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The day modern bookbinding was born

Because my background is in graphic design, I came to know TJ Cobden Sanderson from what I suspect is the opposite direction from most bookbinders. I knew all about Doves Type and Emery Walker. I was aware that Walker had a ‘crazy’ business partner who dumped all their metal type into the Thames, and years later someone undertook the job of dredging it all up and resurrecting the typeface digitally. Beyond what I considered to be that abhorrent action of purposefully destroying a font I knew nothing about Cobden Sanderson, not even his name.

A few years back, after I started getting really into bookbinding and focussing on moving in this direction career-wise I was granted a scholarship to spend a week at Gladstone’s Library, working my way through their not inconsiderable section on bookbinding and the history of books. 

(As an aside, for those unfamiliar with Gladstone’s Library: become familiar with it. Believe me when I tell you that if you are visiting this website and reading this blog, you will love this place. It’s a residential library — you can stay in a library! For a full glorious week I didn’t leave except for some fresh air breaks. I read from the moment the library opened until late at night when it closed.  It’s a gorgeous building and so very welcoming. I highly recommend it. And I want to go back right now.)

As I read my way through various books about books this figure of a man started to emerge and he absolutely fascinated me. He was a contemporary of William Morris, whose work and ideas I have always had a great affection for. I would consider him an early feminist, though the term wasn’t in popular usage then: amongst many other things, after marriage he added his wife’s name to his own. His wife, Anne, was also a fascinating figure, an independent suffragette who was jailed for her part in protests, a founding member of the Women’s Freedom League, and also instrumental in the founding of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. When they married, TJ was a lawyer who struggled with his mental health and it was Anne who suggested he spent too much time thinking rather than doing. He became a bookbinder later in life, on the back of Anne’s encouragement and a suggestion from their friend Jane Morris (William’s wife).

The more I learned about Cobden Sanderson the more I respected his ideas and ideals, not just in his own work when he was still actively producing books himself but also in his studio when he and Annie started Doves Bindery. I found the simplicity and honesty of his designs refreshing after their very complex and often fussy predecessors. Imagine my excitement when I read that he would go on to open a press and print books as well. It was his opportunity to fully create ‘the Book Beautiful’ from nearly start to finish. 

It took slightly longer than I should admit to realise that if Doves Bindery went on to start Doves Press then of course the font they would design and use there would be called Doves Type. The infamous Doves Type! But as seen from the point of view of the ‘crazy’ business partner. Who I now fully sympathised with as a character. I can see and understand his motivations, though I don’t necessarily agree with his actions. 

I don’t necessarily disagree with them either. There’s a lot of grey in our world.

Quite a lot of blather, and all just to say that TJ Cobden Sanderson’s birthday was today, in 1840. Many consider him the father of modern bookbinding and I’d be inclined to agree. Happy birthday, TJ.

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