Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Mark of Zaehnsdorf

by Stephen J. Gertz

Out of the night,
When the full moon is bright,
Comes the binder known as Zaehnsdorf.
This bold renegade
Carves a "Z" with his blade,
A "Z" that stands for Zaehnsdorf.

Zaehnsdorf! Zaehnsdorf! 
Bookbinder so cunning and free,
Zaehnsdorf! Zaehnsdorf! 
Who binds with the sign of the Z.

Zaehnsdorf Business Card, 1873.

On February 14, 1816, when the full moon was bright in Pesth, Austria-Hungary, Joseph Zaehnsdorf came out of the night of gestation and into the binder's day of birth.

UZANNE, Octave. Son Altesse, La Femme.
Paris: A. Quantin, 1885.
Contemporary binding by Zaehnsdorf.

Blue-gray crushed morocco, covers framed with single rule
around very broad and intricate floral border of many leaves,
blossoms, and tendrils enclosing a central field of rows of
alternating flowers and small stars, raised bands, spine
compartments similarly decorated, very handsome densely
gilt inner dentelles, marbled endpapers, top edge gilt.

At age fifteen he began his career as a binder, apprenticing with Kupp in Stuttgart. After completing his obligation to Kupp, he worked for Stephan, a leading binder in Vienna. He then became a journeyman bookbinder for firms in Zurich, Freiburg, Baden-Baden, and Paris before finally settling in London, in 1837, where he found employment with Westley & Co. 

This was a time of great upheaval in the bookbinding trade. Mechanization was establishing itself and tension between employers and the Bookbinders' Trade Society finally resulted in major firms firing any member of the Society. Zaehnsdorf found employment with James Mackenzie, one of London's finest binders and Bookbinder to the King. In c. 1842, he established his own shop.

SHAKESPEARE, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream.
London: William Heinemann, 1908.
Exhibition binding stamp-dated 1909.

Full salmon crushed morocco with gilt tooled borders,
large sumptuously gilt corner devices inlaid with black
morocco dots, elaborately gilt decorated compartments
with black inlaid dots. Salmon silk endpapers. Wide gilt
decorated dentelles. Top edge gilt.
Blind exhibition stamp to rear pastedown endleaf.

It was rough going but by 1851 the name Zaehnsdorf was found in the London Directories. Mechanization had made craft bookbinding difficult to pursue for the artisan but by perseverance, deep knowledge of his craft, and luck, Zaehnsdorf, after twenty years of struggle was, by 1861, receiving regular commissions. In 1862 he received honorable mention at the London International Exhibition and became a member of the Royal Society of Arts. He began to win exhibition medals. His prestige grew.

From Zaehnsdorf's brochure, The Binding of a Book (1890).

Zaehnsdorf died in 1886. His eulogy reads, in part: " a businessman, he was of high and unimpeachable character, upright, and straightforward in all his transactions, which won for him the esteem of all his business friends and everyone who came in contact with him.

"...Having risen from the ranks....from being a working man, he knew well, and never forgot the troubles, anxieties, and cares which befall so many of us in our humble station in life...his advice, his experience, and what is more, his purse, were always ready and open to assist any one of us who were deserving of it."

JAMI. Salaman and Absal: An Allegory.
London: J.W. Parker and Son, 1856.
Early 20th century binding by Zaehnsdorf.

Covers with multiple-rule frame and central panel containing
25 gilt flowers in rows, each flower with a long, curving leafy
stem,  the background accented with tiny gilt dots and crescents,
raised bands, spine gilt in compartments featuring alternating gilt
blossom and twining vines, gilt turn-ins, light brown silk endleaves.

His son, Joseph William, formally took over the business; he had already been running it after serving an apprenticeship with a binder in Cologne and then with his father. Joseph William further developed the business and its reputation. He wrote a book, The Art of Bookbinding (1880), important for being one of the first English manuals of substance on the craft.

J.W. made innovations to the craft, not the least of which was offering bookbinding classes to women who, during the Arts & Crafts Movement, had become interested in pursuing binding as a personal means of expression. He taught Sarah Prideaux,who later established herself as a fine binder of lasting repute.

J.W. and E.J.W. Zaehnsdorf took elements from two woodcuts by
Jost Amman, the wall tools at upper right in one and the
hammerer at lower right to the other, to create their bookplates.

His son, Ernest J.W., learned the trade and managed the business after his father retired in 1920. By now the firm had earned an international reputation, honors, and appointments as royal binders, and Ernest continued along his father's path, providing classes, and writing prolifically about the art and craft of bookbinding. He continued with the firm his grandfather established until his retirement in 1957.

BROWNING, Robert. Some Poems by… Eragny Press, 1904.
Contemporary binding by Zaehnsdorf.

Covers ruled in gilt, with an inlaid olive green morocco frame decorated
with gilt scrolling foliation and inlaid pink morocco roses, raised bands,
spine compartments similarly decorated with gilt and inlays, turn-ins gilt
with an inner toothed roll, ruled borders, and foliation, top edge gilt.

Though Zaehnsdorf was renowned for producing the finest quality and execution of work, the firm was not an innovator in binding design. They tended to imitate the styles of the past per their wealthy clients' requests. As a result, volumes bound by Zaehnsdorf are found in some of the great collections of books, whether still in private hands or now at major institutional libraries.

That said, Zaehnsdorf did, on occasion, break with the past. With the exception of the exhibition binding above, the bindings here show the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement and may have been executed by Lewis Foreman Day, a free-lance designer for the firm, who wrote The Application of Ornament (1891) and Lettering in Ornament (1902). Each generation of Zaehnsdorf shared the same aesthetic, a resistance to grandiose, over the top, all stops pulled out bindings that overwhelmed the book. They may have been imitative of general styles but Zaehnsdorf never aped the gorgeous yet gaudy, rococo bindings of Sangorski & Sutcliffe or Riviere. For Zaehnsdorf, the binding was in service to the book, not an excuse to show-off at the book's expense.

Zaehnsdorf's standard gilt-stamped signature.
The faint blindstamp of a binding hammerer to the rear endleaf
was Zaehnsdorf's proud mark for exhibition bindings.

Zaehnsdorf was acquired by department store (with a rare book department) Asprey of London in 1983, who then merged it into their earlier bindery acquisition, the great  Sangorski & Sutcliffe, but retained the Zaehnsdorf prestige identity and, the whole point of the acquisition, the Zaehnsdorf purpose-built factory to house both. In 1998, Shepherds Bindery in London bought the two famed binderies from Asprey; they retained the Sangorski & Sutcliffe brand but dropped the Zaehnsdorf name, 156 years after Joseph Zaehnsdorf rode out of the night when the full moon was bright to carve a Z with his binding blade and leave his mark on the art, craft, and trade of bookbinding.


With the exception of the exhibition binding blindstamp and 1909 exhibition binding (David Brass Rare Books) all images courtesy of Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books and Medieval Manuscripts, with our thanks.

Text images from Frank Broomhead's The Zaehnsdorfs (1842-1947): Craft Bookbinders (Ravelston: Private Libraries Association, 1986).

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