Following the invention of printing, it proved to be too large an investment for printers to bind all the copies they produced. The majority of books were offered for sale in cheap paper or limp vellum covers. Customers were then free to have them rebound in a style they could afford.
Over the years many different materials have been used by binders to serve as covers: old manuscripts, wood, paper, and paste board.
A binding is worked in two stages: forwarding and finishing. Forwarding involves the attachment of a cover to protect the text block, while finishing deals with the decoration of the book. Designed are created with, among other materials, leather inlays, gilt decoration, fore-edge painting, the use of patterned or marbled papers, printed cloth, embroidery, and printed papers.
Among its collections, the University possesses a great number of distinctive examples of the binders' art, a few of which are displayed as part of the exhibition at the University's Art Gallery.
1. A contemporary black morocco binding, gold-tooled and stamped with the Royal Arms. The book is dedicated to Charles I and, since it is elaborately tooled, may have been a personal copy, but it is more likely to have been one of those which he is known to have ordered to be bound for official use.
John Selden. Mare clausum. London, W. Stanesby for R. Meighen, 1635.
2. A black morocco binding, gold-tooled with "drawer-handle" and other ornament, of a type associated with Samuel Mearne.
Richard Allestree. The Gentlemans calling, and The ladies calling, 1673.
3. An olive green morocco binding with the arms of Jacques-Auguste De Thou (1553-1617) stamped in gold within an oval circlet of leaves on each cover, and his monogram in three panels on the spine. De Thou was one of the most active book collectors of the second half of the sixteenth century.
Antonio Riccoboni. De historia commentarius. Venice, Giovanni Bariletto, 1568.
4. A red morocco binding of "cottage" design, inlaid in blue and green, and with a leather book-label of Ann Aingel, 1769.
Book of Common Prayer, together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Cambridge, 1750.
5. A black, straight-grained morocco binding by Roger Payne, c. 1790, with the arms of Sir Richard Colt Hoare on the covers and foot of the lower panel of the spine and with his crest in the top panel. Roger Payne (1739-97) was the most accomplished and the most influential eighteenth century English bookbinder.
John Hardyng. The chronicle. London, R. Grafton, 1543.
6. Charles Ricketts was commissioned by a few wealthy patrons to produce a number of special bindings in pigskin or morocco for his Vale Press books. These were executed under his personal supervision by Rivière and Son, and are noted for their severe rectilinear style. This present binding was offered at a cost of four guineas a volume, specifically for the Vale Press edition of John Keats's Poems (1898). The copy displayed is one of only eight printed on vellum. This copy was bound for William Noble and bears his initials within the design.
John Keats. Poems, London, Vale Press, 1898.
7. Sybil Pye taught herself binding from Douglas Cockerell's Bookbinding and the Care of Books (1901). In her early bindings, she used Charles Ricketts's tools along with others of her own design, and from 1910 onwards incorporated them with bold inlays of coloured leather in cubist mosaics to create a large number of distinctive bindings.
Book of Common Prayer. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1912.
8. A green morocco binding with gold tooling executed in 1962 by Bernard C. Middleton, one of the foremost craft bookbinders working in Britain today.
David Bland. A History of Book Illustration. Faber, London, 1958.