Thursday, July 15, 2010

Binding Women

Women have worked in book binderies for centuries—wives and daughters assisting husbands, fathers, and sons, and sometimes taking over the bindery when the patriarch died—but not until the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century did women come into their own as independent bookbinders who signed their own work. 

Many members of that movement were supporters of equal rights and opportunities for women, especially those involved in the private presses of the day. The Kelmscott, Eragny, and Ashendene Presses all had women on staff, and binder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, who added his wife's name to his own when they married, trained a number of women in the art and craft of bookbinding.

Binding by S. T. Prideaux

One of the first women to gain notice was Sarah Treverbian Prideaux (1853-1933). She began binding when she was 31, training in London under Zaehnsdorf and in Paris under Gruel, and worked independently for 20 years. The Maggs Bros. Catalogue of Bindings #966 says that Prideaux "was by far the best of the women binders of the period, . . . she wrote several books on the history of bookbinding, and [she] also taught the craft, one of her best students [being] Katharine Adams." Marianne Tidcombe, whose Women Bookbinders is an essential reference, says that Prideaux bindings "all have a restrained beauty about them that continues to appeal to book collectors. Anything pictorial or gimmicky would have been anathema to her, and she leaned instead towards clean, crisp floral motifs . . . , avoiding over-intricate tooling which hides the beauty of the leather." Adams says that Prideaux was a particularly "good judge of leather, using only skins of very high quality, for hers was a counsel of perfection in all things."

Adams binding from SMU Library online exhibit Highlights from Six Centuries of Master Bookbinding

Katharine Adams (1862-1952) was another woman binder who achieved acclaim. She grew up near William Morris' family and was friends with his daughters May and Jennie. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "The connection with the Morris family proved useful when she began binding professionally during the 1890s. After a short period of training with Sarah Prideaux (1853–1933) and T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (1840–1922) in London in 1897, she set up a workshop in Lechlade, where her first commission came from Janey Morris. In 1901 she established the Eadburgh Bindery in Broadway, Gloucestershire. Adams initially worked alone, but was later able to employ two women assistants, whom she herself trained. For several years during this period she taught binding to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, although she was never quite reconciled either to the restrictions imposed upon the nuns or to the practical difficulty of teaching through a grille. . . . She took first prize in bookbinding at the Oxford arts and crafts exhibition of 1898, and was soon receiving regular commissions from the engraver and typographer Emery Walker [of the Doves Press], St John Hornby [of the Ashendene Press], and the bibliophile Sydney Cockerell."

The advent of independent women binders was not restricted to England. The lovely binding above is the work of Countess Eva Mannerheim Sparre (1870-1957), who received a degree in wood sculpting and leatherwork from the Stockholm Technical School in 1891, and became the first person to teach leathercraft in Finland. With her husband, the Swedish artist Count Louis Sparre, she had a profound impact on applied art and design in Finland. One of the few Scandinavian binders to receive any attention in Tidcombe's "Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920," Sparre is described in that work as being "responsible for some very restrained and tasteful designs for modelled leather bindings." Tidcombe mentions three examples of her work--one in the Huntington Library and two others illustrated in Sunny Frykholm's article "Bookbinding in Sweden, Norway, and Finland," in "The Studio" (Winter Number 1899-1900, pp. 78-82).

This binding for George Eliot's Jubal is one of the historically significant productions done by members of the Guild of Women Binders, a group of British female artisans responsible for distinctively innovative binding decoration during a kind of golden moment at the very end of the 19th century. The bookseller Frank Karslake established the Guild in 1898 in order to give an organizational identity to a group of women already at work binding books in various parts of Britain, often in their own homes. Karslake first became interested in women binders when he visited the Victorian Era Exhibition at Earl's Court in 1897, held to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. He was impressed with a number of bookbindings at the Jubilee exhibit, prominent among them being those of Mrs. Annie MacDonald of Edinburgh, and he invited the women to exhibit their work in his shop at 61 Charing Cross Road. The Guild was formed soon thereafter, when some of the women named Karslake as their agent. The binding here with its attenuated Art Nouveau feeling, is typical of the early work of the Guild, much of it designed by Karslake's eldest daughter Constance, the director of the Guild's workshop (a pencilled note at the front here attributes the design of our volume to her, but we have not been able to verify that). As Tidcombe notes, "because the women were generally unaware of the long history of traditional bookbinding design, they produced designs that were freer and less stereotyped than those of men in the trade."

Next week: modern women book binders.


All images, except where otherwise noted, courtesy Phillip J. Pirages Fins Books & Manuscripts

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