20th Century Bookbinding

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Hand bookbinders in Ontario were provided with a special treat this winter when the Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted an exhibition of 20th Century Bookbinding. Some two hundred people attended the opening. Considering that openings at the gallery at times attract as few as twenty loyal followers, the affair can be deemed a resounding success and a just source of pride for all concerned.

Organized over a period of a year and a half by John Holmes, book preservation specialist at McMaster University Library in Hamilton, the exhibition is believed to have been the first of its kind mounted for a Canadian gallery. Holmes brought together work by leading contemporary bookbinders from Canada, the United States, England, and Europe. Although concurrent exhibitions in the U.S. and in England prevented more considerable participation, the final selection consisted of fifty-one bindings. A few select bindings done earlier in the century were included for historical perspective.

John Holmes is to be commended, not only for organizing this exhibition single handed on a volunteer basis, but also for raising the money to have an illustrated catalogue printed. Sales of the catalogue, among the highest of all the gallery's catalogues, have proved public interest in bookbinding.

In assembling the show, Holmes sought to give public exposure to the art of hand bookbinding, to promote new design concepts and techniques, and, in so doing, to give Canadian binders an opportunity to make themselves known. He demanded a high degree of craftsmanship in all the work. Older bindings were chosen as examples of elegant and traditional designs, contemporary submissions for innovation and creativity. Aside from John Holmes, Ontario bookbinders included Emrys Evans, John A. Grace, Annegret Hunter-Elsenbach, Seamas McClafferty, and Michael Wilcox.

A unique feature of the show and ancillary events was the participation of British bookbinder Philip Smith, whose planned 1982 tour of North America had served as catalyst for the exhibition. At the Ontario College of Art, Toronto, Smith gave a public slide show and lecture on modern bookbinding and book art and conducted special workshops for students of printmaking. As well, he gave an all-day intensive workshop which dealt with three techniques he has perfected: onlay and inlay; a binding construction of his invention called tongue and slot; and the puckering of leather for special effects. With so much to absorb, the ten participants maintained a hectic pace.

Philip Smith, who was born in 1928, graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, 1954, and subsequently did binding and conservation work with fellow countryman Sydney Cockerell, the son of Douglas Cockerell (whose work was also seen in Hamilton). A past president of Designer Bookbinders (England), 1977-79, and a respected author, Smith is well known as an innovator in the field. Three examples of his work highlighted the Hamilton exhibition. The Song of Solomon (Circle Press, Guildford, 1968), bound in 1976, was the most stunning. Characteristic of his designs is the extremely minute and busy maril onlay, in this piece set off to advantage by large, free-flowing, Magritte-like, cut-out shapes.

The history of fine hand bookbinding naturally traces the history of the book itself, and of rare and expensive books at that. Early manuscripts were scarce. Bindings performed the function of keeping the pages flat and conserving them. Since individual bindings require a substantial investment of time and ability, it follows that the craft became intrinsically linked with fine materials and beautiful books, all of which necessitate patronage by the wealthy.

Since Canada had neither thirteenth-century monks to produce illuminated manuscripts, nor local monarchs (not to mention bibliophilic royal mistresses) to encourage the craft of bookbinding, and since this lack, of course, did nothing to foster the creation of great collections of ancient books, it cannot be a great surprise to anyone that Canada does not possess extremely important bookbinding traditions.

Although no comprehensive study of the history of Canadian bookbinding has yet been published, such a study might contain a few pleasant discoveries. The trouble with not knowing the history of things is that every generation believes it is the first to flower. Rena Szajman, writing on Emrys Evans, bookbinder, in Crafts Canada (June/July 1977), points out that the earliest examples of Canadian hand bindings date from 1793 and that by the 1830s books were being bound in full leather.

In his introductory notes to the catalogue of the Hamilton show, David B. Kotin, head of the Canadian History Department at the Metropolitan Toronto Library, mentions "instances of Canadian hand bookbinders having their work shown nationally and internationally during the first half of the century," although he does stress they were isolated cases. He adds, "For example, in the twenties the annual Exhibition of Applied Arts in the Canadian National Exhibition (Toronto) displayed Canadian bookbindings, and the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco featured the work of seven Canadian binders."

Although Robert Muma was not included in this show, younger binders in Ontario view him as the grandfather of Canadian bookbinding. Born in 1907 in Coldstream, near London, Ontario, Muma is largely self-taught. Before turning to bookbinding full-rime in the early 1960s, he had mastered leatherwork, reviving and perfecting many old techniques. At one rime, sales of his publications on the subject accounted for one third of his income. His only official training in bookbinding was a six-week stint at the Graphic Arts Department of Columbia University in New York, where courses were taught by the German Gerlach Gerhard and the American Laura Young. There Muma was told by his instructors that he already knew what there was to know about the subject.

The recent upsurge in interest in hand bookbinding has come to Ontario via concerns for book conservation and restoration. In the 1960s when Canada became aware of its past, steps were slowly taken to conserve and restore whatever vestiges of it had been preserved. Robert Muma, working privately, made a name for himself in restoration. His technique for the safe removal of leather spines has spread throughout North America. Some months ago, a California binder came to Toronto and made a point of telling him that "everybody" was now using his technique.

According to Robert Muma, there were always two or three Canadian devotees of the craft. Most noteworthy as a designer during Muma's youth was Douglas Duncan, the wealthy art collector and philanthropist, director of the Picture Loan Society, and friend and supporter of every artist in need. He learned his craft in Paris in the 1920s. Muma recalled bookbinder Ethel Taylor as an important figure as well.

Cultural ties being what they are, Ontario has attracted experienced book-binders from England particularly. Michael Wilcox apprenticed for six years in Bristol and Bath before coming to Canada to a one-man bindery near Woodview, Ontario, in 1969. Since then, he has worked mainly on antiquarian books for dealers and collectors.

ln the Hamilton show, some of the most artistic bindings were made by Wilcox. His gorgeous, multi-coloured and finely drawn cover for Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (New York, 1905), bound in 1977 in black, brown, tan, purple, and blue oasis pieces, scarf-joined and tooled in gold and blind, had few equals. His glittering composition for T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph (New York, 1935), bound in 1981 in full tan oasis with blue leather onlays, tooled in gold and blind, is further proof of his masterly command of the medium. Both give credence to the comment that Robert Muma has heard in bookbinding circles that Michael Wilcox is presently considered one of the seven best hand bookbinders in the Western world.

John Holmes, born in Wales, served a five-year apprenticeship in hand bookbinding and restoration at the National Library of Wales before taking up his duties at McMaster University in 1969.

Emrys Evans, a fellow Welshman, was for five years an apprentice with Allen Davies & Co., in Bristol. In 1967, Evans set up a restoration section at the University of Toronto Rare Book Library, which he still directs.

Beatrice Stock, whose work was absent from the Hamilton show, was born in France and studied binding in Paris and Rome. She is presently a private book restorer in Toronto.

Renewed activities in design bookbinding and teaching have already produced a second generation of binders in Ontario. Annegret Hunter-Elsenbach, born in West Germany and a Torontonian since 1975, studied here under Beatrice Stock and Emrys Evans. Her innovative designs are clearly influenced by her earlier training as a painter. Seamas McClafferty, originally from Nova Scotia, was instructed by Emrys Evans, Anton Lucas, and Michael Wilcox.

Historically, there have been many national traditions in European bookbinding. Although France has led the way most consistently by introducing new design styles and setting high standards of craftsmanship, other countries such as Italy, Germany, and England can also claim excellence at various times in their history. Given the protagonists, it will not come as a surprise that the Hamilton show offered predominantly an overview of the British bookbinding tradition as it was and is practised in Britain, Canada, and the U.S.

Modern bookbinding concepts stress the importance of relating binding design to the contents of the book, an idea which was introduced nearly a hundred years ago in France and England but which is just now being fully understood. Modern British bookbinding traces its beginnings to the 1950s with the founding of a society later called Designer Bookbinders. Before then, British bookbinding had become stodgy, as it remained the preserve of commercial binderies. In France, on the other band, a concentrated effort had been made to teach bookbinding in technical schools, where outstanding artists had been put in charge of the art departments. Students of binding were encouraged to attend these artists' classes, in addition to taking courses more traditionally related to the craft. This step resulted in a level of creativity and inventiveness unheard of in the traditionalist binderies of Britain.

Philip Smith's work embodies the new spirit of English bookbinding, what the more conservative consider an extreme push towards the "book as art object," to be looked at in its entirety, even considered sculpture. Other British binders exhibiting in Hamilton presented quite original work in this vein, such as Dee Odell-Foster's The Visual Dictionary of Sex (London, 1979). Taking modern book design concepts literally, she has sculpted three-dimensional breasts in black leather, one for each cover, with red-stained natural leather on the nipples. A separate, life-sized hand cast in bronze completes her binding. The literalness of her design unfortunately brings to mind mastectomies and such objects of elegant taste as ceramic breast cups that owners never dare to use.

Remarkable examples of the book as object were provided by David Sellars. His Four Gospels rests in a protective box that comes apart in four sections. Miscellaneous Poems, written by Andrew Marvel, slips into a stand-up, frame-like display case. All in black, Sellars' bindings achieve a strange, timeless beauty and possess many qualities that link them with contemporary art concerns. His use of coagulated leather dust, for instance, creates a texture reminiscent of the black paintings of Canada's Ron Martin.

If there is a criticism to be made of the Hamilton exhibition, it is that not enough didactic information was provided to explain its Britishness. Despite having to work in what John Holmes conceded was a hit-and-miss fashion in planning the show (he advises anyone following in his footsteps to plan at least three years in advance), he was, nonetheless, the one making decisions. Brief explanatory notes could have guided the uninitiated visitor to better appreciate the particularities of the exhibits. Book design that might appear to today's viewer disappointingly simple could well have represented a major conceptual breakthrough when it was executed.

The inclusion of two tiny books from France and one from Italy, although they were beautiful, weakened the unity of the exhibition. One was left wondering whether the scarcity of such work meant that no other European work of this century merited attention, or if the show had, indeed, been chosen on a pot-luck basis. The all-embracing title of the show, 20th Century Bookbinding, did not help to resolve the issue.

David B. Kotin emphasizes in the catalogue that the exhibition was particularly important because of the presence of several Québec binders, namely Diane André, Lise Dubois, Aline Fortier, Louise Genest-Côté, Monique Lallier-Prince, Pierre Ouvrard, Jocelyn Savoie, and Rita Turgeon-Coiteux. Quite frankly, Ontario binders were astounded by the number of their Québec counterparts. The same was possibly true in reverse.

Québec has had a long tradition of bookbinding. Pierre Ouvrard began studying his craft in 1944 at l'École des arts graphiques in Montréal under the direction of Louis-Philippe Beaudoin and Albert Dumouchel. Courses were in the French mould, covering all aspects of book making, from typography and layout to fine binding, and included as well two years of drawing and book illustration. Ouvrard has exhibited his work in the U.S. and Europe.

Strangely absent from the show was another established Québec binder, Simone Roy, who studied under Suzanne Quercy in Paris at l 'Atelier Pédagogique de Reliure d'art artisanale à l'Anémone. Roy presently directs her own atelier in Montréal. There were other omissions as well. Consider that two workshops held in Montréal by Philip Smith prior to his Toronto visit attracted twice as many participants as did the Toronto workshop. Michèle Simard provided marbled papers which were displayed on the gallery walls, although her work was not included in the catalogue.

In an interview, John Holmes expressed the hope that more frequent interchange between binders from English Canada, most of whom adhere to British traditions in their craft, and Québec binders, who mostly subscribe to French methods and concepts, would eventually result in a new and truly Canadian style of bookbinding. As it happens, Holmes' entry in the Hamilton exhibition exudes much the same light and airy quality possessed by many of the Québec bindings. Should anyone be interested in apprenticing as a hand bookbinder in Ontario, the province offers few opportunities. Emrys Evans, Seamas McClafferty, Annegret Hunter-Elsenbach, Gerard Brender à Brandis, and Gordon Wilson taught various facets of the craft at Sheridan College of Applied Arts and Technology, Oakville, from 1976 to 1981, but their program was dropped when Albert Field, coordinator of Binding and Finishing in the Graphic Arts Division of George Brown College, Toronto, was reported to be starting a course there. After four years of planning and discussion with local binders, nothing has yet come of it. Around 1976, Three Schools of Art in Toronto dropped its courses in bookbinding taught by Anton Lucas and Beatrice Stock.

At the moment, the only programs in Toronto are evening courses, In 1971 Emrys Evans started public classes at Westpark Collegiate through the Toronto Board of Education. He still teaches advanced students, while Annegret Hunter-Eisenbach handles beginners. All phases of hand bookbinding are taught, including paper decorating and box making, Hunter-Elsenbach 's specialties. Both instructors, however, lament the lack of proper facilities.

The most recent undertaking, and the most promising one, is the thirty-week credit course started by Emrys Evans in the Printmaking Department at the Ontario College of Art.

A good omen for the future of hand bookbinding in Canada, however, is the interest Ontario binders have begun to show in grouping together. Thanks to Seamas McClafferty's gregarious nature, and despite bookbinders' ingrained streaks of independence, they have started to meet socially. The talk: vague plans to found a Guild of Canadian Bookbinders.

Many of the Québec binders who took part in the Hamilton show came to the opening. Their presence added a spirit of Gallic excitement to the occasion. Now some Toronto binders are planning a trip to Montréal to visit with them and see their studios. A distinctive style of Canadian bookbinding might just one day become a reality.

© Ontario Craft Council, 1983

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