Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nice Ass, Great Binding

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1904, publisher George Bell and Sons issued a beautifully designed and printed edition of the ancient classic The Golden Ass, aka Metamorphosis, by Apuleius in its 1566 English translation by William Adlington. Published in an edition of 200 numbered copies for sale, it was printed by the Chiswick Press.

In 1960, a copy of the Chiswick Golden Ass received fine binding treatment.  It was bound by Bernard Kiernan.

Now, in 2012, that copy is the subject of a Booktryst post with teasing headline of dubious taste. Aim high, swing low.


Kiernan bound the copy in full light brown morocco with fifteen onlaid deep purple morocco medallions with a radiating sun motif in gilt to the upper and lower boards, each medallion encircled by a black morocco border. Six compartments with onlaid gray morocco hexagons and black morocco label lettered in gilt grace the spine. Inside, burnt orange morocco doublures with gilt rays emanating from a plain central oval stagger the eyes when the book is opened. All edges are gilt.

Few are aware of master bookbinder Bernard Kiernan (1922-1967). Bernard Henry Kierman  took up bookbinding as a hobby in 1954 at age thirty-two. He was largely self-taught and became a member of the Guild of Contemporary Binders in 1958 and exhibited at Foyles in the same year. He was elected a Fellow of the Guild but, alas, died in 1967 at age forty-five. Bibliographer J.R. Abbey had a number of books bound by him, one of which is illustrated in The Anthony Dowd Collection of Modern Bindings (John Rylands University Library, 2002, pp. 106-7). He also bound a copy of Craig's Irish Bookbindings 1600-1800 which was in William Foyle's collection. A copy of Charles Holme's The Art of  the Book bound by Kiernan is found in the British Library. Many volumes in the Gutteridge collection of books on cricket were bound by Kiernan. He was held in high regard for his original designs and tooling skills, as splendidly displayed here. His career was short, his work distinguished.

Cover detail.

Few, if any, care about publisher George Bell and Sons. But The Chiswick Press is another matter entirely. Peel back the skin of the Private Press movement and the enormous influence of the Chiswick Press lies exposed.

Woodcut historiated initial.

"Chiswick Press was established in the printing shop of Charles Whittingham (1767-1840) in 1787. Although the press moved on a few occasions, it operated for the most part in London, England. Chiswick Press became influential in English printing and typography and, most notably, published some of the early designs of William Morris. The press continued to operate until 1962" (Special Collections, University of Missouri Libraries).

Front doublure.

In 1811, Whittingham began printing inexpensive editions of the classics. In 1838, his nephew and apprentice of the same name, Charles Whittingham (1795-1876), assumed control of Chiswick, and under his stewardship the press revived old typefaces and made a concerted effort to improve the quality of typographical design and printing in England, which had fallen low.

Historiated initial.

The high quality that Chiswick Press brought to English printing became the craft's gold standard in the U.K. Chiswick Press was a trade printer - Great Britain's finest -  servicing publishers (it became the most in-demand print shop of nineteenth century England), but its influence extended beyond job work. It played an important role in the development of the Private Press movement, which strove to meet and exceed the mastery of the Chiswick Press. They printed many of William Morris's early books, and the great printer and designer, Emery Walker, a founding father of the Arts & Crafts movement who established the Doves Press with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson in 1900, used the Chiswick Press to print  an edition of  Burns' The Pied Piper  of Hamelin in 1889. The Chiswick Press printed books for the Riccardi Press, the Folio Society, Boar's Head Press, etc.

Stamped signature to rear doublure.

I don't pretend to know all there is to know about rare books; I only became aware of the Chiswick Press a few months ago yet I consider it an embarrassing lacuna in my knowledge. Now, as if seeing a previously unknown consumer product or car for the first time, I  find references to it all over the place. And this copy of The Golden Ass bound by Kiernan holds a place of honor.


[KIERNAN, Bernard, binder]. APULEIUS. The Golden Ass. Translated by William Adlington. London: Chiswick Press for George Bell and Sons, 1904.

One of two hundred numbered copies, this being copy no. 195, out of a total edition of 220. Quarto (13 1/8 x 8 in; 335 x 203 mm). [17, blank], [1, limitation], [1, half-title], [1, blank], [6], 226, [1, colophon], [11 blank] pp. Frontispiece and title page by W.L. Bruckman; title page in red and black. Rubricated headlines and running heads, text in black. Historiated woodcut initials in black. Shoulder notes in red and black.

Bound in 1960 by Bernard Kiernan.

Many thanks to Edward Bayntun-Coward for information about Bernard Kiernan.

Images courtesy David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.


  1. George Bell and Sons are interesting, and not to be dismissed so lightly. The eponymous founder was the son of Matthew Bell of Richmond, Yorkshire, who succeeded to the bookselling business of Isabella Tinkler (+1794. Speight's Romantic Richmondshire, to which and to the Oxford DNB I am indebted for information in this comment, describing her portrait by George Cuitt (reproduced in Hartley & Ingilby, Dales Heritage), says that with her masculine features, Isabella Tinkler could be mistaken for a man, which explains Byng's word-picture of her in his 1792 Tour to the North).
    Trading as Bell & Daldy, later George Bell & Sons, they took over Bohn's Libraries.
    He also took over the business of J. & J. Deighton, booksellers of Cambridge, hence Deighton, Bell & Co.
    In the late 1800s, early 1900s, maybe the firm's heyday, it published several books and series on art.
    In 1880 Bells bought the Chiswick Press, Charles Whittingham II ( who had had an interest in certain of the Bell titles) having died in 1876. I have, in my collection some of the Bohn's Libraries books published by Bell including lloyd Storr-Best(tr.) Varro On Farming which bears the Chiswick Press colophon of the Aldine(& Pickering-derived dolphin and anchor, the anchor being held by a lion rampart. The Chiswick Press was merged with the firm of William Griggs & Sons, lithographers, in 1919. In 1937 the business resumed the old Chiswick Press name which adorns, inter alia several of the books published under the Richards Press and Unicorn Press imprints when they were under the directorship of Martin Secker. It was bought at some stage by Eyre and Spottiswoode, and in 1962 finally closed.
    As for George Bell & Sons, its latery story is somewhat sad, and shortly told. In 1977, on retiring as chairman, Richard Glanville, great-grandson of the founder, sold the firm to Robin Hyman who renamed it Bell and Hyman. It merged with Allen and Unwin in 1986 to form Unwin Hyman. The Bell name thus disappeared. In turn, in 1990 Unwin Hyman was sold to HarperCollins and itself vanished in that conglomerate.


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