Skip to content

Would You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Would You Judge A Book By Its Cover? Shapero Rare Books

The joy of book collecting is the freedom to form a library exactly as one wants. There are no constraints, it is entirely a personal decision as to what you put on your shelves. There are traditions but these can be ignored or followed according to one’s choice.

Would You Judge A Book By Its Cover? Shapero Rare Books

If one collects nineteenth-century African exploration, there has traditionally been a premium on copies in original cloth but to my mind, a beautifully bound example is not only extremely desirable, but also surprisingly scarce.

Although cloth bindings had been around since the early nineteenth century, they didn’t really take off until the 1830’s and for quite some time the style was quite restrained, almost following the model of leather-bound books just as the earliest printed books had mimicked illuminated manuscripts.

A beautiful example of this restrained style is David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels, 1857. One of the most important books of the nineteenth century, in which the author followed the Zambesi and named the Victoria Falls. Perfect in its simplicity with blindstamped covers and spine, just the title and publisher gilt lettered, it’s a book where condition is everything in order to show at it’s best. Our copy is the fine example from the renowned library of Humphrey Winterton, with the highly desirable tinted lithograph frontispiece.

By the 1860’s cloth bindings were becoming more decorative and John Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1863, in which Speke carries out important explorations around the Lake Victoria area whilst searching for the source of the Nile is a handsome example. Here there is a striking gilt pictorial vignette to the upper cover and the spine is topped and tailed with a fancy Greek-key style gilt border. It is quite a weighty book which often breaks its binding and attractive copies in cloth are hard to find.

By the 1880’s cloth was getting very fancy – a good example is Joseph Thomson’s To The Central African Lakes, 1881, a mapping expedition from Dar es Salaam to Lake Malawi (Nyasa as was) and around Lake Tanganyika. Here there is plentiful decoration in gilt and black, and the type face is quite elaborate. Once more our copy is from the Humphrey Winterton collection and is in superb condition.

Concurrent with all this cloth finery, the art of the bookbinder, in response to the competition, was also getting pretty sophisticated. Thomas Baines, one of the leading landscape artists of the day, had accompanied Livingstone part of the way up the Zambesi. He returned in 1861 and travelled to Lake Ngami and the Victoria Falls. He tells of his adventure in Explorations in South-West Africa, 1864. Our copy is in a beautiful red half Morocco binding, looking as good as if it was freshly found in a country house library.

Samuel Baker was sent by Khedive Isma’il to suppress the slave trade in Central Africa. This was to be accompanied by various deals to expand trade in the area. Although Baker was lauded as a hero in Great Britain, the expedition was not as successful as it might have been. Nevertheless, Baker tells a good story, and our copy of Ismailia, a first edition of 1874, is about as luxurious a copy as I can remember. Bound in full red Morocco with lashings of gilt and silk endpapers to boot, this is a stunningly beautiful book which would adorn any collection of exploration.

Most of us are familiar with the attractive leather bindings on nineteenth century school prizes. Few, however, as quite so deluxe as that on Elton’s Travels and Researches among the Mountains and Lakes of Eastern & Central Africa, 1879. bound for the Jesuits of Stoneyhurst College in burgundy Morocco, its opulence matches the scarcity of the title, possibly caused by its being a posthumous publication. The author travelled around Madagascar, Mozambique, and Lake Malawi before dying en route to Zanzibar.

So there you have it, fine in cloth or luxurious in leather, or a mixture of both.

Discover more: Africa

Previous article Caring for Antique Books

Leave a comment

* Required fields

Enjoy reading our blog?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know!

About Us

About Us

Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

Shop online and enjoy free international shipping now.


read more

Your cart is empty

Continue shopping