NEW YORK CITY – The Grolier Club starts the new year with an exhibition detailing the history and aesthetics of fine bookbindings. Judging a Book by Its Cover: Bookbindings from the Collections of The Grolier Club, 1470s-2020 highlights selections from seven centuries of the Grolier Club’s collection of bindings, largely donated and built by the Club’s members over the course of its 140-year history. On view in the Grolier Club’s ground floor gallery from January 17 through April 13, 2024, the exhibition explores the history of decorated bindings, book bindings as three-dimensional art objects, what makes a binding collectible, and the Club’s investment in commissioning fine bindings through the present day.
More than 100 historic and fine bindings will be on view, ranging from the oldest in the collection, a ca. 1473 pigskin binding with etched brass cornerpieces and central boss, on a volume of the works Jewish Antiquities and the Jewish War and Ecclesiastical History; to one of the newest bindings, a 2019 free-drawn gilded design in a polychrome palette by Ulrich Widmann, inspired by the text and illustrations in the work Ich bin nur Flamme: Gedichte des Expressionismus by Svato Zapletal.
Judging a Book by Its Cover is curated by Grolier Club member H. George Fletcher, the former Astor Director for Special Collections at The New York Public Library and former Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at The Morgan Library & Museum. The accompanying catalogue, written and compiled by Fletcher, is available from University of Chicago Press in January 2024.
“A principal motivation of the Founders who brought the Grolier Club into existence was to improve the state of fine bookbinding in America,” said Fletcher. “Their practice had been to send their rare books to France for proper treatment, accepting the vagaries of transatlantic shipment as a necessary risk. The development of The Club Bindery and regularly exhibiting bookbindings is a practice that continues at the Grolier Club to the present day.”
Among the many exhibition highlights are ornate works such as a silver filigreed and jeweled binding on a miniature 1673 Book of Hours, which features painted enamel portraits of saints and angels ringed by 14 small amethysts on the front and back covers. A 1789 black velvet mourning binding adorns a publication memorializing the papal funeral ceremony of Charles III of Spain. The dedication copy made for his son King Charles IV features gold and silver embroidery, appliqués of his family crest topped with a crown, and silver coins embedded around the borders.
The 1547-1555 binding for a book from the collection of Jean Grolier—the renowned bibliophile for whom the Club is named—features dark brown calfskin and gilt embossing in a Cupid’s Bow design. A London Restoration period binding, ca. 1676, features elaborate gilt floral designs on black goatskin, including curving vines, sunflowers, tulips, pomegranates, and large cabbage roses, as well as a distinctive bird that Fletcher calls “The Reluctant Falcon.”
May Morris, daughter of William Morris and director of embroidery at Morris & Co., created the ca. 1888 floral embroidered binding for the publication Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Day by Ernest Lefébure. Featuring bright green ribbed silk and pink flowers, with a central arabesque on the cover, Morris signed the spine “.m.” at the bottom right corner.