13

January

2016

0

Did a Cat Help Decorate this Binding?

by Julia Blakely

0340_001

Charles, Earl of Stanhope (the inventor of the first iron printing press) Principles of electricity (London, 1779)

 

The style of book binding above with mottled leather is called Cat’s Paw, appearing to have had little inked feline foot pads walk over its covers. But no, this design is actually made with various types of stains and colors, applied in the binder’s workshop without the aid of a willing cat accomplice. The Internet was leaping a couple of years ago with accounts of evidence of a no-doubt confident and curious kitty jumping into fresh ink and then onto open leaves of a 15th-century Croatian manuscript, so it is a nice (if inaccurate) thought, one encouraged by the axiom familiar to cat owners everywhere: for a cat, paper, especially paper actively being read by one’s human, simply must be walked across or sat upon. In the modern era cats have moved on to keyboards.

 

Photo: Emir O. Filipović for the Smithsonian Magazine

Photo: Emir O. Filipović for the Smithsonian Magazine

 

According to the site, the Language of Bindings online thesaurus (essential for those of us who describe book bindings), it is usually not possible to identify the actual types of stains applied. For mottled decoration, no adequate, complete terminology exists. Acids or colors were most often dabbed on calfskin, a desirable binding material for its tight grain and sheen, although other leathers were also used. Stains could be used to create patterns described as tortoiseshell, marbled, or sprinkled (speckled) as well. Red and green acid stains are often called Spanish binding.

 

This example has different colors softly blending into each other for an elegant effect on the polished calf, also called run marbling. The design resembles a sunset somewhat, appropriately enough on a book on geography (William Guthrie, A new geographical, historical, and commercial grammar (Philadelphia, 1815)

This example has different colors softly blending into each other for an elegant effect on the polished calf, also called run marbling. The design here resembles a sunset, somewhat (William Guthrie, A new geographical, historical, and commercial grammar. Philadelphia, 1815)

 

One related type of decorative mottled leather that is easy to spot is called Tree Calf (although it also appears on other leathers, such as sheep). This pattern resembles a trunk with branches or wood-grain. On the shelves in the Smithsonian Libraries collections are both elegant volumes and practical treatises and manuals with tree calf bindings. Sometimes additional gilt decoration and marks of ownership were applied to the covers, gilding the mottled leather.

 

A tree calf binding for M. Voiron, Histoire de l’astronomie, depuis 1781 jusqu’à 1811 (Paris, 1810)

A tree calf binding for M. Voiron, Histoire de l’astronomie, depuis 1781 jusqu’à 1811 (Paris, 1810)

 

Cat’s Paw is readily identifiable, if sometimes only vaguely resembling paw prints. The pattern can be irregular, appearing to have been applied with a heavy hand – er, paw? – with the acid biting deeply into the leather, other times quite beautiful with a regular, light touch of the motif. This design was popular from the later part of the 18th century. The rare book collections of the Smithsonian Libraries have many examples, lurking, waiting to be carefully handled and admired (see additional examples below). But, take notice, kitties, not walked across, or sat upon!

 

cat4

Gif by Richard Naples featuring the author’s cat. No rare volumes harmed!

 
A lovely light-colored polished calf binding with the cat’s paw motif in different colors applied lightly over the boards. This early 19th-century French book on astronomy once belonged to Sir John F. W. Herschel, astronomer, chemist, mathematician (among other things)

A lovely light-colored polished calf binding with the cat’s paw motif in different colors applied lightly over the boards. This early 19th-century French book on astronomy once belonged to Sir John F. W. Herschel, astronomer, chemist, mathematician (among other things)

 

A mottled or speckled binding stamped with gilt lettering on Robert Seppings’ On a new principle of constructing His Majesty’s ships of war (London, 1814)

A mottled or speckled binding stamped with gilt lettering for a presentation: Robert Seppings’ On a new principle of constructing His Majesty’s ships of war (London, 1814)

 

A striking example of a tree design but actually applied on paper rather than the typical calf or cheaper sheep. A much later binding on an early 16th-century work, Procli Diadochi Sphaera (Bologna, 1526)

A striking example of a tree design but actually applied on paper rather than the typical calf or cheaper sheep. A much later binding on an early 16th-century work, Procli Diadochi Sphaera (Bologna, 1526)

 

Another type of tree calf binding with an ownership’s crest of the Université impériale in Paris stamped on its front cover. Comte Antoine-Françoise de Fourcroy, Système des connaissances chimiques (Paris, 1800 or 1801)

Another type of tree calf binding with an ownership’s crest of the Université impériale in Paris stamped on the front cover. Comte Antoine-Françoise de Fourcroy, Système des connaissances chimiques (Paris, 1800 or 1801)

 

Richard Mead. Opera medica (Venice 1752). A not-common example of mottled vellum

Richard Mead. Opera medica (Venice 1752). A not-common example of a mottled design on vellum (a type of parchment made from calfskin) rather than polished calf

 

Another example of multi-colored stains of calf for a lovely effect (Nollet abbé (Jean Antoine, Leçons de physique experimentale. Paris, 1749)

Another example of multi-colored stains of calf for a lovely effect (Abbé Nollet, Leçons de physique experimentale. Paris, 1749)

 

A mottled cat upon a mottled book

A mottled cat upon a mottled book

 

Kirsten van der Veen, Richard Naples, Diane Shaw, Nessie, and Hobie Cat did everything for this post.

Leave a Reply


*

Follow Us

Latest Tweets

Categories

Archives