Book Binding: a new exhibition at Middle Temple Library

The bookbinding exhibition will be in the Library from October to December 2017. The exhibition gives an overview of the history, methods and social aspects of binding. Below are some interesting examples of the variety of bindings held by the library. Some are displayed with more information in the exhibition, and some are in the open collection.

Blog post picture 1
Leather bindings (L-R): ‘blind-tooled’ pig, calf on wooden boards and the so called ‘tree-calf’

In the late 17th century, visual effects were achieved not only by means of impressed decoration, but also through sprinkling, marbling or mottling of the leather on the boards. ‘Tree calf’ was a variation on this scheme. It was used in the 18th and 19th centuries. A mixture of pigment and acid is run across the covers so that the staining or marbling achieves a tree-like effect.

Blog post picture 2
Sheepskin satchel belonging to Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester PC, FRS


Charles Abbot’s manuscript Rules and orders : entries & cases of practice in the Court of Great Sessions for the counties of Denbigh, Flint, and Montgomery, and in the Court of Great Sessions for the county palatine of Chester year.

Charles Abbot was a member of Middle Temple who practised in the King’s Bench and on the Oxford and Chester circuits. The evidence suggests that this sheepskin satchel (with remnants of a wax seal still evident) was the one he used when at the Court of Great Sessions in Chester. In 1795 Abbot wrote The Practice of the Chester Circuit (1795) which advocated the reform of the Welsh judicature. The Court of Great Sessions was held twice a year until it was abolished in 1830 when English and Welsh law was combined under the same jurisdiction.

Blog post picture 3
Rubricated manuscript leaves, the second of which has a piece of sheet music reinforcing the spine.

It was not unusual for bookbinders of the medieval period to use waste materials such as recycled vellum from discarded manuscripts for covers. Recycling documentary material, which was obsolete or left over, was nothing new. Even the ancient Egyptians were able to wash writing off papyrus and use it again. When printing was established and more books were produced and bound, surplus materials were available from both printing houses as well as from libraries which were removing some of their medieval books. From these, it was possible to collect waste materials such as leaves of paper or vellum which were discarded from printing workshops or books/documents thrown away for recycling. Manuscript soon became scarce, but there was enough waste paper.

Blog post picture 4
Thin pasteboard bindings covered with elaborate patterned papers.

Medieval bindings were most often protected by wooden boards, but by the beginning of the 17th century, pasteboard (made by pasting together sheets of paper) or other similar pulped and compacted materials, became the standard.

Blog post picture 5
Full cloth-bound volumes with examples of blind and gold decorations.

Textiles are generally cheaper than leather. This fact played an important role in the ‘cloth binding revolution’. Cloth can also be more practical for certain purposes. According to Pearson, in the 18th century, some books already began to be sold in boards covered with rough canvas-type cloth which were intended to be sturdy, serviceable alternatives to sheep bindings and are typically found on school textbooks, children’s books, or simple domestic reference books. Using fabric as the standard option for covering books became more widely practiced from the 19th century. Experimentation with cloth as well as attempts to issue multiple copies of identically bound volumes began in the 1820s. In 1832 Archibald Leighton invented a technique for the mechanical decoration of bookcloth, in blind or gold. The technique made it possible to mass-produce lettered and decorated book covers simply and cheaply. This development led to radical changes in the construction of books, as the covers could be decorated before being attached.

Blog post picture 6
Leather bindings using ornate marbled papers to cover the boards and edges.

Blog post picture 7

A quarter-leather binding with marbled paper boards was developed in the 18th century as one of the answers to the increasing book production, customer-demand and the cost of raw materials. Marbled paper got its name because some of its designs resemble marble or stone. It probably came from the East. This paper was used in Persia and Turkey. That is why they are sometimes known as ‘Turkish’ papers. It was during the 17th century when the knowledge of how to make these papers spread to Europe. Commercial production of marbled papers in England started a century later.

Marbled paper is produced using a method called marbling which can be described as ’a process in which colours are dispersed onto the surface of a liquid, manipulated using a variety of tools and movements, and then captured it using a material such as a sheet a paper by carefully laying it over the top of the floating design.’ That means that each design is unique.

Marbled paper has had varied usage – not only as book covers but also as endpapers of hardcover books or as an element in interior design (wallpaper or decorative border). It can also be used to decorate textiles. Unfortunately, the production of marbled papers is now seen more as ‘almost a lost art’.


Charles M. Adams, Some Notes on the Art of Marbling Paper in the Seventeenth century ˂˃ accessed 6 September 2017.

The International Marbling Network website ˂˃ accessed 13 September 2017.

David Pearson, English bookbinding styles, 1450-1800 (Oak Knoll Press; British Library, 2004).

  1. Thorne, ‘Charles Abbot’ in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820 ˂˃ accessed 6 September 2017.

Ivor Bowen (ed), The Statutes of Wales (1908) ˂˃ accessed 6 September 2017.