Wood of London

Fig. 1: Thomas E. Harrison. The Bookbinding Craft and Industry, 2nd. ed. (London: Sir I. Pitman & Sons, Ltd, nd [1930’s]) PML 195761. Bound by Wood of London, possibly by Harrison, since he worked there around this time. Photo Credit: The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Although I tend to be primarily interested in the structural aspects of utilitarian or vernacular bookbindings, I have to confess an almost secret admiration for the craft skills and occasionally the design of highly decorated bindings. The firm Henry T. Wood of London, est. 1875, though not as well known as Sangorski & Sutcliffe or Zaehnsdorf, executed a number of specular bindings. In the twentieth century, Thomas Harrison and W. Topping were partners in the firm.  Harrison’s text is an important record of early 20th century machine bookbinding; useful in the way it pairs the hand actions with machine counterparts. It is also an important document of early 20th century English machine binding practice, though not as comprehensive as Pleger’s 1914 Bookbinding and its Auxiliary Branches, which concentrates on American machine binding. Parts of Pleger are on (in?) the internet archive.

In 1950 Harrison also wrote a series of four articles in Paper and Print which were reprinted as Fragments of Bookbinding Technique: the articles concern a stiff-board vellum binding, his “reverse-guard” for binding single sections, a fire resistant pull-off box, and a Solander box. As a demonstration of the fire resistant nature of the pull-off box (when properly constructed), Zaehnsdorf  once threw one into a fire, where it burned for four hours.  The book, valued at 400 pounds, was unharmed.  The Solander boxes were not only dust proof, but waterproof: when the Thames flooded the Tate Gallery in 1928, a number of boxes floated for “a considerable amount of time.” [1] Harrison was an original thinker, a rarity in bookbinding literature.

The binding above is quite possibly my all time favorite pictorial binding. An advertisement for Wood in the beginning of the first edition of this book gives their business slogan is “Sound Technique/ Superb Finish/ Distinctive Design.” [2] All true for this binding. Even the turn-ins are tooled with sewing keys in the corners, hiding the head, tail and fore-edge mitered joins.  The center of the binding features a pallet symmetrically flanked by two fillets, above the three backing hammers, on an upside down knocking down iron.  Some of the tools depicted are non-traditional, however: the wooden rulers, the carpenter’s try-squares and the protractor and not commonly considered bookbinding tools. Was this designed by a non-bookbinder?  Is it evidence of Harrison’s free thinking appropriation of tools from outside of the craft?

 Fig. 2:  James Edward Frank Willis, The Next Volume… (London, 1933) Observe the subtle asymmetry of the design. Bound by Wood of London. British Library Database of Bookbindings.

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Fig. 3: Detail. Note the laurel leaf flanked fist and bee like alien creatures flying up into a highly stylized sun. Technically, this is known as awesome.  British Library Database of Bookbindings.

Wood of London apparently executed more progressive designs than other major firms from this time. This binding is an especially great combination of traditional techniques and innovative, slightly odd, perhaps even subversive designs.  It is also interesting because it came out of a trade background, rather than the art or craft school background, like most later twentieth century designer bookbinders. How would the above design be described? Baroque sci-fi? Proto-steampunk? Twentieth century Rococo?

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[1] T. Harrison. “The Solander Book-Box Portfolio and Its Affinities” in Fragments of Bookbinding Technique (np, nd), 27.

[2] Thomas E. Harrison. The Bookbinding Craft and Industry, (London: Sir I. Pitman & Sons, Ltd, 1926, Preliminary Advertisements) Facsimile in the series The History of Bookbinding Technique and Design, ed. Sidney F. Huttner (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989).

5 thoughts on “Wood of London

  1. Maria Fredericks

    The carpenter’s square doesn’t seem so non-traditional to me. I was trained to use a carpenter’s square for marking up the spine folds of an unbound book for sewing. I own several squares that look just like those pictured on the Wood of London binding, and use them regularly for marking up, checking alignment of boards and so forth; they are among my favorite tools. It’s great to see them so lovingly rendered on this binding.

  2. Tom Conroy

    Harrison’s manual is one of my favorites; it is both exceptionally thorough and exceptionally terse. I have often gone to it and found some detail that I had thought my own discovery, but described so unobtrusively that I had never noticed it in the book. For instance, Harrison’s is one of the few manuals to mention the great flexibility of double-raised-cord sewing.

    Bernard Middleton is outspoken in his praise (see his obituary of Harrison, with another obit by Ellic Howe, in PRINTING WORLD (Feb. 16, 1955) p. 170). Thomas Harrison (1877-1955) was a bookbinders’ bookbinder: “Possibly the quality which raised him above most other craft binders of his day was his faculty for analysis. All those who have tackled bookbinding at all seriously will know that difficult and unusual problems are always cropping up, and require special treatment. He excelled in analysing the problem and working down to the fundamentals in order to arrive at a workable scheme when many another man might have done something conventional with less success… though if he had a fault it was occasionally to look further into the problem than was necessary.” I remember Bill Anthony talking enthusiastically at PBI about Harrison, his companion Florrie Wilson, and his solutions. Harrison seems to have been exceptionally generous, helpful, and entertaining, a fine man in all ways, as well as deeply knowledgeable.

    Harrison was apprenticed at Fazakerly’s in the 1890s, and became one of the best finishers in London. He later taught himself forwarding. It isn’t clear when he became a partner in Woods’ but the firm was a casualty of the Great Depression and after 1939 Harrison worked alone, with just the help of Florrie Wilson to sew his books. According to Middleton “He never professed to understand modern trends in design and felt unhappy with its ‘restlessness.’ For him beauty was to be found most in natural forms, and he remained faithful to Walter Crane, H. Granville Fell, and other leading artists of the late Victorian period.” This seems to me to accord well enough with your binding (what a treasure! Where did you find it?) and with the British Library example.

    Apart from his manual and the Fragments, Harrison wrote over a dozen articles and two other pamphlets. The most important of them may have been the Stationers’ Craft Lecture entitled “Modern Book Decoration,” which, however, went far beyond the bounds of its title. There was a series of articles on binding design in the Bookbinding Trades Journal around 1909, relatively early in his career, but it is many years since I saw this and I wasn’t able to copy it. Would you like a list of Harrison’s writings known to me?

  3. Jeff Peachey Post author

    Hi Tom- The binding in fig. 1. is, alas, not mine, but in the Morgan Library and Museum. And I would be very interested to read more of Harrison’s writings. If you want to email me a bibliography, I’d be happy to post it.

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