Briony, our Assistant Rare Books Librarian, continues her wanders through the stacks.
It wasn’t long before book binders demanded more than just black ink and gold on coloured cloth, and experiments began with other colours, such as red in the 1850s. Yet these first trials were unsuccessful, with the colours quickly fading and rubbing off.
Publishers therefore sought other means of getting colour into their bindings. One way was by printing the colour onto the cloth, from wood blocks. The technique is first found in the 1840s, and was probably used throughout the nineteenth century.
Another means of applying colour was to use onlays. Onlays had already been used on leather, but they were a new development on cloth, and the 1850s is when they first make their appearance. To some extent this was a reaction to the unsuccessful trials of printing coloured inks on cloth. Publishers of more pretentious works were unsatisfied with inks which faded and rubbed, and so instead they overlaid cloths or paper of different colours onto their basic binding cloth.
Onlays can be found in two forms. The first is paper or cloth cut-outs in complementary colour(s) to accord with the design, which were then blocked, usually in gold, in the general blocking of the cover. The publisher Walter Scott produced some the loveliest bindings using this method, with delicate filigree gilt decoration bringing the whole together.
The second method in the use of onlays was to use illustrations, which were frequently chromolithographs, laid down on the cover for pictorial effect. Illustrative onlays were very popular in the 1860s.
Onlays, and inlays, were impractical for general purposes, where continued use would see the super-imposed panels fray or turn up at the edges. As can be seen in the image below, half of the pictorial inlay has been torn away.
In order to satisfy the client’s desire for colour before successful colour ink blocking was mastered in the 1870s, publishers contrived other means of getting colour into their bindings, by devising mottled, marbled, or otherwise variegated cloths. Production costs were probably high for such designs, and thus examples remain uncommon. One publisher who appears to have favoured this form of binding is Remnant & Edmonds, of London.
In the 1870s a satisfactory method of printing coloured inks onto cloth was finally achieved. Now we see greens, reds, oranges, and yellows being blocked into the cloth. A characteristic of the following decade was the extent of polychromatic blocking and the use of aluminium to complement gold – especially in juvenile and illustrated books. So this week we’ll leave you with some images of colourful bindings!