Armorial bindings

The reveal to this month’s crocodile mystery isn’t much of a reveal; both John Overholt and Philip Allfrey posted the answer in last week’s comments. It’s the stamp that George Granville Leveson-Gower, the 1st Duke of Sutherland (1758-1833) used in his armorial bindings. 

The armorial stamp of George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland

When I posted the image, I didn’t know as much then as I do know about its owner. I knew that the coat of arms belonged to someone who was a Knight of the Garter (since it was surrounded by a garter with the order’s motto, “Honi soit qui mal y pense”), and I knew that it belonged to someone who was noble (since the arms were topped by a coronet; while I knew that the details of the coronet would tell me what rank the owner held, I hadn’t actually looked that information up). ((Since in British usage, only the monarch holds a crown, all the other crown-like things that the nobility use are called coronets.))

John Overholt’s first step—to look up the crown to determine rank—is the clear first path to pursue. The Wikipedia page he links to provides a pretty clear and basic chart of the different shapes of the crowns and the different ranks to which they correspond. Once you start looking at lots of armorial stamps, you’ll see that they aren’t always as clear-cut as Wikipedia’s images, but even so, you can tell that this crown alternates pearls with strawberry leaves and thus indicates that this owner held the rank of marquess.

So now all you have to do is find out how many marquesses were also in the Order of the Knights of the Garter, look at their arms, find the one with the wolf, and voilà! This is exactly what Philip Allfrey did, relying again on Wikipedia and on a digitized book of crests that was in the Internet Archive to identify the family it belonged to, and then using the biographical information of who inherited what title when to work out the specific individual. (If you haven’t looked at his research, go read his comment now; his methods and reasoning are very clearly explained.)

This is the approximate method I have used in the past to try to identify the owners of armorial bindings. But it turns out that a much better resource is now available for this work. The British Armorial Bindings site is exactly the place to begin these searches. The project to catalog all heraldic devices that have been stamped by British owners on the bindings of their books was begun by John Morris in 1964 and has been continued since 2006 by Philip Oldfield (under the sponsorship of the Bibliographical Society of London and the University of Toronto Library). It’s now publicly available as an open-access website that can be searched by traits of the device, by owner’s name, by library, or by the author of the book. As of February 2012, when the site was launched, it includes over 3300 stamps belonging to nearly 1900 owners.

If I had known the site existed before I began this crocodile, I would have merely searched for “wolf” and looked through the 233 results for a matching stamp; if I was clever enough to recognize the coronet, I could have searched for “wolf AND marquess”, which brings up our owner immediately. Clicking through to Leveson-Gower himself, you’ll find biographical information as well as eight examples of the stamps he used on his books. Our particular stamp is what the site identifies as “stamp 2”, which is listed as being found on 14 books. Looking through that list, you can pretty easily spot that our particular stamp belongs to a copy of Ben Jonson’s Workes; the British Armorial Binding’s listing helpfully identifies the call number for the book, which makes it very simple to find this book in Hamnet. You’ll notice that our thorough catalog does not yet identify Leveson-Gower as a former owner, but I bet that will soon change! ((As a small aside, I do with that the site identified which copy their photographs are of. I understand that all the stamps listed under each illustrated device are made from the same physical object, but the bindings are different physical objects, and it could be helpful to know which one is imaged.))

Unlike other heraldic sites I’ve worked with, this one tries to be friendly to those of us not well-versed in the jargon of such study. I’ll leave you to spend some time playing with it. You’ll note that there are plenty of Folger books in there, thanks to a short fellowship that Philip Oldfield had at the Library to do this research. It’s just a wonderful resource, and I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say “Thank you!” to him and to all the others who made it possible.

For those of you itching to figure out something a bit harder, I’ll leave you with this bonus crocodile of an armorial binding. I already know the answer to this, and have actually written about it before, so some of you might recognize it. As usual, you can click on the image to enlarge it in a new window, and click again to make it even bigger. Tell me what’s going on here and have fun!