A Painting of Eighteenth Century French Trade Bindings and Paper Wrappers

Bookbinder Colin Urbina recently posted a number of great images of books in art he noticed at the Art Institute of Chicago on his low_mountain instagram feed. In particular, the painting of Madame Francois Buron by Jean Louis-David caught my eye. It may give us some insight into how books were used in the eighteenth century, though there is always the possibility the books depicted were props.

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. The Art Institute of Chicago.

If this is an actual depiction of reading, it adds to the mountain of evidence that full leather trade bindings and “temporary” marbled paper wrapper bindings were consumed simultaneously. This type of pictorial evidence, along with the evidence from bindings that book historians such as David Pearson have gathered, and the usual working method of bookbinders, are all closing the coffin lid on the longstanding idea that paper bindings were intended to be rebound into a proper leather binding before use. The wear on the paper bindings —deftly painted with a white line along the top edge of the book Mme. Buron is reading — suggests these books may have been read before. 

But it is a little strange to have four books so close at hand, since she doesn’t appear to be a scholar, and three of the books aren’t open to specific pages: evidence of cross-referencing. It could simply be her reading desk, though.

If the books are intended to be props, what can they tell us about the sitter, and how do they relate to the painting? Why has she interrupted her reading to look at us? And what could  she be reading?  Louis-David’s painting technique evokes the solidity of the leather bound books in contrast with the loose airiness of paper ones. The way the paper book is cradled in her hand is incredibly realistic. The brush work on the splayed page edges blend with the her blouse, and the triangular composition is anchored by the books. The books are a key aspect of the composition.

The details of the bindings are rendered exquisitely. The cat’s paw decoration on the full leather trade binding is instantly recognizable. The red over black title labels, full guilt spine, and single blind line on the boards is historically accurate. The paper bindings are covered in a common, or french snail marbled pattern. The pattern is rendered loosely, almost abstractly, in some areas. Or could it depict a spoiled sheet, not good enough for endsheets or other purposes?

Jean Louis-David, Madame François Buron, 1769. Detail. The Art Institute of Chicago.

The book she is holding, with its thick flatish spine apparent at the head, appears to have multiple signatures. Intriguingly, the paper covered book lying flat appears to be a single signature, which would be very unlikely for a letterpress book; could it be a blank book, notebook, or journal? Is it possible she is reading something private, like a diary?

She is shielding her eyes from the light source (truth?), but at the same time the page she is reading is in the shadows. She looks out at us with a concern, and possibly a bit of weary annoyance. The Hasty Book List also noticed she seems a little caught off guard or shy. A full size image is here.

2018 Historical Book Structures Practicum: Demonstrating, Draw Knives, and Paring Tawed Skins

I recently finished teaching a month long workshop on historic bindings for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. LACE for short. Seven MA students in conservation completed six historic models from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

This year it was hosted by The Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and took place in the first year student classroom, which is a really great space to teach in. The room has individual work stations for the students, as well as a group area with moveable work tables for lectures, ppt’s, discussion, and demonstrations.

One configuration of the classroom.

It is important that the students can be comfortable and close enough to observe details during demonstrations. In this configuration, students could sit to watch and take notes, and I could stand, which is how I like to work. Having a task light would have made it ideal.

Edge of a bookblock cut with a drawknife. Photo Nicole Alvarado.

For our late Gothic model, some of the students wanted to try out a drawknife instead of a plough for edge cutting. Nicole Alvarado worked the edge in the above image. We found it quite difficult it is to achieve an edge that looked like historic examples. We had to start with the sides of the bookblock in order to shave it down. The resulting edges did not look like the example depicted in Fig. 9.14 from J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding or on a first first folio of Shakespeare.

The edges on the Shakespeare and in Szirmai were presumably cut with a skewed and sliding stroke of a drawknife, with one stroke at a time advancing a significant amount through the book. It is easy to imagine this when looking at the images. We found it impossible to replicate this, though. Was our drawknife too small, the blade angle too obtuse, modern paper too hard, or our arms too weak?  A combination of all of these? Or was a different tool used? In both of these examples, each chop could have been caused by an aze or adze, in order to penetrate so far through the thickness of the bookblock. Time for more experimentation!

Paring and scraping a tawed skin with a round knife. Photo Karissa Muratore.

In bookbinding, usually vegetable tanned goat is the easiest leather to pare, followed by vegetable tanned calf, then tawed goat or calf. Tawed pig the most difficult. Tawed skins are quite abrasive, and quickly dull any knife. Karissa Muratore did a wonderful job of paring an alum tawed calfskin for her Gothic Model binding. Although tawed pigskin would have been traditional, all of the major bookbinding leather producers are no longer offering them, citing difficulty in obtaining quality raw skins.

Karissa’s image illustrates how a rounded blade knife can be used for edge paring (note the pieces in the foreground) and scraping (note the shavings in the background). Scraping is a safe, but slow way to even a skin out, as well as thin the spine and headcap area. I think that 15th century binders would have received the skins the appropriate thickness overall from the tanner, and only had to edge pare.

This late Gothic binding — clasps, alum tawed skin, wooden boards, double cord sewing —  is a satisfying final project, combining bookbinding, woodworking and metalworking skills.

By the end of the month, the students were more than happy to demonstrate what they learned about safe, professional, and thoughtful tool use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Well Known Ex-Bookbinders

There are likely more famous people who apprenticed as bookbinders and left the field, than bookbinders who are well known. Hope for all of us in a second career?

 

George Davis, 1850-1907, Father of chemical engineering

Rudolf Diesel, 1858-1913(?), Inventor of diesel engine

Johan Most, 1846-1906, Anarchist

Michael Faraday, 1791-1867, Discovered electromagnetic induction

Johann Strauss, 1804-1849, Musician

Josef Sudek, 1896-1976, Photographer

William Swain, Inventor of Quack Patent Medicine “Swaim’s Panacea”

 

Others?