A Lovely Book in a Magnificent Neoclassical Binding, and in Outstanding Condition


(Paris: Didot le jeune, l'an IV, 1796). 340 x 260 mm. (13 3/8 x 10 1/4"). 213 pp., [1] leaf (contents).

A SPLENDID CONTEMPORARY MOSAIC BINDING OF RED MOROCCO BY STAGGEMEIER & WELCHER, LAVISHLY INLAID AND GILT IN A NEOCLASSICAL DESIGN, covers with a wide decorative gilt border enclosing an inlaid black morocco frame richly tooled in gilt and featuring inlaid red medallion cornerpieces, this intricate frame surrounding a large central panel diapered in ogival compartments, each with a complex gilt-tooled black inlay; flat spine gilt in compartments decorated to complement the cover inlays, black morocco label, turn-ins with gilt Greek key roll, blue silk endleaves, all edges gilt (perhaps with very small repairs right at top and bottom of front joint). In a modern (faded and scratched) plush-lined cloth clamshell box. With engraved frontispiece portrait and an engraving of the solar system. For the binding: Foot, "Henry Davis Gift II, 197 and 198; Maggs Catalogue 893, No. 141 (this item). Trivial loss to gilt in spots, just a hint of rubbing to extremities, but A BEAUTIFUL COPY OF A SPECTACULAR VOLUME, the binding glistening with gold, and scarcely worn, and the interior exceptionally clean, crisp, and bright, with vast margins.

Squarely in the Neoclassical tradition, this marvelous binding was among those commissioned by bookseller James Edwards and celebrated as "the most elaborate and lavish English bindings of the 18th century" (see Maggs Catalogue 893, where it appears as item #141). Hobson echoes those remarks in his "English Bindings in the Collection of J. R. Abbey," where our binding appears as #6 in a list of similar bindings under item #102, p. 144). Like Kalthoeber and several other German binders, Staggemeier & Welcher came to England to satisfy the fashionable need among men of means for elegant bindings. In partnership in London from about 1799 to 1817, the two oversaw "one of the most prolific workshops producing 'extra' quality work in London." (Maggs Catalogue 1212) They were known for bindings with typically tasteful and often elaborate gilt decoration--as here--and they were among the very best at producing these highly finished volumes. Our binding is unsigned, but we know the work was theirs because Maggs noted that "a signed Staggemeier & Welcher binding with an identical border and circular corner tools was sold at Sotheby's 31st July 1963." And the Henry Davis Gift features two Staggemeier & Welcher bindings using tools that appear here--#197, a répétition binding in the style of our central panel, and #198, with a frame employing our circular and curling vine tools. This style of binding, and especially the treatment of the covers with the colored onlays and scroll and wheat tools, is typical of the Neoclassical style that Francesco Piranesi is generally given credit for inventing when he designed volumes to be presented to Gustavus III of Sweden during this monarch's visit to Rome in 1783-84. Quickly popular, the Neoclassical style was imitated and developed by our binders in London, by F. W. Standlander in Stockholm, and by Georg Friedrich Krauss in Vienna. Apart from the striking binding, the contents here deserve our attention. The influential "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds" is a discussion on the heliocentric universe that was one of the significant works of the Enlightenment. First published in 1686, it takes the form of a conversation between a philosopher and a marquise on scientific theories about the cosmos, and it was credited for stimulating public interest in astronomy. Written in French rather than scholarly Latin, and in a style that would be easily accessible to the layman, it is one of the earliest works of popular science. The career of the unusually long-lived Fontenelle (1657-1757) is a bridge between the French literary tradition of Corneille (his maternal uncle) and Racine and the era of the Enlightenment writers Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. To the latter, Fontenelle gave the best advice a writer can receive: "You must courageously offer your brow to laurel wreaths and your nose to blows." Our edition was beautifully printed by the house of Didot, famed for the elegance of their typography and composition.