William Pitt, Anecdotes of the Life of ... William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and of the principal events of his time [compiled by J. Almon]; with his speeches in Parliament ... 1736 to ... 1778, ed. by John Almon (London: J.S. Jordan, 1793), Davis 174-176

English Landscape Bindings

With reference to examples in the Henry Davis Gift, King’s Library and beyond, Philippa Marks explores why topographical views became decorative motifs for 18th – 19th-century English bookbindings.

Today, there are many books with striking images of topographical views and landscapes on their covers. Mass production techniques adopted in the 19th century made such decoration straightforward and cheap. This was not the case in the hand press era (about 1450–1825) when every book was bound and decorated by hand which made it a unique work of art. During this period, covers which depict country scenery were relatively rare and are imbued with an air of mystery. Why and how were they made? To whom did they appeal? Why are there so few?


To specialists, the phrase ‘landscape binding’ does not describe any binding decorated with an image of a rural view or, indeed any binding in a landscape (i.e. oblong) format. This rather perverse circumstance is due to an influential early bindings manual Bibliopegia (1833). To its author, John Arnett, all depended upon the technique (described under the heading ‘Landscapes’). It is outlined here albeit in rather imprecise terms:

Many beautiful subjects may be formed on the sides of books, by the workman skilled in painting. The volume is prepared by being paste-washed so as to present an uniform fawn colour, the designs slightly traced, and afterwards coloured according to the pattern, the colours being mixed to the proper shade with water.

Twentieth century bindings historian, Howard M Nixon, attributed this style of binding comprising black designs on brown calf bindings to 18th/19th century England. Calf leather was appropriate for this style of decoration since it has a smooth flat surface, unlike goatskin.

Despite the efforts of bindings specialists there is still uncertainty as to what characterises a landscape binding. The example in the image below contains some of the key traits.

Anecdotes of the Life of ... William Pitt

William Pitt, Anecdotes of the Life of ... William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and of the principal events of his time [compiled by J. Almon]; with his speeches in Parliament ... 1736 to ... 1778, ed. by John Almon (London: J.S. Jordan, 1793), Davis 174-176

The book-binder has re-purposed an engraved view of Esher Place first published in 1759 to decorate the cover of this edition of Pitt's Anecdotes

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To our eyes, the binding may look strikingly dull, but newly bound, the contemporary viewer and potential purchaser would have been captivated by the gleaming surface (thanks to polishing or varnish) and intrigued by well-defined image. The four corner fan shapes would have lent an interesting three dimensional effect. Novelty appealed to book buyers; however it was necessary for binders to find a balance; could unusual designs be achieved in a cheap, quick and easy manner? Bookbinding was not a wealthy trade. Practitioners were often forced to take on other jobs including printing and engraving to make ends meet.

It is an indication of the bookbinder’s status that many are unknown. By the end of the 18th century, some binders ‘signed’ their work with paper tickets but the only names we can associate with landscape bindings are Charles Hulbert of Shrewsbury and John Wansbrough of Bristol, who both used tickets.

Would there be a market for a new untried style? Would the taste of the trend setting ‘bibliomaniacs’ (extreme book collectors, often aristocrats) be too refined for acquiring bindings adorned with images? What did the owner want? There are provenance details in several examples of landscape bindings but they are limited and do not yet add anything tangible to the research.

It was often simpler and less expensive to follow traditional methods of decoration, notably tooling in gold with engraved stamps and wheels to produce conventional designs than to experiment. According to bindings historian Mirjam Foot, 'it can be argued that one needs to be less of an original artist to create symmetrical abstract patterns with a given set of tools, especially if one follows one’s forebears and masters, than to create a picture worth looking at, whether with tools, or with a knife or with paint'.

Why did landscapes feature on book bindings?

The landscape as a consciously considered subject developed during the 18th century in England. It fed into to several contemporary trends including Gothic, Romantic, and Picturesque. This new appreciation of the British countryside combined with improvements in transport resulted in the arrival of tourists in remote beauty spots. Reasonably priced travel became available to the emerging educated middle classes who were keen to purchase guides and souvenirs containing images of what they had seen and the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734 protected those who created them. The demand encouraged technical improvements in the printing of illustrations (notably in copper plate engraving). This in turn sparked the publication of albums of topographical engravings. Newspaper advertisements often promoted these attractive works along the following lines which describe The Landscape Album, quoting a review in the Athenaeum (22 September, 1832):

This volume, as illustrative of the most remarkable beauties in our own country, must be peculiarly acceptable to the tourist. There are sixty finely-executed engraving, from drawings by Westall, of the principal cities and towns, with so much of the celebrated scenery of England, Ireland and Scotland, to which are annexed letter-press descriptions, by T. Maule, Esq., giving a concise idea of their peculiairities. There cannot be a more delightful travelling companion, and the moderate price at which it is published is not its least recommendation. We acknowledge that we know not where they are likely to meet with a work so cheap and beautiful; it will recall a thousand pleasant recollections of summer scenes to delight their winter fire-sides.

Developments including the Enclosure Acts (from 1750 to 1850) changed the face of Britain's rural landscape. The wealthy, always interested in having their properties recorded, began to contemplate their estates in new and different ways; some were inspired by the classical antiquities they saw abroad on the Grand Tour, others followed the new trend of ‘managing nature’ by employing professionals such as Capability Brown to landscape their country parks. Books of plates, for example John Preston Neale’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (1780-1847), illustrated these changes. This type of book was often published by subscription and the owners of country estates could pay to have their homes included.

The printing of the text and the plates involved two separate procedures and it was the binder who arranged each in the proper sequence (or sometimes neglected to)! One often sees printed instructions to the binder advising how this should be done.

A military course for the government and conduct of a battalion

Thomas Simes, A Military Course for the government and conduct of a Battalion, designed for their regulations in Quarter, Camp, or Garrison; with ... observations and instructions for their manner of attack and defence. F.P. (London, 1777), 63.a.5.

Cherubs, garlands, urns and acanthus leaves decorate the binding of George III's personal copy of Simes’ Military Course

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It is possible that the precursor of the landscape binding came from a series of calf bindings decorated with monochrome images which appeared from the 1770s. Many appear experimental and some have not lasted well. Stencils and dabbing with sponges were used; also drawing, marbling or sprinkling using pen or brush seem to have been employed along with a muted palette of browns and blacks (inks, paints or acids). Binders may have used chemicals to transfer images from existing engravings or engraving plates or drawn directly upon the surface of the leather covers. Howard Nixon in Broxbourne Library (London, 1956) concluded that using acidic compounds in transfer was 'virtually a form of etching, since the copperas [iron sulphate mixture] or some other acidic solution bites into the leather, and the strength of the solution determines the depth of the blacks'. The Victorian binder Joseph Zaehnsdorf warned about the effects of acid and if the procedure was as harmful as he suggested, it would account for the limited survival of landscape bindings. We cannot now discover the concentration of the chemical used and how thoroughly it was washed out. Some bindings do show signs of deterioration, but the existence of several in good condition would seem to militate against this theory. Furthermore, many bookbinding treatments were acidic so it is difficult to attribute surface deterioration to a single cause.

Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide

Ovid, Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide, en Latin, traduites en François, avec des remarques et des explications historiques par l'Abbé Banier; ouvrage enrichi de figures gravées par B. Picart et autres habiles maîtres, ed. by Antoine Banier (Paris, 1767–71), 76.f.5-8.

This remarkable staining effect known as ‘tree calf’ binding occurs when copperas and pearl ash interact to produce a tree-like pattern on the boards

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Without further evidence, the exact method of decoration used will remain a mystery; there were probably several. It is not easy to verify the methodology, even after the publication of instructional manuals. Binders had a tendency to keep their processes secret. It is risky for anyone except the experienced art historian to draw any conclusions from the appearance of the image, but freehand images, even if copied from an existing picture, would probably seem livelier, less intricate and less laboured, as in the images below.

The Antiquities of Furness

Thomas West, The Antiquities of Furness. Illustrated with Engravings. A new Edition with Additions by William Close (Ulverston: George Ashburner, 1805) C.64.h.13.

The bindings of this edition of The Antiquities of Furness are decorated with views of Furness Abbey by the editor of the book, William Close

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If an engraving were transferred using chemicals, the detail would perhaps appear crisper depending upon the skill of the practitioner. The other difficulty is that the image would probably be touched up after transfer; indeed the manuals recommend the procedure. Furthermore, several different techniques could be used. Some images are signed, notably by an R. Ashton. This is a step forward but does it indicate that Ashton had added the images directly with pen and brush, or that his signed engraving was used? The transfer of an existing engraving would be more quickly executed than such a drawing but both methods would require drying time after the application of any protectant or varnishing material. The use of lithography has been suggested. The Finishers’ Friendly Association in their Circular reported that one of its members, William Buchanan (d.1851), had seen six different examples of pictures on calf and 'he likewise encloses a specimen of Lithographic printing on the same substance – after about ten impressions, however, the shading becomes defective'. Unfortunately we do not know what this specimen looked like. In Buchanan’s process colours can be used, rather than the browns of a typical landscape binding. The octagonal or square-shaped centrepiece is noted particularly; the border should be brown, slate or sprinkled in contrast to the light centre.

The first edition (1856) of the first major American bookbinding manual by James B. Nicholson is helpful because it published instructions under separate headings; ‘Landscapes’, ‘Transferred Landscapes’ and ‘Pictures on calf'. This may indicate that the processes were thought of as separate.

If a workshop did have a capable artist amongst its workers who might reasonably be expected to have an artistic eye painting a scene on a cover (either copied or original) perhaps a representation of a nobleman’s country seat, might prove to be a cost effective means of personalising decoration, and the materials would be less expensive than gold. An artist was not always necessary thanks to techniques involving the transfer of existing engravings using chemicals. There was also a suggestion that copper plates could be used. 

One of the most impressive instances of landscape binding is a six-volume set titled The gallery of nature and art: Or, a tour through creation and science (1821), described by viaLibri as: 'Attractive contemporary brown polished calf, covers with gilt fleur-de-lys and blind-stamped palmette borders, large oblong octagonal panel at centre of each board, ALL VOLUMES WITH CONTEMPORARY LANDSCAPE PAINTINGS, three of these signed by R. Ashton, one dated 1821 (but all by the same hand)'. There were at least two similarly bound sets with Ashton signatures (according to reviewer A N L Munby) representing a great outlay of time and resources on the part of the bookbinder. He surely must have had a purchaser in mind before the workshop embarked upon such an expensive project.[1]

Just as we started with a mystery, so we end with one, i.e. the enigmatic R. Ashton. During this period, this name appears in the art world in various forms; two sculptors named Robert Ashton, an R. Ashton who was an engraver recorded as being resident in Madras in 1827 and a watercolourist who has signed two seascapes with this form of the name. These have been noted by two online auction houses, Tooveys and Ashgrove. Sailing boats do figure in some of the images on the landscape bindings but there is no incontrovertible link between them…yet?


[1] There is an even larger set of landscape bindings on an eight volume edition of Hannah More, The works … including several pieces never before published, (London: T Cadell Jun and W Davies, 1801).  I have only been able to see small low resolution black and white reproductions of the bindings reproduced in a Maggs Bros catalogue of Spring 1987, Bookbinding in the British Isles, Catalogue 1075, part II, number 256 from which few reliable observations can be made.  According to the description, there are sixteen different acid-etched sepia landscape views derived from aquatints by William Gilpin.  Inside there are small hand-cut scrolls identifying the views and mostly signed with the initials “E.W. H.” or “E.H” (identity unknown although there was an artist called Edward Harper who is known to have signed a drawing E.H.).

  • Philippa Marks
  • Philippa Marks is the Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections, at The British Library

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