Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Leopard Gave Its Life For This Binding

by Stephen J. Gertz

Sometime between 1828 and 1832, a copy of One Hundred Fables, Original and Selected by James Northcote (1828) was bound with leopard skin panels. This is that copy.

Bound unsigned in contemporary deep oxblood goatskin, it possesses a gilt and blindstamped frame that encloses leopard skin panels to both sides. The spine is decorated with gilt strapwork  with the publication date in gilt at its tail. Broad turn-ins  with multiple gilt fillets, thick and thin, and gilt corner ornaments grace the inside covers. All edges are gilt. The bookplate of F. Hornsby Wright is mounted to the front free-endpaper. The neat signature of his ancestor, Joseph Wright, the original owner of this  large-paper copy, is found in the upper right corner of the title page.

An autograph note initialed by F. Hornsby Wright  (director of Arnot and Harrison, an engineering and toolmaking company that worked in British aeronautics and automobile manufacture during the early decades of the twentieth century) and tipped-in to the front paste-down endpaper reads: 

"Joseph Wright 1769-1836 while quartered at Tower of London a leopard which was kept there died and part of its skin was used to bind this book." 

Joseph Wright was quartered in the Tower as part of its military guard; he was not a prisoner. on the way to losing his limbs. By the 19th century the Tower was no longer employed as a splendid jail, never its primary purpose, and its reputation as a torture chamber is highly exaggerated, more legend than fact..

No, if you were high-born and headed for the chopping-block you were sent up the block to Tower Hill, the better to be beheaded in the presence of a crowd.

Tower of London seen from across the river Thames.

Founded in 1066 by William the Conqueror, by 1210, Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, commonly known as the Tower of London, housed the Royal Menagerie established by King John. 

"For over 600 years, animals were kept at the Tower for the entertainment and curiosity of the court. Everything from elephants to tigers, kangaroos and ostriches lived in what was known as the Royal Menagerie. Under James I, the bloody sport of baiting became very popular and a platform was built over the dens so that the King and his courtiers could watch lions, bears and dogs being made to fight each other to the death.

"In later years, the variety of animals at the Tower increased and the Menagerie became a popular attraction. At the Royal Menagerie, visitors could see strange and rare beasts that they would never have seen before. The Menagerie finally closed after several incidents where the animals had escaped and attacked each other, visitors and Tower staff. The Duke of Wellington, who was Constable of the Tower [1826-1852], ordered the animals to leave and in 1832 they arrived at their new home in London Zoo" (Historic Royal Places - Tower of London).

In short, the 280 residents of the Royal Menagerie, representing over sixty species, met their Waterloo by the man who introduced Napoleon to his. Exile to the new London Zoo at Regent Park was, however, a far better fate than Napoleon's at St. Helena. 

The Royal Menagerie had been opened to the public during the eighteenth century; admission was three half-pence. If you didn't have the cash, a dog or cat was accepted as legal tender,  employed as tender vittles for the lions. I can't help but think that Nappy would have made an impressive, exotic caged exhibit attracting throngs had he been sent to the menagerie instead of a remote island.  The cost of Napoleon's upkeep could have easily been covered with profit and had he escaped he would not have gotten far before being re-captured, dethroned French emperors a conspicuous sight in London.

The author of One Hundred Fables, James Northcote (1736-1831), was a renowned British painter and a member of the Royal Academy who also sought fame as an writer. His Fables, the first series published in 1828, the second posthumously in 1833, were illustrated with woodcuts by William Harvey (1796-1866) from Northcote's own designs.

"The original invention and designs for the prints at the head of each fable are my own, yet they have been most excellently drawn on wood and prepared for the engravers by Mr. William Harvey ... the ornamental letter at the beginning of each fable and the vignette at the end are solely the invention of Mr. Harvey" (from the Preface).

Most of the animals in the Royal Menagerie, particularly the large ones, were given names by the staff but, alas, most of their names have been lost to history. In 1829 the Royal Menagerie was home to three leopards, one of whom became immortalized in this binding, cause of death unknown to me.

Martyred in the cause of the book arts, Booktryst will call this anonymous panthera pardus Il Gattopardo, in homage to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's magnificent novel (1958) about a noble Sicilian big-cat who must adapt to the encroachment of Garibaldi's Red Shhrts upon his territory and adjust to a new order.

First edition.

[BINDING, Exotic Animal Skin]. NORTHCOTE, James. [HARVEY, William, engraver]. One Hundred Fables, Original and Selected by James Northcote, R.A. Embellished with Two Hundred and Eighty Engravings on Wood. London: Geo. Lawford, 1828.

First edition, a large-paper copy. Quarto (10 1/8 x 5 7/8 in; 257 x 149 mm). [2], iii, [1, blank], 272 pp. Title page in black and red with woodcut vignette. 280 wood engravings as head- and tail-pieces and historiated initials. With the bookplate of F. Hornby Wright and his initialed autograph note mounted to front endpapers.

Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914, 55.

Images of One Hundred Fables courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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