It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover when it is encased in a fine Cosway-style binding. Two of these sumptuous decorative tomes will be coming to auction in our May 16 sale of 19th & 20th Century Literature.
Lot 53: Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, first edition in Cosway-style binding, with miniature watercolor portrait on the front cover, London, 1932. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.
From The New York Times: “Binderies in London and Bath, England, turned out particularly extravagant covers in the early 1900s, with incised leafy gilding, tiny opals and amethysts and […] paintings of the authors or scenes from the plots.” The flamboyant style is named for famed Regency miniaturist Richard Cosway, though he never mounted his diminutive works onto a book. Instead, it was named in his honor by John Harrison Stonehouse of the London bookshop Sotheran’s, who hired miniaturist Miss C.B. Currie to recreate Cosway’s style on book bindings, usually set under glass. Books painted by Currie are called Cosway bindings, while those by rival publishers are Cosway-style bindings.
Lot 267: Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper, first edition in Cosway-style binding, Boston, 1882. Estimate $1,200 to $1,800.
Earlier examples exist, such as the first edition of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper shown here, though the technique did not gain widespread popularity until Currie’s influence. The binders would take an existing book—in this case, a first edition by Mark Twain—and recover it in goatskin with a fine portrait of the author inlaid into the front.
2140-49: Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, with 43 illustrations, first edition, in Cosway-style binding, London, 1837. Sold April 3, 2008 for $7,800.
Every Cosway and Cosway-style book was bound to order, making each one a more or less unique work. Because these books were bought with the intention of being displayed rather than read, many still exist today and continue to be prized by collectors. The New York Times continues, “The binding spines… are tight and uncracked, and the gilded page edges unworn; these luxuries were apparently rarely thumbed through.”