Exhibit Announcement: The Binder’s Art

A binder at work decorating a book with a heated metal roll.

If you have read my previous posts, you may have noticed my slight preoccupation with books not as texts, but as artifacts. I get excited about the physical evidence of how people made and interacted with books in the past, and the greatest excitement of my working hours comes from the discovery of authors’ signatures, bits of laid-in ephemera, and decorative papers so vivid and intricate in their design that it seems hardly possible for them to be centuries old. Old and rare books hold a wealth of information about the time of their production – in their written content, yes, but also in the physical craftsmanship of their papers and bindings.

Blind tooling, a technique in which heated hand tools (here, stamps and rolls) were used to impress designs into leather, was popularized in the fifteenth century (though this example is from the sixteenth).

This is why I – and, more importantly, Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections – am so pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibit of rare books, The Binder’s Art: Techniques in the History of Decorative Bookbinding, focused on books as physical objects skillfully made and adorned by (often anonymous) craftspeople. The exhibition opens on Wednesday, October 28th with a reception from 3:30 to 5:00 in the Rare Books Reading Room (Room 307 of Pius XII Memorial Library). I will begin the reception with a brief curator’s talk, which will be followed by refreshments and a chance to speak with the local book artists whose work will be on display. This is your chance to explore decorative trends in bookbinding over the centuries, to focus on the book as (art)ifact, and to take a break from reading to enjoy a display of beautiful materials from the SLU Rare Books collection.

A stamped publisher’s binding from 1843.

We will have a range of European bindings on display, from elaborately tooled leather (popular in the sixteenth century) to decorated cloth publishers’ bindings (first produced in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing in popularity into the twentieth). The books are grouped by binding material and by decorative technique, and each of our displays provides background information on the history and process of each technique. Some featured topics include leather finishing, textile covers, and the use of gold in bookbinding (particularly dazzling – if for nothing else, come to see our examples of edge gauffering). A selection of brightly colored marbled, paste, printed, and Dutch Gilt decorative papers, which are well-represented in our eighteenth-century book collection, will also be on display.

An eighteenth-century example of pulled paste paper, here used to adorn a book cover. Come to the opening reception to see a local artist’s modern paste paper examples!

Just as exciting, we have invited some local book artists to attend the opening reception with examples of their own bindings and decorative papers. Bookbinding is a craft alive and well in the Midwest, as the examples of modern bindings laid out in the Rare Books Reading Room will attest. The names and faces of most of the binders whose work is represented in our exhibit have been lost to the passage of time, so this is your opportunity to connect with bookmakers. Our rare books will be on exhibit through March 11, 2016, but this pop-up exhibit of modern binding will only be available during the reception, so don’t miss it!

If you can’t make it next Wednesday, but are interested in bindings, don’t despair – The Binder’s Art is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays during regular reading room hours (9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). The books will be on display in Room 307 through March 11, 2016.

We look forward to seeing you soon!

Jess Touchette

About Jess Touchette

Jess Touchette is a former staff member in the Rare Books unit.

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