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Special Collections & Archives: The Art of the Bookaccredited archive service logo

SC&A includes manuscripts and archives, medieval to modern; early and finely printed books, and science fiction collections.

The Art of the Book: Rare printed books

The Exhibition

This exhibition draws upon the University's rich and varied printed book collection to explore the significance of the advent of printing and its impact on the development of western civilization. The invention of printing with movable types began a revolution in what, why, and how we read, learn and view the world around us. It transformed the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge with a rapidity unmatched until our present age.

The current communication revolution in which computer technology is challenging the role of the printed word invites us to re-examine the impact of printing on the cultural landscape since the fifteenth century, and in so doing consider whether the traditional world of the book is fast disappearing, or whether it will again be transformed by technological advances to expand our experience of reading and learning.

The purpose of this exhibition, within the space available, is to illustrate the development of printing as a craft and to demonstrate the effect it has had on the course of history. The task of selecting a representative sample from the mass of significant material has necessarily been one of exclusion rather than inclusion, but the intention was to capture, in the manner of a snapshot, something of the diversity of the collection and to convey its significant cultural value as a research resource.

1. Ranulph Higden. Polycronicon, translated by John Trevisa. [Printed at Westminster after 2 July and before 20 November 1482.] London, William Caxton, 1482.

Image of page from Ranulph Higden. Polycronicon, translated by John TrevisaCaxton, a successful businessman with literary tastes, achieved fame as the first English printer, learning the craft at age fifty or so while living abroad in Bruges. His aim was to produce English language versions of popular texts, many of which he translated. Among the most widely read of these was the Polycronicon, or description and history of the whole world, written by Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk at St. Werberg's, Chester. The text was translated from Latin into English shortly after Higden's death in 1364 by John Trevisa (1326-1412), and was revised by Caxton, who continued it down to his own time. Believing Trevisa's English translation to be too difficult, Caxton "changed the rude and old English", including certain words "which in these days be neither used ne understanden." The copy displayed is a rubricated copy, and has been heavily annotated by successive owners.

R.A. Morton bequest, 1969.


2. Marcus Tullius Cicero. De Officiis; Paradoxa [stoicorum]. Mainz, Johann Fust and Peter [Schoeffer], 1465.

Image of page from Marcus Tullius Cicero. De Officiis; Paradoxa [stoicorum]Image of page from Marcus Tullius Cicero. De Officiis; Paradoxa [stoicorum]The Mainz Cicero is the first dated edition of any classical author. It was printed at the press founded by Johannes Gutenberg, after it had passed into the hands of his partner and financier, Johann Fust. This is the last book to bear the name of Fust, who died in the following year in Paris, and is an important example of the typographical art in its infancy, which features the earliest appearance of a Greek typeface. The University's vellum copy is perfect and complete, including the leaf bearing the poem of Horace addressed to Manlius Torquatus, which is the earliest example of printed Latin verse.

This copy was formerly in the library of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) and later in the Earl of Derby's library at Knowsley Hall, from which it was purchased in 1954 with the aid of the Sydney Jones Fund and a grant from the Friends of the National Libraries.


3. Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano. Omnia opera. Venice, Aldus Manutius, July 1498.

Image of page from Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano. Omnia opera.Image of page from Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano. Omnia opera.This is the first collected edition of the works of the Florentine humanist Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), published in 1498 by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, Italy's foremost scholar-printer. Politian, himself, embodied the movement of humanistic scholarship with its new and vital interest in the classical past and, following his death in 1494, his scattered philological papers were gathered together to be printed by Platone Benedetti, a Bolognese printer who died before finishing the project. This left a "ready-made" scholarly edition, which Aldus Manutius then took over. At 452 leaves, this was by far Aldus's most ambitious undertaking to date, and features his first attempt at Hebrew type. The University's copy features twenty-six illuminated initials each with a "Byzantine" background.

Presented by Sir Charles Sydney Jones, 1945.


4. Caius Plinius Secondus (Pliny the Elder). Historia naturale, tradocta di lingua latina in fiorentina per Christophoro Landino. Venice, Nicholas Jenson, 1476.

Image of page from Caius Plinius Secondus (Pliny the Elder). Historia naturale, tradocta di lingua latina in fiorentina per Christophoro LandinoImage of page from Caius Plinius Secondus (Pliny the Elder). Historia naturale, tradocta di lingua latina in fiorentina per Christophoro LandinoThe Jenson Pliny of 1476 is one of the landmarks of Renaissance printing, displaying in all its splendour Jenson's Roman type, acknowledged to be among the most influential of all type designs, serving as the model for a type face of William Morris for his Kelmscott Press. The text itself is a remarkable encyclopaedia of the ancient world which became a source for medieval learning, but the real importance of this book lies in its design and presswork, all of the highest quality. Evidence that the University's copy almost certainly belonged to an Italian nobleman comes from the coat of arms on the first page of the text. This is a unique copy with fine illuminated initials, evoking those of contemporary manuscripts.

Presented by Sir Charles Sydney Jones, 1945.

5. Hartmann Schedel. Liber chronicarum cum figuris et ymaginibus ab inicio mundi. Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 1493.

Image of page from Hartmann Schedel. Liber chronicarum cum figuris et ymaginibus ab inicio mundi.A large paper copy of the first edition of the greatest illustrated book of the fifteenth century. The Nuremberg Chronicle, as the book is commonly known, features an amazing 1,809 woodcut illustrations, including numerous two-page views of the great cities of Europe, executed by Michael Wohlgemuth, Albrecht Dürer's one-time teacher, and his step-son Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. The text itself, a chronological account of important events of world history, covers the exploration of the Atlantic and of Africa. Anton Koberger, the printer, built up the largest of all fifteenth century printing firms, employing up to twenty-four presses. The Nuremberg Chronicle, issued in both German and in Latin, was his magnum opus, and ranks as a landmark in the history of printing. The University has examples of both German and Latin versions. Displayed is one of the few surviving copies containing illuminated initials and in the original boards.

R.A. Morton bequest, 1969.


6. Claudius Ptolemaeus. Cosmographia. Ulm, Lienhart Holle, 1482.

Image of page from Claudius Ptolemaeus. Cosmographia.A hand-coloured copy of the first German printed atlas with woodcut maps. The Ptolemaic conception of the universe, in which the Earth is depicted as a round sphere encircled by the planets and sun, formed the cosmological basis for literary works by Chaucer, Milton, and Dante, and dominated western cartography until it was superseded by Mercator's Atlas in the sixteenth century. The great Ulm Ptolemy, published by Leinhart Holle, was the first to address the problems of printing in relief map illustrations, and in doing so became the model for numerous other cartographical editions featuring woodcut maps. In addition to the canonical 27 Ptolemaic maps cut after the design of Nicolaus Germanus, The University's copy has the five additional maps which depict Spain, France, Italy, the Holy Land, and Modern Europe. Indeed, the last is of particular importance, as it features the first depiction of Greenland. The Ulm Ptolemy is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the printers' art, with its bold, decorative maps and distinctive "Maiblumen" initials known only in Ulm publications. The book is displayed open at the famous double-page world map, with the engraved signature of Johann von Arnheim.

7. Gerardus Mercator and Jodocus Hondius. Atlas, or a geographicke description of the regions, countries and kingdomes of the world. Translated by Henry Hexham. Amsterdam, Henry Hondius and John Johnson, 1636.

Illustration from Gerardus Mercator and Jodocus Hondius. Atlas, or a geographicke description of the regions, countries and kingdomes of the world. Illustration from Gerardus Mercator and Jodocus Hondius. Atlas, or a geographicke description of the regions, countries and kingdomes of the world. Mercator was a true Renaissance man: land surveyor, instrument maker, engraver, cartographer, and scribe. In the field of cartography, apart from the projection which bears his name, he is noted for his engraved maps, which are highly regarded for their accuracy, fine engraving, and calligraphy. This celebrated Atlas (a word first used by Mercator) was first published in three parts (1585-1595). In 1606, Jodocus Hondius bought Mercator's plates and added thirty-six of his own to subsequent reissues of the Atlas. The copy displayed is open at the frontispiece which, with some artistic licence, depicts Mercator and Hondius working side by side. It is from the first edition of Hexam's translation brought out by Jodocus's son Henry. The University's copy is hand-coloured throughout.

T.G. Rylands bequest, 1900


8. Christopher Saxton. [A series of 35 maps of England and Wales. Sponsored by T. Seckford]. London, 1579.

Illustration of Queen Elizabeth I from Christopher Saxton. [A series of 35 maps of England and Wales. Map of merseyside and wirral from Christopher Saxton. [A series of 35 maps of England and Wales. Sponsored by T. Seckford].This is the earliest collection of survey maps of England and Wales. Christopher Saxton carried out his survey under the patronage of Thomas Seckford, Master of the Court of Requests, and by the authority of Queen Elizabeth. These maps, the result of original work done with great accuracy, formed the basis for county maps for the next hundred years. Engraved on copper plates with consummate skill primarily by Flemish craftsman such as Remigius Hogenberg and Leonhard Terwoort, these maps provided a new standard of cartographic representation. The University has the second state of the first edition, which has a frontispiece showing Queen Elizabeth I as the patron of geography and astronomy. Few complete copies of the Atlas survive. Donated by Henry Yates Thompson.

9. Herbarius. Augsburg, Hans Schonsperger, 1496.

illustration from Herbarius. Augsburg, Hans Schonsperger,Page of text from Herbarius. Augsburg, Hans Schonsperger,Herbals, first printed towards the end of the fifteenth century just before the conception of nature was revolutionized by Renaissance science, were for practical use in the surgery or the kitchen. To aid understanding they contained numerous woodcut illustrations depicting plants alongside written remedies. The herbal displayed, compiled by Johann von Cube, is a Latin version of Gart der Gesundheit, and includes among its almost 400 woodcuts a depiction of a mandrake. It was supposed that this plant bore a resemblance to the human form and shrieked as pulled from the soil, a belief recorded by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet: "and shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth, / that living mortals, hearing them, run mad" (Act 4, Scene 3). The University's copy is hand-coloured.

Presented by Thomas Comber.


10. Euclid. The Elements of Geometrie ... faithfully (now first) translated into the English toung by H. Billingslie. London, John Day, 1570.

Frontispiece from Euclid. The Elements of Geometrie Image of page from from Euclid. The Elements of GeometrieEuclid's Elements is a compendium of Pythagorian mathematical concepts organized on a systematic basis. This is the first complete English edition of one of the most important and influential texts of the Elizabethan age, which revolutionized science and technology, particularly in the field of navigation. This edition includes the first appearance of the influential preface by the alchemist John Dee, advocating practical applications of Euclid's text. The work numbers among the triumphs of sixteenth century printing for its splendid allegorical title-page, the woodcut portrait of the printer, John Day (the first to appear in an English book), and above all for its fifty-nine three dimensional geometrical cut-outs, among the earliest attempts to reproduce geometric solids in a printed book.

T.G. Rylands bequest, 1900.


11. Edward Jenner. An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae. London, Sampson Low, 1800.

Title page of Edward Jenner. An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinaeIllustration from Title page of Edward Jenner. An inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinaeThe second edition of the book in which Jenner announced his discovery of vaccination to the world. In describing the twenty-three vaccination experiments, this book became the foundation for the modern science of immunology. Jenner had this book printed at his own expense, commissioning four hand-coloured plates, depicting the cowpox pustule, from the artists William Skelton and Edward Pearce. These were a critical component of the book's success, and a major factor in the scientific acceptance of Jenner's work.

Special Collections.

12. Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Les Liliacées. Paris, Didot, 1802-1816.

Illustration of flower from Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Les Liliacées.Title page from Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Les Liliacées.Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), the most celebrated flower painter of his day, remains a pivotal figure in the history of botanic illustration. Redouté's chief patron was Joséphine Bonaparte who, following her acquisition of Malmaison in 1798, spared no expense in cultivating choice flowers and in underwriting magnificent folios featuring Redouté's reproductions of watercolours produced by a number of brilliant stipple engravers. Among the most lavish of these was Redouté's eight volume work Les Liliacées (1802-16), precursor to his equally famous Les Roses (1817-24), both of which are without parallel in the history of botanic art. These books are large folios, breathtaking in their conception and perfection of execution by the Didots, the premier French printers, who produced extravagant books noted for their flawless typography and craftsmanship.

Gift of Benson Rathbone.


13. John Gould. Birds of Australia. London, John Gould, 1840-1869. Published in 36 parts (vos. 1-7) plus 54 part supplement (vol. 8).

Illustration of birds from John Gould. Birds of Australia.Title page of John Gould. Birds of Australia.The monumental Birds of Australia was one of John Gould's most ambitious works in his series of ornithological books, each sumptuously illustrated with hand-coloured lithographic plates. Gould began work on his masterpiece in 1838, but after completing only two parts, he concluded that it would be impossible to continue from his workshop in London and, cancelling the edition, he sailed to Australia, where he discovered some 300 new species of birds. This is the only publication upon which Gould did his own field work and, upon its completion, Birds of Australia spanned eight volumes with nearly 700 superbly executed plates. The University is fortunate in possessing a complete set in original paper boards, as issued. Upon his return to London, Gould produced a number of other large-scale ornithological publications from his house in Charlotte Street, employing a staff of colourists, lithographers, and artists. It was here that birds from all over the world were shipped. A description of Gould's Charlotte Street house disclosed that "every room is full of the bodies of birds; there are bird skins on every table; and every spare foot of space is given over to the lithographic presses and the hand-colouring."

Transferred from the Liverpool Royal Institution Library, 1894.

14. An illuminated copy of an early printed Book of Hours issued from the press of Gillet Hardouyn.

Binding of book of hoursIllustration page and text from book of hoursHardouyn was a prominent publisher of books of hours. In Paris, a stronghold of the trade in manuscripts, the printing press ousted the scribe less easily; and it was here, more than in most other places, that the printed book kept touch with the art of the illuminator. In this vellum copy, woodcut borders and pictures are gilded and coloured. In addition an illuminated miniature is placed at the beginning of each section of the work. The binding, in blind-stamped calf, was probably executed in Paris, although the clasps are of contemporary English manufacture.



Detail of binding clasp on book of hours

(detail of lower clasp)




15. Hans Holbein. Scenes from the Old Testament. Lyons, Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel (for Jean and François Frellon), 1538.

Illustration from Hans Holbein. Scenes from the Old Testament.Although Holbein originally established his reputation in the field of woodcut illustration during the period 1515-1526, he did not actually illustrate an entire woodcut book until 1538, when Scenes from the Old Testament and its companion volume Dance of Death were issued. By this time, Holbein had achieved fame as a portrait painter at the court of Henry VIII. He was identified as the artist of this book by Gilles Corrozet in the "Epistle to the Reader", but the woodcuts were actually engraved by Hans Luetzelburger after Holbein's designs. Trechsel and Frellon continued to use the woodblocks in later editions. The University possesses a first edition which is hand-coloured.

T.G. Rylands bequest.


16. T.T. Bury. Coloured views of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. London, Rudolf Ackermann, 1831.

Title page of Coloured views of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.Illustration of Coloured views of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.Rudolf Ackermann, a German coach-maker, settled in London in 1795, and quickly established himself as the foremost fine-art publisher in England. Ackermann initially produced only seven hand-coloured acquatint plates of his well-known series depicting the Liverpool to Manchester Railway; but expanded the series in 1833 to thirteen plates in total. Many of these were revised and re-engraved as they became worn through heavy use. On display is the "Excavation of Olive Mount", a plate which exists in four different states. The University’s copy, a first edition in its original wrappers, has this in its earliest state: in later renderings the right side is finished, and there is no receding train on the left.

Presented by Sir Charles Sydney Jones, 1945.


17. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. London, Kelmscott Press, 1896.

Pages from the works of Geoffrey ChaucerDetail of the word "The"In 1891 at his home in Hammersmith, William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press, with the aim of producing fine editions inspired by the best printing of the past. In the seven years of its existence, this press produced 52 works, all made to exacting standards in editions limited to about 300 copies. Morris’s masterpiece was the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896), an imposing folio issued just six months before his death. No expense was spared in the production of this book. It was printed on two Albion presses in a run of 425 copies on paper and 13 on vellum, which took nearly two years to complete. It is one of the high points of nineteenth century printing, and launched the fine-printing movement which extends to our own day. The University owns a paper copy in its original blue boards, as issued.

William Noble bequest, 1913.

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.

front cover showing ornate binding and gilt tooling

Front end pages showing ornate designs

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.