Embroidered Book Covers

While researching book bindings for a project, I’ve been coming across these gorgeous embroidered book covers and bindings from the 16th and 17th century. Thought I’d make a blog post out of these exquisite works of art.. The original scans for the books are scattered throughout The British Library Database of Bookbindings. I’ve just selected, cropped, and optimized them. The larger size originals are in a flickr set so that all the amazing details can be seen and are worth clicking through and taking a good look at.

17th century embroidered satin book with floral motif.

Embroidered satin book with floral motif. The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1639)

16th century embroidered velvet book with scroll and floral pattern.

Embroidered velvet book with scroll and floral pattern. Orationis Dominic: explicatio (Geneva, 1583)

17th century embroidered satin book with pictorial angel and trees.

17th century embroidered satin book with pictorial angel and trees. The Whole Booke of Davids Psalmes (London, 1634)

17th century embroidered Canvas book, pictorial angel and floral motif  with two red ribbons.

Embroidered Canvas book, pictorial angel and floral motif with two red ribbons. The Booke of Common Prayer (London, 1611)

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Rapacious Birds and Crustaceous Fishes

“We now come to a beautiful and loquacious race of animals, that embellish our forests, amuse our walks, and exclude solitude from our most shady retirements. From there man has nothing to fear, their pleasures, their desires, and even their animosities, only serve to enliven the general picture of Nature, and give harmony to meditation.”

Plate XL

Yet another lovely and very old book I recently added to my collection is the third volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth and Animated Nature which although available online through the much appreciated resources of the Internet Archive has unique and unmatched appeal as an actual object aside from reading, at least in my opinion, always being much more enjoyable from the page than it is from the screen.

The copy in my hands was published and bound in 1795. It has a badly deteriorated binding and cracked spine with it’s pages intact although a few are loose. On the opposite page of all illustration plates, there is an intriguing left impression of ghost images which have faded to a pleasing sepia tone and are really quite beautiful in their own right. I’ve always loved the language in which natural history book of this period are written and that this author refers to various species of animal as “their kind.” Various kinds of bird and amphibious creature are covered in the present volume.

Plate XLI with left impression

Plate XLI

Here is a passage on the Dodo. The author writes as though this species is still around at the time of publication. Whether that is true or not, his description gives some indication as to the reason for the poor bird’s past or future extinction. I’ve included photographs of the text. Larger more readable versions of all pictures are viewed by clicking through to my flickr account.


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Undine (frontispiece) 1897
Undine (frontispiece detail) 1897
Undine (cover and spine) 1897

I found this Victorian Era copy of Undine by Friedrich de La Motte Fouque in the toss away bin on one of my recent book hunts. This copy, published in 1897, is illustrated by Rosie M. M. Pitman. The cover and binding are water damaged but the pages and pictures are in pretty good shape. It appears to be unread since it still has uncut pages. One of my favorite stories about a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal and is gifted with a soul. It’s rather an epic fairy tale which someone aptly described as fairy tale noir. A lovely book with a well rounded and sympathetic heroine. Mischievous and somewhat unseelie water sprite steal a few scenes. There is a later version with Arthur Rackham illustrations. I’ve scanned a few of these less well known interpretations. The detail on the Frontispiece (pictured above) depicts the water sprites who mock Undine for falling in love with a human.

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