PART III: BOOKLOVERS’ GILT-Y PLEASURES
BY: LAUREN GALLOWAY
Gold decoration on books has been around for centuries. From its past history to current use, on books both old and new, big and small, inexpensive and luxurious, Pitt Special Collections brings you a three part series on GILT.
Gilt went from a high-end product to something that could be easily manufactured and replicated factory-style. That is why gilt books are not as rare as you might think. Gilt has the strange position of being at the same time an expensive luxury decoration, and a common feature on a book that anyone could own. But, books that were gilded, in addition to other features, could sometimes be the most deluxe, expensive, and rare books ever made.
This book is a special copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. Shelley was friends with Lord Byron and was married to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. This Dove’s Press edition is bound in full navy morocco, with gilt-decorated spine and covers, and all edges gilt. It is one of only 200 copies.
Next is a book whose pages might be little known, but whose cover will astound you.
Gilt covers the entire front and back covers, and the spine of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (published in 1621), along with all edges gilt. This book also has doublures, the term for when the inside lining of a book is made of leather instead of paper. When a book has doublures it’s a sign that it is very expensive. Another sign is when a press or person have their names stamped or etched into the inside cover of the book, which this book also has.
Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is almost certainly the most deluxe gilded binding that Pitt Special Collections owns.
However, we are going to end with the most famous gilded book of all time.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the “greatest modern binding in the world” was created. The binding was to grace the pages of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Edward Fitzgerald translation), and included 5000 separate pieces of leather for the onlay work, 100 square feet of gold leaf for the gilt, and 1051 semi-precious stones studded all over the front and back covers. When finished the book was auctioned off and sent to its new owner in the United States. However, the Omar’s journey there took it aboard the Titanic, and the book was destroyed.
In 1932 though, there was a second try for the masterpiece. After seven years of painstaking work replicating the original binding, the book was completed at the outbreak of World War II. Terrified that the book would be lost again, the makers sent the book to a special depository where it would be safe. But, in 1941, the depository was hit and the binding again destroyed, though the pages survived intact. In fact, had the binding been kept in the workshop all along, it would have survived, as the workshop was never touched by the war. After twice the tragedy though, the creation has never been attempted again.
The only fortunate part of this story is that photographs of the binding were taken in 1912. Although they are only black and white, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what the Omar must have looked like in its glory.
In the pictures, the peacock is the front cover, and the guitar is the back. The snake and skull are the front and back doublures, with the snake symbolizing Life, and the skull Death. Of the semi-precious stones mentioned before, there are topaz in the peacock tails, turquoises in the crowns, amethyst grapes in the vineleaves, and the eye of the snake (on the inside cover) is an emerald.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this quote: “If somehow miraculously resurrected intact, the Omar today would be priceless.”
Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2004. Print.
Lewis, Roy Harley. Fine Bookbinding in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Arco, 1985. Print.