Two bookbindings from the Oppé Library

  • 19 December 2019

The library of Paul Oppé (1878–1957) includes material ranging from the 16th century to the middle of the 20th century. Oppé marked his books using various techniques: these included placing his distinctive bookplate on the front pastedown, using pencil to record his monogram alongside the date of acquisition, and adding detailed annotations and handwritten indexes. Many of the earlier volumes in the collection also bear evidence of prior ownership in the stamps, labels and markings they contain and in the manner of binding chosen for the text.

The bindings illustrated below are two of the more unusual examples from the Oppé Library: the first reflects the fashion of the period in which it was printed and bound, while the second is intimately bound up with the Oppé family history.

A sombre binding

The “sombre” style of binding was popular during the period between 1670 and 1720. The blind tooling on black goatskin gives a subtle effect; the edges of the leaves would often be stained black (although not in this case). Nixon suggests that these bindings would be “supplied for mourning use and for Lenten observance”.[1]

This particular binding includes a number of decorative elements common to sombre bindings, including the division of the cover into a number of distinct squares, the use of closely spaced parallel lines, and the tulip and pyramid tools. This style was frequently used for religious texts and the Oppé Library binding is no exception, containing an edition of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Psalms, both printed in 1696.

Although we do not know precisely when or for whom the book was bound, the names of two early owners are inscribed within: Ja. Milner, 1723 and Mary Smith.

An embroidered binding

Embroidered rectangle with leaves and a crest in the middle. Three faces above the crest and three upside down faces below the crest. This volume contains a prize-winning essay written by Paul Oppé when he was an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews, and published by the university bookseller in 1897. Oppé’s personal collection includes a number of copies of the text, mainly bound in simple printed paper wrappers.

This particular copy is unique in its beautiful embroidered binding, worked in black, white and orange thread. An inscription at the foot of the title-page is dated January 1898 and reads: Cover designed & worked by M.S. Oppé. Margarete Oppé (1870–1941) was Paul’s oldest sister.

The design of the binding reflects the content of the text, which is entitled The New Comedy and discusses the theatre of classical Greece. The composition includes faces suggestive of Greek theatre masks and the Kennedy coat of arms. Bishop James Kennedy (c. 1408-1465) was the founder of St. Salvator’s College in St. Andrews.[2]

[1] Howard M. Nixon, English Restoration Bindings, London: British Museum Publications, 1974, p. 45

[2] With thanks to Edmund Brumfitt for identifying the coat of arms.