Collecting Printed Leaves

A leaf from the King James version of the Bible, printed by Robert Barker in London in 1613

For me, it all began with a leaf from the King James Bible. It was bought by an aunt of my wife in a London street market many years ago, and eventually given to me. Later, when visiting Charles Traylen's bookshop in the English town of Guildford – the shop's now gone, alas – I found he was selling small batches of assorted leaves assembled from incomplete copies of books, some dating back to the pre-1501 incunabula period. More by chance than intent I had the beginnings of a collection.

There was a thrill in having in one’s home these objects, created by papermakers and printers long ago, that had somehow survived five centuries of European history. By my later standards these first leaves were nothing very special, but they only cost three or four pounds apiece.

Fuelled by a long-standing interest in typography I began to study my leaves. I was fortunate to be working at the time in an institution whose library had on its open shelves the many volumes of the magisterial Catalogue of books printed in the XVth century now in the British Library which appeared from 1908 onwards. From its pages I learned much about the early history and geography of printing, and about the originators of my own leaves and the typefaces they used.

My collecting became more discriminating but also more costly as I began to chase rarer examples. Visits to Book Fairs and specialist antiquarian booksellers were productive, and more recently I have made occasional purchases on eBay. Rummaging in boxes in back corners of secondhand bookshops occasionally bore fruit, though few such places now survive.

An advantage of collecting leaves is that they take so little space in the home. My collection of some 130 specimens lives, in archival sleeving, in just two A3-size ring binders, though the thirty most attractive leaves are framed and take up more room

Today the urge to collect is waning; I’ve got more than enough leaves to be going on with. The spectre looms of the misanthropic obsessive collector gloating over his treasures alone in his garret. It’s time to share my leaf collection more widely; hence this website.

"LEAF. A part of a book, containing two pages." (Johnson's Dictionary, 1755)

 A bifolium

Two leaves from a Breviary, a compact church service book, printed in two colours in Venice in about the year 1500.

To anyone concerned with old books the word 'leaf' means a piece of paper or vellum that normally carries two pages of text. The one on the front is called the recto page and forms the right hand page of an open book, and the one on the back is the verso page. We still use the word leaf in connection with books in expressions such as 'leafing through the pages', 'see overleaf', and 'turning over a new leaf'.

On this website you can find high-resolution scans of leaves from my collection, along with with some information about many of them (but I am not an expert).

No whole book suffered in the making of this collection

Dismembering whole books and selling them leaf by leaf sounds like sacrilege. And so it is.

But what about books that are incomplete or damaged, and so of no interest to serious book-collectors? Is it wrong to share out leaves from such copies so that many who could never afford a complete book can study, enjoy and learn from them? Some would say Yes – and in a few countries, such as Italy, it is against the law to break up even an incomplete book, and even if it is privately owned. A year in jail could be the result of doing so.

Others, myself included, cannot agree. Provided the copy that is broken up is so badly damaged or incomplete as to be irremediable and hence unsaleable, and provided it is not a title so rare that few if any complete copies survive, then the palpable enjoyment many will get from owning individual leaves outweighs any qualms about the ethics. As I hope this website demonstrates, there is much more to be learned about early printing from a varied collection of a few dozen individual leaves, than from a single complete book costing many times more.

Of course I cannot be absolutely sure that no book suffered to provide a leaf in my collection, but given the financial incentive to keep books whole it seems most unlikely.

For a detailed discussion of these issues, see A Legal and Ethical Look at the Making of Leaf Books, by Michael Thompson, in the book Disbound and Dispersed, published by the Caxton Club of Chicago in 2005.