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Bound for glory: Crispin Jackson on book art

Crispin Jackson

Filed under: Non-fiction

Far from surrendering to e-publishing, the traditional book is acquiring ever more imaginative forms, Crispin Jackson reports.

The printed book has been around for over five and a half centuries, and for 500 of those years human beings have been taking it for granted. I have this on the authority of a senior academic at one of our major copyright libraries, who to prove his contention showed me a scribbled graffito in the margins of a magnificent late-fifteenth-century folio. Was it, I ventured, an annotation by some great Renaissance scholar? No, it was an obscenity in very poor Latin, scribbled by a bored schoolboy of the early 1500s.

Modern readers may envy the boy his ready access to volumes that, today, are the study only of librarians and the wealthiest collectors. We can be grateful for the convenience of a modern paperback or e-book, but what are their laser printing and flimsy covers to the embossed leather, rag paper and black-letter type of the incunables printed by Johannes Gutenberg and his immediate successors?

Such envy would be misplaced, however. Liberated from the burden of convenience by new technology, books are rediscovering some of their former glory, mixing the craftsmanship of Gutenberg’s day with a very modern freedom of design. In an age in which artists like Richard Long and Ian Hamilton Finlay have made the printed or engraved word central to their work, it is not surprising that contemporary ‘book-artists’ are remarkably free in the materials they use: indeed, in their definition of what constitutes a book. The ideal is to produce a printed work in which ‘art and artefact converge’ – words used by the critic of the Glasgow Herald to describe Landscapes (1999), the first book to appear under the Scottish imprint Cacafuego Press, founded (appropriately) by a poet, Tom Pow, and a printmaker, Hugh Bryden.

Some artists put the art before the artefact: Su Blackwell, for instance, makes delightful fairy-tale ‘book sculptures’ out of printed pages, as in her recent exhibition at London’s Long & Ryle Gallery, Stories from the Enchanted Forest. Others extend the traditional book format as far as it can go, like Sam Winston with his Dictionary Story, its text spiraling off the page like spilt seeds, or the Visual Editions paperback of Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, the pages of which have more perforations than a Tetley teabag.

The Camberwell-trained Margaret Cooter is even more eclectic. Margaret and I struck up a conversation on a crowded tube train because, in a carriage full of rapt Kindle users, she was intrigued by the sturdy library binding on a book I was reading: an old novel dredged up from Haringey’s reserve stacks. A visit to her excellent website revealed printed works of an altogether more exotic kind: I was particularly struck by her Richard Long-esque Small Adventures While Listening to Mozart,  and her extraordinary ‘memory balls’: slips of paper bearing names and other words, tightly bound in coloured yarn.

Margaret’s tech-savviness is by no means unusual: the web provides an excellent medium for book-artists to display their wares. Both UWE Bristol and the Camberwell campus of the University of the Arts London have relevant courses, and their websites make ideal starting points for those wanting an introduction to the ever-growing community of fine-art printers and book-makers. A more traditional forum is provided by London’s autumn fairs at the Whitechapel Gallery and at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, a long-established arena for independent artists and musicians.

Of course, some people will argue that the purpose of a book is to be read, and that most of the above items don’t count as books at all, but as artworks. But even if you insist that books conform to the traditional formula – a block of paper with a protective binding – there is ample scope for artistic extravagance. Over the last 75 years, the Folio Society has produced a series of illustrated volumes that achieve the perfect balance between the practical and the decorative, combining modern printing and binding techniques with an old-fashioned attention to type, cover design and artwork. I owe a particular debt to the Society as I was first drawn into the world of books by an open carriage, sketched in a distinctive style, which seemed to be cantering up the green spine of one of the volumes in my father’s library. The book – a collection of stories by Saki, illustrated by Osbert Lancaster – sowed a lifelong love of the work of those two great British eccentrics, but the printed note on the colophon, with its reference to Silver Opaque paper and Scholco Brillianta cloth, also made me a passionate devotee of books as decorative objects.

It took me some time to warm to traditional leather bindings, which I associated with Bibles, school prizes and the House of Lords. In this, I was severely under-estimating the book-binding fraternity (and sorority: the craft is increasingly the preserve of women). Visiting a book sale at Christie’s South Kensington last summer, I was amused to find a first edition of George Lowther’s The Adventures of Superman (1942) rebound in blue morocco ‘with multi-coloured onlays replicating the original pictorial boards’. Even more treasurable was a copy of Churchill’s My Early Life in a recently executed ‘Cosway’ binding – named after the painter of miniatures, Richard Cosway (1742-1821) – with an onlaid oval portrait of the great leader looking like a cross between Matt Lucas and Arthur Lowe.

These gems contradicted the assertion made to me some years ago by a binder that the trade was in danger of dying out because older practitioners didn’t want to pass on their secrets to potential rivals. In fact, book-binding is flourishing in Britain, presenting an opportunity for today’s authors. Even if they don’t wish to go as far as Jonathan Foer with his fiendishly complicated Book of Holes, they might want to sponsor customised editions of their works, as the late Ray Bradbury did when, in 1951, he sanctioned a limited edition of his classic novel about state-authorised book-burning, Fahrenheit 451, bound in an asbestos-based material. The Christie’s sale proved that all the arts of fine binding are available to today’s authors and publishers: they should be happy to allow the internet to disseminate their works, and to make the most of the opportunity to relaunch the book as a luxury item.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printed book ushered in period of unprecedented cultural and economic progress within Europe, even if that fact failed to register with some English schoolboys of the Tudor period. Perhaps, in its second coming, the book might affect another, smaller revolution, representing as it does the ideal commodity for a post-industrial age: a high-value product made by independent craftsmen and women and marketed through a medium of which Gutenberg would surely have approved – the internet. If you were to give George Osborne a present this year, a hand-printed edition of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory in a Cosway binding (perhaps with twin onlays bearing the likenesses of Keynes and Ed Balls) might be a good choice. I’m not sure that he would read it, but – for once – judging a book by its cover might just be the path to enlightenment.

Crispin Jackson is a writer and rare-books specialist.