If one regarded the many volumes on the art of bookbinding lately published as indications of the real feeling of amateurs towards the books they collect, Burns' well-known epigram imploring the maggots to "respect his lordship's taste and share his golden bindings," would, have a much wider significance than he intended. But even the collector to-day is often a reader also; and he probably keeps cheap editions of his favourite books in duplicate for actual perusal, and enshrines his extravagantly bound copies in silk-lined cases, or behind air-tight glazed doors. Yet fine bindings, whether the phrase be taken metaphorically or literally, are only mechanically connected with books although modern taste demands that the volume shall be worthy its costly robes. Certain books, notably those issued in limited numbers from the Kelmscott and Vale Presses, or first editions of accepted masterpieces, are chosen for further enrichment at the hands of a master-craftsman. No one to-day binds current theology, legal tomes, or books of reference in costly covers. As a rule, the only books which are thus treated are those intrinsically valuable and produced in a worthy manner. It is true that an occasional minor poet or essayist may give his own volume the honour which he alone out of a world of men recognises as its due. But the choice of the contents to-day is not likely to raise surprise and tempt future collectors to quote the "fly in amber," and wonder why a thing neither rich nor rare was enshrined so royally. Indeed, not a few artist binders (Mr. T. J- Cobden-Sanderson for one) refuse to bestow upon books of no account the patient care demanded for a first-rate binding.

Chaucer by T. J- Cobden-Sanderson. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

Most of the monographs on bookbinding have been devoted entirely to old examples by unknown Italians and Germans, or by craftsmen so widely recognised as Derome, Nicholas, and Clovis Eve, Le Gascon, Padeloup, the Nuns of Little Gidding, Roger Payne, and the rest. But this limitation of interest to earlier bookbinding work is no doubt chiefly due to the plain fact that until lately the whole decoration of modern binding was confessedly derivate. In technique it had reached mechanical perfection, the dexterity of its manipulation left no loophole for criticism, but its artistic value was too often merely that of a well executed replica, or a new variation of accepted motives, which possess no real vitality to attract any but antiquarians and purists. In no craft capable of such artistic triumphs as bookbinding has shown itself to be, would it be possible to discover so much artistry bestowed on mere stock. patterns; for most of the triumphs of nineteenth century bookbinders are at best "chaste," at worst "deadly dull." Nearly all stand confessed as "exercises" in a certain "style," and betray no idea or invention. It is true that a large number of foreign bindings and a few English have essayed novelty at any cost, with the usual result. The sham Japanese designs, the naturalistic flowers, and fin de siecle Beardsleyesques do not come into our subject. What we need in modern binding "style" which is not fettered by precedent; originality without eccentricity, and, above all, a decoration which aims to beautify the appearance of the book, in contradistinction to one that if accidentally upon a binding, would be not less inappropriate upon a dozen other objects, in a dozen other materials.

For the moment we may confine our attention to the later designs of two living bookbinders whose work has already won deserved reputation. Both, it seems to me, have originated distinct styles, and yet the later comer owes nothing to the earlier worker.

Left: Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon by T. J- Cobden-Sanderson. Right: Robinson's The Viol of Love by D.S. and E.M. MacColl. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

The first, Mr. T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, has evolved a style all his own, although it is also patently enough an offspring of the great aesthetic movement, a legitimate descendant of Morris, and Burne-Jones, of the "Arts and Crafts," and the school of the Pre-Raphaelites. The other, Miss E. M. MacColl, carries out the designs of her brother, whose initials, "D. S. M.," are a guarantee of sane and thoughtful art-criticism rare in the English press. Here, for the sake of convenience, it will be easier to speak of the work as her own, but at the same time it is but fair to recognise that the honours are at least equally divided, and that Mr. D. S. MacColl's very original designs have given Miss MacColl the opportunity she has used so well. It is not easy to trace the source of the in.spiration of these bindings; to say that they are based on "Classic" art, as those of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson are remotely derived from Romantic (i.e. German), is to sacrifice the individuality of two distinctly original workers, merely because no other labels of classification are handy. But in a passing notice of this sort, the rough attempt to distinguish the governing idea may perhaps be permitted. At best such generalisation is slip-shod; for any designer of consequence is always sui generis, and creates a new class which his imitators quickly fill up, so that it becomes a recognised "school" of design. The main line of difference between Mr. Cobden-Sanderson and Miss MacColl undoubtedly lies in their use of gold. The former does not avoid the silhouette, indeed he cultivates it; the latter relies almost entirely on the line. Of course details might be found which would show Mr. Cobden-Sanderson employing the outline, and Miss MacColl using the mass. But, speaking in broad terms, this may be accepted as a distinction characteristic of the two workers. Again, Mr. Cobden-Sanderson relies chiefly upon a repeated pattern; Miss MacColl at times goes near a sort of conventionalised pictorial style, using, indeed, a new convention which suggests figures, and even landscapes, by arbitrary curves and lines, a convention which refuses to be classed under any previously existing type of decoration. In placing them together, no equality is inferred, still less is any invidious comparison suggested. No wise person sets Wagner and Chopin in opposition. Each composer achieved what he set out to attempt; so each is a master, and no mortal should be rash enough to apportion the relative value of masters. That is a task for the high gods.

Bookbinding designed by D. S. MacColl and executed by Miss E. M. MacColl.

Before referring to the illustrations which accompany this paper, it will be well to explain the methods of both workers. Especially is it necessary to call attention to a very important limitation which Mr. T. J. Cobden-Sanderson set himself at first, and has most loyally obeyed hitherto. This consists in employing as small a number as possible of tools, "stamps," as they are technically called. The stock rolls, "pallets," and stamps of various designs which are to be found by the hundred in many binderies he dispenses with entirely. The stamps he uses, in each case cut from his own designs, are probably little over thirty or forty, if we leave out mere curves, straight lines, and dots. A fine binding illustrated in The Studio, vol. ii. p. 55, reveals upon analysis, one rose-shaped device, three leaves — right, central, and left, and another floral shape. From these five, with certain curves, lines, and dots, is built up a most gorgeous pattern. Whether this self-imposed limitation is more than theoretically advantageous is another matter. One thing is certain, that it provokes the decorator to increased effort, that it calls for all his ingenuity in recombining the motives, and that the result in his case is to impart a "Cobden-Sanderson" style to dozens of designs entirely differing in their broad effect. The economy of this method is not worth considering. Bindings that cost many guineas need not be restricted to a few stamps merely on account of the cost; but he has shown that the frugal material has produced a far moie varied display of really elaborate and memorable designs than many of his predecessors achieved wiio employed a far greater number of separate stamps. The books Mr. Cobden-Sanderson has decorated, with so few tools, are wonderfully unlike each other. Yet a close study of a dozen volumes, each entirely independent of its neighbours, fails to discover impressions from more than a score of tools in all, and of these the greater portions are simple leaf-forms of different sizes; a large daisy and "a rose" are the only two which can be fairly called "ornaments" in themselves, the rest are fragmentary materials, whence the true ornaments are built up. As might be expected, the innovator has not been allowed to develop his individual system without many imitators who have copied the particular motives of his ornament closely enough. But if any one of these is likely to betray the fertility of design which has resulted from so few tools in Mr. Cobden-Sanderson's hands (and there is no sign at present), it will be a regret that so ingenious a disciple did not break away from precedent entirely and start with a completely fresh set of motives. But the decoration of the finished book is by no means the chief purpose of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson's work. Indeed, he has spoken most emphatically against the custom of considering the "finishing" of a book apart from the real handiwork of binding.

No doubt, to the public the design which niaics these volumes resplendent seems to be their chief feature of importance. Yet without exalting this aspect above other qualities present, which idmprise not merely the perfection of mechanism in all the preliminary stages known as " forwarding," but are concerned with the colour of the leather, the thickness of the boards, and a dozen other matters, each decided on its own merits, his decoration deserves the widespread eulogy it has obtained. For, as Mr. Brander Matthews wrote lately, "We do not find on his books any of the childish symbolism which has been abundantly advocated in England, and, according to which, a treatise on zoology or botany must be adorned with an animal or a flower — a bald and babyish labelling of a book wholly unrelated to propriety of ornamentation." Indeed Mr. Cobden-Sanderson has himself said, "Beauty is the aim of decoration, and not illustration or the expression of ideas." So that not only the ingenious method which has evolved dozens of beautifully individual patterns from a score or two of "stamps" deserves praise, but also the consistent effort to avoid the stupid practice of "appropriate" motives demands no less appreciation. Vulgar taste loves realistic pictures in place of patterns. The fight against the picture, which is always endeavouring to oust the pattern, is an old one, and it is the business of all who value the new decorative movement to keep alive to the constant danger which besets a decorator.

Another notable feature of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson's work is the well-placed and entirely decorative effect of his lettering. The characters designed (many of them by Miss May Morris) are obedient to the best precedent and eschew all vagaries of form dear to the "art-binder" of commerce. In the Book of Job (see page 41) is a capital instance of decoration obtained chiefly by finely placed inscriptions. The actual stamps used are a few small leaf forms and dots, with scroll work built up apparently from short curves and straight lines. In the Chaiiicr (page 42) no additional stamps appear, yet a totally new- effect is produced. In the Atalanta (page 43) the actual stamps appear to be but one floral device, and outline heart-shaped leaves in two sizes. "Any one could do as well if he had a mind to!" True, where the mind is equally fertile a very few motives may re-combine into unending patterns, but it all depends on the mind.

Much might be said of tiie flat backs Mr. Cobden-Sanderson usually employs, of the proportion of projecting margin he allows his boards; but if such items are not quite evident upon study of the books it would be little use to call attention to them. The lesson they offer is — not that an ambitious novice should decide to work in Mr. CobdenSanderson's style — that at best would only result in imitation, but he should study the thoroughness of his hero's method, and express the final decoration in his own idiom with a few "stamps" of his own design, planned to allow a great variety of new combinations, and worked as superbly as Mr. Cobden-Sanderson works.

The whole scheme of Miss E. M. MacColl's decoration is conceived on entirely different principles, not merely from those Mr. Cobden-Sanderson has developed so harmoniously, but from those of any previous binder. In the past the "roll" has been constantly employed; now as a single line, and again with more or less elaborate patterns on its rim. These wheels were usually from two to four inches in diameter. The pattern, as a rule, was not continuous, but showed a break of say half an inch. This was obviously by way of allowing a clean start for the run. If this was less in length than the circumference of the wheel a

])orli(>ii of our ri\i)luti()n Mitlucil; but if (as often luippt-nrd in tin.' borders to a large volume) ihc unbroken pallLTii was longer than the circumference, a new start was made from the break of the pattern. Miss MacColl's wheel is a tiny thing, scarce half an inch in diameter, and without any pattern on its edge. Nor does she coat it with gold as the larger wheels were often coated; in her method the pattern is first blind-tooled {i.e., merely impressed on the leather), gold leaf is then put into the lines, and the actual tooling is done by re-impressing them with the heated wheel, sometimes twice or even three times. The dexterity and accurate guidance of the tool in re-traversing the straight or involved lines of the pattern will be more realised by experts than by outsiders. I, who have "forwarded" and "finished" several atrociously clumsy bindings by the old process, can but stand aghast at the enterprise she adventured so lightly, and has accomplished so admiralily. In the first designs by Mr. D. S. MacColl, it was found necessary to cut specially several most simple curves, which, despite their simplicity, were not among the stock patterns of even first-rate bookbinders. This obstacle, which would have been felt as a crying evil long before, had hinders taken originality of pattern as a necessary part of their scheme, was quite surmounted by the invention of this ingenious little roulette, which has been so distinctly the cause of the freedom of line made possible by its use. Now that the innovation has justified its introduction, Miss MacColl is about to ex])eriment with wheels of much smaller diameter, which will follow a given line almost as freely as one could retrace it with brush or stylus.

Even in the few designs here reproduced the whole spirit of each is due to this mobile line, which preserves a vitality of its own as unlike the ordinary "line" upon bindings as is that of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley from those an engineer draughtsman uses for his plans. Not only has Mi.ss MacColl impressed most subtle curves by its means, she has essayed the perfect circle, and not unsuccessfully. If you attempt to trace a circle with a pen the task is soon discovered to be difficult; hut to endeavour to keep its true arc with a wheel, implies a certain instinct only obtained after long practice by an expert accustomed to wield brush and crayon. That the commercial binder is apt to betray contempt for this innovation is scarce a thing to wonder at. All his skill, which is often raised to the nth degree of excellence, would be of little help in this case. It is not the expert workman who is needed, but the draughtsman who has brains at his finger tips, and feels almost unconsciously the subtlety of the line; even as the fingers of a virtuoso "stop " the string of his violin exactly at the right spot to produce the note in perfect tune. On a piano the spot is there unmistakably, on the violin you have to find it anew every time; and so with this wheel it is the trained skill that has become a second nature, which can alone attempt feats of this sort. For in "tooling" there is no possibility of erasure, and little of retouching. Like that from a silver-point, the line is indelible, and has become part and parcel of the design — unalterable and evident.

In the Viol of Love cover (page 44) this tooling is used in combination with a sort of mosaic of leather — applique work as it were — which has never before been possible in so unrestrained a manner. The Cupid, for instance, would have required a set of tools cut specially to make a single impression possible; with her tiny cycle Miss MacColl could accomplish a frieze of a hundred figures all entirely different, were she disposed.

It would be foolish to attempt to appraise the value of Mr. D. S. MacColl's designs, in comparison with those upon all previous bookcovers. There is no point in common; or rather there is one, and that not an unimportant detail, which it is quite possible has never been reduced to a clear principle before. Older bindings show obedience to it occasionally, but far more often disregard it entirely. If we consider the scale of a pattern for any work, we must needs take some feature as the unit. Mr. D. S. MacColl, recognising that the structure of a bound volume is based upon the strings which cross the back, and that the relative sizes of the spaces between these strings are governed not only by the height but by the thickness of the book, has observed shrewdly that these said spaces (call them panels if you will) suggest the true scale for the design of the side. In other words, he thinks that the scale of the pattern should never be too coarse or too heavy to be used in these circumscribed spaces. It is obvious that the lettering must always be controlled by them. Every notable binder has obeyed that principle consciously or unconsciously; but, oddly enough, pattern has not always been influenced by the same rule.

But in speaking generally of "styles" in binding it is hard to find any old "style" peculiar to bindings whence to start a survey. Bindings have hitherto employed with certain adaptations the style in vogue at the period for the decorative metal work, embroideries, and other substances. Scarce one has been developed by the material, and possibly not one has been consciously developed in a logical attempt to analyse the structural features of the book, and to plan the decoration accordingly. Limiting our attention to whole-bound books, we fintl tliat the raised bands of the older fashion will show almost the only distinct effort to emphasise the construction by the ornament. It is true that good craftsmen, from the earliest to the latest, have kept the proportions of the decoration to a pleasant scale, and have taken now the lettering as the unit (as in Mr. Cobden-Sanderson's Chaucer), and again the principal "motive" of the ornament (as in the Grolier bindings). But when stock stamps are used, it follows that the scale can only be varied within limits.

Perhaps, as a hasty attempt to differentiate between the old and new methods, we may say that Mr. Cobden-Sanderson has replaced the stock stamp by a variety of incomplete parts, which are capable of being reunited in a thousand ways, and that Miss E. M. MacColl has superseded "stamps" by her rouletted line. This is, of course, a very rough-and-ready definition; but while Mr. Cobden-Sanderson himself employs "the line" in curves built up for certain fixed segments, and Miss MacColl uses a few simple stamps, these secondary details do not clash with the main principles which govern the work of each. In this paper the decoration, and that only, has been touched upon. The equally important principles which regulate the "forwarding" of the book must be left to a more convenient occasion.

Gleeson White.


“Some Recent Bookbindings by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Miss E. M. Maccoll.” The Studio. 10 (February 1897): 40-47. Internet Archive. Web. 20 November 2012.

Last modified 20 November 2012