Settle bindings reconsidered

Arms of Coville covering 1705 Eusebia Triumphans bound with 1707 Carmen Irenicum
Call number: RHT 17th-771

Arms of Morrison impaling Webb covering 1709 Eusebia Triumphans
Call number: RHT 17th-773

Illustrated here are Settle bindings. Howard Nixon (1909-1983), in his Five Centuries of English Bookbinding, describes these, with some disdain:

“Elkanah settle, who was born in 1640 and had been hailed as a rising playwright in the 1670’s, had dwindled by the end of the century into a hack versifier holding the unremunerative post of ‘City Poet.’ In 1700 he started to work what can only be described as a successful racket, which he carried on for the rest of his life. He composed topical poems, at first on political events and later on more personal subjects such as births, deaths and marriages in the families of the great and wealthy. They were put into leather bindings with elaborate (if not very good) gold tooling embellished with the arms of the likely patron, to whom they were dispatched in hopes of a suitable reward. Should the reward not be forthcoming and the book be returned to Settle, he had the original recipient’s arms covered with a leather only on which were then tooled those of a suitable candidate.”
Despite the contemptuous regard of earlier book historians, these bindings are nonetheless remarkable artifacts documenting a writer’s effort to cultivate patronage during the period 1703 to 1723. Initial estimates show that perhaps 100 or more of these survive.

Settle’s letter of presentation once pinned into a copy of his 1707 Carmen Irenicum inscribed on the title page: “Ex Libris Edwardi Haistwell xvto Cal. Martis 1710.”

“Sir: Be pleased to give me Leave to make you once mre an humble present, on this great subject, the Union of the Two Kingdoms; hoping it may find Your Acceptance from Your most obliged and most humble Servant. E: Settle.”

Call number: RHT 17th-785.

Gathered within them, there is much to analyze, be it social, cultural, or design history. Created as objects for presentation to nobility, they raise many questions surrounding such objects. Recipients range from earls down through the ranks to knights and wealthy merchants. So, why was a particular recipient chosen? Was the present planned to initiate a connection or to sustain one already formed? Did the present result in an exchange for Settle? Did he obtain any remuneration for his art?

The bindings also provide a moment in the history of English bookbinding styles.
The elements of the typical Settle layout are threefold: 1) perimeter frame of single fillet enclosing 2) corner-ornamented inner frame filled 3) with the arms of the recipient. The effect of the layout is to focus attention on the arms; they are the centerpiece of the over-all design. When thought about in three dimensions, the frames are pedestals; the centerpiece is the exalted object at the summit.
The centerpiece within frames style, based on the progressions of stylistic changes presented in David Pearson’s English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800, first appeared on English bindings in the mid 16th century and occurs on bindings through the 17th century. The extra workmanship and gilt marked it as ‘upmarket.’ Settle’s choice of binding style associated him with an established luxury tradition.
If there are elaborations in a Settle layout, they normally occur relative to the second element: for example, the perimeter of the inner frame might have winged heads added at each midpoint between corners, or, the field of the inner frame might be stained darker than the surround. Sometimes the surround is treated to resemble marble. The corner ornaments are likely to be only one of two types: either an abstract flower ornament or one resembling a thistle. Initial findings show that the flower tool was used on Settle poems dating from 1703 into 1707; the thistle tool was used on those dating from 1707 down to his death in 1724.

One exception to this corner ornament pattern has been found. Covering a 1703 poem, the binding consists of the typical perimeter frame and inner frame ornamented at corners. Rather than the expected flower tool, the corner tool is the thistle. In addition, no arms are present. What can be made of these incongruities? Rather than being a binding made contemporaneous with the imprint it covers, perhaps this is a ‘blank’ prepared ca. 1707 as a trial effort for the new thistle tool.

Apart from the ‘blank’ mentioned above, there is one other variation from the threefold layout. It involves an example with arms including a royal crown. This exemplum has neither corner piece nor gilt frame(s).
Why this elimination occurs is only a matter of speculation: perhaps the sparer layout was regarded as more chaste or perhaps removal of the inner frame was intended to focus keener attention on arms of such high rank.

Gallery of images available at