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A binding with Shakespeare miniatures

Each of the painted miniatures on this 1928 Cosway binding represents a famous image, or supposed image, of Shakespeare.

James Boaden, An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints of Shakespeare, 1824. Cosway binding from 1928 with miniatures by Miss C.B. Currie
James Boaden. An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints of Shakespeare. London, R. Triphook, 1824. ART Vol. f111 copy 2

This stunning 1928 binding encloses a copy of James Boaden’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints of Shakespeare, published in 1824. Boaden’s work was one of the first serious attempts to study the numerous but often contradictory portraits of Shakespeare that were then emerging, and the Folger collection includes several more conventionally bound copies.

This copy of the book, however, was among the very few volumes that Henry Folger purchased strictly for its cover. The cover is an exquisite example of a “Cosway binding,” a type of binding named in honor of the earlier British miniaturist Richard Cosway (1742–1821) but invented in the early 1900s by J. H. Stonehouse, managing director of the Sotheran & Co. design firm.

In a Cosway binding, miniature paintings on ivory are embedded like jewels in a leather background—in this case, goatskin gold-tooled with Tudor roses representing Elizabeth I, and by extension the Elizabethan age. The design by Stonehouse, executed by the London firm of Riviere & Son, is the perfect visual summary of the problem that Boaden presents.

Each of the painted miniatures represents a famous image, or supposed image, of Shakespeare, including the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio at center and the Stratford memorial bust at bottom right. (The bust is shown as it appeared after 1793, when classical enthusiasms of the day led Shakespeare’s first great biographer, Edmond Malone, to persuade the vicar of Stratford to paint it white. In 1861, the bust underwent restoration based on colored remnants of the original, and continues to be in color today.)

The portraits are the work of Miss C. B. Currie, who produced hundreds of miniatures for use in bookbindings before her death in 1940. Currie was among a number of woman miniaturists who flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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