Cobden-Sanderson’s Workshop

cobden sanderson workshop

Cobden-Sanderson’s Workshop, Illustrated London News, March 1890, p. 323. My Collection.

Updated 25 Nov. 2013. The above attribution was handwritten on the top of the page the image was on; unfortunately it is incorrect. If anyone knows where this is from please let me know.

The quality of Cobden-Sanderson’s work is perhaps only matched by the size of his ego. In true arts and crafts fashion, he raises handwork—especially his handwork— to almost godlike status. His quasi-religious writings are hard to swallow, but his bindings are really beautiful. I’ve had the opportunity to see many of them and to work on a couple of them as well. They are quite refreshing from much of the trade work of the day. Unfortunately, many of the materials he used are often poor quality. The books I’ve been able to see the structure of have common late nineteenth century structural weaknesses: very thin slips, tissue thin leather jointed endsheets, and overly pared covering leather. Ironically, in the article he wrote to accompany the above illustration, he derided “temporary” bindings, like the cloth case, which have often survived in better condition than his bound books.

The studio or workshop of a craftsman often tantalizing in the details of tools and equipment. Cobden-Sanderson and Anne, his wife (he also took her surname, unusual for the time) work in a domestic interior, an English parlor. There are not many tools or much equipment pictured, a chest of drawers on the left, perhaps for storage, a two-rod nipping press with typically English ball ends on the handle. I think this is sitting on a woodworking bench with a leg vice, not a lying press: only one wood screw handle is visible. Reportedly, Cobden-Sanderson was also quite interested in wood carving around this time. Anne sits in the corner next to the fireplace sewing on a frame that is resting on a small table. It appears a paste pot sits on a stool, next to some books stored on their fore edge (!) on a bookshelf. Other tools and tennis (or squash?) rackets hang on the wall. Cobden Sanderson sits on a high workbench, wearing a very long work apron. Just behind him is a freestanding gas finishing stove. On his right is another sewing frame, with a dedicated stool. The central placement of the finishing stove reflects his emphasis on tooling, which was considered the creative aspect of bookbinding at the time.

Cobden-Sanderson, and the arts and crafts movement in general, tried to wrestle bookbinding away from machines, and machine like hand-work as practiced by the large trade binderies of the day. His workshop suggests a smaller, more intimate surrounding is a way to accomplish this, a return to an idealized medieval past. In Cobden-Sanderson’s workshop, craft is integrated into the life of the craftsman, the workshop and the home united.


The  top illustration is after a photograph reproduced in Marianne Tidcombe The Bookbindings of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson: A Study of His Work, 1884-93, London: The British Library, 1984. In the case of this image, there is little doubt that it accurately describes his workplace.

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