When I invited Leon Conrad, the specialist on English Blackwork, to speak at Ackworth2008 on embroidered bookbindings, I had no idea at all of the maelstrom of ideas and beauty I was letting myself and, more importantly, the attending Friends of Ackworth School Samplers, in for. After spending nearly three years pondering the early Stuart Goodhart Samplers with Dorothy Phelan, I suddenly thought I saw on the dazzling embroidered bookbindings the objective for some of the sampler motifs. And so it was that I acquired a copy of English Embroidered Bookbindings by Cyril Davenport, published in 1899.
Many of these books are tiny by our standards - about 5 inches by 7 inches at most - and many would have been protected by a similarly embroidered bag, which today might be confused with a bag for 'Sweets'. What actually helped to protect these books is the couched metal thread which has acted as a bumper against Life's knocks and bangs. Embroidered surfaces are more resilient than is generally imagined, it is often wear and tear on unembellished ground fabric which is the source of most damage.
This Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul possesses probably one of the most famous embroidered bookbindings. Wrought by Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, for her step-mother Katherine Parr, the embroidered front cover incorporates Katherine's initials within interlaced gold and silver braid. In each corner is a heartsease (viola), a favourite flower of Elizabeth's. The whole is worked upon a surface of blue tapestry stitch, previously thought to have been a woven ground.
The embroidered binding above covers Christian Prayers published in London in 1581. It has the same design back and front an arrangement of flowers in an urn all outlined in silver cord or thread. It is very interesting that there is not one but five pairs of the same initials - E S - embellished upon it. Mmmmmm -could that have been Elizabeth of Shrewsbury, our own Bess of Hardwick whose embroideries we visited at Hardwick Hall on our outing from Ackworth? Certainly this lady displayed a trait for making the most of her initials, raising them high in stone all around the parapet of her grand house for all to see.
The good news for you, if you don't have access to the Cyril Davenport book is that you can read it on line by clicking here - how wonderful is that?
Many thanks to Pat Judson for telling us we can also download this book as a PDF for free from Prject Gutenberg, just click here.