Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Royal (Roger) Payne in the Binding

by Stephen J. Gertz

Etched portrait of Roger Payne bending over his lying press
with glue pots on window-sill and mantelpiece, and a book
on the floor. Etched by Sylvester Harding for Thomas Payne,
(R.P.'s patron, no relation) dated 1800.

"The story of the life of Roger Payne, the most noted English binder of the eighteenth century, is unfortunately the common one of many men of genius. It is the history of a man generously endowed by nature with the inventive faculty of mind, and possessed of a high degree of manual skill in his handicraft,but of an entirely thriftless disposition and most irregular habits of life. The picture presented is one of days and nights devoted to patient, painstaking labor amidst surroundings of wretchedness and squalor, succeeded by long periods of idleness and dissipation, the scene closing, when he was hardly past the prime of life, with a lonely death in a comfortless garret..." (Andrews, William Loring. Roger Payne and His Art, NY: Printed at the De Vinne Press, 1892, p. 13).

Despite the difficulties of his personal life, Roger Payne (1739-1797) was the foremost British bookbinder of his time and the founder of a purely English style of binding decoration. 

THOMAS. Antiquitates Prioratus Majoris Malverne (1725).
Bound in diced Russia c. 1790's.

Payne used, almost exclusively, crimson straight-grain morocco, the better to show off his gold tooling. He was extremely sensitive to the appropriate and harmonious marriage of decoration with the character of the book he was binding. He would, for instance, adapt ornamental devices in a book's headpieces for its binding decoration.

Simply stated, the decoration followed his interpretation of the book, in service to it. Its covers were not a canvas for Payne's personal expression. So fixated on this was he that his bills invariably contained a summary of the meaning and significance of each decorative element he employed. He listened to the book, followed its orders, and decorated accordingly.

His general style was toward a richly tooled spine contrasting with clean, simple and elegantly decorated boards. If the book demanded it, however, he would go all out. Yet some of his bindings are decoratively quite spare, often with only a single gilt ruled border.

MILTON, Paradise Lost (1749). Bound c. 1766-1780.

Yet however austere his bindings might be he took extreme care and great artistry with their construction, taking pride, as he declared in his bills, that every leaf was firmly and securely separately stitched into the back square and true, and the silk headbands strongly worked in. "It is doubtful if any binder ever attended with such painstaking care and minuteness to all the small details of his work" (Loring).

It is a testament to his work and the esteem he earned in his own time that the engraving of him at the top of this post is the only eighteenth century portrait of a British bookbinder. The engraving is, indeed, one of only three portraits of a bookbinder wrought during the eighteenth century.

His work is not signed; that was not yet a custom. Many of his bills survive and it is through them that most Payne bindings have been firmly identified.

CICERO, de Officiis... (1795).
In crimson straight-grained morocco with gilt tooling.

He spares no words. His bill for binding the "^Eschylus" (Glasgow, 1795) for Lord Spencer reads:

"Glasguae MDCCXCV Flaxman Illustravit Bound in the very best manner sew'd with strong Silk, every Sheet around every Band, not false Bands, The Back lined with Russia leather, Cutt Exceeding Large. Finished in the Most Magnificent Manner Embordered with ERMINE Expressive of the High Rank of the Noble Patroness of The Designs The other Parts Finished in the most elegant Taste with small Tool Gold Borders Studded with Gold and small Tool Panes of the most Exact Work. Measured with The Compasses. It takes a great deal of Time making out the different Measurements; preparing the Tools; and making out New Patterns. The Back Finished in Compartments with parts of Gold studded Work and open Work to Relieve the Rich close studded Work. All the Tools except Studded points are obliged to be Workt off plain first and afterwards the Gold laid on & Worked off again. And this Gold Work requires double Gold being on Rough Grain'd Morocco The Impressions of the Tools must be fitted & covered at the bottom with Gold to prevent flaws & cracks. Fine Drawing Paper for Inlaying The Designs. Finest Pickt Lawn Paper for Interleaving The Designs, 1 yd. & a half of Silk..." (As cited in Loring).

HORACE, Opera (1792-93).
Bound in green straight-grained morocco.
One of the most famous of all Roger Payne bindings.

In one bill he indulges a facility with verse to indulge his facility with beer:

"But history gathers
From aged forefathers
That ales the true liquor of life
Men liv'd long in health
And preserved their wealth
Whilst barley-broth was only rife."

This was a man who, despite the demons that drove him to dissolution and a relatively early death, had won the affection, deep respect and praise of his contemporaries. After the master binder's passing, John Nichols, printer, and editor of The Gentleman's Magazine, wrote:

"He lived without rival, and died, it is feared, without a successor."

All images from Bookbinding in the British Isles, Magg Bros. Ltd, catalogs 1075 (1987) and 1212 (1996), and are courtesy of Maggs Bros. Rare Books, with our thanks.


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