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A magnificent causeway binding: Dickens, Charles, Dealing with the Firm of Dombey and Son. London; Bradbury & Evans, 1848.Robert Rivière (1808 to 1882), born the son of a drawing master and the brother of artists, apprenticed as a bookseller and binder in London. In 1829, he established himself as a seller and binder in Bath, and in 1840, he removed to London and focused solely on bookbinding. His skill was recognized by both nobility and royalty, receiving commissions from Queen Victoria, exhibiting at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, and binding a special edition of the Crystal Palace Exhibition catalog presented to royals from throughout Europe. He was also chosen to rebind the Domesday Book.

Rivière and his wife, Eliza, had two daughters, and in 1880, he went into partnership with his grandson, Percival Calkin, and changed the firm’s name to Robert Rivière and Son. The firm continued in operation until 1939 when it was purchased by noted bookseller  and binder George Bayntun (1873 to 1940). After struggling through World War II, during which much of the staff AND the binder itself served in the war effort, the Bayntun-Rivière firm was appointed, in 1950, Bookseller to Her Majesty. The firm is still in operation today, and still produces exceptional bindings entirely by hand.

Books bound (or rebound) by any incarnation of the Rivière bindery are highly sought after, and can command significant prices at auction. They are typically of colorful morocco (goatskin) and elaborately gilt-stamped, sometimes including pictorial designs on the boards. One of the most popular types of Rivière binding is referred to as a Cosway  binding because they include inset miniature portraits on ivory inspired by the noted British miniaturist Richard Cosway (1742 to 1821). John H. Stonehouse (1864 to 1937) developed this binding at the bookselling firm of Henry Sotheran and Company. He selected Rivière to create the bindings and Mrs. C.B. Currie to execute the miniatures, beginning in the early 20th century.

Most Rivière bindings are stamped, and based on the stamp, they can usually be dated as follows:

“Bound by R. Rivière, Bath” refers to 1829 to 1832

“Bound by R. Rivière” refers to 1832 to 1840

“Bound by Rivière” refers to 1840 to circa 1860

“Bound by Rivière & Son” refers to 1880 to circa 1939

“Bound by Bayntun & Rivière, Bath, England” refers to 1939 and later

Robert Southey (English, 1774 to 1843), Poetical Works, London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1837-1838, compete in ten volumes, duodecimo, in blue half-leather with marbled boards and endpapersYou may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can at least tell its size, but to do that, you have to know a little bit about the printing process, which basically, at least when it comes to paper sizes, has two eras: the modern era and the hand press era. In the hand press era (pre-1820, for the most part), printing was done on large sheets, on both sides, and then the sheets were folded and stitched along the folds. (The spatial reasoning necessary to lay out a sheet’s worth of printing, knowing which way the text would appear and the pages would be ordered when folded, is impressive.) Each set of pages created from the same folded sheet was called a gathering and multiple gatherings would all be bound together to create the finished book. Sometimes the edges of the gathering were trimmed on the three exposed sides, but in early books, you might have to use a knife to slice through the folds of the gathering to separate each page yourself.

In this system of printing, page sizes were determined by how many times the original sheet was folded. A folio (2° or fo) would been folded once, down the center, and with two pages of text printed on either side, it would create four printed pages. This is designated as the “format” of the book. Quartos (4° or 4to) would be folded twice to produce four leaves/eight pages, octavos (8° or 8vo), three times for eight leaves/16 pages, etc., with the sizes continuing through duodecimo (twelvemo – 12° or 12vo), sextodecimo (sixteenmo – 16° or 16vo), octodecimo (eighteenmo – 18° or 18vo), trigesimo-secundo (thirty-twomo – 32° or 32vo), quadragesimo-octavo (forty-eightmo – 48° or 48vo) and sexagesimo-quarto (sixty-fourmo – 64° or 64vo).

One challenge with deciphering this is that in the hand press age in particular paper sizes were not typically standardized or, if they were, it was only within a particular region or country of manufacture. As a result, sizes of quartos, for example, can vary because while all quartos have gatherings that are folded twice, the size of the original sheet can vary. This means that quartos printed in Italy and quartos printed in England in the same time period can be different sizes.

In modern production, sizes are standardized and most books are quartos or octavos. There are designations for less typical sizes as well, which are heard more commonly in reference to prints than books: elephant folio, atlas folio and double elephant folio. As with all paper objects, condition is paramount, with size playing the largest role when it comes to prints but little role at all with books. In fact, most sellers do not give physical dimensions for books, as historically, much like today, books were not printed in multiple sizes at the same time and the other information: place of publication, year, etc., is more useful to collectors. Determining the rarity of books typically has more to do with when and where they were printed and what edition a volume is than the size, although of course, this does not necessarily apply when the books are out of the traditional size range. And books do not change sizes as prints can, so more on the specifics of paper sizes related to prints in our next post….

I was amazed the first time I encountered a book with fore-edge painting, a delicate and intricate little scene laid out across the edges of pages, usually visible only when the book is closed.

Fore-edge painting on Alfred Lord Tennysons In Memoriam

Fore-edge painting on Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam

This art is centuries old, and it actually appears in a variety of forms.  In some cases, the painting is only on one side, while in others, all three sides of the page edges are decorated, as is the case with this copy of the Bible.  Obviously, as with most art, the more complex works are the more valuable, and thus, collectors are especially fond of volumes with fore-edge paintings that are visible only when the pages are fanned a certain way.  Some books even have three separate paintings on the same edge – one visible when the pages are fanned slightly to the right, one when fanned to the left and a separate image when viewed directly!  Oddly enough, the images infrequently correspond to the book’s subject or genre – landscapes (like the one pictured above from a Tennyson volume) show up on works of poetry and works of science equally.  For more information, you can always pick up a copy of Carl Weber’s Fore-Edge Painting: A Historical Survey of a Curious Art in Book Decoration – also in our database!

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor,