The Victoria and Albert Museum: Bookbindings

by John P. Harthan

The Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961

readability rating
3 star readability rating The prose sections are informationally dense rather than especially readable, and assume a certain amount of knowledge of the historical binding figures of the time. The pictures, which are the main strength of the book, lose a lot by being in black and white.
content rating
3 star content rating The utility of this book is not in the prose, particularly, but in the pictures and explanatory notes. These should be useful stylistic references and funds of ideas for the future.

This is a catalogue of some of the fine bindings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, from the early 1960's. There is a 13-page introduction to the history of bookbinding, followed by 72 black and white plates of book covers arranged in chronological order, with descriptive notes. A final, sparsely illustrated section at the back describes bookbinding techniques.

The Good Stuff
The book is a good visual reference of the binding styles in much of European history. I found some of the designs inspiring, and the descriptive notes very informative.
Could Do Better
Perhaps it's a difference in taste since the 1960's, but I found the prose almost mind-wateringly dull, having an irritating obsession with the French era of cover decoration. The final chapter on bookbinding techniques was a waste of space that could have been better spent on more pictures of books.
Best Bit
Plate 10. A German mid-fifteenth century book with wooden boards, decorated in the cuir cislé style. A single distorted leaf curls around the inside of a frame, its borders and veins filling the space. I just wish it was in color.