A Tale of Two Tennysons

Two copies of Idylls of the King

Take a look at the two books in the featured photo: one’s maroon, and one’s brown. Both are bound in full morocco leather. The brown one has some ornate gilt tooling to the front cover, while the maroon has nothing but a slender gilt border. Two different books, right? Now look at their endpapers:

Note that the top volume has marbled endpapers, while the bottom one has plain endpapers.

Now, here’s the capper. Check out the two title pages:

That’s right – they’re identical. What’s goin’ on here?

These are both British first editions of Alfred Tennyson’s classic poem Idylls of the King, published in London in 1859. The original binding was a rather dull green cloth, so it’s understandable why a collector might have preferred a binding that would look richer on their shelves. It was, in fact, once a fairly common practice to have a beloved book rebound in more ornate leather, or possibly placed inside a custom-made slipcase. There were binderies that specialized in beautiful rebindings, most of them British; they typically signed their bindings, and there are collectors who will look for books rebound by certain binders. Although a book’s value is still highest when it’s presented in its original binding (especially in very good or fine condition), that same book rebound by one of these binderies can still have some value.

The maroon copy of Idylls of the King was bound by J. B. Hawes of Cambridge. John Bird Hawes (1820-1885) was described in his obituary as “the celebrated Cambridge binder”. At the peak of his operations, he oversaw a staff of a dozen; the bindery continued on for many years after his death. A blog that discusses a bit more of Hawes’s history can be found here.

The brown copy says it was “Bound by Zaehnsdorf.” Joseph Zaehnsdorf (1816-1886) was one of the most famous binders in Europe; he won numerous awards for his magnificent bindings, now eagerly sought by collectors. His son, Joseph William Zaehnsdorf, wrote The Art of Bookbinding: a practical treatise. Click here for Zaehnsdorf’s Wikipedia page.

After we realized we had these two wonderful examples of fine bindings on the same book, we did a little research and discovered something else: the copy with the J. B. Hawes binding is a first edition but not a first impression; however, the Zaehnsdorf copy is a mixed state, first impression, meaning that it seems to have characteristics of both a first and second state. It’s also in better condition than the Hawes. In case you’re curious, the Hawes copy is $20, the Zaehnsdorf is $250.