[Oscar Wilde’s essay on binding interestingly reflects on his belief in the primacy of what he calls the ‘expressive arts’ – poetry, painting and sculpture. Though fascinated with decorative art, he is dismissive of Cobden-Sanderson’s claims that book-binding can be a vehicle for the articulation of serious ideas and is unimpressed by the binder’s Ruskinian argument that high-quality handicraft could (or should) be a means of liberating the workman who made it from social oppression. On the contrary, Wilde insists that binding should be concerned purely with the production of beauty as an end in itself, unconnected with ethics or other considerations. This notion accords with the emphasis on self-serving Beauty that features throughout his writing. The text given here was transcribed from the 1909 The Complete Works (see bibliography). — Simon Cooke]

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‘The beginning of art,’ said Mr. Cobden-Sanderson last night in his charming lecture on Bookbinding, ‘is man thinking about the universe.’ He desires to give expression to the joy and wonder that he feels at the marvels that surround him, and invents a form of beauty through which he utters the thought or feeling that is in him. And bookbinding ranks amongst the arts: ‘through it a man expresses himself.’

This elegant and pleasantly exaggerated exordium preceded some very practical demonstrations. 'The apron is the banner of the future!' exclaimed the lecturer, and he took his coat off and put his apron on. He spoke a little about old bindings for the papyrus roll, about the ivory or cedar cylinders round which old manuscripts were wound, about the stained covers and the elaborate strings, till binding in the modern sense began with literature in a folded form, with literature in pages. A binding, he pointed out, consists of two boards, originally of wood, now of mill-board, covered with leather, silk or velvet. The use of these boards is to protect the 'world's written wealth.' The best material is leather, decorated with gold. The old binders used to be given forests that they might always have a supply of the skins of wild animals; the modern binder has to content himself with importing morocco, which is far the best leather there is, and is very much to be preferred to calf.

Mr. Sanderson mentioned by name a few of the great binders such as Le Gascon, and some of the patrons of bookbinding like the Medicis, Grolier, and the wonderful women who so loved books that they lent them some of the perfume and grace of their own strange lives. However, the historical part of the lecture was very inadequate, possibly necessarily so through the limitations of time. The really elaborate part of the lecture was the practical exposition. Mr. Sanderson described and illustrated the various processes of smoothing, pressing, cutting, paring, and the like. He divided bindings into two classes, the useful and the beautiful. Among the former he reckoned paper covers such as the French use, paper boards and cloth boards, and half leather or calf bindings. Cloth he disliked as a poor material, the gold on which soon fades away. As for beautiful bindings, in them ‘decoration rises into enthusiasm.’ A beautiful binding is ‘a homage to genius.’ It has its ethical value, its spiritual effect. ‘By doing good work we raise life to a higher plane,’ said the lecturer, and he dwelt with loving sympathy on the fact that a book is ‘sensitive by nature,’ that it is made by a human being for a human being, that the design must ‘come from the man himself, and express the moods of his imagination, the joy of his soul.’ There must, consequently, be no division of labour. ‘I make my own paste and enjoy doing it,’ said Mr. Sanderson as he spoke of the necessity for the artist doing the whole work with his own hands. But before we have really good bookbinding we must have a social revolution. As things are now, the worker diminished to a machine is the slave of the employer, and the employer bloated into a millionaire is the slave of the public, and the public is the slave of its pet god, cheapness. The bookbinder of the future is to be an educated man who appreciates literature and has freedom for his fancy and leisure for his thought.

All this is very good and sound. But in treating bookbinding as an imaginative, expressive human art we must confess that we think that Mr. Sanderson made something of an error. Bookbinding is essentially decorative, and good decoration is far more often suggested by material and mode of work than by any desire on the part of the designer to tell us of his joy in the world. Hence it comes that good decoration is always traditional. Where it is the expression of the individual it is usually either false or capricious. These handicrafts are not primarily expressive arts; they are impressive arts. If a man has any message for the world he will not deliver it in a material that always suggests and always conditions its own decoration. The beauty of bookbinding is abstract decorative beauty. It is not, in the first instance, a mode of expression for a man's soul. Indeed, the danger of all these lofty claims for handicraft is simply that they show a desire to give crafts the province and motive of arts such as poetry, painting and sculpture. Such province and such motive they have not got. Their aim is different. Between the arts that aim at annihilating their material and the arts that aim at glorifying it there is a wide gulf.

However, it was quite right of Mr. Cobden-Sanderson to extol his own art, and though he seemed often to confuse expressive and impressive modes of beauty, he always spoke with great sincerity.

Next week Mr. Crane delivers the final lecture of this admirable ‘Arts and Crafts’ series and, no doubt, he will have much to say on a subject to which he has devoted the whole of his fine artistic life. For ourselves, we cannot help feeling that in bookbinding art expresses primarily not the feeling of the worker but simply itself, its own beauty, its own wonder.

Related material


Wilde, Oscar. ‘Beauties of Bookbinding.’Pall Mall Gazette (November 23, 1888.) Rpt. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde 6 (New York: Bigelow, 1909), pp. 103–4.

Last modified 25 October 2016