Volume 19 - Spring 2005


Cobden-Sanderson - Early Recollections

by E. L. Coverley

It is generally agreed that Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson has had more influence on modern bookbinding than any other person. The following brief notes may therefore be of interest to fellow-members of the craft who will remember that it was in our small workshop that he first became acquainted with the mysteries of the trade in which he was destined to make such a mark.

It was in 1880 that I first remember him as a customer, having a fine small Italian classic bound in plain morocco, Jansenist style. He was always very particular about the lettering being perfect and I remember at least one book being re-covered to please him.

One day early in 1883 he came to the shop during tea-time and said he wanted to learn bookbinding. My father tried to dissuade him from the idea at first, but finding him set on it, said that the only way to learn properly was to come into the workshop and work at the bench. His first idea had been to have some lessons, but he seemed mighty pleased at the idea of coming into the workshop - and was very proud of his first apron.

We had a very good small press by 'Meager' of 24 Endell Street, W.C., with plough and tub that we used to send out to jobs. It was almost new and the size suited him. He became so fond of this that he insisted upon buying it when he left us and it was with this press that he started business.

During his stay of rather over six months he tried his hand at every sort of job that turned up in a binder's shop - and one knows that there are many. Only one thing seemed to defeat him and that was the glue-pot, which he never quite mastered while with us.

He was always trying to find out the best way of doing things and would take no end of pains with the most simple job. We often laughed at his quaint ideas, but on the whole he was a very pleasant man to get on with. He used to go out to lunch, but always had tea with us and generally kept up a running conversation the whole of the time.

We found that he had tried quite a lot of things since he left Trinity College, Cambridge - the last thing being matrimony, he having married the youngest daughter of Richard Cobden and added that lady's name to his own. They were living at his chambers, 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, and invited my wife and me to go and see them.

Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson we found quite as enthusiastic about books as he was, and she had a great idea of setting up a press to print good books, that he might bind them. This was many years before the Doves Press was started, but she had the satisfaction of seeing her ideal realised in that direction.

When he left us, Cobden-Sanderson took a floor in Maiden Lane and started in business as a bookbinder. He had many influential friends; he seemed to know everyone in the literary and artistic world, and they sent him plenty of work. In fact, they rather overwhelmed him with it.

He had taught his wife sewing and headbanding and I think it was their first idea to do all the work themselves, but they soon found this was impossible.

The most successful books I saw bound by him while at Maiden Lane were two for Mrs. William Morris. The first was entirely covered with a small scroll tool that he had cut from a drawing he made of an iron Grill in Florence. It made a very pretty book and I remember when he showed it to me he asked what I thought it was worth, and I told him thinking it would please him to have what I thought a top price, but noticed he seemed a little disappointed at my low estimate of the value of his time. We soon found the bookbinders would never have complained of his undercutting them in price, as he succeeded in obtaining much larger sums for his bindings than we had dreamed possible.

The question of how and why he did this is well worth discussing. First as to the man himself. He was forty-three years old when he learned bookbinding and about forty-seven before he began to achieve any great success - an age when most men are thought too old to launch out in a new career - but he possessed the vitality of youth combined with the signs of mature age. Having made up his mind to do good work and finding he could obtain plenty of orders, he took an old house in The Mall, Hammersmith, close to his friend William Morris, and secured the services of two first-class workmen, Mr. Wilkinson from Zaehnsdorf's, and Mr. McLeish from Riviere's. These men had the advantage of training in two of the best shops in London and were, of course, able to execute his work with a degree of finesse that is only acquired after long practice.

Up till this time he had done both forwarding and finishing himself except when he first moved to Hendon. There I worked with him for a short time as he was getting overwhelmed with books sent to him by his numerous friends. His success at the Society of Arts Competition (where he carried off first prize with a copy of Endymion bound in blue morocco tooled all over with leaves on scrolls); lectures at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition and at various other places; interviews with newspaper correspondents, etc. had all helped to advertise him so that American collectors were anxious to possess a specimen of his work.

The Doves Bindery, as he called his new workshop, was soon turning out work at a fair rate, though the output might have been considered small by some of our west-end binders. The prices obtained were high, even considering the long time spent on the work, but his customers soon found they were making a good investment, as whenever a book bound by him came into the market it was sure to fetch a good price.

Prices at Sotheby's, November 4, 1910, the property of F. S. Ellis:

  • Endymion, blue morocco, gilt sides £131 0 0
  • Love is Enough, gilt £107 0 0
  • Morris, 4to reddy-brown morocco £111 0 0
  • Dream of John Bull, olive green, gilt £99 0 0
  • Atlanta, blue morocco, 2 single lines on side only £67 0 0

Now I believe the books turned out at Hendon when he was alone fetched higher prices than the Doves Bindery.

All his early schemes of decoration were floral, but later he began to make use of the lines that were so successfully used by Grolier, the Eves, and Le Gascon - styles that had been referred to as being closed or dead.

The future, he said, is not with them, or their developments or repetition.

And now I will close with a quotation from his article on Bookbinding, describing a well-bound book:

'It is neither out of type, nor finished so that its highest praise is that, had it been made by a machine it could not have been made better. It is individual: it is instilled with the hand that made it. It is pleasant to feel, to handle, and to see. It is the original work of an original mind working in freedom simultaneously with hand, heart, and brain to produce a thing of use which all' time shall agree, ever more and more, also to call "a thing o Beauty".

From a paper read by Mr. E. L. de Coverley, to the Master Binders' Association in about 1912.


Skin Deep - Volume 19 - Spring 2005

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