– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.



A group of participants in the Designer Bookbinders 2nd International Bookbinding Competition visited St Cross this week as part of a day of tours of college libraries and notable bindings in their collections. Appropriately, it was a very international group as well!



There is a great variety of bindings in Balliol’s collections.  One of the ways in which they vary is in the choice of materials used in their construction. True, we have not yet come across any books covered in the skin of criminals, or less gruesome exotics such as seal skin. Even within the realms of the ‘normal’, different materials give quite different effects.  This is apparent in four books from four centuries, bound respectively with calf over wooden boards, pigskin over wooden boards, limp vellum and wallpaper over pasteboards.

??????????A right royal binding A 1492 edition of the ancient philosopher Plotinus, still wearing its original stamped, checkerboard patterned binding in calf over wooden boards. The holes for chain staples and the manuscript title on the text block give an indication of how the volume was once stored and read; chained books would have been stored with their spines facing in. (More about medieval chained libraries here.) The binding was repaired in 1920 by ‘the binders to the Bodleian Library’. The text was translated by the humanist philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, whose academy enjoyed the patronage of the Medici, and printed in Florence for Lorenzo de Medici. This copy is thought to have belonged to the library, in El Escorial, of King Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary I of England.  [30 f 148]

??????????It is difficult to date papers used in bindings such as this one for a three volume set of Virgil’s works published in Rome in 1763-5. Papers were imported and exported, used long after their manufacture, and imitated as fashion dictated. This paper is patterned with a wood-block print. The earliest date for a European wood-block print is 1423, but wall paper with a continuous design was invented much later by Jean Papillon (1661-1723). The most common type of decorated papers in France, Italy and Germany were the cotton papers (the blocks, often made of pear wood, were used to print textiles as well as papers). These were first produced c.1735-40 and reached their summit in the 1760s-80s.₁ [30 g 148-150] ₁ Foot, M. M. Studies in the History of Bookbinding. Aldershot, 1993, (pp.253-60).


Bindings can have a whole plethora of functions other than simply providing protection and support for the t??????????ext block: a commemorative binding to mark an occasion; a prize binding to reward and to confirm the winner’s affiliation with the awarding institution; a personal binding to show ownership; a memorial binding by which to remember; artistic bindings which can be means of expression and things of beauty. Here are just two examples of binding uses from Balliol’s collection.

??????????Mrs Pauline Johnstone presented this Bible to the College in 1978. The binding is a labour of love, designed and embroidered by Mrs Johnstone in memory of her husband, Kenneth Roy Johnstone (Balliol 1921).

Our resident embroidery expert, Mary Addison, gives this description: This splendid Bible cover has been hand embroidered in goldwork and beading to an original design which draws on rich historical precedents.  It is a particularly appropriate decoration for a Bible as it brings to mind English embroidery at its apogee. In the Middle Ages Opus Anglicanum became famous and sought after throughout Europe, primarily for ecclesiastical use. Typically, gold thread is couched (applied to the surface and held in place by silk thread) to give a strong linear element to the design and this lends itself well to the depiction of crosses, entwined stems and stylised flowers. The flowers are then embellished with more subtle couching in which coloured silk threads predominate over the gold. Beads are used sparingly to draw attention to details in the design, their ability to catch the light reminding us of the spark of life in the flora and fauna. On the back cover the design includes scrolling foliage (oak leaves and possibly the leaves of a fruit tree) on which sits a  garden bird of the utmost charm whose open beak visibly sings Deo gratias  (Thanks be to God); below a butterfly contemplates sharing the sentiment. Both design and embroidery are of the highest standard. [Johnstone Bible]

??????????In the past, many books belonging to Francis Bacon (sixteenth-century courtier, writer, and natural philosopher) have been discovered and then discredited. Balliol’s copy of Catholic Archbishop Du Perron’s 1620 polemic is one of only 15 books which can be securely identified as having belonged in Bacon’s large library.  Certainty is provided by the book’s binding, which has Bacon’s crest gilt-stamped on both boards. Bacon’s heraldic ‘boar passant ermine armed and hoofed or, a crescent for difference’₁ is a rebus, or play on his name, conjuring up a crisp (but anachronistic) BLT sandwich. [30 f 25] ₁ Murphy, K. “Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson in the College library” in Balliol College Annual Record 2012. Oxford, 2012, (p.46).


The majority of bindings at Balliol are codices – the familiar western book format. Here are two exceptions that make use of non-western structures.

??????????The ??????????poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne matriculated at Balliol in 1856. These two bindings are from a recent acquisition for the Library: the collection of leading Swinburne scholar, Rikky Rooksby.  ‘On the Cliffs’ is one of four long poems from Swinburne’s Songs of the Springtides, published in London in 1880. The first edition has a blue cloth binding designed to be uniform with his other publications with Chatto and Windus. A centenary (1980) limited edition of Swinburne’s poem ‘On the Cliffs’ printed on folded Japanese paper is protected and enhanced by a simple binding of guard boards covered in dark plum Japanese paper.  It is presented in a standing slip case with a paper sculpture by Tuska. [Swinburne Collection]


??????????A late eighteenth or early nineteenth-century manuscript written on palm leaves strung between decorated wooden covers. The Sinhalese Buddist text within concerns the first sutta (sῡtra) in the Pali canon, the Brahmajala Sutta. The wooden covers are painted on the inside with Sri Lankan places of pilgrimage. [MS 472]





Bindings, like other parts of the book, gradually decay. The rate of decay depends on the conditions in which they are kept. We try to handle our collections with care, keep them at a constant temperature and humidity, and make sure they are free from pests. Sometimes though, we are dealing with historical neglect or well-meant but unfortunate interventions. It could be that curators of the future will look back at our practice and shake their heads sadly. Balliol is lucky to be a member of the Oxford Conservation Consortium based at Magdalen College. Their advice and sympathetic interventions help us to do our best for our time in terms of collection care.

??????????This manuscript, the fifth and last volume of Balliol’s copy of Domenico Bandini’s early encyclopaedia, Fons Memorabilium Universi (The spring of knowledge about the universe),  was one of many commissioned in the mid-15th century by William Gray, a member of Balliol and late Bishop of Ely, for the College Library. It was written in 1445 in Cologne for Balliol  and is a good example of modern conservation binding using historic materials and techniques. Unfortunately, its original medieval binding was replaced by a later, overly tight binding which made it hard to consult. Its current binding was made by Chris Clarkson of the Bodleian Library’s conservation department. It uses the same kinds of materials and binding structure that would have been used in the original. This means that the text block is now under even pressure, the spine is not under stress and the binding opens much more easily than before.



??????????In 1610 this edition of Virgil’s works was published in Cologne. Around that time it was given a vellum binding, the pages attached with cotton thread around leather cords at three sewing stations. Since then it has fared badly. Where, we don’t know, as it was only recently donated to the Library. Given the state of the vellum, we can surmise that at one stage it was somewhere warm and dry. At another, it may have been somewhere damp judging by the mould stains and the insect holes on the paper. It could do with some TLC. The plus side of this damage is that it has revealed the structure of the binding for our inspection. [Virgil 1610]

– Descriptions by Naomi Tiley, Librarian, 2013.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Report May – October 2013 | Balliol Archives & Manuscripts

  2. Pingback: Goldwork embroidered bible in Balliol Library | Addison Embroidery at the Vicarage

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