Review by Alegria Barclay
The morning of February 22nd dawned gray and dreary, transforming into a steady soaking rain by 8:30. Considering the dismal weather and the early hour, I was happily surprised to see the large number of people already spilling into the front lobby of the Grolier Club eager to start the day. The crowd consisted of conservators, bookbinders, collectors, booksellers and other book enthusiasts all gathered for a day devoted to the History Technology and Conservation of Nineteenth Century Publishers’ Bindings. The line-up seemed promising, an intriguing array of experts and scholars addressing diverse topics such as: well known book cover designers of the time, the conservation of publishers’ bindings, and the development of an online database of publishers’ bindings. Once everyone divested themselves of their dripping umbrellas and coats, the symposium began with a talk by Mindy Dubansky, Preservation Librarian at the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the mover and shaker behind the organization of this symposium, Mindy Dubansky’s presentation on the life and work of Alice C. Morse was a fitting introduction to the days’ events. Clearly passionate about her subject matter, Mindy gave a sweeping summary of the designer’s career, aesthetic sensibilities, and artistic styles.
The talk was all the more relevant given the exhibit of Morse’s work on the second floor of the Grolier Club. The Proper Decoration of Book Covers: The Life and Work of Alice C. Morse written and published by Mindy Dubansky gives a more comprehensive biography of this prominent designer.
The next speaker was Sue Allen, the foremost historian of 19th-century American book covers. Her talk was arguably one of the great highlights of the day and segued smoothly from Mindy’s talk on a specific designer to a broad overview of book covers, their materials, styles and technologies from 1830-1910. Like Mindy Dubansky, Sue Allen spoke with perceptible passion and genuine delight for the subject at hand. Accompanied by dozens of carefully selected images, Sue Allen eloquently called for the universal appreciation of these publishers’ bindings. Indeed, her talk bordered on the poetic on numerous occasions and it culminated in a litany of sorts, extolling the many intricacies, subtleties and beauty of these oft forgotten and even maligned book covers. I, for one, found myself persuaded by her words to be thrilled by the sheer variety, ingenuity and whimsicality of the works presented.
Next, we heard from Mike Kelly, the Curator of Books at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, whose talk centered on the 19th century publishing industry and the changes in manufacture and binding processes at that time. Followed by Robert J. Milevski, Preservation Librarian at the Princeton University Library. Milevski’s talk complemented Mindy Dubansky’s presentation by highlighting another well-known female book designer of the time, Louise Averill Cole, whose work graced the covers of extra bindings at the Riverside Press. Book artist Richard Minsky rounded out the morning with a discussion of book cover design and its evolution.
The afternoon began with another highlight, a presentation on the work of Sarah Whitman, given by Stuart Walker, the Conservator for the Boston Public Library. Sarah Whitman rounded out the discussion of renowned book designers, creating a holy trinity so to speak of prominent female artists of the time. Stuart Walker like those before him, was an exceptionally compelling speaker due to his undeniable passion for his topic and his sincere desire to share that enthusiasm with his audience. It, of course, only helped that Stuart’s delivery is dry and witty and therefore thoroughly entertaining to listen to. Not to mention that he regaled us with a reading from one of the novels in question, one noted for its rather racy contents, all in the name of furthering our appreciation of Sarah Whitman…an effort in which he completely succeeded.
Todd Pattison spoke next on the difficulties of conserving publishers’ bindings and the techniques for doing so, an apt accompaniment to the more historically oriented talks. For those wanting a more hands-on approach, Todd also gave a workshop on the matter, the following day at the New York Academy of Medicine. Last but not least, the day’s presentations concluded with a fascinating and inspiring survey of the site, Publishers’ Binding Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books. Jessica Lacher-Feldman, the Project Manager for the site, touched upon the extraordinary breadth and depth of the site and its uses for the public. The site is fully searchable, with a database of over 5000 bindings, 10,000 images and an incredible array of references, links and other resources. For those interested in publishers’ bindings, it is hard to imagine a better way to learn about them than through this extensive resource.
The Publishers’ Bindings Symposium ended with a panel discussion with all the speakers, moderated by Don Etherington. In speaking to attendees at the wine and cheese event afterwards, it appeared that the day was a resounding success and hopefully will set the stage for more events like this. Thank you to all who helped to bring this amazing event into fruition!