Cosway Bindings – Search for a Star

Reprinted in full from the March 2008 Rare Book Review magazine article

More than 100 years after their invention, Cosway Bindings are just as desirable but harder to track down. Stephen Ratcliffe leads the hunt for these 20th century masterpieces

Cosway Binding - Longfellow

Cosway Bindings were invented by John Stonehouse, the energetic manager of London’s oldest established booksellers Henry Sotheran & Co, in about 1903. They are books bound in full morocco leather with a portrait miniature (sometimes more than one), painted on ivory and inset into the binding and protected by a thin sheet of glass. Although in some ways not a totally original concept – there are a number of bindings with painted miniatures on mica, on vellum and occasionally on ivory, particularly on French 18th century almanacs and the like – but Stonehouse came up with a quite superior notion. He decided on the subject, the number and the placement of the miniatures – some of the finest had a large number.

Cosway Binding

He then commissioned Riviere & Son, one of the very finest English binders of the day, to design and create the elaborate gold tooling that surrounds the miniatures and to carry out the actual binding. Riviere’s best craftsmen were virtuosos in executing this. But the miniatures themselves – created by Miss CB Currie under exclusive contract – were outstanding in their delicacy and fine detail. It was never claimed that Miss Currie was creating original works of art but she was a copyist of the finest quality whose work in a long career was superb. She was particularly suited to 18th century portraits and to the rustic scenes of George Morland but had a range beyond these. Her lightness of touch is outstanding.

Izaak Walton, Cosway Binding

THE RIVIERE TOUCH

To give its accepted definition, a Cosway binding – with miniature or minatures on the front cover – is one signed by Riviere, invariably in full levant morocco with watered silk doublures and endleaves, sometimes, but only sometimes, signed ‘miniatures by Miss CB Currie’ on the rear doublure. A ‘certified’ Cosway has, in addition, an inserted leaf at the front of the book giving a number and the signatures of John Stonehouse and Miss Currie. I believe only the later Cosway bindings were so certified.

A Cosway style binding is one by Riviere’s competitors, Sangorski & Sutcliffe and Bayntun’s being the most notable. Sangorski’s almost invariably placed the miniature on the front doublure (I am convinced that this was at John Stonehouse’s insistence); Bayntun’s later bought out Riviere and became the leading vendor of these bindings, as they still are, and placed miniatures on the front cover. Many of their bindings after 1939 are signed ‘Bayntun-Riviere’.

These ornate bindings were obviously exactly to the taste of English – and more especially American – book collectors of the first decade of the 20th century. The renowned collection of Mrs Phoebe Boyle of Brooklyn included 23 Cosway bindings as early as April 1912. As demand grew, John Stonehouse quickly moved to ever more elaborate bindings with numerous miniatures.

The first Cosway bindings were apparently sold as soon as completed and never catalogued. I recently came across JA Manson, Sir Edwin Landseer RA published in 1902, at Christie’s 26/27 January sale in 2006. This book, bound by Riviere & Son, has nine miniatures on the front cover and one on the back. The miniatures are appropriate to the book’s subject and by my guess are not by Miss Currie. This book can be dated by the presentation inscription ‘Frederick von Eckstein from his wife Catherine Christmas 1904’.

Sotheran’s issued in 1909 an important catalogue with 14 Cosway bindings and, unusually for that date, all were illustrated. Miss Currie was not mentioned by name but the catalogue states ‘Messrs Sotherans have secured the services of a first rate Miniature Artist’. The term ‘Cosway’ already in use by that date refers to the celebrated British miniature artist Richard Cosway RA – two copies of a book about him were in this catalogue of 1909. The 14 bindings in that catalogue ranged in price from £85 for British Portrait Painters with 18 miniatures to Eikon Basilike by Charles I with one miniature at £6 16 6d. This item re-appeared at the Chevalier Sale in New York 1990.

Cosway Binding Portraits

Probably the finest items were Fyvie’s Tragedy Queens with nine miniatures priced at £22 10s and Gerning’s Tour of the Rhine with twelve miniatures – listed as ‘sold’ it re-appeared in 1911 at £100.
The Sotheran’s Coronation of King George V 1911 had 18 Cosway bindings given pride of place. Miss Currie was clearly named in the opening notes. This catalogue included the four volume set of Ireland’s Life of Napoleon which had no fewer than 72 miniatures – nine on each of the front and back covers. This set, priced at £285, passed to Mrs Boyle’s collection. Alas, at her auction sale in 1923 one volume was missing. However the 18 items included seven unsold from 1909 – perhaps Stonehouse was, as usual, overdoing the popularity of his creations. Apart from the Napoleon the most interesting items were the Exhibition of Portrait Miniatures with 21 miniatures on the front cover priced at £95 and Karoly’s book on Raphael’s ‘Madonnas’ with a single large miniature by Miss Currie of his Madonna dei Anseidei which was copied by her from the original in the National Gallery, London.

Napoleonic Cosway Binding

Possibly the most intriguing item was a copy of Foster’s True Portraiture of Mary Queen of Scots bound in red levant morocco with 13 miniatures on the front cover priced at £85. Mrs Boyle had an almost identical copy, again with 13 miniatures, but this had slightly differing gold tooling and green rather than red levant morocco. Maybe the first copy was sold before this catalogue reached Mrs Boyle in Brooklyn so a second version was created for her.

It was in the days before World War I that the vogue for these luxurious bindings was at its height (see box). But the outbreak of World War I brought an end to the Cosways’ glory days.

In 1916 Riviere’s had a ‘distress’ sale of unsold bindings including several Cosways at the Anderson Auction Galleries in New York. These must have been returned to Riviere’s by Sotheran’s – so I imagine the binder only got paid when the bookseller actually sold the book. Later Cosway bindings are much less elaborate.

Due to their unique nature Cosway bindings are very difficult to survey. They are widely dispersed in private collections in the USA and United Kingdom; very few being in public collections. It is obviously true that many were sold before being catalogued by Sotheran’s and unfortunate that their records were destroyed in World War II.

Of the 1,000 Cosway bindings claimed by Stonehouse, I have records, to date, of only about 180. I also have 62 Certified Cosway bindings, these latter I believe dating from 1929 onwards – an attempt to revive the market. The first one I located was No 791, Charles Dickens’ Nancy and Sykes. I have very intermittent records up to No 962, Whitman’s Print Collectors Handbook, plus some books which I know to be Certified but where the booksellers’ descriptions do not give a number.

Cosway style bindings, still being produced, mainly by Bayntun’s and the Chelsea Bindery, are too numerous to attempt any listing. There are some fine works available but Miss Currie’s work remains unequalled.

COSWAY GIANTS

While any colour illustrations of Cosway bindings are difficult to obtain – auction catalogues of recent years being almost the only source – I have particularly aimed to feature in this article items never before published. These are unknown, neglected masterpieces whose chief claim to fame is the artistry of Miss Currie supported by the faultless craftsmanship of Riviere’s best bookbinders. Never to be repeated.

  1. Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers 1837. A fine quality Cosway style binding in red morocco gilt by Bayntun (before 1939?) with one miniature (artist unknown) on the front cover. Now in the George Tidd collection
  2. Walton & Cotton. The Compleat Angler 1927. This binding by Riviere in red morocco gilt was offered by Sotheran’s in 1928 for £45; later in the Doheny collection; now in a private collection in the USA. One of Miss Currie’s masterpieces this binding is almost unique in featuring her name on the front cover
  3. Longfellow, HW. Evangeline. A unique vellum copy. Bound by Riviere in olive green morocco gilt with 14 miniatures by Miss Currie, eleven on the front cover and three on the back. This item, which was in the Boyle Collection before 1912, was in her 1923 sale and then in the Eli B Springs sale of 1934. Recently owned by JN Bartfield, New York
  4. Baily. JT. Napoleon 1908. This binding in red morocco gilt with coloured morocco inlays and a striking sunburst design, also in the George Tidd Collection, has 14 miniatures by Miss Currie, all on the front cover, another exceptional design by Riviere
  5. Worthington, WH. Portraits of the Sovereigns of England 1825.This binding can be dated to 1913 when it was offered by Sotheran’s for sale at £115. Later sold at auction in New York in February 1916, it is now in the George Tidd Collection at Tioga Point. Bound by Riviere in red levant morocco with exceptionally fine floral gilt tooling, it has 24 miniatures by Miss Currie – twelve on each cover
  6. Williamson, GC. Richard Cosway RA 1897. This is a Certified Cosway binding – number 889 – bound by Riviere in blue morocco with five miniatures by Miss Currie on the front cover and one on the back – an unusually large number for these late productions. This was sold in the Jordanstone House sale July 2004 for £15,000 + buyer’s commission
Cosway Binding
Cosway medallions
Cosway Binding Portraits