Opening speech by Alan Dilnot

Opening speech - Coloured Cloth Bindings

14 October 2004

Alan Dilnot,     
School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies,
Faculty of Arts,
Monash University

The display of Coloured Cloth Bindings from the Monash University Rare Books Collection draws our attention to a feature of books which we commonly take for granted.  Unless the cover of a book is outrageously inappropriate to the volume's contents, we do not usually bother to make special mention of it.  Yet if we enter a bookshop just to browse, it may well be that the book we find ourselves purchasing is one to which we were drawn mainly by its cover.

The word "book" is derived from the same root as "beech", and reminds us that there was a time, some fifteen hundred years ago, when the contents of a book and its cover could be one and the same: beechen boards which had been inscribed with runes. Wooden boards continued in use as covers long after the written part of the book was inscribed on parchment.  In some distinguished but comparatively rare instances the boards were covered in vellum and inlaid with jewels.  Much more commonly the boards were unadorned.

With the coming of printing and the consequent increased production of books more informative and distinctive covers were needed, but even so it was only infrequently that covers drew attention to themselves as items of interest in their own right.

During the nineteenth century, however, it gradually became customary for covers to do more than merely protect the contents of the book.  In a competitive market, they advertised the contents and were in a sense an important sample of them.

This Exhibition, with its one hundred and fifty one items, furnishes a very detailed account of the growth and development of book covers from about 1780 to about 1920.  Item 18, where the cover is a plain cloth-covered board with a simple label attached, is typical of publishing style in the early part of the period.

But from the 1830s there are many covers, such as Items 83 and 89, which give delight as works of art in themselves.

It is notable that the last third of the nineteenth century is the part of the period most strongly represented in the exhibition.  Also notable is the extent to which the more ambitious designs are for later editions rather than firsts, indicating that publishers were more willing to spend lavishly on marketing established classics than on newcomers.  Outstanding covers for works which were already well-known can be seen in Item 13, the set of novels by Thomas Love Peacock, whose surname inspires their spectacular gilt design.  The novels were first published in the early nineteenth century; this edition is from the 1890s.

Of special interest in this Exhibition are the covers for scientific books.  One of these, item no. 1, The Transit of Venus, has been reproduced on the Exhibition poster.  Entitled "Observations on the Transit of Venus, 1874" and published in 1892 by the Government Printer in Sydney, its cover is in exquisite colour.

Towards the end of the period books produced for the Christmas trade and appealing to the tastes of boys and girls are numerous.  The Annuals shown here form a small part of the many such items held in the Rare Books Room.

The books in the Exhibition offer a wide range of topics - cookery, sport, gardening, topography, housekeeping, anthropology, science, engineering - as well as poetry and fiction.  Correspondingly, the range of styles in covering is broad.

It should be noted that in support of this exhibition, an earlier presentation, the Yellowbacks Exhibition of 1991, is now available on-line.  The Yellowbacks were aimed at a particular niche of the market, and imposed a uniform tone on books of very different tendencies.  The books in the present exhibition were aimed at a broader range of readers, and a much longer period of production is encompassed.  While the books are mainly from Britain, there are some important items from Australia, America and Continental Europe.

Considering the two exhibitions together, it is manifest yet again that the resources of the Rare Books Room will support valuable in-depth research into nineteenth-century culture.  The History of the Book, Book Illustration, Popular Taste, the History of Science, Children's Literature, the Literature of the Imperial Moment, are some of many topics illuminated by this Exhibition.

It should be noted too that just as the Yellowback collection has been supplemented since 1991, so too will the collection of books with interesting covers.

As a member of the English Section of the School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies, a section which continually benefits from the acquisitions policy of the Rare Books Room, I thank Richard Overell for mounting this delightful and informative exhibition, which is sure to enhance the scholarly reputation of Monash University.