Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/Bookbinding: Its Processes and Ideal

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BOOKBINDING: ITS PROCESSES AND IDEAL.[1]

By T. J. COBDEN-SANDERSON.

BOOKBINDING is in itself a comparatively simple matter and is easily described: but it is associated with great and interesting conditions of society, and at its highest rises into disinterested admiration by such means of expression as are within its reach of what is most beautiful and wonderful in human achievement, the written and printed speech of man. Binding, moreover, like every other handicraft, is on its ideal side a discipline and a type of life. I propose, therefore, to explain indeed how a book is bound, and how, when bound, it may be tooled. But I propose also throughout to set the craft into imaginative sympathy with the thought it would perpetuate; to touch upon its origin, its history, and its patrons; to characterize the styles of the great periods of tooled decoration; to insist upon the need of some new departure in the invention and development of pattern; and finally, leaving the special objects of the binder's craft, to find in the intuition of the harmony of the universe an outline of the ideal of the craftsman and of the artist.

Speaking generally, binding has its origin in the desire to perpetuate thought. Before the discovery or invention of pliable portable material suitable for writing upon, “binding” was sought for and found in imperishable natural objects, stones, tablets, columns, ready to hand, upon which the thought was permanently incised. In this case the binding may be said to have preceded the writing. It was only when writing was made upon separate pieces or sheets of a pliable and perishable material that binding proper was invented to hold the pieces or sheets together and to give strength to them, and protection and beauty.

But here again a distinction must be made. The pliable written sheet may be either rolled or folded, each giving rise to a form of binding peculiar to itself. The rolled sheet is bound by fastening each sheet to the other sideways, and rolling the whole laterally from end to end, the last sheet serving as a cover to all the rest. The folded sheet, on the other hand, is bound by simply sewing or otherwise fastening the parts of the sheet to one another at the back crease or fold. And a number of folded sheets or of sections, as they are called, are bound by fastening each of them at the back to some common support, so that when all are sewn or otherwise fastened at the back, they may yet be free to open and shut at the front, or fore-edge.

The invention of the folded sheet thus gave rise to the invention of modern binding, which, in its essence is the union at the back of the folded sheets, which together constitute the folded book, or, as I might say, despite the latent contradiction, the folded volume.

Throughout the long period which has elapsed since the invention of the folded sheet—it is said to have been invented in the third century before Christ—binding must have undergone many and important changes. But of these changes few records remain. Speaking generally of the binding of the middle and later ages, we may say that at each successive epoch the form of the binding adapted itself to the state of literature at the time. When books were few and large and stationary, the binding was correspondingly large and bossy and heavy; and when books became numerous and lighter and portable, the binding adapted itself to the new conditions, and, dropping the oak boards, the brass fittings, clasps, bosses, and chains, became itself light and portable and beautiful. And thus wood and silk, and velvet and leather, iron and brass, and silver and gold, and precious stones, were all used by the artificers of the middle and earlier ages in the protection and embellishment of the world's written wealth. The invention of printing, however, and the multiplication of books, gave the victory to leather and to gold tooling, and with the invention of printing, binding passed into its modern phase, and became ultimately a craft apart, the craft of the bookbinder.

To the renown of bookbinding many countries and cities and patrons have contributed, as well as the artists and craftsmen whose work it has been. Singularly enough, the names of very few bookbinders are known, but it is well known that to Grolier and to France is mainly due the gold tooling which is still the chief means of making the bound book beautiful. This tooling, of obscure origin, was practiced first in Europe in Italy, but was soon after introduced into France by Grolier, and the French schools of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are still the great schools of design in that decorative method.

Deserving of mention or of allusion in this connection, even in the shortest account of bookbinding, are the innumerable crafts—crafts for the production of materials and crafts for the production of tools—upon which the binder's own craft depends. For this collaboration of crafts is a fact of capital importance and should always be borne in mind, that the solidarity of all industries may be understood and the dignity of each be appreciated.

It is to be regretted, however, that at this moment the craftsmen immediately concerned in making a book, the paper-maker, the printer, and the binder, are not in possession of ideas bearing and operative upon the book as a whole, and controlling their several crafts to the one common end of the book beautiful, and the binder is in the unfortunate position of coming last, to inherit all, and be helpless under, the mistakes of his predecessors the paper-maker, printer, and publisher.

Modern binding may be divided into two main divisions: 1. Bindings for use. 2. Bindings for beauty's sake. I do not say that the divisions can be precisely defined or that the useful may not be beautiful, or that the beautiful may not be useful. I mean only that of a certain class the utility of the binding is the main characteristic, and that of a certain other class not the utility of the binding but the beauty of the decoration is the prominent and delightful feature. All bindings may be, and most bindings are, decorated in some form or other, but I would deprecate the decoration in gold of cloth or paper bindings; the material is too poor and the kind of binding is unsuitable for elaborate invention. Decoration should be reserved for cases in which a permanent pleasure is aimed at, and decoration in all its affluence exclusively for bindings of the best kind, and for books that are in themselves, apart from their apparel, beautiful and worthy of conspicuous honor.

The binding of a book, to come closer to our subject, is a series of processes too numerous to be entered upon in detail, in so short an account of bookbinding as the present, but the main operations are as follows:

1. The sheets are folded so that the headlines of each page shall, if possible, be at a uniform height throughout the book.

2. The sections are then sewn to cords, set and held at equal distances from one another in a frame, and at right angles to the sections.

3. The ends of the cords are frayed out and laced into and fastened to rectangular pieces of millboard (called boards), cut to the size of the sides of the book, which they protect.

4. The boards and back are then covered with leather or other suitable material, and the last and first sheets of the book (added to the book proper for the purpose) are pasted down upon the inside of the boards.

The book so treated is completely “forwarded,” as it is called, and ready to pass into the hands of the “finisher” to be tooled or decorated, or “finished.” The decoration in gold on the surface of a bound book is wrought out bit by bit by means of small engraved brass stamps called “tools.” The steps of the process are shortly as follows:

1. The pattern is first worked out with the tools blackened in the smoke of a candle or lamp, upon a piece of paper cut to the exact size of the portion of the book to be decorated.

2. The piece of paper with the pattern upon it is then applied to the surface to be decorated, and the pattern is reimpressed on the paper, and so through on to the surface of the book.

3. The paper is now removed, and the pattern on the book is reimpressed with hot tools to make the impression crisp and distinct.

4. At this stage a different process begins. The surface of the cover, with the pattern impressed upon it as described, is taken bit by bit and treated as follows:

1. First it is moistened with water or vinegar.

2. Then the pattern is penciled over with “glaire,” which is a liquid composed of the white of an egg beaten up and drained off.

3. Then, when the glaire is dry, the surface is lightly touched with oil or grease to give a hold to the gold leaf next to be applied.

4. Then the gold leaf, cut to the size and shape of the portion of the cover to be operated on, is applied by a flat brush called a “tip,” and pressed down by a pad of cotton-wool to reveal the pattern underneath.

5. Then, and finally, the pattern with the gold upon it is gone over again with the hot tools, and the gold is impressed into it. The rest of the gold is rubbed away with an oiled rag, and the pattern is now displayed permanently in gold and “finished.”

The description is easy—how easy!—but the craft is difficult. Gold can not be persuaded to stick as a friend may be persuaded to stay; it must be made to stick—i. e., all the conditions upon which successful gold tooling depends must in all cases be observed, and there is the rub! What in each case—and the circumstances are never quite the same—are the conditions? How divine them? A little more or a little less makes so much difference. How dry may the leather be, or how damp must it be? How much glaire? How hot must the tools be? When is the moment to begin? Then how difficult it is correctly to manipulate the tools, to keep them even upon the leather! How difficult, finally, to keep the leather, throughout all the long and difficult operation, perfectly clean and the gold brilliant! What patience, what natural aptitude, what acquired skill, what fortitude! “The city sparkles like a grain of salt.” “Shall I ever succeed?” the apprentice may well ask himself. “Shall I ever attain to such skill, to such consciousness of power, that I shall not even know how to fail?” In this difficulty, too, and in the effort and ambition to overcome it, lies a further difficulty, the snare of the art, the temptation of the finisher. He becomes engrossed in it—the finisher in mere finishing. He pursues it positively, and not in subordination to design. And he achieves victory at last, only to find that what he should have achieved, the thing beautiful, has escaped him. He can tool but he can not design; and he has so magnified execution that when completely successful, when completely triumphant, he is then most conspicuously a failure. The tremulous outline of design—and design appeals to the imagination, to the inner eye of the soul as well as to the outer eye of sense—the tremulous outline of design has perished in the too great exactitude of his acomplished execution. Wholly to achieve victory, indeed, in the binder's craft, to forget no end in the prosecution of the means, to exaggerate no feature from long practice and perfect skill, to permit no craft of hand to overcome the judgment of the head, is, in bookbinding, as in all crafts, an exceedingly difficult task, and we have in the very development of a craft the cause of its ultimate decay. But what an education the prosecution of a craft is for the soul of a man! The silent matter, which is the craftsman's material, is wholly in his hands, it hears and makes no reproaches, but it never forgives and it has no mercy. Sunrise after sunrise lights the craftsman to his task, sunset after sunset leaves him to his regret. Shall the sun ever rise upon victory or set upon contentment? It is a great struggle. He only knows how great the struggle is, who knows what the aim of craft rising into the ideal is, and who tolerates, between him and it, no cloud of self-illusion, no splendor of popular praise to blind or to darken his gaze. And so through the work of his hand man may rise indeed to his soul's height. But the victory itself is withdrawn behind the veil. The world may not know it when it is achieved, and the artist himself may sometimes see it achieved, as he thinks, when to reach it he has yet to traverse the entire way of truth.

“Sown in a wrinkle of the monstrous hill,
 The city—sparkles still, a grain of salt.”

The great schools of design for the decoration of bound books are the great schools of France of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first great school—the school of Grolier as it may be called—is characterized mainly by the simple motives of straightness and curvature. Straight and curved bands or straps and straight or curved lines are interwoven one with the other and distributed on a more or less simple or intricate but always symmetrical plan over the sides and back and sometimes the edges of a book.

The second great school—the school of the Eves—is characterized by the symmetrical distribution over the side of the cover of symmetrically drawn compartments or panels, and the union of them all into one organic whole by the intermediation of twisted or interwoven bands. This is its main and for its earlier years almost its only characteristic. But the school attained its maturity by the combination with it of an independent contemporary style, which consisted in the use of a number of brandies, spreading from each corner of the cover toward the center, the unity of the whole being enhanced by a semis, simple or alternate, of some simple tools over the whole of the side. The combination was effected under the direction, if not by the hands, of the great binders Nicholas and Clovis Eve, and consisted in the enrichment of the interspaces of the first style by means of the sprays and branches of the second. When mature the school was characterized by compartments symmetrically distributed and connected, filled with dainty devices or with the severer tools of the Grolier pattern, and supported and enriched in the inter-spaces by foliated branches and sprays.

The third great school—the school of Le Gascon—and perhaps the last, was characterized by the combination with the geometrical framework of the preceding school of a new motive, borrowed, I think, from the contemporary lace, or perhaps filigree work, and used, ultimately, to fill in both the compartments or panels and the space between them. The motive is an exceedingly simple one, a small spiral of dots, but the close repetition of it has a singularly rich if somewhat bewildering effect. The school, however, in what specially characterized it, has dropped the tradition of form and is content with the glitter of gold. The repetition of the spiral is not always organic in its construction. The spirals are placed side by side, they do not grow the one out of the other. And I submit that all patterns, to be good, must be organic in the relation of their details and organic in the method of their development.

The great schools of design which I have thus attempted to characterize are historical, and they are closed. The future, as I have elsewhere had occasion to remark, is not, in my opinion, with them or their developments or repetition, however much the present may occupy itself with their corrected iteration.

Design is invention and development, and when development has reached a certain point the invention is exhausted and some new departure must be taken. No new departure, however, of any importance has taken place since the close of the great schools of France of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the decoration of bound books is still an open problem awaiting solution at the hands of genius.

But though the problem awaits solution the conditions of the problem may, I think, be stated shortly in general terms. In the first place, then, there must be in any design a scheme or framework of distribution. The area to be covered must be covered according to some symmetrical plan. In the second place, the scheme or framework of distribution must itself be covered by the orderly repetition and, if need be, modification and development of some primary element of decoration. In the great French schools which I have attempted to describe, the motifs were primarily curved or straight bands or lines, and compartments composed of the same, the whole pattern of the first school becoming, in principle, the motifs of the second and third.

Before leaving this subject of design I may be permitted to prophesy that in the infinite inventions of Nature herself will, in the future as in the past, be found the suggestions of design, and that in seeking them there the craftsman artist will enter again into that vital communion with her which is the condition at once of his own happiness and of his own imaginative growth. But the prophecy must be accompanied by this caution—design can not, in my opinion, be taught. It is as distinctly a gift of imaginative genius as the power of poetical vision and expression. To the conditions of the problem, then, must be added the genius suitable for its solution.

I have now, in conclusion, to say what, in my opinion, the craft of the binder is, and in what relation it stands to the supreme art and craft of life itself.

All this universe of light and shade and sound, which at all moments surrounds us, and constitutes the supreme object of man's thoughts, his intranscendent inner and outer self, may be looked upon as itself a work of art in progress, and man's life through the ages as an attempt, ever renewed, to apprehend it in its entirety, and to reduce it to something appreciable by his imagination and his affections. This is not the moment to dwell at length upon this attempt, or to show how, with increasing knowledge of his environment, his previous conceptions of it have perished to give birth to higher and wider appreciations; but I may allege that, in my opinion, all the religions which have figured upon the stage of history, as well as all philosophical and scientific systems, are attempts at this reduction of the universe, and of man as a part of it, to an entirety harmonious within itself, and fit to be the dwelling place of the imaginative soul of mankind. They are attempts, and for some of us they have ceased to be adequate. For myself, I see only unbounded space and infinite time, and within those illimitables, a finite world obedient to law, unfolding to unknown ends; and though I can not grasp that world in its entirety, yet I can divine the amplitude of its rhythm, be sensitive to its adaptations and to the balance of its parts, and, in the spirit of the infinitely great, work at the infinitely little, and feel the two akin in their adjustments, balance, and rhythm.

It is in this intuition of the harmony of the universe that the ideal of the work of the hand resides. It is itself an adjustment, at once beautiful and serviceable. It is a dedication of man's powers to an end not beyond man's reach; it develops invention and the imaginative faculties; it distracts the mind from the vexed question, never wholly to be put aside, of man's own ultimate destiny; it gives him rest; it gives him hope that, even as from the work of his own hands here there arise things of beauty and of use, so from his whole life's work there may arise in the “hereafter,” which in some sense may be only another form of the “present,” a something of even greater use and greater beauty still.

It is in this wise that I commend to you all the life of the workman, of the workman working in little in the spirit of the whole.


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  1. Address delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, February 2, 1894.