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English Embroidered Bookbindings

Library of Alexandria
new series of 'Books about Books,' exclusively English in its aims, may seem to savour of the patriotism which, in matters of art and historical research, is, with reason enough, often scoffed at as a treacherous guide. No doubt in these pleasant studies patriotism acts as a magnifying-glass, making us unduly exaggerate details. On the other hand, it encourages us to try to discover them, and just at present this encouragement seems to be needed. There are so many gaps in our knowledge of the history of books in England that we can hardly claim that our own dwelling is set in order, and yet many of our bookmen appear more inclined to re-decorate their neighbours' houses than to do work that still urgently needs to be done at home. The reasons for this transference of energy are not far to seek. It is quite easy to be struck with the inferiority of English books and their accessories, such as bindings and illustrations, to those produced on the Continent. To compare the books printed by Caxton with the best work of his German or Italian contemporaries, to compare the books bound for Henry, Prince of Wales, with those bound for the Kings of France, to try to find even a dozen English books printed before 1640 with woodcuts (not imported from abroad) of any real artistic merit—if any one is anxious to reinforce his national modesty, here are three very efficacious methods of doing it! On the other hand, English book-collectors have always been cosmopolitan in their tastes, and without leaving England it is possible to study to some effect, in public or private libraries, the finest books of almost any foreign country. It is small wonder, therefore, that our bookmen, when they have been minded to write on their hobbies, have sought beauty and stateliness of work where they could most readily find them, and that the labourers in the book-field of our own country are not numerous. Touchstone’s remark, 'a poor thing, but mine own,' might, on the worst view of the case, have suggested greater diligence at home; but on a wider view English book-work is by no means a 'poor thing.' Its excellence at certain periods is as striking as its inferiority at others, and it is a literal fact that there is no art or craft connected with books in which England, at one time or another, has not held the primacy in Europe. It would certainly be unreasonable to complain that printing with movable types was not invented at a time better suited to our national convenience. Yet the fact that the invention was made just in the middle of the fifteenth century constituted a handicap by which the printing trade in this country was for generations overweighted. At almost any earlier period, more particularly from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the first quarter of the fifteenth, England would have been as well equipped as any foreign country to take its part in the race. From the production of Queen Mary’s Psalter at the earlier date to that of the Sherborne Missal at the later, English manuscripts, if we may judge from the scanty specimens which the evil days of Henry viii. and Edward vi. have left us, may vie in beauty of writing and decoration with the finest examples of Continental art. If John Siferwas, instead of William Caxton, had introduced printing into England, our English incunabula would have taken a far higher place. But the sixty odd years which separate the two men were absolutely disastrous to the English book-trade. After her exhausting and futile struggle with France, England was torn asunder by the wars of the Roses, and by the time these were ended the school of illumination, so full of promise, and seemingly so firmly established, had absolutely died out. When printing was introduced England possessed no trained illuminators or skilful scribes such as in other countries were forced to make the best of the new art in order not to lose their living, nor were there any native wood-engravers ready to illustrate the new books. I have never myself seen or heard of a 'Caxton' in which an illuminator has painted a preliminary border or initial letters; even the rubrication, where it exists, is usually a disfigurement; while as for pictures, it has been unkindly said that inquiry whence they were obtained is superfluous, since any boy with a knife could have cut them as well. Making its start under these unfavourable conditions, the English book-trade was exposed at once to the full competition of the Continental presses, Richard iii. expressly excluding it from the protection which was given to other industries. Practically all learned books of every sort, the great majority of our service-books, most grammars for use in English schools, and even a few popular books of the kind to which Caxton devoted himself, were produced abroad for the English market and freely imported. Only those who mistake the shadow for the substance will regret this free trade, to which we owe the development of scholarship in England during the sixteenth century. None the less, it was hard on a young industry, and though Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, the Faques, Berthelet, Wolfe, John Day, and others produced fine books in England during the sixteenth century, the start given to the Continental presses was too great, and before our printers had fully caught up their competitors, they too were seized with the carelessness and almost incredible bad taste which marks the books of the first half of the seventeenth century in every country of Europe. Towards the close of the eighteenth century, as is well known, the French thought sufficiently well of Baskerville’s types to purchase a fount after his death for the printing of an important edition of the works of Voltaire. But the merits of Baskerville as a printer, never very cordially admitted, are now more hotly disputed than ever; and if I am asked at what period English printing has attained that occasional primacy which I have claimed for our exponents of all the bookish arts, I would boldly say that it possesses it at the present day. On the one hand, the Kelmscott Press books, on their own lines, are the finest and the most harmonious which have ever been produced; on the other, the book-work turned out in the ordinary way of business by the five or six leading printers of England and Scotland seems to me, both in technical qualities and in excellence of taste, the finest in the world, and with no rival worth mentioning, except in the work of one or two of the best firms in the United States. Moreover, as far as I can learn, it is only in Great Britain and America that the form of books is now the subject of the ceaseless experiment and ingenuity which are the signs of a period of artistic activity