Decorative bookbindings

Red binding
Wheel binding,
1755
Larger wheel
binding image

Before it became the practice for books to be issued with the publishers' covers, individual book-buyers were expected to arrange the binding of the printed pages themselves.

Consequently, there is a huge variety of early bindings, ranging from plain leather or paste boards to bindings with elaborate patterns tooled in gold.

Unique tradition in Scotland

Scotland has a unique tradition of decorative bookinding, and the Library has collected examples of this craft for many years.

Many bindings give useful information about the lives of former owners. For example, it was common to give a finely bound book as a wedding gift.

You can use our Digital gallery to view a gallery of selected Scottish bindings.

Oldest known Scottish binding

The National Library of Scotland's holdings range from the oldest known Scottish binding, on the Haye Manuscript (MS.Acc.9253), which dates from around 1480, to the work of present-day Scottish binders.

Scott binding
Binding by
James Scott
Larger Scott
binding

Particularly well-represented are the distinctively Scottish late 17th and 18th-century 'herring-bone' and 'wheel' styles. We continue to acquire these, along with more unusual bindings such as silk embroidered books and a book bound in silver.

James and William Scott

We also hold numerous bindings in the late 18th-century style associated with the Edinburgh binders James Scott and his son William.

The definitive account by J H Loudon was researched at the Library, which holds by far the largest number of known Scott bindings. Displayed here is a Scott binding purchased in 2003.

Curiosities and non-Scottish bindings

As well as examples of Scottish work at its best, we also acquire bindings that are of interest as curiosities, such as a binding in coarse fur, or that give information about the history of the book as an object, such as a leather wrap-around cover designed for a travelling minister's Bible.

The collections also hold a wide variety of non-Scottish bindings, including many 15th- and 16th-century blind-stamped and panel bindings, early gold-tooled bindings.

Binding of an edition of 'Dante'
A Phoebe Anna
Traquair binding
Larger Traquair
binding

These include two executed for the celebrated bibliophile Jean Grolier, and an example of a French fanfare binding for Mary Queen of Scots.

English fine bindings of the 1670s onwards are well represented, and armorial stamps have been extensively recorded.

Arts and Crafts

Bookbindings of the Arts and Crafts period have been purchased to reflect the role of Scottish artists in the movement, including Jessie M King and Phoebe Anna Traquair.

Contemporary bindings

Contemporary fine bindings by Scottish binders are regularly purchased.

Thanks to the generous financial support of Elizabeth Soutar, the Library also organises an annual Bookbinding Competition open to anyone resident in any of the member states of the European Union. There are two prizes — Best Competition Entrant and Best Student Entrant — and the winning entries are added to the Library's collections.

Research into bindings

Research is supported by an extensive collection of reference works, and by files of rubbings, photographs and digital scans.

We maintain a record of Scott bindings not in Loudon's book, whether held by the Library or elsewhere.

Many of the Library's fine bindings have been brought together in a special collection shelfmarked "Bdg" (a shelfmark search on the main catalogue using the term Bdg? will bring up these records), but other bindings remain scattered throughout our collections.

Catalogue records are increasingly being upgraded to include information about the materials, design and provenance of decorative bindings, but so far most of our bindings are not fully described online. Anyone conducting extensive research into bindings is encouraged to contact staff in Rare Book Collections.

Further reading

  • Greenfield, Jane. 'ABC of bookbinding'. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1998 (shelfmark H8.98.1188)
  • Loudon, J H. 'James and William Scott'. New York: Moretus Press in association with the National Library of Scotland: 1980 (H4.82.71)
  • Mitchell, William Smith. 'History of Scottish Bookbinding 1432 to 1650'. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1955 (H3.87.83)
  • Morris, John. 'Wheels and Herringbones: Some Scottish bindings 1678-1773'.[Dunblane: Bookbinder, 1987] (HP3.87.223)
  • Nixon, Howard M. 'Five centuries of English bookbinding'. London: Scolar Press, 1978 (SU.37 (shelved at C.9.2 Nix))
  • Sommerlad, M J. 'Scottish "Wheel" and "Herring-bone" Bindings in the Bodleian Library'. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1967 (NG.1180.e.9)

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