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National Art Library collection of armorial bindings

Arms of Bishop John Fell, from 'Biblia Hebraica', 1631. Pressmark: CLE HH1

Arms of Bishop John Fell, from 'Biblia Hebraica', 1631. Pressmark: CLE HH1

Armorial bindings

The practice of proclaiming ownership by placing armorial devices on the covers of books seems to have had its origins in the incorporation of arms in the illumination of medieval manuscripts. The emphasis on personal arms of private individuals was established by the 14th century and increased greatly in the following century. The invention of printing and other new developments in technology meant greater numbers of books were available and much cheaper. This enabled private individuals to form libraries which some personalised with the addition of their arms to the bindings.

While there is evidence for the earlier use of armorial bindings in Britain, it only became fashionable under the Tudors and particularly in the Elizabethan era. Armorial stamps were used on books of various formats, by different binders, and often added to books already bound, so that they are not always aesthetically pleasing in overall design. The best are always those forming the centrepiece to a panel or corner-piece design, most often found before the 18th century. The stamps vary in the quality of their own design and engraving, and the skill of the binder can also greatly affect the visual impact.

The Clements Collection

Colonel Henry John Beresford Clements of Lough Rhynn, County Leitrim, and of London (1869–1940), became the acknowledged expert in the field of bindings displaying armorial and ownership devices. This collection, formed by him and bequeathed to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1940, represents the most comprehensive collection of its kind. It allows perhaps more than three quarters of all British armorial ownership stamps to be identified. Much work was done by Clements himself on identifying the stamps and correcting the inaccuracies in the then standard textbook by Cyril Davenport (see bibliography). Along with the bindings he bequeathed his copious notes, an annotated copy of Davenport and the very fine bookcases in which the collection is housed in the National Art Library.

The shelves of this collection resemble a history book, with familiar names on every page. Identification of ownership depends on a knowledge of the language of heraldry and its symbolism, and the ability to follow up the clues of family connections in works of genealogy. However, the impossibility of identifying tincture from arms delineated in gold or silver sometimes makes positive owner attributions difficult, if not impossible. While the presence of royal arms does not always denote personal royal ownership there are rare and interesting royal associations in the collection including the arms of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who predeceased his younger brother, later Charles I. Most rare is the volume with the arms of Scotland on a background field semé with the initial 'M', and with crowned 'M's at the corners, generally assumed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. Three stamps associated with Elizabeth I are also in the collection.

Armorial stamp of Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, from the rear cover of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', Venice, 1584. Pressmark: CLE CC15

Armorial stamp of Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent, from the rear cover of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', Venice, 1584. Pressmark: CLE CC15

The first non-royal British stamps are mostly associated with Scottish owners and include those of William Stewart, Bishop of Aberdeen (1479–1545); Henry Sinclair, Dean of Glasgow, and later Bishop of Ross (1508–65); James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow (about 1523–1603); and Robert Reid, Abbot of Kinloss and Bishop of Orkney (died 1558) who was also responsible for building a fire-proof library at Kinloss. Most of these early armorial bindings for Scottish collectors were made in France. Lay collectors were mostly noble but included Thomas Nicolson, civil law professor at Aberdeen. He also used the first known Scottish bookplate, dated 1610. The great Elizabethan political and intellectual figures who collected books – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Cecil, Lord Burghley; Thomas Wotton; Francis Bacon – as well as the ecclesiastics famous in the age of religious conflict – Whitgift, Laud and Ussher – are represented in the collection. Apart from royalty, women collectors are represented by Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent (died 1651); and Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford (died 1627), with an unusual silver stamp on vellum. She is assumed to be the Phoenix in Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. An example of the armorial stamp used by Anne Clifford, Baroness de Clifford in her own right and Countess of Dorset (1590–1676), is also present.

The 17th century saw use of armorial stamps continuing among courtiers, but now extending to heralds, genealogists, antiquarians, gentleman-scholars and lawyers. The collection includes for instance a book emblazoned with the arms of Dr John Fell, Bishop of Oxford (1625–86), the object of the satirist Tom Jones' famous verses. Another item of historical interest is the simple stamp of Oliver Cromwell on a volume of manuscript music. Later in the 17th and 18th century the use of coloured leathers and sophisticated tooled designs, such as the 'cottage style', tended to displace the old fashion of a simple armorial stamp in the centre of a largely plain binding. The new crowded, heavily tooled designs left little room for large armorial stamps, though some are to be found crudely superimposed. This led to the adoption of armorial stamps smaller in size and incorporating less of the full heraldic achievement displayed since Tudor times. The Restoration had also seen the growth in popularity of monogrammed or cyphered bindings, often surmounted with the appropriate coronet and bordered with laurels. For non-royal collectors an armorial crest or device was usually added for easier identification.

The end of the 18th century saw heraldic display in decline along with all aspects of medieval culture. Arms retained their position as a status symbol but the external display on books was replaced by the mark of ownership (often still heraldic) within the book given by the bookplate, the rise of which in the 18th century paralled the decline of the armorial book stamp. The 18th century is, however, represented by the arms of such bibliophiles as Horace Walpole, and the beautiful folio Book of Common Prayer with the arms of Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield.

All the books speak of their own history and that of their collectors. While the books may not always be supreme examples of the art of binding, they are always indicative of an owner who found the collecting of books sufficiently important to proclaim possession ostentatiously on the cover of each acquisition. The collection was accessioned only in 1948 and it must be assumed that the war and a programme of refurbishment prevented earlier formal accessioning.

Catalogues to the Collection

The Collection is substantially catalogued on the Library's Computer Catalogue with enhanced access provided through indexes to Physical Features and Document Type. The complete cataloguing of the collection is a continuing Library project.

Access to those books not catalogued is through a cross-referenced author/owner alphabetical list which can be used in conjunction with the manuscript catalogue notes made by Clements. Useful too is Denis Woodfield's catalogue (see bibliography). This comprises heraldic ordinaries for the arms and for the crests; an index to monograms and initials; and an index to names and titles.


Many of the books are very fragile and all need very careful handling. Public access is therefore restricted to holders of Special Collections tickets and subject to any conservation constraints. For more information, see using the National Art Library.

Reading List

The best sources are those listed below. They describe the range of individual bindings and give historical surveys of the subject, as well as touching on the problems of establishing book provenances. General histories of decorated binding such as Nixon and Foot's account (see bibliography) provide a full background.

  • Bunt, CGE, 'British Armorial Book Stamps', in The Connoisseur, 107 (June 1941), pp. 233-39
  • Clements, HJB., 'Armorial Book-Stamps and Their Owners', in The Library, 4th series, 20/2 (September 1939), pp. 121-35
  • Davenport, C, English Heraldic Book Stamps, 1909. Davenport's book has many inaccuracies and the most helpful copy is that annotated by Clements, now in the Library
  • Harthan, JP, 'Armorial Bookbindings from the Clements Collection in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum', Parts I-III, in Apollo, vol. lxxi, December 1960, pp.179-83; 74 (June 1961), pp. 186-91; 74 (December 1961), pp. 165-71
  • Nixon, HM and Foot, MM, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England, 1992
  • Wilson, E,  'The Book-Stamps of the Tollemache Family of Helmingham and Ham', offprint from The Book Collector, Summer 1967, pp. 178-85
  • Woodfield, Denis, An Ordinary of British Armorial Bookbindings in the Clements Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1958.

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