From about the early 17th century until the end of the 19th century, format was used in the trade to indicate a book’s size and shape. In a bibliographical context it indicates a book’s structure, i.e., the relationship between the sheets of paper on which it was printed and the individual leaves created when the sheets were folded into gatherings. For example, in a folio (20) each sheet was folded once, in a quarto (40) twice, in an octavo (80) three times, the resulting size being respectively a half, a quarter, and an eighth that of the original sheet.

The sheet is the printer’s unit; the gathering (the group of leaves formed after the printed sheet has been folded to the size of the book) is the bibliographer’s unit—it has come to us bound up with other gatherings into a book. In determining format, one is thus engaged in a mental “reverse engineering” of the book back to its constituent printed sheets. We must “unfold” the gatherings in our mind’s eye. Now it should be noted that gatherings may be made-up of multiple sheets, or half-sheets, but here I am concerned only with straightforward gatherings made-up from single full sheets.

Pictured here is our “cheat sheet” (a training tool from Rare Book School) depicting a printed sheet imposed in common 120 format:

Duodecimo format: inner forme


The sheet is depicted schematically to show the direction of its chain lines, its watermark, and its deckle edges—three distinguishing features of paper made by hand in a paper mould during the hand-press period—and the imposition of the pages. To make a duodecimo gathering, the sheet is cut or folded across its long side into thirds, and then folded twice the other way. Common duodecimos were folded by removing an off-cut (one of the outer thirds) which was folded separately and then quired or “tucked” inside the remainder of the folded sheet. This will result in a gathering of 12 leaves/24 pages. The chain lines will be horizontal, and the position of the watermark (if present) will typically be found in the upper fore-edge of leaves 7 and 8, or of leaves 11 and 12.

Why present an example of duodecimo format? When training students, I begin with the simpler examples of folio, quarto and octavo. Here I’ve gone straight to duodecimo because we have a book from the James Wilson Bright collection with wear and tear to the original binding that allowed us to easily remove and “unfold” the first gathering, and to reconstruct its six pairs of conjugate leaves (without causing further damage!) back to its original state as a full sheet after it went through the press.

Pictured here is that first 12-leaf gathering unfolded, taken from Bright’s 1772 edition of Plays written by Mr John Gay. London: W. Strahan, T. Lowndes—(ESTC no. T13746):

Plays written by Mr John Gay (1772): the first gathering

Although the actual size of this book (with an uncut height of 17.5 cm) is closer to octavo format (duodecimos are typically smaller), the imposition of the twelve pages shown here exactly matches the RBS facsimile. Both examples depict the inner forme, beginning with pages 2 and 23 on the first pair of conjugate leaves (A1 and A12) in the upper left corner of the sheet. This first thing to notice about this pair of leaves is the frontispiece depicting John Gay (printed on the second page of the first leaf—i.e., leaf A1 verso. The first page on the other side is blank). This is a copper-plate engraving. With the sheet unfolded like this, it is easy to verify that leaves A1 and A12, separated along the gutter, are indeed conjugate.

This answers the bibliographer’s first question: Was the frontispiece printed on a separate sheet of paper from a copper plate on a rolling press and inserted (which was the typical practice at this time), or was it printed on a leaf integral to the letterpress gathering? Although it is not usual for a single full sheet with 23 pages imposed for letterpress printing (a relief process) to be sent through a rolling press (an intaglio process) just to print one copper plate engraving—it is not unusual. What is unusual about this particular frontispiece is this:

Conjugate leaves A1 and A12 (pp.2/23) in normal light

Conjugate leaves A1 and A12 (pp.2/23) in direct light

Who is that peering out from behind Mr Gay? Held up to direct light one can see that the horizontal chain lines of both leaves match across the gutter. One can also see and feel that the leaf with the frontispiece actually consists of two identical leaves of paper fused together, but it is impossible to see how the one was overlain atop the other. What is going on here?

When viewed normally the engraving behind Mr Gay is discernable only as a faint shadow embedded within the paper. At first glance I thought it had been offset from another sheet. Held up to direct light this shadow engraving can easily be identified as “Peter the Great / Czar of Moscovy”—a copper plate line engraving by John Hall (1739-1797).

I suspect that the full sheet was first printed letterpress; that the wrong copperplate engraving was used when the sheet went through the rolling press, and that a leaf with the correct engraving—“the Cancellans”, was pasted over “the Cancellandum.” Or was it intentional, this juxtaposition of John Gay with Peter the Great? After all, both men were contemporaries, and Peter the Great was, in fact, gay, but I did not find any historical evidence of a direct link between them.

What is the bibliographical significance of this, if any? Is this copy-specific attribute unique? Can anyone explain how the leaves were so expertly pasted together? Not only are the chain lines seamlessly matched, so too are the laid lines! Because the fusion is perfect, the effect is magical. Peter the Great appears like a ghost embedded in the grain, like the image of Jesus in the Shroud of Turin.



Among Professor Bright’s books catalogued last week was a small octavo, the first edition of Robert Venables The Experienc’d Angler; or Angling Improv’d, printed for Richard Marriot in 1662. It was neatly rebound sometime in the 1820’s in black morocco, and the binder took care to re-affix two distinctive bookplates upon the marbled front pastedown and free endpaper. I’m guessing 1820s because the binder had neatly sewn in two gatherings of mostly blank leaves on wove paper with an 1822 watermark. This was done to pad the front and back of the text block, and to accommodate an unidentified bibliographer’s manuscript notes. These were written in library hand on the last two leaves of the first “preliminary” gathering and a conjugate leaf inserted between the contents and the first page of the work (i.e., between leaves [A8] and B1); and on a replacement leaf conjugate with the second gathering of blanks at the back of the book giving in manuscript facsimile the text of missing pages 101-102. Though I applaud this person for expending great pains to make this copy “perfect” and to preserve his or her sundry comments in it, they now serve only to distract from what makes this book truly special: the fishes.

Vaughan's Engraved Title Page

Vaughan's Engraved Title Page

The first fish appears on an added title page engraved by Robert Vaughan, in a design which depicts a “moving” still life in the rectangular space between the frame of the plate and the cartouche at its center. It must be a pure engraving, for the design teems with “slices of life,” on the order of Edouard Manet’s Still Life with Fish. The fish depicted here to the right of the cartouche is a Pike hanging on a hook looking not too displeased by its situation. Below its tail are various worms and two artificial flies, marching forth like little soldiers in a boundless space. The barbs of the slender fly hooks curve backwards upon their artificial bodies like two great blue herons having a nip behind their wings, and the bodies of the worms seem suffused in little halos of light. They are making their march above a tackle-basket; and as one’s eye follows their course, they settle upon two long rods standing upright to the left of the cartouche, with the lines of each casting about freely in a wind. Above the cartouche is a small shelf with a caster and other fishing accoutrements upon it. The vitality of the design is all of a piece with Vaughan’s unique cursive letter forms giving the title. This is copperplate engraving and intaglio printing at its best, and it presents a stark contrast to the crudely printed letterpress title page so typical of much 17th century English printing.



The second fish is a Trout, which appears in chapter five, “Of divers sorts of Baits for several fish,” printed intaglio with its head facing the fore edge of the leaf (E4 recto), with relief text above and below it. The plate mark measures exactly 4 x 7.5 cm, and the impression shows that the plate was tilted upwards at the upper right hand corner, thereby imparting to the Trout an impression of swimming upstream, or out of the book! It is rendered with a lively scowl on its face, and gives a sense of rapid movement. The engraving looks to be nearly as fine as Vaughan’s Pike on the title page, but it is not signed. Nor are the eight other engraved fish that follow in succession, all inserted in the text. On the next page (E4 verso) one finds a Barbel and Carp facing the fore edge, printed on two plates one on top of the other, with letterpress above both; followed by a Tench on p. 57; and another, distinct Pike on p. 58; an Eel on p. 59; a Bream on p. 61; and a Loach and Bullhead, one on top of the other, on p. 63. All nine fishes are rendered alive, each displaying a distinct personality, being of a piece with Venables’s descriptions of the various baits used to catch them: “The Trout takes all sorts of worms, especially Brandlings ; all sorts of flies, Menow, young Frogs, Marsh-worme, Dock-worme, Flag-worme ; all sorts of Cadbait, Bob, Palmers, Caterpillers, Gentles, Wasps, Hornets, Dores, Bees, Grashoppers, Cankers and Bark-worm ; he is a ravenous greedy fish, and loveth a large bait at ground, and you must fit him accordingly.” When I learned from Lowndes that, “The engravings of the fish are the same as used for Walton’s Angler,” the hunt was on; I was determined to follow these fishes to the man who made them.

Why not Robert Vaughan? The 1653 first edition of Walton’s Compleat Angler was also published by Richard Marriot. Of this edition, Lowndes says only, “The plates are supposed to have been engraved on steel by Lombart.” Although Lowndes may be a bit out of date – and it is unlikely that they were engraved on steel – a 2003 New York Public Library exhibition celebrating the 350th anniversary of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler had their two copies of the first edition on display, with one open to the trout. The label reads: “The handsome trout shown here, in an engraving (on indifferent paper) attributed to Pierre Lombart, is the quintessential English freshwater game fish.”

This attribution is very likely based on Thomas Westwood’s authoritative Chronicle of the Compleat Angler published in 1883. Of the first edition, Westwood says, “Not a noticeable book, amongst others, by any means, and yet superior to most of its class in point of adornment, by virtue of those plates of fish . . . which are, indeed, very daintily and delicately handled. There is no name attached to these engravings, but they are ascribed, with a great show of probability, to the noted French engraver, Pierre Lombart, at that time resident in this country, and whose talent was mostly devoted to book-illustration. Sir Harris Nicolas, though giving preference to Lombart, suggests, at the same time, as a possible candidate for the honour, Faithorne or Vaughan, the latter of whom was certainly employed by Marriot on other work.”

Pierre Lombart is best known for his headless portrait of Oliver Cromwell on Horseback, after Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I, and Robert Vaughan for his engravings illustrating the first English translation of Thomas Norton’s Ordinall of Alchimy in Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum of 1652.

Maybe those fish were engraved on plates of steel after all!