Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My First Time, or I Lost It To A Fine Binding

A binding by Léon Gruel. 
Photo courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts

I have always loved books. However, when I say I have always loved books, I should more properly say I loved their contents—the stories, the pictures, the magical escape from the humdrum world. I never really thought about books as objects until I rather unexpectedly entered the rare book trade two years ago.

In July 2008, I came across an ad in the McMinnville News-Register seeking someone who could read Latin, French, and Italian (I had the first two) and could catalogue books (a skill I acquired in library school). And so I came to meet and work for Phillip J. Pirages, a book dealer who has been in the business for 30 years and who specializes in finely bound and beautifully printed works from all periods, as well as in medieval manuscript materials. I had never seen books like the ones I saw on that first tour of Phil’s office. 

I remember he had just acquired a pierced binding by Gruel.

I had no idea such things existed, and I had been haunting libraries all my life. Obviously, I just hadn’t stumbled into the right private libraries. The exquisite object had been created for a woman who collected fine bindings, philanthropist Grace Whitney Hoff (of the Whitney Museum Whitneys), and it contained a pretty edition of illustrated poems by another woman, Marie de Régnier, who wrote under the pseudonym Gérard d'Houville. The beautifully crafted piercing of the cover was backed by red and silver foil, which shone when the light hit it. I fell in love with fine bindings then and there. 

I learned that Mrs. Hoff commissioned this most unusual binding from one of the most famous and important French binders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bindings expert Sarah Prideaux, in her book "Bookbinders and their Craft," says that the Gruel firm, founded in 1811, "has always had the highest reputation . . . for initiative in artistic matters, as well as for irreproachable execution in the detail of its many-sided achievements." The business was managed by several family members over the years, and the list of binders who trained at the Gruel atelier is the most distinguished in Europe, but Léon Gruel (1841-1923), who took over the firm in 1891, was the single most famous person associated with it. He amassed a very fine collection of early bindings, which formed the basis for his widely used "Manuel Historique et Bibliographique de l'Amateur de Reliures" (1887). He was an authority on binding history at the same time that he was at the forefront in the movement pressing for the acceptance of revolutionary ideas in the decoration of modern bindings. 

(See more bindings by Gruel in the British Library Database of Bookbindings.)

Although the binding shown above is definitely Art Deco in feeling, it is also at least vaguely reminiscent of the 18th century Spanish bindings with mica elements, produced most notably by Antonio Sancha (1720-90), who studied with Derôme and became the outstanding Spanish binder of his day (see, for example, the Schiff Catalogue IV, 76). A similar Gruel binding (labeled as "really quite extraordinary" and priced at £7,500) appeared in George Bayntun's Catalogue #8 (1999), where it is described as being in pale leather punctuated with small gilt crosses, and featuring a prominent cut-away flower growing out of a small vase.

In that catalogue, the binding is also characterized as having 18th century connections, with decoration that "is almost identical to that on an 'Almanach Royal pour l'Anne 1766'" (signed by Bailly) which is illustrated by Gruel in his "Manuel de l'Amatueur de Reliures." Gruel comments, rightly, that the earlier binding--like the present one--is of a type almost never encountered, is a work that presents for the binder great technical difficulties, and is an object of the greatest interest and curiosity. (My thanks to Edward Bayntun-Coward and Phil Pirages for the information on Gruel bindings).

And so, on our first date, I fell hard for that binding, gave myself to it completely, with abandon, and have never looked back. I have come to realize that in books, as in gastronomy, presentation can be just as important as the contents/ingredients, and is something to be savored in itself. A fine binding is a marvelous thing to behold, a feast for the eyes, and nourishment for the soul.

Bon appetit!

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