Bill Minter on Cobden-Sanderson’s Bindings and the Taste of Leather. Additional Comments by Marianne Tidcombe

Bill Minter sent me some recollections about Cobden-Sanderson’s bindings, which raise several interesting questions.  Are bookbinders and book conservators—especially those in private practice—skewed in their appraisal of bindings since they generally deal with books that need to be fixed?  Could Cobden-Sanderson actually taste the quality of leather? Does Bill have a second wind since he took a straight job with a regular paycheck?

Before accepting the newly created position of Senior Book Conservator at The Pennsylvania State University Libraries (aka: Penn State), Bill was in private practice. While some may know of him as the developer of the ultrasonic welder for polyester film encapsulation, he has also dabbled with other ideas in book conservation. His email is: wdm14<at>psu<dot>edu

Bill is far too modest in this brief bio. Some of his “other ideas” include intact washing of water damaged books, a velcro based tying-up press, a video of how to maintain and adjust a board shear, the use of aluminum to lighten and make more rigid oversize drop spine boxes, and tips on how to quickly flatten rolled documents for digitizing. Most recently he has attempted to quantify some of the properties of teflon and bone folders. His poster should be in the poster area of the AIC website soon.

 

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Bill writes (1):

I recently saw your blogpost about Cobden_Sanderson.

You wrote:  “…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…”

I would suggest that when you are in Chicago the next time that you try to see his bindings at the various libraries.

Many years ago, Marianne Tidcombe was to speak to The Caxton Club. She arrived days early to see C-S’s bindings, as well as research her next book on woman binders. I insisted that she stay with my family, so that I could be her chauffeur.

When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, I told her about my 3-volume set of signed C-S bindings in brown leather and blind tooled. After much discussion, she had me (almost) convinced that my books were not C-S, because “he never bound in brown leather”.  Upon going to my shop, indeed they were C-S. Until then, she had only seen rubbings of that particular binding.

(Teaser — the boards were detached as you might assume, but read on.)

Well, for two days we went to numerous libraries and, as I recall, every C-S binding was in excellent condition with the boards intact! AND, as I recall, there were no ‘brown’ leather bindings; most were either red, blue, green or other. After seeing maybe a dozen or more (20?) books, I asked the question, “you said that he did not bind in brown leather”. She explained that C-S knew that brown was not a good leather, for three specific reasons:  1) from working with the leather, 2) XXX?? (I do not recall the reason), and 3) (the best part) — that he could TASTE that the leather was TOO ACIDIC.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes:, “What I said in 1992 was not that C-S did not use brown leather for binding, but that he rarely used dyed pigskin – brown or any other colour – because it was acidic.  He had an instinct for judging leather, and could tell by handling, smelling, and (yes) tasting, if it was acid.  He chose goatskin, sealskin, and alum-tawed pigskin, all of exceptional quality, which is why his bindings have held up so remarkably well compared to many others bound in the same period. Your blind-tooled ‘Golden Legend’ bound at the Doves Bindery in about 1904(?) in brown dyed pigskin is an exception.  I suspect he risked using it in this case because it took the blind impressions rather better.”] (2)

Aside from him tasting that the leather was too acidic, how would he have known that that was a problem? At the same time: how did they test for acidity during that time — litmus paper?
ANYWAY:   To further enhance this story, the last stop was at the U Illinois — Chicago campus where there are approximately 19 bindings by Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House. Starr studied with C-S in the early 1900s. Her collection of bindings include, from my perspective:  one binding using C-S leather and tooled by C-S; one binding tooled by EGS on leather supplied by C-S, and the remainder were (shall I suggest) other leathers that have not survived as well as the C-S type —– again, from my perspective. The bindings using C-S leather were, as I recall, in much better condition than the others. At the same time, one would assume that all of the books have been held in the same, Chicago environment all these years.

I wish there were a way to determine whose leather C-S used and how that leather was tanned, especially compared to other tanners. AND, why is it that he rarely used brown leather? Perhaps a world-wide survey of the condition of all C-S bindings would be helpful? This story (information) is from the 1990s, though I did see the Starr bindings again in 2003.

Hope this raises some questions about the condition of Cobden-Sanderson bindings.

One other comment:   While you have done far more research than me, I would suggest that as conservators in private practice, we only see the failures and rarely get a chance to tour the stacks to examine a large number of bindings.

[Marianne Tidcombe writes: Re: Jeff Peachy, Cobden-Sanderson and leather, etc.  Some of what he says is of course true, but I’m afraid he generalizes, based on a couple of books bound at the Doves Bindery, which is rather unfair.  C-S had only a short period of training (with a trade binder), and his forwarder at the Doves Bindery was a tradesman.  However, C-S was a trailblazer in advocating sound methods and materials, and passed his ideas on to Douglas Cockerell, who in turn promoted conservation binding.  C-S had to find solutions to problems himself, and work out better methods as he went along.  See, for example, the structurally sound Kelmscott Chaucers he bound at the Doves Bindery, and the concertina sewing he devised for Doves Press books printed on vellum.”] (3)

 

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Peachey responds: First, let me acknowledge I am basing my original observations on a handful of bindings brought to me for conservation work, so this may well be a self-selecting sample.  Secondly, Marianne Tidcombe, who is the world’s foremost expert on Cobden-Sanderson, and I am honored to have her comment here. She has written books on the The Doves Bindery, Cobden-Sanderson, and knows his bindings better than anyone. So in terms of the relative durability of his bindings to the general trade work of the day, I stand corrected. And I should have made it clear that I was only considering the books I have worked on, which were his tight-back tanned leather bindings.

However, another aspect to consider is the use or abuse that a book may have during its life. A high end signed Cobden-Sanderson binding likely was expensive, collected, used less, and therefore preserved better? Isn’t this also a self-selecting sample? And I would bet good money that any late nineteenth century tight-back tanned leather bindings (Cobden-Sanderson’s included) will not prove to be as durable as many other earlier bindings — both materially and structurally — though would like to learn what specifically Cobden-Sanderson did differently.

Are turn of the 20th century tight-back tanned leather bindings due a reappraisal?

 

NOTES:
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  1. Email to Jeff Peachey from Bill Minter, 18 June 2016, 12:57 PM.
  2. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcombe, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.
  3. Email to Bill Minter from Marianne Tidcomve, 22 June 2016, 2:05 PM.

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.

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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.

The Integument is an Integral Part of the Book-Brander Matthews

In 2008 there were two major exhibitions of 19th century publishers’ bindings; The Well Dressed Booat the University of Maryland,  and The Proper Decoration of Book Covers: The Life and Work of Alice C. Morse at the Grolier club in NYC.  One day symposiums accompanied both, and the speakers rallied around the cause of celebrating the presumably unknown, or at least undervalued work of 19th century publishers’ binding designers, often only identified by microscopic initials hidden within the stamping on the front cover.  

Last weekend, I purchased and read Brander Matthews’ book, Bookbindings Old and New, (Strand Bookstore, ex-library copy, $20!) published in 1895, expecting to find the typical remarks of a pedantic 19th century bibliophile, but instead found an opinionated, yet breezily written assessment of mainly French bookbinders from the 16th through the 18th centuries, a chapter on publishers’ bindings and a short history of the Grolier Club.  I found Matthews to be passionate about defending the high quality of work by many book designers of the day– including Margaret N. Armstrong, Mrs. Henry Whitman, Stanford White, Harold B. Sherwin, Hugh Thomson, Edwin A. Abbey, D.S. Maccoll, and more. “The beauty of the modern book is not that of the book of yore” (172), he writes, “Just how excellent some modern commercial bindings are, scarcely any of us have taken time to discover; for we are prone to overlook not a few of the best expressions of contemporary art, natural outgrowths of modern conditions, in our persistent seeking for some great manifestation which we fail to find. ” (174)  He later continues, “It is a fact that commercial bookbinding , often ignorantly looked down on, is now at a most interesting stage of its history; and it seems to me very worth while to consider some of its recent successes.” (175)  

He even is an early advocate for preservation of paper wrappers, “One word of warning, and I have done:  never destroy the paper cover of a book, even of the least important pamphlet.  The integument is an integral part of the book…” (283) The page opposite this quote is an illustration of the Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which today is worth much, much more if in original wrappers. He obviously recognizes and values the unique physical character of books, and  quotes Hawthorne’s admonishment to collectors who rebind their publishers’ cloth books in leather, those who “strip off the real skin of a book to put it into fine clothes.” (If anyone knows where this quote appears in Hawthorne’s Oeuvre, please let me know, a citation is not included in Matthew’s book)

But at the same time, he complains about the state of hand bookbinding, and is particularly disparaging of the use of the roll in tooling. “The use of the roll, repeating the same motive indefinitely as it is rolled over the leather, is indefensible; it is the negation of art; it destroys the free play of hand which is the very essence of handicraft.” (69)  For Matthews, Cobden-Sanderson is the height of modern bookbinding genius–there are 8 large plates of his bindings– and is critical of the “artistic sterility” of Zaehnsdorf.  “The most original figure among English binders of this century–in fact, the only original figure since Roger Payne–is Mr. Cobden-Sanderson.” (129) “Believing in handicraft as the salvation of humanity, and that a man should labor with his hands, he abandoned the bar, and studied the trade of the binder.” (132)

He ends up adopting a somewhat black and white position:  all hand bookbinding should be done by hand, preferably both the forwarding and the finishing by the same man, but commercial binding is the execution of of design. “So a book-cover stamped by steam may be a thing of beauty if it is designed by Mrs. Whitman or by Mr. Stanford White.” (175)  He ends his essay by claiming the Americans superior to the English in modern book design, and concludes that books are “…one of the most important forms of houshold art–of decorative art.  Properly understood, and intelligently practiced, it is capable of educating the taste even of the thoughtless, and giving keen enjoyment to those love books for their own sake.”(228)  

I am a bit reluctant to include this link to his book online, since it seems somewhat disrespectful to his wonderful phrase “the integument is an integral part of the book.”

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Matthews, Brander.  Bookbindings Old and New: Notes of a Book Lover: With an Account of the Grolier Club of New York.  New York: Macmillan, 1895.