial Book-stamps' by A.W. Pollard, in The Library, series 2, vol. 3 (April 1902), pp.115-134.

Collins collection

The collection was amassed by book specialist John Collins who worked for antiquarian dealers in London, notably Maggs Brothers. It was acquired by the Library (with the help of the Friends of the British Library) in 2006.

Around six hundred of the thousand plus items are signed by the bookbinders (often in the form of printed or engraved tickets). The covering material used ranges from canvas and embossed leather to maucheline and bark. The bindings originated in 185 locations (including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Chanel Islands, Europe, the Middle East and America.). The nineteenth century trade in London is very well represented (particularly the Bible binders commissioned by the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge). Printed material predominates but there are blank books containing manuscript material and also some 3D items including a nineteenth English brass block used for decoration.

Originally the books would have been inexpensive and were owned by and large by working people rather than wealthy collectors. There are travel guides, grammars, ready reckoners, dictionaries, and popular verse anthologies. Many show signs of wear (with the exception of the bindings given as school prizes) and are extremely fragile, meaning that special permission is required to view items from the collection.

The catalogue, Particular Bindings, was compiled by John Collins and is listed as number 14 of a series of catalogues produced by George Bayntun of Bath. The numbers allocated have become the Library Shelfmarks with the prefix 'Collins'.

Bookbindings patterns

Some bookbinders plan their work on paper before binding a book. It is particularly useful when ‘finishing,’ ie decorating the covers of a book. Matt T. Roberts and Don Etherington include a useful explanation in Bookbinding and the conservation of books; “In modern finishing, all but the simplest designs are measured out and drawn or tooled on thin paper. This is then positioned on the cover and heated tools are pressed through. The paper is then removed, and the blind impressions are again blinded-in. This sharpens and deepens the impressions, and, if gold is to be used, provides a smooth flat surface for the metal. In addition to making it possible to execute extremely difficult patterns without making errors on the leather itself, the use of a paper pattern eliminates the necessity of making basic guide lines in blind upon which the design is then built, and which almost invariably show beyond the tooling. It is uncertain when paper patterns were introduced, but they probably were not used much before 1830.”[1]

Mirjam M Foot includes a historical perspective of bookbinding design in Bookbinders at Work: their roles and methods, (London, 2006).

The British Library has several items relating to bindings design. Most are available via the Rare Books Reading Room except where noted, and some will require special permission to be viewed.

Stanley Bray’s 1989 recreation of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe jewelled binding (lost on the Titanic) covering the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Boston [Mass.], 1884), shelfmark C.188.c.27, is accompanied by bindings patterns and documentation.

Stanley Bray, [An album of photographs of 50 leather panels tooled and decorated by the English twentieth-century bookbinder Stanley Bray]. Shelfmark 667.u.183.

The Cockerell Bindery Papers of Douglas Bennett Cockerell (1870-1945) and his son, Sydney Morris ‘Sandy’ Cockerell (1906-1987). The latter also produced marbled papers. Additional mss 84127-84857 (to be seen in the Manuscripts Reading Room).

Patience Scott Cockerell (1878-1957), no relation to the Cockerells above. Scrapbook of bindings patterns and associated material. Items have been added by Cockerell’s biographer, Frank Broomhead. Unavailable during conservation and cataloguing.

Edgar Mansfield, Designs for the 76 plates published in 'Modern design in bookbinding: the work of Edgar Mansfield', (London, 1966). Shelfmark C.188.c.37. (items 1-91). See hand list.

Edgar Powell (uncle of celebrated English binder Roger Powell). A collection of tooling patterns for bookbindings formed by Edgar Powell in 1900 Shelfmark C.188.c.31.

Tracey Rowledge’s binding on Paul Auster, Auggie Wren's Christmas story (Birmingham, 1992), shelfmark C.188.b.50, is accompanied by 4 sheets of designs and 1 sheet of description of the bookbinding process.


[1] This can be accessed online via the Conservation online site (accessed February 2012) http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/dt/dt1325.html

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