Blue Like Jazz

If you read through the archives — and I strongly recommend it — you’ll see clearly my bias when it comes to color. Black is the standard where Bibles are concerned, but I’ve tried to make the case for both brown and red as sensible alternatives, while looking down my nose at most shades of burgundy. Color is a purely aesthetic issue, though I suppose a case can be made for anything non-black as making for a less intimidating impression on others. Who’s ever heard of a “big, British Tan attack Bible” after all?

As crazy as my advocacy of brown and red might seem, I’ve never tried to drum up support for … blue. Not that I haven’t been tempted. Remember Cristian Franco’s blue Spanish NT? That caught my fancy. And so did the 1961 NEB New Testament I in blue morocco I posted around the same time. Now, a couple of vintage Cambridges have come along that really push the blue boundaries. Let’s take a look:

Vintage Group 2

They’re pictured above with the Zondervan KJV I wrote about last week. I’ll tell you all about them, but first a couple more group photos.

Vintage Group 3

Vintage Group 4

Vintage Group 1

Look at the grain on the top Bible. Look familiar? It reminds me of the Allan’s Brevier Clarendon I reviewed in April. They’re both water buffalo grained calfskin. The vintage Cambridge is the 56X, a black-letter Cameo edition of the New English Bible with a typesetting dated 1972. It includes a Concise Reader’s Guide and the calf cover is lined in something called Leathertex. They called that color “ultramarine,” in case you’re wondering. Here it is in the gold box:

Cambridge NEB 5

Notice the variation in the color? It’s a beautiful, mottled effect, perhaps a bit subtler in life than it appears in the photos. A bit wilder than basic black, I admit, but I find it quite elegant. As the photo below demonstrates, the Leathertex lining is a darker solid. There’s a single mid-blue ribbon and silver gilt pages. The cover is stamped WATER BUFFALO CALFSKIN on the inside front.

Cambridge NEB 4

Like the Allan’s water buffalo calf, this one is thin and crisp — not stiff, because it’s perfectly flexible, but not what I’d call limp, either. I usually describe a cover like this as “structured,” for lack of a better term, because it makes me think of sharply cut military-style suit jackets, as opposed to the soft, unstructured, round-shouldered variety (the sartorial equivalent of today’s limp, matte calf). If you appreciate flexibility on the one hand, but don’t want a Bible with liquid limpidity, this is the kind to look for.

Cambridge NEB 3

Cambridge NEB 2

Declining paper quality is one of today’s perennial gripes, so it’s interesting to see how the vintage stuff compares. As you can see from the photos above, Cambridge India paper does manifest what I call “ghosting” (and many call “bleedthrough” — though I tend to think of the latter as what happens when you write on the page). At the same time, as the photo of the spread demonstrates, it’s neither as pronounced or as distracting as it often is in contemporary editions. I don’t have the expertise to speak intelligently about paper quality. “When has that stopped you before?” you’re thinking. Point well taken.

Suffice it to say, my design theory is simple: any time Bible designers make decisions on behalf of the whole edition (cheaper paper to keep costs down, smaller type to keep book width reasonable) that compromise the integrity of the individual spread (too much ghosting, hard-to-read type) the net result is a Bad Thing. Good design should privilege the spread, because that’s what the reader experiences at any given moment. I’d rather put up with higher costs and less svelte editions than compromise the reading experience. This edition suggests that not too long ago, my position was tenable.

One last glimpse of the NEB and we’ll move on:

Cambridge NEB 1

Now, let’s have a look at the second Bible, another Cameo. This time it’s the 74XRL, a red-letter KJV bound in antique French Morocco. The color, my friends, is “marbled indigo.” BibleDesignBlog.com is not responsible for any retinal damage that might result from prolonged exposure.

Cambridge Cameo 5

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate the brightness of the color a little. The specs on this one are the same as the first — Leathertex lining, single ribbon, silver gilt. They both measure 5 1/4 x 7 3/8 x 1″, though to my eye the NEB looks a high slimmer than the KJV. The KJV’s ribbon is about an inch longer, and unlike the NEB it’s stamped on the front cover (albeit off the left in that wonderful, asymmetrical vintage Cambridge way). Both have “semi-overlapping” edges.

Cambridge Cameo 4

Cambridge Cameo 3

The title page isn’t dated, so I’m not sure of the publication date, but I’m guessing the two are roughly contemporary. The KJV didn’t have the guarantee card in the box, so I can’t compare them. As you can see, there is some color variation in the indigo — hence the “marbled” — although the predominant shade is much lighter than in the ultramarine. I don’t know how antique French Morocco differs from the normal variety, but I will say that once again, vintage morocco is a different animal than the current crop. A Cambridge Bible in French Morocco up until a few years ago would have thin, flexible covers — in fact, it was invariably limper than the hit-or-miss calfskin, which could be quite stiff or quite supple, depending on the one particular copy you happened to get. Now, though, Cambridge morocco seems like a stiffer proposition. I’m not sure what’s changed, but something has.

Cambridge Cameo 2

Did I mention the red letters? They’re not deep red, dark red, or even burgundy. They’re bright. They jump off the page in a big way. The layout is the classic Cameo, about as readable as the old school gets and a beautiful compromise in terms of size, features and legibility. I prefer the NEB’s design, but there’s no denying this layout is a classic.

Cambridge Cameo 1

I wish we saw more use of silver as a gilding option. Gold is fine and art-gilt (the traditional “red under gold”) is beautiful, but there’s something to be said for silver as a muted, elegant alternative. With a blue cover, I can’t see any other option, but I find it equally appealing with black, brown and red.

Now for the real question: would I actually use a blue Bible in everyday life? The ultramarine above — most definitely. The more I read it, the more convinced I am it’s one of the most beautiful copies on my shelf. The marbled indigo? Not so much. I appreciate the quality and find the color beautiful, but it’s not understated enough for my tastes. While it doesn’t panic me as much as the famous turquoise cover I’ve mentioned before, it’s right up there. If I were having a Bible rebound in blue, I’d go for something darker.

Once again, though, I’m awed by the variety that once existed in the marketplace and the level of quality that went along with it. Today, these Bibles might be considered luxury items, but French Morocco was actually more of an economy option. It’s just that, even with economy, there was a commitment to quality that made certain compromises unthinkable. I don’t want to romanticize the past or anything. But I’d love to see more publishers and designers looking back to the tradition for future inspiration.

21 Comments on “Blue Like Jazz

  1. Hello Mark, wonderful Bibles once again! I love blue. Even chose it when I was about six or seven as the dominant color in my room. Might have something to do that I happen to know the indigo as “Royal Blue” ;-)
    As a color for a Bible blue intrigues me even more as I think it is very understatement without being to obviously a Bible (meaning if it’s black and leather bound almost everybody guesses it’s a Bible, thus making black almost as embarrassing as pink with big cross or the likes for public reading). Also the combination with the silver gilt is especially beautiful.
    To have my own little boast here too – my extremly cheap, most beloved, sewn pleather Bible happens to be blue with silver gilt. So I congratulate you for your fine taste – I couldn’t have choosen better myself!
    Regards
    Yasmine

  2. The difference between the older French Morocco and the new stuff is that it used to be made with sheepskin. It’s now almost always a “split calfskin”. That explains the stiffness, I’m sure.

  3. I have that same blue Cameo. If you want to subdue the color, just leave it in the Texas sun on the back shelf of your car for 14 months. That is what my wife did while I was in Korea, and it does wonders on changing the color. Of course, the leather also falls apart as well. I think that the only reason why I keep that bible around and don’t get it rebound is to serve as a reminder.

  4. Great review as usual. Thanks!
    I’m with you in that I really like the ultramarine. As for Morocco, I don’t think there is an industry standard for it, i.e., sheep, calf, goat, etc. It really depends on the publisher. However, I’ve consistently observed that whatever skin is used, that skin is generally a spilt hide.
    “But I’d love to see more publishers and designers looking back to the tradition for future inspiration.” I couldn’t agree with you more.
    God Bless,
    David
    P.S. I’m also waiting for the mailman to deliver my updated Allan ESV.

  5. Help! Retina damage!
    My wife says not to covet thy neighbor’s Bibles!

  6. Love the blue–but very difficult to find these days in something that’s not bonded. Hey Mark, how about green Bibles for next time. I have two Cambridge KJV Cameo editions both in Water Buffalo Calfskin-one in Olive Green and one in Dark Olive Green. It’s a nice alternative to black as well. One is leather lined, the other isn’t. One has a dictionary, the other dosen’t although both have a concordance. Call it Being Green….

  7. The only green Bible on my shelf, as far as I can recall, is a Cambridge Pitt Minion KJV in green morocco from eight or nine years back. It’s very attractive, so perhaps I should hunt around for more. Olive water buffalo sounds like an interesting look.

  8. I know Moody makes a Ryrie Study Bible in green, but I think it’s bonded. There have also been a few other less-expensive Bibles in recent years in green, even NIV’s. But it seems they’re getting harder to find now.

  9. When Cambridge introduced the Water Buffalo calfskin in the early 70’s, they had an immediate and widespread problem. The normal glue that was used to seal the turned edges had a chemical reaction to the Water Buffalo calfskin and would spring completely loose. Cambridge had to replace many, if not most, of the first ones.
    I was reminded of that when I saw the Zondervan ostrileg calfskin that had come loose.
    When those new colors were introduced in the 70’s, Bible publishers did not have a lot of varieties to offer customers. KJV and RSV were the primary translation choices. Few study Bibles other than the Scofield and Thompson Chain were available. Color and size were the main choices available to customers.

  10. Christianbook.com has an Old Scofield Study Bible, Classic Edition, KJV in Genuine Leather Blue Thumb Indexed

  11. Thanks for the info, Edwin. It sounds like you’d have some fascinating stories to share. It makes sense that with fewer translations, you’d get a greater variety of editions (and vice versa). The frustration these days seems to be that so few translations are supported in that way anymore. If you latch onto one without much support from its publisher, you’re often stuck.

  12. I am colorblind and that middle Bible still hurts to look at! And yet, strangely, I could not take my eyes off it.

  13. Love those blue editions you have posted here – great photos as well!
    I just got a Cambridge KJV Pitt Minion (old style gold box!) in “Bristol Blue” Berkshire Leather. ISBN: 0521151457
    It’s a very light blue indeed, almost like a sky blue. I couldn’t resist, but it’s not a patch on the NEB Water Buffalo calfskin one here :(

  14. Love the blue bibles…hope I can pick them up somewhere….Oh dear more long nights on the internet looking for bibles.

  15. These are beautiful! I’m looking for a Cambridge Cameo KJV in some kind of color. I’m an artist so black just doesn’t to do it for me when it comes to my constant companion. The greens intrigue me. I’ll have to look into those…as well as the blue!

  16. Mark, I am glad that this is here; it give us a little something to look forward to with respect to the soon to be released RL Allan Longprimer in Atlantic Blue Calfskin.
    Thanks Mark
    Be Encouraged:-)

  17. My bible for my two years at Bible school was a blue bonded leather thinline NASB with silver edging. Nice to see others appreciate that color combo as well. Maybe I’ll have to get it rebound…

  18. I have a brown calfskin edition of the NEB you have above. I bought it off ebay for £16. When I got it it was almost orange. The leather was so dried out that another year or two and it probably would have fallen to bits. Anyway, I did something both rather clever and silly at the same time. I got some Olive Oil, and I basically tipped it onto the leather and let it soak in, I then worked it into the leather and within about an hour the leather was absolutely beautiful. It is now a rich, dark brown and looks brand new. However, a bit of oil did seep through sadly but its only onto the first couple of pages and won’t do any damage. Considering the state that the bible was in, it was worth it. Although had I used less oil and had sealed it with wax I would have not suffered any seepage. Anyway, I am rambling.
    Needless to say, despite the lack of care my 41 year old bible had suffered in the past, my New English bible is now in near perfect condition, it looks absolutely beautiful, I may just do a photo review on my blog.
    n.b. I have had this bible since June 2012, and the leather is just beautiful. Its actually the finest quality bible I own.

  19. If anyone has the Electric Blue “Marbled Indigo” Antique French Morocco KJV Cambridge Cameo, please e-mail me. I want one badly. I would also be interested in any Water Buffalo Calfskin KJV Cambridge Bibles. Thanks!

    warriorspikes51@yahoo.com

  20. I am looking for a NASB or ESV in a classic DARK blue goatskin or calfskin leather, not a bright royal or robin egg blue, but a true navy, or midnight blue..a classic man’s Bible without the silver imprinting and gilded page edges. Days gone by? There no such thing today, is it. Please let me know if there is such a Bible available today. Thanks, BAnderson.

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