The Dance of Death, Engravings by Hans Holbein

By: samuelfeinstein

Oct 10 2015

Category: Uncategorized

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Focal Length:42mm
Shutter:1/100 sec

The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein, with an introductory note by Austin Dobson.  London: George Bell & Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, & New York.  1892.  Printed at the Chiswick Press.


This binding stands as a specimen.  The covering material is “slunk”, which is unborn calf.  This binding juxtaposes slunk (which is both pre-life and life’s antithesis) with The Dance of Death (Death personified as a post-death skeleton), and seeks the harmony between the two.  There could be nothing done to this particular skin to make it any more beautiful than it already was—truly disturbing.  This skin was not dyed or modified in any way; it went from animal to parchment in the usual way, and kept its complex character, which made it perfect for this book.

In its design, the presentation of this binding is as important as the binding itself.  The quarter-parchment clamshell box that it is housed in gives a sense of what is within—introducing you to its world, from a section of the skin that shows both light and dark aspects of it, having both veins and folds which feels somewhat haunting, with a single Holbein skull tooled near the bottom of the spine.  When the box is opened, there are two lidded compartments to choose from.  Upon opening the right, you find the custom finishing tool made specifically for this binding—the Holbein skull used on the spine of the box, having only been used for this binding (at the time of the binding leaving my shop).  In the larger compartment on the left, we have The Dance of Death.  The slotted-spine allows the structure of the binding to show through—the sewing on raised cords having been covered in alum-tawed goat, bringing bones to mind.

The binding has no tooling on it except for the title.  In the right light the titling becomes unseen, with the 22K moon gold fading into the skin.  In the other right light, the titling makes itself known, but does not presume to make itself overly significant.  The endpapers were marbled by the binder, having structure to them as well as negative space.

What one does not readily perceive, while admiring the skin of parchment is the innocence of the covering material.  The Dance of Death reminds us that regardless of what our status, purpose, or personal achievements are in life, none of these things matter to Death.

Technical Description

The book arrived in its soiled original binding.  The book was cut out from its case leaving the endpapers intact.  The outsides of the sections were guarded with 10gsm Sekishu and wheat starch paste.  The sections were trimmed before sewing only at the head, which was then decorated with alternating sections of 22K moon gold and graphite.  The fore-edge and tail were trimmed to their shortest leaf after sewing and were decorated with graphite only.  The boards were made up with mill-board, 10pt, Mohawk superfine, and the parchment from the same skin that covers the outside.  The book was sewn “two on” on four raised cords with waxed linen thread.  It was then rounded and backed to 90˚ using wheat starch paste.  Double core headbands were sewn on with silk thread, and the spine was lined with 10gsm Sekishu and wheat paste as a release layer.  The sewing supports were frayed out and put down on the waste sheet, and the boards glued to the waste sheet and sewing supports with Jade 711 PVA.  The spine was then covered in alum-tawed goatskin with a paste-PVA mix.  The covering parchment is from Jesse Meyer at Pergamena in New York.  It was from a still-birth, and was not harvested for the purpose of making slunk.  It was lined with Mohawk superfine text weight using a PVA-methyl cellulose mix.  A spine piece was adhered to the covering parchment with PVA, and slots were made to accommodate the raised bands, and the book was covered using PVA to adhere the parchment to the book.  The insides of the boards were then in-filled.  The binding was titled with 22K moon gold, the endpapers put down using Jade R (a water-reversible PVA), and the binding was signed in carbon.  The paste-down and flyleaves are Hahnemuhle Ingres paper, marbled by the binder, and the end-sections are Ingres d’Arches MBM laid paper.  The book is housed in a quarter-parchment, pressure-lid clamshell box sided with black buckram cloth, with vellum tips, and a separate compartment for the single Holbein skull tool that was used on the spine for identification.  The insides of the box are lined with ultra-suede pads supporting the book and tool in their respective compartments.  Completed in 2015.

A Quick Note about Parchment

Parchment is an immensely strong material.  The first thing one notices when looking at an historical parchment-over-boards bindings is that the boards are pulling away from the book.  This is due to the hygroscopic nature of parchment and its reaction to environmental conditions, as well as an insufficient inner board lining.  The strength of the material is usually the demise of parchment bindings over the centuries because the stress points at the joints are somewhat weaker than the rest of the binding, leading to cracked joints.  Happily, this is not an historical parchment-over-boards binding.  The insides of the boards are lined with the same parchment that covers the outsides, which equals out the pull, stabilizing the board and limiting the strain put on the joint, and not allowing the outward pull on the boards.  Further, the binding is housed in a pressure-lid box, which keeps the joint in check if there were to be any undue pull.  The clamshell box creates a micro-climate that helps against the binding being subject to the changes in relative humidity.  That said, being on display for long amounts of time is not in the binding’s best interest, and excessive use will contribute to wear at the joints, both of the book and the box.


Book and box


Close-up on titling and the slotted spine with the alum-tawed covered raised bands coming through


Front pastedown and flyleaf, marbled by the binder


Book open, showing both pastedowns and the graphite-decorated fore-edge


Alternating sections of graphite and moon gold


Box, Holbein skull tool, and book


Pressure-lid box with book compartment open


Pressure-lid box with tool compartment open


The Dance of Death


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