Dublin Bookbinding Styles

Printer-friendly version

Ornate bookcoverWhat design features come to mind when we think of 18th-century Dublin? Terraces and squares of classical houses with individual fanlights over each hall door, ornate plasterwork ceilings created by Italian stucco workers, elaborately chased Dublin silverware? Certainly, but perhaps not so well known is one of the quintessential and recognizably “Dublin” elements of design, which can be seen in the fine bookbindings carried out by master craftsmen throughout the century.

Utilitarian sheep and calf bindings were surpassed as the century progressed and gilt ornamentation was given free rein. Fine morocco or goatskin was used in rich deep colours of dark red, crimson, green and sometimes, but more rarely, blue, often with cream leather inlays. However, it was the variety and sophistication of the gold tooling that was characteristic of the finest bindings.

Particular gilding tools are known to have been unique to certain Dublin binders, but evidence exists to show that tools were also lent between different binders. Some binders are known to us by name: Joseph Leathley from the 1720s to the 1750s, followed by his widow Anne Leathley from the 1750s to 1775, John Exshaw senior from the 1740s to the 1770s, William McKenzie and John Archer in the last decades of the 18th century. In other cases, some styles are distinctive enough to be attributed to a particular, but unknown binder, such as the two Parliamentary Binders, tagged A and B. These firms carried out exquisite bookbindings in full crimson morocco with vellum inlays for the manuscript journals of the Irish Houses of Parliament. These works of art were lost in the fire at the Public Records Office in 1922, and only black and white photographs bear witness to their quality and beauty.

TCD Binding VirgilBookbinding was big business because most books and pamphlets were bought unbound, and the owner chose the binding to suit his/her taste and pocket. Many people did not bother to bind their books at all, but they have not survived in good condition as the main purpose of a binding is to protect the book. Large libraries such as Trinity College and Marsh’s Library placed regular orders for bookbinding, and from their account books we know which binders got the contracts. Trinity College and many of the more prestigious schools in the city presented their best students with book prizes for academic achievements, these prize bindings bear the crest of the college or school on the covers.

A reader deciding to get his/her books bound had a wide choice, with a big price difference between the plainest and most elaborate. A binding in sheep or plain calf could cost from 10d. to 3s. for smaller format books, while a morocco binding with all-over gilt tooling, marbled endpapers, gilt fore-edges and gilt turn-ins, silk ribbon marker, and all edges gilt, could cost as much as 15s. on top of the cost of the book.

Wealthy and fashionable men and women liked to have distinctive bespoke bindings, often incorporating personal choices of motif, including their names or initials or elements from the family coat of arms.

Characteristic Dublin Design Features:


Bookbindingfloral bookbindingBorders

Gilt-tooled borders can range from simple single or double gilt fillets, or gilt ruled lines, to simple rolls with repeat designs, to broad floral rolls or deep dentelle, or lace-like, borders. 



Centrepieces on the front, or both covers can be made up of classical designs such as urns or garlands, or in this case a medallion with the harp of Ireland. A design can also be made up from a series of different tools combined. In this case the oval centre-piece is composed of a series of smaller tools.






Bookbing crest Bookbinding crestPrize bindings given to students for academic excellence had the crest of the granting college or school stamped in gilt on the covers, and they also had a printed prize label pasted to the front pastedown, or inside cover. Individuals sometimes used their family crest on the front, or on both covers of their books, and these often have the armorial bookplate of the family on the front pastedown. The stamp of Trinity College is commonly found as the college gave out large numbers of book prizes. A more unusual one is this prize binding from the Hibernian Academy, King Street, Dublin.


Bookbinding corner detailCorner tools.

Geometric or floral tools make striking corner features and add depth and drama to the borders. In this example a gilt roll with floral and leaf designs inside a triple gilt fillet has matching corner tools. 



Inlays and onlaysMatthew West Poems inlay detailInlay details

The more elaborate bindings have vellum or cream paper inlays or onlays in the centre of the boards. Inlaying is the technique of insetting pieces of vellum, leather or paper with a different texture or colour from the background. The background leather is cut away and the new colour is fitted into the space. Onlaying is the technique of applying pieces of leather of contrasting colour or texture on top of the existing leather cover. In both cases gilt tooling is applied around the edges to give definition and to seal the joins. 



Turn-in detailTurn-ins.

Delicate tooled turn-ins make a superb finishing touch to a fine binding. In this case a restrained cover with a simple gilt roll hides a glorious interior with gilt decorated fore-edges and turn-ins on marbled endpapers.



Marbled endpaperMarbled endpapers.

Endpapers in a variety of marbled papers act as a lining and often form the backdrop to a bookplate conferring ownership. Here we see an armorial bookplate of Thomas Brownrigg pasted to the marbled endpaper, we can also notice the nice gilt decorated turn-ins.




 Prize labelPrize labels.

Set off also on a marbled background is a prize label from Trinity College, printed by William McKenzie, bookseller and bookbinder, and awarded to Marco Hare at Easter 1792.





As the spine of a book was its face to the world it often bore the most ornate designs. Books on shelves or in glass cases were judged by the view of their spines. Spines were usually divided into panels or compartments by raised bands or by single or multiple gilt fillets. The title of the book was lettered in gilt directly onto the leather or onto a label of contrasting colour. Each of the remaining panels allowed the creativity of the bookbinder to be seen. [14, A selection of spines displaying a variety of decorative features]. Edward Gibbon’s History of the decline and fall of the Roman empire in six volumes is bound in a smooth green morocco with an understated gilt roll in Greek key design on both covers, the spines, however, are highly ornamented. 

 Instead of abstract, geometric or floral designs the panels could contain the owner’s initials or an element of their family coat of arms. Here we see a selection of spines from the private library of the Putland family of Jervis Street, Dublin, and Bray.


SpinesSpinesRead more

Add new comment