Bookbindings, Bolsheviks and Ballet.

Bookbindings, Bolsheviks and Ballet.

Written by Victoria Green.

Q: What do the last Tsarina of Russia, the birth of Parnassian literature and the ballet Giselle all have in common?

A: This little book.

The founder of the National Leather Collection, John Waterer, was a true antiquarian. A magpie, essentially. He began acquiring curiosities because of the incredible stories that they told, or the unusual histories that they held. It is time now that we tell the stories of our hidden treasures, starting with this beautiful Zaehnsdorf bookbinding from 1895.

Extraordinarily enough, this bookbinding is the link between three uniquely separate events during the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was purchased by the National Leather Collection in 1948. The book was published in Paris, 1895 and is colour illustrated – something which was not typical at the time. The binding is beautiful; green Morocco leather with gilt tooling by George Page.

The work itself, Émaux et Camées, was written by Théophile Gautier in 1852. A French poet and dramatist, Gautier is known as a defender of romanticism. Émaux et Camées, however, is regarded as a seminal work. It introduced the antithetical literary tradition of Parnassianism. This text demonstrates Gautier’s abandonment of romantic style, favouring instead a more modern approach which focuses on poetic form, rather than content. Therefore, Gautier’s work itself is significant in terms of the literary legacy that it created.

In addition to poetry, however, Gautier was also a celebrated abandonné of the romantic ballet. He worked on the original production of Giselle as a librettist – writing the prose, or the story of the ballet in book format. Ever the romantic, Gautier fell in love with the first ever ballerina to dance the lead role, Carlotta Grisi. This love remained unrequited and so, ever the romantic, Gautier married her chanteuse sister Ernestina.

As if this book wasn’t already interesting enough, this particular edition was acquired from the personal library of Alexandra Feodorovna. The wife of Nicholas II of Russia and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Alexandra is usually remembered as a faithful follower of the ‘mad monk’, Grigori Rasputin. Perhaps more famously, the Tsarina and her family were assassinated by Bolsheviks during the communist revolution in 1918. This gruesome Yekaterinburg murder still enthrals the world to this day.

To read more about Zaehnsdorf bookbindings, please read Dr. Graham Lampard’s blog here.

This book is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection. To learn more about the collection, please visit our website. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.