But upon the table—oh joy! the tailor gave a shout—there, where he had left plain cuttings of silk—there lay the most beautifullest coat and embroidered satin waistcoat that ever were worn by a Mayor of Gloucester. There were roses and pansies upon the facings of the coat; and the waistcoat was worked with poppies and corn-flowers.
Beatrix Potter, The Tailor of Gloucester, 1903
On opening one of our new acquisitions, a bible in a fine Restoration binding, bound with a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and the Whole Book of Psalms, all I could think of was this scene from Beatrix Potter’s Tailor of Gloucester. In gratitude for a kindness, the mice living in the poor tailor’s workshop finish the floral embroidery on a waistcoat overnight, saving his fortune and reputation. It seems as though the very mice who finished the waistcoat (or their ancestors) could have completed the decorations on this binding, as well:
The dark goatskin is richly tooled in gold, with ocher, yellow, and red onlays, some once painted either blue-green or silver that has since oxidized. Hollow gold stems and leaves wind across the cover, sprouting the onlaid flowers and gold-tooled leaves. The central lozenge is a fanfare-esque mass of crimson onlaid strapwork surrounding a delicately scalloped, engraved silver center piece. Other silver furniture includes similarly-patterned corner pieces and clasps. The spine is divided into seven panels, with the bottom and top-most panels tooled in gold with four delicate, double-lined semi-circlular rolls, each containing a semi-circular floral stamp. The internal five panels contain a pattern of fanfare-esque rolling, hollow strapwork, punctuated with red and ocher quatrefoils, themselves tooled with a floral stamp.
The sumptuous decoration doesn’t stop here, continuing to the fore-edge, which is painted under gilt in red, green, and black. The decor here includes two winged cherubs suspended next to a flaming heart, inscribed with the words “Search the Scriptures 1682.” The flowers surrounding this image include roses, pansies, tulips, and peonies.
A king, much less the mayor of Gloucester, would be proud to own it.
When considering this item for purchase, we were drawn to it primarily because it is a gorgeous example of an English Restoration binding, but also due to its resemblance to another item in our collection: Folger V.a.615, a physically small sammelband of sixteen educational texts from approximately the same period, affectionately nicknamed “the Brick” for its shape and size. Likely assembled by a tutor, this item contains significant manuscript content (including pedagogical notes and curricula), in addition to its printed texts. You can read more about this fascinating item and its contents in Heather Wolfe’s Collation post from 2012, “Such a lucky pretty little library…” In terms of content and purpose, these volumes could not be more different. This makes the similarities in their bindings all the more fascinating.
The binding for V.a.615 is described in our bindings database as follows: “the covers have a gilt small arc decorative roll and a double line fillet border. In the center is an onlaid red leather interlaced strapwork center piece surrounded by gilt onlaid, red, white and ocher, leather flowers, tulips and carnations. There are half rosettes and small rosettes that had been painted with silver (now oxidized black). The spine is divided into five panels each framed with double lines and the small arc decorative roll, stopped at the corners with a large gilt dot. The top and bottom panels are tooled with a double line semicircle with volutes at the corners, underneath is a semicircular red leather onlay with a volute stamp. The middle three panels are gilt with a strapwork design with red leather onlaid tulips and rosettes and white leather ovals. The board edges and turn-ins are gilt with a decorative roll.”
Additionally, this much smaller volume also has a gilt fore-edge, with a painting that includes two central winged cherubs surrounded by similar floral depictions:
Frank Mowery, formerly the Head of Conservation here at Folger and a specialist on rare bindings, spear-headed the Folger Bindings Image Collection. During this work, he tentatively linked this particular binding to the workshop of the “Naval Binder” (so called because the bindery apparently producing these designs was associated with Office of the Navy during the 1670s and 1680s). In Five Centuries of English Bookbinding, Howard Nixon describes the general style of the Naval Binder as producing bindings with “a panel design with corner- and centre-pieces of massed small tooling. The most distinctive stylistic feature (imitated closely, however, by at least one other binder) is a narrow central oval…the most distinctive tool is the small tightly budded floral volute which is used in mass on the colored inlays with such splendid effect.“1
The Naval Binder (or his workshop) favor floral designs such as those picked out with colorful onlays on our two bindings here, but so too did other binders from the period, including binders such as “Queen’s Binder B” and “Elizabeth Dickinson’s Binder,” among many others. Neither of the Folger’s two bindings include the “centre-pieces of massed small tooling,” although they do both have (different) “tightly-budded floral volute[s],” used on colored onlays, both of which were characteristic of the Naval Binder’s workshop. They do both include distinctive, central, crimson fanfare-esque strapwork. They also share a hollow stem design, absent from other examples of the Naval Binder’s floral work, and a curlicue tool used in the center of the tulips. On the spines, both include similar again fanfare-esque designs, with quatrefoils and semi-circles.
Similar bindings at other institutions include Gibson 77 at the Bodleian Library (kindly brought to my attention by Donovan Rees at Quaritch) and Davis 70 at the British Library, but again, these bindings both include the distinctive narrow central oval, large corner and center-pieces with massed tooling, and no such fanfare-like details as the red strapwork, hollow stems, or tooling on the spine. Regarding the similarities, Gibson 77 (also a bible) includes a similar curlicue tool (although used differently), and a fore-edge painting with the words “Search the Scriptures,” while Davis 70 (another bible) includes similarly-shaped silver furniture and another “Search the Scriptures” fore-edge painting. Neither fore-edge paintings include cherubs, though they do have handsome floral designs.
Clearly, the bindings of Folger 270054 and V.a.615 are closely related in some way, and they appear to be more like one another than like other examples from the same period. Perhaps they were made by the same craftsman—it certainly seems more than possible that they were produced in the same workshop. It could have been that of the Naval Binder, although V.a.615 was previously identified as the work of the Mearnes before coming to the Folger, but it seems just as likely that they hail from a different workshop altogether. David Pearson, in his excellent work English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800, reminds us that “[g]iven the social status of bookbinders…it should not be surprising that the great majority of binders of the early modern period are very obscure people, biographically, about many of whom we know next to nothing, if that.”2 Another possibility is that the owner of one item saw the other of these volumes and admired the design: the works in Folger 270054 were all published in 1682, while the youngest work in V.a.615 was published in 1684. It’s possible that V.a.615’s compiler saw Folger 270054, and requested that his little volume be modeled on the same patterns, or vice versa.
In the end, perhaps what matters most is that such attention and expense implies that the owners of these volumes valued them very highly, either as aesthetic objects or due to the contents (or both), despite being very different collections of works. As always, writing this post has raised more questions than answers for me, and there is deeper work to be done.