Monday, July 26, 2010

Cedric Chivers, Art vs. Library Bindings, And The New York Bookbinders Boycott

Vellucent binding by Dorothy Carleton Smyth. Chivers Catologue XCIX.
(Image courtesy of David Brass).

In The Graphic Arts and Crafts Year Book for 1908, a curious article appeared:

The "Vellucent" Process: A New Method Of Decoration For Bound Books. (After Cedric Chivers). 

It reads like a press release.

"Some years ago a remarkable method of decoration for the binding of books originated in the fertile mind of Mr. Cedric Chivers of Bath, England, and after making several experiments, which gave promise of future successful employment of artists with fresh ideas of treatment, designs were prepared for binding to be produced under the required conditions. Specially selected skins of clear unstretched vellum were the simple and legitimate means employed, and after a few further trials and experiments, the result proved the new method to be wider in scope and more varied in its range of artistic possibilities than any previously attempted.

"Since the art of gilding leather was introduced into Europe from the east, about the year 1740, by the Venetians, nothing new in the external decoration of books has been achieved which gives such endless opportunities for beautiful and permanent decoration as does the transparent vellum, or 'Vellucent,' method…"

Chivers (1853 - 1929), a seven-term mayor of Bath, first exhibited and patented his "vellucent" method of decorative bookbinding in 1898.

And just what is the "vellucent" process of decorative binding?

Chivers Catalogue XCIX,  rear board.

Chivers' press flack continues:

"...The designs were first painted or drawn in colors with as full a palette or as subdued a richness of coloring as the artist chose to employ. Various iridescent materials and precious metals, pared to the thinness of paper or even of gold leaf, according to the fancy of the designer, were often introduced to enhance the richness of the scheme; mother-o'-pearl, shell, beetles' wings, these and other beautiful materials were utilized in the carrying out of the designs with the greatest felicity of effect. The transparent vellum was then laid upon the surface of the painting and the two pressed together till they became indisseverable. Gold tooling was now superimposed upon the surface of the subcutaneous coloring, often with results surprising in their richness and beauty. Indeed, the vellum itself, though of perfect transparency, has, from its delicate warmth of hue, the quality of rendering luminous and reconciling colors otherwise difficult to combine harmoniously in juxtaposition, its appearance being that of a beautiful enamel-like glaze. The whole field of color, of iridescence, is thus open to the artist who elects to decorate books bound in 'Vellucent.'"

In short, an artist would paint on a super-thin surface medium, and a sheet of vellum, shaved to translucent thinness, was laid over it, with the now indivisible pieces bound over boards.

What was significant about this method was that "for the first time in the history of the bibliopegistic art the actual work of the artist, undiluted by a translation through the hands of mechanics, is here visible in the decoration of the book" (Chivers, Books In Beautiful Bindings [Chivers Catalogue]).

 Vellucent binding, artist unidentified, 1904. 
(Image courtesy of Rulon-Miller).

Who were the artists? Cherchez la femme.

“In his large bindery at Portway, Bath, Chivers employed about forty women for folding, sewing, mending, and collating work, and in addition, five more women worked in a separate department, to design, illuminate, and colour vellum for book decoration, and to work on embossed leather. These five were Dorothy Carleton Smyth, Alice Shepherd, Miss J.D. Dunn, Muriel Taylor, and Agatha Gales. Most Vellucent bindings were designed by H. Granville Fell, but the woman most frequently employed for this kind of work was probably Dorothy Carleton Smyth” (Marianne Tidcombe, Women Bookbinders 1880-1920, p. 86).

“Smyth [1880-1933] was born in Glasgow, the daughter of a jute manufacturer. She studied art in Manchester and then attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1895 until 1905. Her stained glass piece Tristan and Iseult was exhibited at the International Exhibition in 1901, and in 1903 an anonymous female patron paid for Smyth to study in Europe. At first Smyth was best known as a portraitist, particularly for her sketches of theatre personalities. Later she specialised in theatre costume working in London, Paris and Sweden. She designed costumes for several of the Shakespearean Festivals held in Stratford-upon-Avon, beginning in 1906. Smyth was appointed Principal of Commercial Art at Glasgow School of Art in 1914, and began to concentrate more on teaching than costume design. However, in 1916 she designed costume and decoration for the Quinlan Opera Company's world tour. In 1933 Smyth was appointed as the first woman director of the School of Art, but died before she could take up the post” (The Glasgow Story).

Thought not mentioned above, the most celebrated of Chivers' group of women designers was acclaimed illustrator Jessie M. King.

Chivers Catalogue XCIX, another copy.
(Image courtesy of Jonkers).

Chivers' best friend, the anonymous writer for The Graphic Arts And Crafts Yearbook, continues their gushing review, establishing vellucent binding as the greatest thing in the world, later and presumably exceeded only by Otto Frederick Rohwedder's invention of the automatic industrial bread slicer in 1927, nineteen years after this article appeared.

"It may be claimed that the color effects produced, seeing the nature of the materials employed, exceed in brilliancy and beauty anything in the whole range of artistic expression yet achieved. A book when complete will stand constant use and everyday wear and tear; it has neither excrescences nor protuberances; is absolutely flat, smooth, and pleasant to handle. The design, however beautiful and precious, is permanently secured from dirt and damp in one of the strongest and best materials ever used for the binding of a book. The iridescent and other materials used have been the subject of the most interesting experiments. In spite of the novelty and seeming incongruity of the idea, step by step, each new introduction was carefully thought out, and a trial made of its adaptability under translucent vellum, Mr. Chivers adopting a wise policy of restraint in allowing only those effects entirely satisfactory to the trained eye of the artist to be accepted for use...

Vellucent binding by Jessie M. King. Chivers Catalogue XVIII.
(Image courtesy of Jonkers).

"The 'Vellucent' method… allows of the utmost freedom of conception compatible with the tenets of good surface decoration; and, since by reason of its nature, greater liberty of pictorial treatment is legitimised, the field both for design and color becomes almost limitless.

"It has sometimes been charged that external book decoration could not legitimately be classed in the graphic arts, but if graphic delineation on flat surfaces be a correct technical definition, then this "Vellucent" method warrants its inclusion.

"The experiments undertaken and carried out with success in the new forms of decorative binding will appeal to everyone interested in the development of modern art; and it is not too much to affirm that the invention of the 'Vellucent' process inaugurates a new epoch in the history of bookbinding. The full glories of color hitherto denied as embellishment: to the book-cover—the folding-doors of the literary treasure-house—are now made not only possible, but eminently and especially legitimate and appropriate.

"It is difficult indeed not to become enthusiastic over the idea of the gorgeous aspect of a wealthy booklover's library of "Vellucent"-bound books, which may become at the same time a cabinet of works of art, each one of his choice and rare volumes bearing an unique specimen of the book decorator's skill, and embellished with the most varied and brilliant effects.

"Here is given unlimited opportunity for the artist, while his work remains unassailable from the point of view of the binder as a craftsman."

And so ends this over-the-top, wet-dream in print for Chivers. Though vellucent bindings are, indeed, exquisite, I smell payola. The dream, it appears, was unfortunately fleeting and at risk of failure.

Vellucent binding by H. Granville Fell.
Chivers Catalogue LVII.

Chivers strove for the highest quality of artistic binding. It, apparently, did not pay off. He established a second bindery, in New York City, in 1904, to cash in on a more financially rewarding end of bookbinding.

"Chivers brought some able craftsmen with him to New York, and they did occasional credible pieces of work for exhibit; but about the time when Chivers developed "oversewing," that peculiarly American stitch by which the folds are cut off and the sections united by interlocking stitches through holes pierced near the edges, his firm began to concentrate on library binding and subsequently became one of the leading library binders in the east. Despite the growing ranks of American bibliophiles, binders such as Chivers... realized that the 'big money' lay in binding for the burgeoning library movement" (Lawrence S. Thompson, Hand Bookbinding in the United States, p. 100).

Chivers received a U.S. patent for his oversewing or stab-stitch method for library bindings earlier in 1904. Soon, Cedric Chivers was binding for up to 500 libraries in the U.S. The method is now standard for rebinding library books (though machines have replaced the handwork).

And Chivers soon ran into  problems with the American labor movement and city politics; he was the subject of a Brooklyn investigation and bookbinders union boycott.

From Library Journal, Volume 33, 1908:

"George Roger, being duly sworn, says that...on Friday, March 20, 1908, at a conference with Frank P. Hill, chief librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library, and three Trustees of said library...he was introduced to one Cedric Chivers. The said Cedric Chivers, who is a subject of the King of England, and a member of the Town Council of Bath, England, is in the business of bookbinding, more particularly binding for libraries and similar institutions. When, at said conference on March 20, 1908, he was asked if it were not a fact that he received work from the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries and sent it to Bath, England to be bound, admitted that such was the case."

Chivers Catalogue XCIX, front board.
Note variation between this and the copy above.
(Image courtesy of David Brass).

It gets more interesting. In his Brooklyn bindery, Chivers employed eighty workers. And the local bookbinding union was not happy.  In another sworn and notarized affidavit published in the same volume of Library Journal, we learn that

"The said Cedric Chivers does practically all the binding of all the libraries of Greater New York, sending the books to Bath, England where they are bound and returned to this city to be distributed among the various branch libraries. On the above mentioned Wednesday, July 1, 1908, this deponent appealed to said Cedric Chivers to have the work referred to done in this city, so that many American citizens, who are idle through no fault of their own, might obtain work. He said he could not afford to, as he could do the said work with more profit to himself in Bath, England, than if said work was bound in this city."

Oh, the city of Bath loved Cedric Chivers.

"Cedric Chivers was one of the leading employers in Bath between the Wars [Boer and WWI]. Influenced by his Trade Unionist activities in London, 1891, he was an employer ahead of his time" (Bath and Its Intellectuals).

Oh yes indeed. He may be called one of the Fathers of Outsourced Off-Shore Manufacturing. For all his sympathy toward labor and unionism, when it came down to hard dollars and cents he spurned the higher-paid laborers of his new home, exported the raw work to his English and lower-paid employees, then imported the finished work duty-free. Slick. No wonder all work stopped in Bath during his funeral procession though the city. He was one of its foremost employers and Bath's favorite son, Mr. Popularity.

He had an open shop in New York and didn't care whether an employee was union or not. He had broken no laws, only the trust of the New York bookbinders union and, hence, ran afoul of New York politics. Chivers was still operating in Brooklyn as late as 1921.

It appears that decorative art binding was left at the altar when Chivers ran off to the United States to pursue Lady Greenback. But no such thing occurred. Chivers, from the evidence, continued with vellucent decorative art binding in his Bath workshops from the time of his arrival in New York in 1904 through 1908, the date of the  advertorial in The Graphic Arts and Crafts Yearbook, financed by his excellent, lucrative yet ethically questionable library work, until, apparently, the art nouveau designs used for his vellucent bindings became passé by end of the decade and demand fell off a cliff. Yet decorative binding was clearly in his heart, and vellucent bindings were in his soul. And library money was in his pocket. He had his cake, ate it, and lived happily ever after.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen.
Vellucent binding, artist unidentified, c. 1900.

It would be easy to cast Chivers as a villain in what seems like the hypocrisy of a pro-union but opportunistic businessman betraying one union for another, strictly for increased profit, effectively  pitting one nation's local trade union against another nation's. Yet there's more to the story;  Chivers' side of it.

"I was invited by a number of the chief librarians of the United States to establish myself in this country for the purpose of binding public library books according to methods and patents which had effected great economies in England and its colonies.

"About four years ago I started a bookbinding business in New York, and immediately employed a considerable staff of Brooklyn workpeople. My success has enabled me to steadily increase this staff, and they find constant employment with me, up to the present time without a day's loss of wages.

Vellucent binding, design by H. Granville Fell. 
Fell was also the illustrator of this Chapman & Hall edition from 1897. 
Winner the First International Studio Exhibition.
Twleve copies were bound thus, at £5 5s each. 
Chivers Catalogue LVIII.  
(Image courtesy of

"But my business has grown so rapidly that I have had more work than it has been possible for me thus far to educate a staff to accomplish here. I spite of one removal, I am now negotiating to enlarge my present premises. All this has rendered it desirable, in order to give prompt service to the libraries, to temporarily avail myself of my English workshops. This temporary help during the costly period of training and establishment here has enabled me to do work at less cost than would otherwise be possible.

"I explained to the trade union delegation when they called at my bindery that having a part of the work done abroad was only a temporary expedient, and that I am rapidly training workers into my special methods and enlarging my premises, in order to do the work in this country...As to the moral and legal rights of the case, I have always understood that since the Congress left it open for libraries to buy and have their work done abroad it was with the special intention that the kind of business I have been doing should be done so that educational institutions should be advantaged."

Chivers continues, with enormous ego, enumerating the many awards and medals his library bindings have won, glorifying their incredible durability and the thousands of dollars saved by public libraries which, because of said durability, can cut back on necessary copies bought by one third.

In the end, a tech-migration brought new bookbinding methods to the U.S.,  men and women who needed work found it and were educated in a trade, the bookbinding union increased its membership,  public libraries were happy, and Chivers of Brooklyn stayed in business. 

Fairy tales can come true.


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