How Tiny Details in Paintings Reveal a Secret History of Books

Most books do not survive for more than a century, and we know very little about what people's everyday reading experiences were like over the past 500 years. Luckily, says the British Library, we can look to classical paintings. There, we find images of people reading — and pictures of what typical books looked like.

Christina Duffy, writing at the Library's blog, says:

The majority of books throughout history are not the heavily decorated and spectacular versions we tend to hear most about, but instead are plain, and fairly ordinary book blocks. For this reason, the techniques are perhaps not as well understood or documented. Luckily the keen eye of the artist has captured precise details when depicting books throughout history, showing sewing structures, stitch types, supports, covers and even how they were stored.

Among some of the examples:

How Tiny Details in Paintings Reveal a Secret History of Books

"In Francois Boucher's 1756 oil on canvas portrait 'Madame de Pompadour' the lady is sumptuously dressed and surrounded by opulent things - apart from the book she holds in her hand. The book has a drawn-on cover – a piece of paper or parchment put around the book-block. It was a cheap and quick way to bind books and there are a lot of French books bound in this way. Madame de Pompadour is displaying a casual relationship with literature, in a sense saying to the viewer 'Look at me, I read books because they are interesting. If I like it, I will keep it.'"

How Tiny Details in Paintings Reveal a Secret History of Books

While written documentation of binding styles and techniques is not always available, we can gather a lot of information from paintings, prints, engravings and illuminations. Sometimes they can tell us more than current literature on a subject – for example in Lorenzo Lotto's oil on canvas 'Portrait of a Young Man in his Study' (c. 1530), the sitter is more likely to be a merchant than a student as the volume he is perusing is bound with a fore-edge flap – this style was used for account books and book-keeping, not for great works of literature.

How Tiny Details in Paintings Reveal a Secret History of Books

Visual depictions can also be useful in filling in missing parts of our understanding. Folio 291v of the great 9th century illuminated gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells, shows Christ holding a red binding decorated with blind twilling. With the original binding of the manuscript now lost, it is possible that this is what it may have originally looked like.

See more examples online at the British Library.