Not just a pretty picture, Alan Loney

Twenty-five Bindings
designed by Edgar Mansfield, realised by James Brockman
National Library Gallery, Wellington, 1 March-28 April
Hawke’s Bay Museum, Napier, 12 May-7 July

The history of bookbinding is older than the hist ory of printing and goes back to the development of the hand-written codex itself. Of the earliest codices, only fragments survive of bindings made in the Coptic monasteries in Egypt, up to around 700AD. They were mainly of leather, sometimes wrapped around a sort of cardboard made of several sheets of papyrus stuck together, but more usually the leather was stretched about a thin plank of wood. From at least the ninth century, when the technique of sewing a book’s signatures to cords rather than to each other was introduced, the leather was decorated with incised lines, in symmetrical patterns, sometimes with added filigree or paint. This basic “recipe”, in extraordinary variation, remained the staple of fine bindings until well into the twentieth century.

Fine bindings were never historically done for the general book buyer. It was never the case, as it is often assumed, that once upon a golden time, all bindings were beautifully crafted in full leather by meticulous craftspeople in soft focus who really cared — while today we have post-paradisal containerloads of paperbacks with spines that snap when we want to read something close to the centre (the “gutter”) of the book. The mass market for books was not formed until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when technologies emerged in printing and binding to cope with a very altered situation, that is, a much increased speed in the spread of literacy.

Many of the owners of extant early fine bindings are known to us, as are the names of many of the binders, or at least of their workshops. These latter include the Carmelite convent of Mainz (fifteenth century), the Little Gidding community (seventeenth century), or the Mearne bindery (seventeenth century). Individual binders whose names are not known have nevertheless been identified by the use of particular leather-working tools and gouges inferred after analysis of the binding patterns. Nameless they may be, but history yet has words for them – the “unicorn binder” (fifteenth century), “an imitator of John Fletcher” (seventeenth century), the “squirrel binder” (seventeenth century) and the “geometrical compartment binder” (eighteenth century), among many others.

Their clients were clerics, the nobility and royalty and the work was expensive. For the most part these often highly-wrought book covers were of goatskin, pigskin, calfskin, occasionally sheepskin, even deerskin is known, and often of vellum. Some were further studded with figurative miniature paintings or cloisonne work or semi-precious stones and a lot had gold or silver clasps.

Leather was not the only covering used. There exist several lovely examples of bindings in satin, velvet, canvas and woven silver wire, with embroidery, representational and abstract, in coloured silks, although it must be said that leather was the mainstay of the craft.

Like printing, type design, calligraphy and hand papermaking, bookbinding was revived as an “ancient craft” late last century and the new clients were now anyone or any institution with money and interest enough to buy or commission new work. That revival, in which the great presses, Kelmscott, Doves and Ashendene, had a central role, forms the working context against which fine binder Edgar Mansfield’s great contribution should be understood. His actual achievement, however, its character and its measure, has to be sought elsewhere.

Briefly, Edgar Mansfield was born in London in 1907, and came to New Zealand at age four. After matriculating at Napier Boys High School in 1923 he spent the next 10 years studying and teaching art and crafts, with painting and pottery as special interests. In 1934 he returned to London, taking up bookbinding with William Matthews at the Central School of Art and Crafts. After the war he returned to New Zealand but he went back to London in 1947 and from 1948 to 1964 he taught colour to letterpress printers and design to bookbinders at the London College of Printing. For many years after that he regularly visited New Zealand, staying in his house in Kennedy Road, Napier. In the early 1980s Mansfield settled in Bearsted, Kent, in England, devoting his creative energies to sculpture.

This exhibition acknowledges his strong New Zealand connections, as well as his primary place as the doyen of twentieth century fine or “designer” binders. But it is no ordinary show; the bindings both are, and are not, the work of Edgar Mansfield. Many of the designs for these works were already known, in part privately among Mansfield’s friends and colleagues and partly through a book, 11.2.80 On Creation (Hawk Press, Eastbourne, New Zealand, 1981) in which some of these designs were printed.

In the exhibition, three of those designs are now on the books and a copy of On Creation is also one of the featured bindings. Another New Zealand association is a binding in dark green leather with gold and black tooling of Katherine Mansfield’s The Aloe in the version published by Constable in London in 1930.

The books to be bound for this show were chosen and commissioned by Kulgin D Duval and Colin Hamilton and a visit by Hamilton to this country in 1995 secured the exhibition for the National Library and the Hawkes Bay Museum. Duval and Hamilton are probably the most important private commissioners and buyers of fine bindings in Britain.

Indeed, the exhibition catalogue is published by them, echoing a similar catalogue, British Bookbinding Today (1975), showing 39 books bound by 24 binders, including both Mansfield and his teacher William Matthews. The Introduction to that catalogue is signed “EDGAR MANSFIELD, Napier, New Zealand/28th August 1975”. In the present case, however, the designs are all by Mansfield, but are realised as 22 bindings in leather and three in vellum by another superb British binder, James Brockman, whose own work also appears in the earlier catalogue.

Mansfield himself ceased bookbinding because of “loss of acuity in his eyesight” in the late 1960s. The one exception since that time was a commission from the New Zealand Government for a binding of J C Beaglehole’s The Life of Captain James Cook for the wedding of Princess Anne in 1974.

Also in this show are six of the more than 400 special tools made by Mansfield for incising and working leather; a video on Mansfield, Brockman and fellow binder Trevor Jones made by New Zealand fine binder Michael O’Brien. On the walls are a number of prints of work by early twentieth century modernist artists — Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, Auguste Herbin, Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp. These prints raise, and intelligently so, a discussion that we (both “artists” and “craftspeople”) don’t like to have — the so-called “art/craft debate”.

Mansfield is adamant that his interest in binding — leather as medium — came after his interest in the art of his time was stimulated and that the art of his time was what was formative in his life as a binder. He has drawn and painted all his life. Scores, even hundreds, of drawings will have preceded any one binding. He knew and admired the work of Juan Gris, Braque, Picasso, Moore and Hepworth. He was excited by the poster and book designs of Marion Dorn and E McKnight Kauffer. And in interview with Trevor Jones he makes the nice remark: “And of course, Leger. I don’t think anyone really influenced me; they just said, ‘Here is an open door — walk in’.” His first bindings date from 1937.

What was different about him? What made his bindings different in kind from previous achievements and which complicate the notion of the binder as craftsperson merely? To begin with, the lines and colours he gouged, inlaid and onlaid on leather were responses to the book’s content, words and pictures, author and artist. Let’s look at some of those pairings. H E Bates with wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker; Coleridge with copper engravings by David Jones; Paul Eluard with colour etchings by Roger Chastel; Genesis chapter one with woodcuts by Paul Nash; Homer with roundels by Bruce Rogers; James Joyce with etchings by Pietro Annigoni; Fontaine with drawings by Alexander Calder; Edgar Allen Poe with wood engravings by J Buckland Wright and another with aquatints by Alexandre Alexeiff; and, of course, Mansfield’s own texts and drawings. The point here it seems to me is that it is precisely illustration that the binder is thus called upon to avoid.

Most of the books are printed on superb handmade papers from various mills in Italy, France, England and Germany and 12 were printed by the acknowledged twentieth century master of the handpress, Giovanni Mardersteig at his Officina Bodoni (first located at Montagnola in Switzerland, then predominantly at Verona, Italy). A thirteenth was printed by Mardersteig’s son Martino and Gabriella Mardersteig, and the catalogue was printed by Martino at his Stamperia Valdonega, Verona. Other well-known publishers represented in the bindings on display are Douglas Cleverdon, Ashendene, the early Limited Editions Club and Nonesuch Press.

Neither the catalogue, splendid though it is, nor the exhibition itself can show the relationships between these covers and what is inside them. The binder responds to texts, the art of others, and the craft of the papermakers, type designers and printers of the books he binds. We don’t, I think, have enough contact with works like these to begin to ask appropriate questions hard enough. The catalogue photographs are all in full colour and, except where light bounces off some of the incised lines in the leather, flatten the designs. Yet these covers have sharp, three-dimensional surfaces, visual and tactile and, however “precious” they may look and actually cost, they have to be handled to feel how they work as bindings.

So long as we see merely that fine bindings are pretty pictures in themselves, without integral relationship to the words, pictures, paper, type and design inside them, then it will be difficult to find works such as these of more than passing interest.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, we are unlikely ever to handle enough bindings for long enough even to get the conversation going. Even so, close readings of the work of artists like Elizabeth Steiner and Lesley Kaiser, who are not fine binders but artists whose bookmaking involves the whole book in all its parts, might be a very good place to start.

Mansfield’s innovation, the covering as an extension of the book itself, has had enormous influence on the field. His influence is indeed so widespread and dispersed that many new binders no longer know who triggered the means of their own activity. On the other hand, like those seventeenth century English bindings in satin, canvas, velvet, etc, contemporary binders have, over the past 30 years or so, used all kinds of material — perspex, metals of various kinds, woods, acrylics — in their work, and leather vies with, or is mixed with, many new materials and processes.

Mansfield always saw himself as a fine artist who worked in leather. When asked how he saw his nationality, he replied, “Oh God, I’m a New Zealander through and through, oh, yes!” Both this question about origins, and the art/craft problem (which should concern us, in my view, much more than it does) are uncomfortable matters within the general tenor of critical discourse in New Zealand. Yet without them and without consideration too of the “whole book including its cover”, I feel we will not get very far in any possible critique of Mansfield’s bindings, or indeed anyone’s. That we, as a culture, will never get to be as informed and familiar with this wonderful aspect of “the work of the book” as we can be of poetry or painting will mean we will never read these works in all their fullness.

Alan Loney is co-director and printer at Holloway Press at the University of Auckland. He convened the History of the Book in New Zealand conference in August 1995.

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