Monday, November 26, 2012

The Best British Binding of the 1930s

by Stephen J. Gertz

On November 29, 2012, Bloomsbury Auctions is offering a copy of Robert Vansittart's The Singing Caravan, published by The Gregynog Press in 1932. It is one of twenty-five copies specially bound by the Gregynog Bindery, one that has been called, "a brilliant binding, one of the most spectacular produced at the Gregynog Press Bindery and perhaps the best British binding of the 1930s" (Maggs,  Bookbinding in the British Isles Part II, no. 307). It is estimated to sell for £3,000-£4,000 ($4,800 - $6,400).

Bound by George Fisher at the Gregynog Press Bindery from an Art Deco-influenced design by William MacCance (signed on the lower turn-in "William MacCance. Gregynog Press Bindery. George Fisher") it is in burnt-orange oasis morocco elaborately tooled with gilt vertical and horizontal fillets of varying thickness, with solid gilt squares and four "L"  shaped onlays of black morocco on each cover. The design on the front incorporates the title and author, and on the lower cover the Press. The upper cover has a fore-edge flap in the manner of an Islamic binding (aka wallet binding) and is tooled to match the covers. It has a smooth spine with gilt lines running over from the covers and lettered up the spine. The top edge is gilt, the others uncut.

MacCance made a charcoal sketch of the design which  Fisher translated into a working drawing as guide.

Lower cover with flap opened.

"George Fisher was born in 1879. His father and grandfather were blacksmiths. He was first employed by a wealthy amateur binder to help with the forwarding and received a sund grounding in this branch of the craft. After two years his employer went to South Africa and Fisher was offered an apprenticeship to Riviere;s. He chose to become a finisher. He tooled thousands of books and also attended Douglas Cockerell's classes. After finishing his time in 1902 he was employed at the small bindery run by Miss Alice Pattinson and her partner Miss Hoffman. In 1907 he married and also set up his own workshop, but this project failed and the next years were spent teaching, with a little binding and working on his small farm in Hampshire.

"It was not until 1924 that, at the sugestion of Douglas Cockerell, he took charge of the Gregynog Press Bindery. John Mason and Sidney Cockerell had also worked there briefly, but it was not until Fisher took over that a limited number (varying between 15 and 43) of each publication were to be specially bound. Except for the sewing these were entirely the work of Fisher. He designed some of them himself but the best designs date from the early 1930s and were the work of William MacCance or Blair Hughes-Stanton. The Press o in 1940 but Fisher stayed on for another four years working on the special bindings. All this time at Gregynog Fisher had travelled the weekends to his farm which was run when he was absent by his wife. When he left the Bindery he retired to the farm and lived there until his death in 1970 but he did no more binding" (Op cit, Maggs).

Frontispiece by William MacCance.

Poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, song lyricist, and historian Robert Vansittart, 1st Baron Vansittart (1881-1957),  was a senior British diplomat before and during the Second World War. He was Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1928 to 1930 and Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938 and later served as Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the British Government. His poem, The Singing Caravan: A Sufi Tale, was originally published in London by William Heinemann in 1919.

"The Gregynog Press was unique in that everything was created under one roof - design, typography, illustration, printing and binding. Its fine printing owed much to the incomparable skill of Herbert John Hodgson, pressman from 1927 to 1936, and his successor, Idris Jones. It was fortunate also in the employment of one of the great twentieth-century bookbinders, George Fisher, who joined the staff in 1925. Fisher was responsible for inaugurating special bindings in full leather for part of each edition. Though many of these were designed by the Press artists, Fisher undertook the major part of their making himself. They were superbly executed and noted particularly for the quality of their tooling. Among private presses, only Gregynog paid attention to the quality of its bindings which were to enhance the value of the books among collectors" (Dorothy Harrop, History of Gwasg Gregynog and the Gregynog Press).

[Gregynog Press]. VANSITTART, [Robert]. The Singing Caravan. A Sufi Tale. Quarto (282 x 180 mm). Newtown: The Gregynog Press, 1932.  One of 25 specially bound copies out of a total edition of 250. Quarto (282 x 180 mm). viii, [1] f., 143 pp., plus colophon leaf. Wood-engraved frontispiece, tailpiece, and initials, in brown and black, by William McCance.

Harrop 22.

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