Bewick’s Aesop Part 2.1: Origins

Previous posts:

Part 1, Introduction

New posts:

Part 2.3, Audience

Part 2.4, Decoration

My pet book, Bewick’s Fables of Aesop and Others, was originally published in 1818 by Newcastle: E. Walker for T. Bewick and Son. E. Walker, (full name Edward Walker), was a publisher, printer, and bookbinder who worked in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northeast England from 1795 to 1831. He printed a variety of books, many of them pertaining to the commerce and business around Newcastle; however, what I find more interesting is that he had previously worked with Thomas Bewick (the artist behind the wood engravings in the book) on another project. In 1797, Walker published a book titled History of British Birds, which also included a variety of beautifully crafted wood engravings by Bewick.


The title page of “History of British Birds”


Intrigued by this, I researched what other projects Bewick had worked on, and I discovered that he previously had created and published two editions of Aesop’s Fables with other Newcastle printers, one in 1776 and one in 1784. The edition I am working with was produced over 40 years after the first, when Bewick was in his 60s. Clearly, Aesop’s Fables were something special to Bewick, a passion project of sorts, and it’s very humbling to see how much of his life he put into creating the edition that now lives in Colby’s Special Collections.

The title page of the 1784 edition of Aesop’s Fables by Bewick
One of the fables from the 1784 edition, featuring a wood engraving by Bewick

However, what perhaps most captivated me as I researched the origins of my pet book was the binding. I knew the book was bound by Riviere & Son, prestigious and expensive bookbinders who worked for the Duke of Devonshire as well as various other famous collectors. What surprised me, though, was learning that Robert Riviere, the founder of Riviere & Son, did not become a bookbinder until 1829– over ten years after this edition was published. Clearly, the book had been rebound quite a while after it was printed, but when? To narrow this down, I delved into the history of Robert Riviere and discovered something quite telling. Apparently, the name of his bookbinding company was originally just R. Riviere, and only changed to Riviere & Son once his grandson took over the business in 1880. Therefore, the book had to have been rebound after 1880. I managed to narrow this down even further by finding a journal from 1893 filled with book prices that had a record of my book, with Riviere & Son binding, being sold for 10 pounds and 10 shillings. So, for whatever reason, this book was rebound sometime between 1880 and 1893 by Riviere & Son.

The slip inside the book with publishing and binding info

As I navigated the muddy waters of the book’s binding, lots of questions came up. How much is the physical form of the book related to the origin? Can the beginning of this book as an object, as an entity, as a piece of history be tied to its binding? To it’s physical presentation? Or is it only connected to the text?

Before answering these questions, I think it’s important to look at the origins of my book in terms of Darnton’s communication circuit. For Bewick’s Aesop, the transitions within this circuit took place over a very long period of time.  After all, the original author behind the fables Bewick’s Aesop– Aesop himself —  lived and worked during the 6th century BCE, VERY far before Bewick was even alive. Then, centuries later, Bewick illustrated and published his own collection of Aesop’s tales– and then, 60 years afterwards, it was rebound, a brand new object. For my book, the transition from author to publisher to binder to reader is not only complex and difficult to follow but literally took place over more than a millennium, which makes the matter of its origin somewhat tricky. When did this book become the object it is today?

After thinking on that question for a while, I realized the physical form of this book and its origins are inextricable. Ultimately, this would not be the same object without the beautifully detailed binding, without the rich red morocco and the delicate gilting. This lovely physical presentation influences how we see the book, how we read it, how we touch it; it sets it forth as an object worthy of admiration and inspiration, as something to display proudly. Before it was rebound, it might have been the same fables and the same illustrations, but it was an entirely different object than it is now, and must be treated as such. The version of Bewick’s Aesop that I have shared with you all truly only came into existence when it left the workshop of Riviere & Son.

In future posts, I want to explore some of these questions more in regards to other aspects of the book, such as the illustrations and the provenance. In both of those areas, there is certainly plenty to talk about, and I look forward to analyzing these aspects in more depth.