H. N. Humphreys is principally known as a designer of elaborate bindings made of wood and papier mâché. The Parables of Our Lord (1847) and The Preacher (1849) are good examples of his experimental techniques – which involved the use of heated dies and intricate casts – and he also produced designs using embossed leather with chromolithographic overlays. The effect was in every case luxurious and imposing; created for middle-class markets, books such as The Art of Illumination (1849) and Sentiments and Similes of William Shakespeare (1851) were presented as bespoke objects which symbolized their purchasers’ desire to exhibit their cultural capital.

Left: Parables of Our Lord. Right: The Art of Illumination and Missal Painting. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In reality, of course, they were purely the product of industrial techniques, faux versions of medieval tomes to be displayed, rather than read. Their appeal was limited by their price and the costs of production, and they were also limiting, in the commercial sense of the term, for their designer. Humphreys produced eleven such bindings between 1844 and 1854, but by the beginning of the fifties his specialism was becoming too expensive to make any further production a viable activity. It was at this time that he shifted his attention to cloth bindings for a much broader market than was previously the case. Earlier works had cost guineas, but most of his publications in the period from 1854–68 were inexpensive gift books for the Christmas trade, costing between five and ten shillings. A latecomer to a style of cloth casing that was dominated by the art of John Leighton, Robert Dudley, John Sliegh and Albert Warren, he made a small but interesting contribution to the development of this type of edition.

In the forties Humphreys had worked in relievo, but in the fifties and sixties he adopted the much simpler vocabulary of coloured cloth and gilt decoration. This was essentially the sign-system of the Christmas gift book, and Humphreys turned it to his own purposes. Extended over nine books, his cloth casings are most characteristically elaborate pieces of rustic ornamentation. The artist sometimes worked on the illustrations as well as the bindings, and in there is always a clear relationship between the imagery of the boards and the pictures contained within. Though unsigned, they can be identified stylistically and form a coherent whole.

A Case Study of Three Bindings

His treatment of Longfellow’s Kavanagh (1858) is typical. The book contains rustic illustrations by Birket Foster, and its contents are prefigured by the front cover. A central panel in gilt is surrounded by an embossed floral display. Ball (p.150) claims it is ‘taken’ from the designer’s single illustration (Kavanagh, p. 7), but comparison of the two indicates that Humphreys re-worked the composition on the front cover; more intricate and much larger than the image in black and white, it shows the title cascading from a bouquet. Cornucopia similarly feature on the front covers of Our Life [1865] and The Months [1864]. Explicitly linked to the contents of the books, each design is made up of a finely-drawn border impressed in gilt.

Left: Longfellow's Kavanagh. Middle: Our Life Illustrated by Pen and Pencil. Right: The Months Illustrated by Pen and Pencil. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

These compositions are eclectic; as in the case of bindings by Warren and Dudley, they combine a number of stylistic influences. In part classically inspired, especially in the articulation of the swags framing the upper border of Our Life, they recreate many of the devices that are found in the artist's chromolithographic borders in his books of the 1840s. The bindings further reflect the impact of Pre-Raphaelite realism; obviously based on observation of the ‘real’, they are made up of studies of several types of roses, ivies, thistles, lilies, acorns and bluebells. Humphreys was an avid naturalist, and his interest in the natural world informs his binding designs. He also deploys a type of Germanic rusticity in the manner championed by artists such as Alfred Rethel and popularized in England by John Franklin andH. C. Selous. In Our Life and The Months the floral displays appear to grow around pergolas as they do in German design, presenting the viewer with what appears to be a bower or floral arcade and inviting him or her to advance through the flowery portal.

Fusing classical idealism, Germanism and Pre-Raphaelite specificity, Humphreys thus presents a typically Victorian synthesis. Lyrical in effect, his covers offer a version of natural abundance; published in time for Christmas, they re-assert the bright optimism of spring and summer in the darkest months of the year.

A final element is the artist’s interest in emblematic detail. Our Life and The Months are anthologies of poems and illustrations charting the familiar Victorian fascination with the stages of life, and the connection between humanity’s stages and the seasons is spelled out on the front covers. On the upper board of Our Life the four correlates of (male) experience are embodied in roundels containing the words ‘Childhood’ ‘Youth’, ‘Manhood’ and ‘Old Age’, and in each case the stage is associated with the phrase in the development of plants. ‘Childhood’ is placed below the swag of budding flowers; ‘Youth’ is bordered by radiant blossoms; ‘Manhood’ is positioned next to fruit; and ‘Old Age’ thistles and bare stalks, although a tiny detail of peas bursting out of their pods suggests how life will continue: the cycle begins again.

Of course, this iconography is entirely conventional, a sort also found in the bindings of John Leighton. At the same time, Humphreys achieves an unusual depth of feeling; though ornamental, his casings reinforce the work of the books’ contents and demonstrate, once again, how mid-Victorian bindings are thematic in approach. Concerned with the books’ visual coherence, Humphreys creates a series of unities between the outer surfaces, and what is yet to be revealed.

Works Cited and Consulted

Ball, Douglas. Victorian Publishers’ Bindings. London: The Library Association, 1985.

King, Edmund. Victorian Decorated Trade Bindings, 1830–1880. London: The British Library & Newcastle: The Oak Knoll Press, 2003.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Kavanagh: A Tale. London: Kent, 1858.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Maclean, Ruari. Victorian Publishers’ Book-bindings. London: Gordon Fraser, 1974.

The Months: Illustrated by Pen and Pencil. London: RTS [1864].

Our Life: Illustrated by Pen and Pencil. London: RTS [1865].

Created 7 September 2015