Sunday, 18 October 2009

Dreaming Spires

Yesterday I went to Oxford with a group of friends from the City & Guilds Bookbinding Course that I recently completed. It was the loveliest day as the early winter sun was peeping through the clouds, showering golden light on the wonderful university buildings.

We went to an exhibition at the Bodleian Library called 'An Artful Craft: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Broxbourne Library and other collections'. The exhibition examines the book as an object valued for more than its functional purpose - the book as an object of beauty. The Broxbourne Library was compiled by the diamond merchant Albert Ehrman (1890-1969) and is comprised of more than 1,500 bindings which were presented to the Bodleian Library by Albert's son John, in 1979, in memory of his parents. Albert Ehrman bought his first rare book in 1919. He collected early printed books and his primary interest became the stylistic and decorative features of their covers.

The majority of the books on display in the exhibition are examples of exquisite gold tooled covers. Gold paint was used to decorate the covers of books in the early Middle Ages. Later, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Islamic craftsmen heated metal tools and used them to make impressions in leather in gold and silver leaf. This technique reached Europe and became the dominant technique for the decoration of fine bindings.

What I love about books is that they are valued as much as material objects as they are for the ideas and stories that they contain. Books were used as symbols of power - the exhibition contains fine bindings presented to Elizabeth I and Cardinal Wolsey as exquisite and expensive gifts. In aristocratic houses finely bound books would be on display for all to see - they were a symbol of wealth. Books carry sentiment; we collect books for their covers as well as their content. I collect Virago Modern Classics, Persephone Books, first edition Iris Murdoch novels and early edition books published by the Hogarth Press. I don't just collect these books for their content, I collect them because I love their design.

I wasn't permitted to take photographs in the exhibition so on the right is a photograph that I took of a postcard. It shows a gold-tooled binding for Cardinal Wolsey - the stamped blocks of gold show Tudor badges and St. George. This is believed to be the earliest English gold-tooled binding as it is dated 1519. The binding is astounding and to think that this book has survived almost 500 years is mind-blowing. The book contains various Latin texts; books were not originally decorated to represent the content within as the object itself carried independent status.

I love early bindings and there were bindings in the exhibition that contained texts which dated from the 12th century. One of the earliest bindings in the Broxbourne Library was bought by Albert Ehrman for £8,000 which is a lot of money today but when you think how much that would have been in 1951 when he made the purchase it makes you realise just how much Ehrman spent on his collection and how much the collection is worth now.

This binding was one of my favourites in the exhibition and contains the Poems of Henry Constable. It dates from 1930 and was bound by Sybil Pye. The binding is made up of inlays of leathers of different colours. It is wonderful as it is an early twentieth century style, Art Deco, and it is great to see examples of books bound by women as there were few women binders. Sybil Pye was one of the most respected binders of her generation.

The exhibition is free and is on until 31 October so go and see it if you can as bookbinding exhibitions are sadly few and far between. I often wonder just what treasures are stowed away in academic libraries up and down the country that we rarely ever get to see.

After the exhibition it was time for lunch so we wandered around the Radcliffe Camera to the Vaults and Garden Cafe which is in the vaults of the University Church of St Mary. I really recommend this cafe as the food is always freshly cooked, relatively inexpensive, warming on a cold day and the vaulted ceiling is stunning and dates from 1320.

After lunch we went for an afternoon stroll around Christchurch Meadow which is one of my favourites places. Cattle were grazing in the meadow which is situated in the centre of the city. It is a peaceful space and you can walk around the meadow following the river, watching punts and rowing boats bobbing along the Thames. The trees were all turning bronze and golden and the dappled light filtered through the remaining leaves and fell at our feet.

As we walked the sound of the bells drifted over to us and called us back to the melee of the city on a Saturday afternoon. The High Street was jam packed with shoppers all bustling along for their next purchase and of course I couldn't help but join in so I went to the fantastic Blackwell's bookshop on Broad Street whose top floor is a secondhand bookshop.

The shop opened in 1879 and is a book lover's paradise. I went straight up to the secondhand section and was absolutely spoilt for choice as they had so many fantastic titles in stock. My resolve not to buy any books until I have seriously dented the pile of books in my flat waiting to be read fell by the wayside completely and I found myself with an armful of books (some Christmas presents) darting towards the cashier before I had time to think sensibly. I have an addiction and it is literally taking over my life as I am having to manoeuvre myself around the piles of books around the flat. But I have decided that I am beyond help so I am carrying on with my crazed book buying.

I picked up some great bargains and added to my VMC collection.

So, I only bought four books for myself. I am very excited about reading Molly Keane's Young Entry and I love the cover of Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light which shows a detail from the Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which I have been longing to see for a long time.

A great Saturday spent in Oxford. Now I am going to confront the pile of books waiting to be read with a pot of tea and a few (packets of) biscuits.


  1. That sounds like a wonderful visit (I intend to spend a day in Oxford one of these days - for Blackwell's alone!) Such lovely VMCs; the cover of the Mitchison is indeed divine.

  2. What a lovely post (enjoy your afternoon among the piles!)

  3. What lovely photos. I think a book binding course would be fun. I use to help repair books at the library but I'd like to be shown by a professional.

  4. Beautiful post. I am now planning a day in Oxford soon! Those VMCs are gorgeous...especially jealous of your Molly Keanes!

  5. What a fantastic post. I am greeen with envy. I was just in Antwerp where I visited a World Heritage site printing house that was in business for 300 years. It was fascinating and has me even more interested in old books, which I didn't think was possible.

  6. It souns like you had a lovely day, crazed book buying and all!

    Invitation to the Waltz is a wonderful coming of age novel, I hope you enjoy it.

  7. What a wondeful day! I still haven't been to Oxford but it is definitely on my list of places to visit - hopefully one day soon.

  8. I loved the book binding exhibition too! It is indeed amazing to see some of the stuff they have on display, and as you say, it makes you wonder exactly might be hidden away all over the country. The course you did must have been fascinating. Vaults & Gardens is one of my favourites (and fatally close to the library, haha). And Blackwell's ... that secondhand section really is temptation central!

  9. Claire - you must go to Oxford soon. I dare you to go into Blackwell's and not buy anything - it is impossible!

    Cornflower - I had a great Sunday. Reading, chilling and cocktails!

    Diane - I really recommend doing a bookbinding course. I am sure you will enjoy it!

    Rachel - I am happy to lend you the Molly once I have read it - Oxford is a must!

    Thomas - I absolutely LOVE Antwerp so I am also green with envy! I have been to that printing house and it is fascinating. Did you go to the Photography Museum?

    Sarah - I am looking forward to reading the Lehmann.

    Karen - you should visit Oxford soon - the Ashmolean Museum is due to re-open in early November which will be great as it has doubled in size apparently!

    Sophie - If I lived in Oxford I am sure I would be a permanent fixture in Vaults & Garden and Blackwell's - I'm pleased you liked the exhibition as well.

  10. Such a lovely, lovely post! Very timely as well as I was watching David Starkey handle a book with hand-painted illuminations, with writings by Henry VIII inside, without gloves. I almost gasped, well actually I'm sure that I did. You are so lucky to have such a fantastic exhibit offered and for free, I'm extremely jealous. I'm also reading Diary of a Nobody and one of the main characters paints the spines of some books with red enamel paint to spruce them up a bit. Your turn to gasp.

  11. Sounds like you had a good day out. I work at the Bodleian (part-time) and have seen that exhibition too. I find Blackwells a bit pricey but you've picked up some wonderful VMCs.

    Would love to meet up if any book bloggers want to come down!