Hand bookbinding doesn’t end in 1800: A review of Bookbinding Then & Now… by Lionel S. Darley

My latest read is Lionel Darley’s Bookbinding Then and Now: A Survey of the First Hundred and Seventy-Eight Years of James Burn & Company (London: Faber & Faber, 1959). As its title suggests, the book is a history of an English bookbinder, James Frederick Burn (1828-1870), and the London company first established in 1781 by his father Thomas (d. 1843). Himself a long-serving employee, Darley (1893-1990) eloquently charts the history of the company and, in so doing, brings to life the broader history of nineteenth and twentieth century trade bookbinding.


There are a multitude of manuals and textbooks on bookbinding written in the mid-twentieth century however, this one really stands out. Its greatest strength is perhaps Darley’s meticulous presentation of a timeline tracing the introduction of various bookbinding machinery; from ‘the first machine’, the Burn Rolling Press (1827), to the Wilson Guillotine (1840), and the first thread sewing-machine by Smyth (1878). The timeline then continues with machines contemporary to Darley; for example, the Smyth [dust] wrappering machine (1955). Whilst the author champions innovation and mechanisation, he’s keen to emphasise the ongoing significance of the hand-bookbinder’s skills. Such is Darley’s level of detail, that reading this book easily brings to mind, life in a trade bindery of the period.

An interesting parallel to this book is the account of another Victorian London bindery, Westleys and Clark’s, published just over one hundred years earlier in The Penny Magazine. Both describe a bustling factory, however, Darley writes with more focus; drawing on family archives including ‘Mrs Louisa Bain’s diaries, otherwise known as ‘Dry Facts’. Darley provides us with a detailed account of the growth of Burn & Company, from a small workshop in Middle Row into a sprawling complex of buildings in Kirby Street; again there’s an interesting comparison with the purpose-built factory of Westleys and Clark’s.

Another aspect of this book that I particularly enjoyed is Darley’s subtle attention to social history; mentioning, as he does, the lives of the men and women of the enterprise. Such details mean that the book is never dry or hard to read, and Darley’s style suggests a great loyalty and affection for James Burn & Company, and its key personnel. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and now have a greater appreciation of the development of the trade during this period. The book really stands the test of time and should appear on the reading list of any student of bookbinding history. It is also an important reminder that the history of hand bookbinding doesn’t end in 1800.

For this and other binding manuals see our online shop

Emily Green, Feb 2021