Just a few minutes past two on a Sunday afternoon, the doors of the reading room of the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris opened to admit the public to an unusual exhibition of bookbindings. Three elements made this presentation unique: the occasion, the duration, and the presentation of the bindings themselves.
The occasion was the announcement of the formation of a new international group, based in Paris, of bookbinders and book artists: AIR neuf (1). The duration was four hours only. The bindings were displayed, without protection, on the tables of the reading room. Visitors were asked to look but not to touch. The nine founding members of the organization each had separate display areas, with an average of six books apiece. Each binder was available to answer questions about his or her bindings and to open them to explain details to an interested visitor.
The atmosphere was warm and intimate. The books were more accessible than in a standard exhibition. That accessibility permitted the books to return to their nature as books, and the viewer was able to appreciate them on their own terms. Not being behind glass they were examined more thoroughly, not just in terms of their cover design.
The exhibition had a feeling of unity; there were enough differences in the works of each binder to show his or her individuality. Carmencho Arregui presented variations of her crossed-structure bindings, some of which had been shown in Oxford just a few weeks earlier, along with her uncommon papers. The bindings of Florent Rousseau and Jacky Vignon were more traditional. A. Noir's exceptional bindings in black were accompanied by paints and sculpture made to harmonize with them. Conservator Manne Dahlstedt's work moved, often with a wink, almost toward book sculpture, but always with a firm understanding of structure visible. Odette Drapeau's textural bindings were done with leather from fish skins. Annie Boige's collection included a deceptively simple and elegant binding for a book more than two feet high. A binding done for a 15th century student's manuscript, bound into its own wooden lectern, was one of several striking pieces presented by Sün Evrard. Four different bindings based on the Coptic sewing structure were a part of my presentation.
Several hundred visitors came--some for half an hour or so, others for more than an hour. Many just looked closely, their hands behind their backs. Others questioned the binders closely, some intrigued by the less traditional bindings, several curious about techniques, and some curious about motivation. But all were interested, and the opportunity for rapport between visitor and binder was unequalled.
This form of presentation was truly exceptional, though unfortunately not practical for the majority of bookbinding exhibitions. But for this afternoon, and for this occasion, it truly was a breath of fresh air.
(1) Five of the nine founding members are French: Annie Boige, Sün Evrard, A. Noir, Florent Rousseau and Jacky Vignon. The remaining four are Carmencho Arregui from Italy, Marianne Dahlstedt from Sweden, Odette Drapeau from Canada and Joanne Sonnichsen from the U.S.
C.R. Ashbee's Essex House Press at Craftsman Farms. Received too late for our Calendar, but of interest to Guild members, is the following report submitted by David Lowden, guest curator of the exhibit, "C.R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft."
From September 23rd until October 30th, 1994 the exhibition "C. R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft: An English View of the Craftsman Ideal" was on display at Craftsman Farms, the Parsippany, New Jersey home of noted American Arts & Crafts designer Gustav Stickley, and a center for the study of the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Over half of the items exhibited were works published by the Guild's Essex House Press (1898-1910).
Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) was a contemporary of Gustav Stickley (1858-1942). Ashbee's many talents as a practicing architect, town planner, educator, social reformer, designer, writer and inveterate traveler made him a leader in the last decades of the English Arts & Crafts Movement, that began in the mid-nineteenth century and ended shortly before World War I. Ashbee founded the Guild of Handicraft in 1888 as a cooperative community of craftsmen who produced hand- crafted silverwork, jewelry, books, furniture and other decorative designs.
Ashbee was a master of many media, mostly self-taught. He is most well known for the Guild's 450-600 subtle silver designs. Guild jewelry was also well received in its day. The Guild also produced furniture and decorative designs and Ashbee maintained an active architectural practice and was a founder of the historic preservation movement in England. The books which the Guild's Essex House Press published between 1898 and 1910 are highly esteemed today. Essex House Press - The Book Beautiful
The exhibition included over 45 Essex House press items, out of a total of approximately 90 books printed. Most of the items on display were lent by Cameron Smith, Jean-Francois Vilain and David Lowden. These included ten of the 14 books of the Great Poems series, printed and bound on vellum and hand illumined, the three "Dumpy Puritans" (Bunyan, Penn and Woolman), the folio sized Prayer Book for the Coronation of King Edward VII (in paper and vellum, and in English and American, versions), the oblong colored Masque of the Edwards, and Ashbee's favorite, the Song Book, as well as numerous other offerings.
The exhibition aimed to show that the ideals of the "Book Beautiful" are those of the Arts and Crafts Movement applied to printing in that all aspects of the book itself, not just the words of the text, should rise to the level of art. The paper, the printing, the proportions, the borders, the decorations, the binding--all of these should be but one expression of the whole, each compatible with the other and each showing the other to its best advantage. It was noted how fine printing is both a visual and a tactile art--to experience it fully requires you to hold the book in your hands as well as to feast your eyes on its beauty. By showing the book arts in one of the premier venues of the American Arts & Crafts Movement, it can be seen how this visual and tactile appeal is a common thread through all aspects of the Arts & Crafts Movement--the grain of the furniture beckons you to run your hands along its length, the glowing patina of metalware calls out to be caressed and the sensuous shapes and surfaces of pottery seek to be cradled in your hands.
At the turn of the last century there was an explosion in the book arts, first in private presses and then, as a result, in the larger world of commercial printing. All of this came about following William Morris' enthusiastic rediscovery of early printing after an enlightening lecture on old letter forms by Emery Walker at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888 and the resulting establishment by Morris of his Kelmscott Press, the progenitor of the private press movement, in 1891.
The Essex House Press (1898-1910), while the last of the Guild's operations to come into operation, commencing in the tenth year of the Guild's life, was one of the premier private presses of the "English Nineties", along with Morris' Kelmscott Press (1891-1898), Charles Rickett's Vale Press (1896-1904), Lucian Pissaro's Eragny Press (1894-1914), Emery Walker's and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson's Doves Press (1900-1916) and C.H. St. John Hornby's Ashendene Press (1894-1935). Ashbee viewed the Essex House Press as a successor to, but not an imitator of, Morris's Kelmscott Press. When the Kelmscott Press was closed down following Morris's death, Ashbee bought two of its Albion handpresses and retained the services of many of the Kelmscott personnel; he also espoused ideals of craftsmanship akin to those of Morris. The hand-made paper, vellum and ink which he used were also identical to Kelmscott's.
There was a method to the selection of books chosen by Ashbee for publication, falling into several categories: technical books (including works on silversmithing and historic preservation), religious and puritan books (including the puritan writers of colonial Pennsylvania and New Jersey), books dealing with the work and ideals of the Guild itself, humanist books (including great poetry) and oriental books. The Essex House Press tended to avoid the chestnuts so tempting to most private presses, such as Rossetti's Hand and Soul and Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Ashbee's graphic involvement included the design of the Press's proprietary type, "Endeavour," and its larger counterpart "Prayer Book." These were heavy, high contrast types, appearing very black on the page (generally a look desired by many private press proponents, and fanatically espoused by Morris). It is an idiosyncratic type, lacking precedents, unlike Morris's designs based on Gothic letter forms. Its design is cursive, akin to script. It utilizes many tied letters. Eighteen of the 90-odd works published by the Press used these types; these were mostly works of poetry and volumes connected with the Guild ideal.
Ashbee also designed charming initial letters ("bloomers"), including those based on the Guild's typographic symbol, the dianthus or white pink, as well as ornamental letters used in the Psalter and Prayer Book and the various press marks (the white pink, in several variations, and the Essex House facade and doorway elevations).
Ashbee desired "to give every book issued from the Press a character of its own" through appropriate ornamentation. Exhibited Essex House Press works were blessed with designs not only from Ashbee's hands, but also from noted designers Reginald Savage, William Strang, Paul Woodroffe, T. Sturge Moore, Laurence Houseman and Walter Crane, along with other Guild-related designers, especially Edith Harwood (who provided two of the finest designs, for Chaucer's The Flower and the Leaf and The Masque of the Edwards of England), Edmund New (who provided various architectural drawings) and Philippe Mairet.
The exhibition demonstrated that Essex House work entails an appealing variety of illustration styles, fonts, sizes and subject matter, including both original material and classics.
Also on display were various volumes bound by the Press or the leading English binder, Douglas Cockerell. The factors which went into binding a book were like those used in determining all of the other elements of the book, that the binding should be artistic in its own right as well as be complementary to the basic text.
After having devised his proprietary fonts, it was natural for Ashbee to want to shape the exterior of his creations. He felt that fine books, particularly those used in official rights such as worship services, deserved and demanded the finest, richest bindings. The bindery prepared the standard private press bindings, as well as special bindings in morocco, vellum or rare woods. The bindery also utilized many 15th-century binding materials and methods, using wooden boards, enamels and silver (the standard binding on the Prayer Book, as exhibited in pristine condition, was oak boards, with leather back and leather-plaited hinges with metal clasps). The bindery also prepared one-of-a-kind bindings as well. Grove Park
An abbreviated version of the exhibition will travel to the Grove Park Arts & Crafts Conference, in Asheville, North Carolina during the weekend of February 17-19, 1995. For information about the conference, call Bruce Johnson at (704) 254-1912 or the Grove Park Hotel at (704) 252-2711.
A 76-page paperbound exhibition catalog, co-authored by guest curator David Lowden and Essex House Press collector Cameron O. Smith and decorated with Essex House press "bloomers," historiated initials and other designs, as well as sketches of Guild objects, is available for $10 (plus $.64 tax for New Jersey orders and $1.00 shipping). The catalog discusses the significance of Ashbee and the Guild, especially in comparison to Stickley and American Arts & Crafts, reviews Ashbee's seven lecture tours to the United States, describes each of the media in which Ashbee and the Guild worked and provides a detailed discussion of each object on display. Future Exhibitions at Craftsman Farms
Craftsman Farms will be hosting ongoing exhibitions on various Arts & Crafts related subjects, including the book arts, in the years to come. The museum is open from April through October; hours are Thursday from 12-3 and Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4. Craftsman Farms is located off Route 10 West, three miles west of Interstate 287, in Parsippany, New Jersey. For information, call (201) 540-1165, fax (201) 540- 1167 or write the Craftsman Farms Foundation, Inc., 2352 Route 10 West, Box 5, Morris Plains, NJ 07950-1214.