Themes in Ornaments 1: Books

This is the first of a series of short blog posts on the images depicted in printers’ ornaments. Each post will explore a different theme found in printers’ ornaments of the eighteenth century (and beyond).

Here are six ornaments that all depict books.

Ornaments depicting books are satisfyingly self-referential. These two headpieces feature open books, creating miniature images of the real open book that is in front of the viewer as they are reading. These ornaments use tiny dots and lines to indicate the presence of text on the page.



The ornament below depicts a book and a face. Perhaps both the book containing the ornament, and the face of its reader, are being reflected back at us.


The book as a physical object is being celebrated in these headpieces. Here, books are flanked by lions and birds:



These ornaments not only depict books, they depict books featuring printers’ ornaments. The craftsperson has depicted the product of their own labour within the design. Each open book clearly features a headpiece and a tailpiece. They are indistinct in the two images above, though in the second one we can make out the large initial letters T and O.

Here we can clearly see that the tailpiece on the recto depicts an angel:


So this is a book, containing an ornament, which depicts angels, holding a book, containing an ornament, which depicts an angel…

The engraver was certainly having fun.


The ornaments depicted here can be found on Fleuron at the following URLs:

An Introduction to Fleuron, part 1

What does Fleuron contain?

Fleuron is a database of eighteenth-century printers’ ornaments, broadly defined as the decorative features of the pages of printed books. It also contains some illustrations: the boundaries between the categories of ‘ornament’ and ‘illustration’ are somewhat blurred.

‘Printers’ ornaments’ is an umbrella term for the devices, flourishes, and images that decorate printed books. The term usually refers to the designs cut by hand in blocks of wood or metal, and also  cast blocks. Printers’ ornaments come in the form of headpieces, tailpieces, initial letters, factotums, and dividers (see Glossary). The database also includes printers’ flowers, or fleurons (the database’s namesake), which are two terms for ornamental cast type. Fleurons could be assembled into designs consisting of many pieces, or used individually and in pairs for smaller flourishes.

Fleuron was created using an image detection program, designed to recognise and extract printers’ ornaments. Because they look similar to printers’ ornaments, the program also extracted smaller illustrations (both woodcuts and engravings), and diagrams and other scientific illustrations. These will remain in the database. Larger illustrations were not captured by the program. The program incorrectly classified some items as ornaments: for example, library stamps, handwritten notes, and blurred or overexposed areas of text. Many of these have already been eliminated, but the process of cleaning up the database is ongoing.

The database currently contains around 1.5 million entries. This will reduce slightly as more  incorrectly identified items are gradually removed. Future phases of the project may see the addition of new data to Fleuron as well.