Friday, June 18, 2010

Family Feuds, Curses, and Treasures

A jeweled Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding for Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh

"Noir" week continues on Booktryst with a story of sibling rivalry, a cursed creation, and bejeweled treasures. Our story begins in 1896, when two young men, Francis Sangorski (1875-1912) and George Sutcliffe (1878-1943), met in a bookbinding class taught by Douglas Cockerell, a noted bookbinder who had apprenticed with T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Bindery. The two decided to establish their own workshop in 1901, and the legendary firm of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was born. They quickly gained recognition for their elaborate designs and first class workmanship: a 1905 article in The International Studio praised the exceptional quality of their materials and the innovative (but never, we are assured, "vulgar") nature of their designs.

Front doublure of Lalla Rookh, with a portrait of Thomas Moore on ivory.

The author observed, "It must always be remembered that there is nothing democratic in bookbinding as an art, and by democratic we do not mean of course anything to do with social questions. Artistically, the art of the poster, of the magazine cover, may be said to be democratic; the art of a man who binds a classic, binds it for connoisseurs of his art, as the art of a man who paints a painting for the appreciation of the cultivated of his craft, is perforce aristocratic in its limited appeal." I believe this is a rather exalted way of saying, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it."

Rear doublure of Lalla Rookh, with a Mexican fire opal at center.

Sangorski & Sutcliffe bindings were very aristocratic indeed, using costly and rare skins and fabulous jewels. The artistry, as can be seen here, was exquisite: thousands of applications of gold, countless inlays of tiny pieces of morocco, painstaking setting of gemstones, all in stunning designs created by the partners. Around 1905, Francis Sangorski's older brother, Alberto, grew tired of his prosaic position as secretary to a goldsmith and took up the art of calligraphy, for which he turned out to have considerable talent. He began creating illuminated manuscripts, in the tradition of the medieval artisans so admired by the Arts and Crafts movement.

Alberto Sangorski's manuscript of Swinburne's Adieux à Marie Stuart

He also painted beautiful miniatures to illustrated the text he wrote out in a fine calligraphic hand. The opening of Swinburne's lament for Mary Queen of Scots, Adieux à Marie Stuart, features an affecting portrait of the doomed queen gazing sadly back at her beloved France from the stern of a ship bound for Scotland. He displays not just a talent for painting but a strong sense of design, using mournful colors--black, gray, and regal purple--throughout the work, contributing to the sense of foreboding and sadness.

It seemed an ideal arrangement: Alberto would create luxe manuscripts of popular poems, and Francis and George would provide the beautiful bindings, creating highly desirable collectors' items. What could possibly go wrong? As siblings have since the time of Cain and Abel, Francis and Alberto had a huge falling out sometime in 1910. Scholar Stephen Ratcliffe suggests that the disagreement may have stemmed from Alberto's desire to receive credit for his work. The bindings were all stamped in gold with the Sangorski & Sutcliffe name, but Alberto was not allowed to sign his manuscripts. Alberto decided to take his toys and go play in someone else's sandbox, and to twist the knife in the wound (to mix a few metaphors) he went over to Sangorski & Sutcliffe's greatest rival, the Riviere bindery. Riviere was only too happy to let Albert add a colophon at the end of each manuscript with his name, the date, and his signature. Their bindings, as can be seen below, were up to the standard set by Alberto's brother's firm, and were worthy wrappings for his lovely manuscripts.

Riviere's binding for Adieux à Marie Stuart

After Alberto's departure, things began to go wrong for Francis Sangorski. He spent two years creating the most elaborate jewel binding in history for an illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. "The Great Omar" featured wood and leather inlays, much gold, and more than 1,000 jewels. Unfortunately the work seemed cursed. First it was sent to America to be sold, where it was felt it would fetch a better price, but it ran into difficulties at customs and was returned to England.

Artist's rendering of the Great Omar, based on Sangorski's surviving designs

Unable to resolved the import/export problems, Sangorski & Sutcliffe decided to sell it at auction in London. Again, fate was against them: a coal strike caused an economic crisis, and no one was willing to pay the £1,000 reserve price. The book sold (to an American, ironically) for a mere £450. Francis was crushed. The book again set sail for America, this time on the Titanic, where it remains to this day. A brief video, with photographs of the binding and of Sangorski's drawings, was produced by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas Library.

Francis Sangorski

A heartbroken Francis Sangorski drowned just a few weeks later. The firm would survive under George Sutcliffe's direction, and it remains in business to this day. Francis' other fine bindings and Alberto's illuminated manuscripts continue to be a blessing, not a curse, to book collectors everywhere.


Images of Francis Sangorski and the Great Omar courtesy of Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

All other images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts.

1 comment:

  1. Sangorski & Sutcliffe had a Rubaiyat on there stand at the ABA fair at Olympia last month. It was bound in green morocco with elaborate gilt decoration the centrepiece of which was a peacock in the centre of each board. It was impressive enough, although nothing like the 'Great Omar' you have illustrated. But knowing the story of that book makes the book they were offering so much more interesting.


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