If this blog had webcam access, you could watch your humble host drooling over the prospect of visiting the Morgan Library’s current exhibition, Protecting the Word, a display of the collection’s most precious book bindings. I’ve been to the Morgan before to feast on their treasures — it is a must-see for bibliophiles, a book palace, rivalled in the richness and the intimacy of the book experience only by the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.
But who was this Pierpont Morgan? A successful financier, no doubt. An avid reader, perhaps. But most importantly, a voracious collector and one of the outstanding bibliophiles of the Golden Age of American book collecting in the beginning of the 20th century. During his lifetime, Morgan spent today’s equivalent of roughly one billion dollars on his book and artwork collection. His accomplice was the smart and beautiful Belle da Costa Greene, librarian outré and Morgan’s secret agent for purchases and auctions. The first journalist who was allowed to enter Morgan’s book sanctuary (bequeathed to the public in 1924, 11 years after Morgan’s death) wrote in 1908: “Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan is probably the greatest collector of things splendid and beautiful and rare who has ever lived. There is no one with whom we can compare him except, perhaps, Lorenzo de Medici, and he surpasses even that Prince in the catholicity of his taste.” (Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness, 176). The story goes on:
As he proceeded through “bronze gates into a lofty hall of rarest marble,” the correspondent found himself “frightened by the task” of having to give “even the roughest description of some of the things I saw.” Everywhere he turned, there was a mind-boggling treasure to behold. He asked the identity of a “gorgeous jewelled volume,” and learned it was the Ashburnham Bible, an outstanding example of early British handicraft which Morgan had paid £10,000 to secure several years earlier. Passing by incunabula “that not even the British Museum can match,” he paused at William Blake’s original drawings for the Book of Job, Phiz’s illustrations for The Pickwick Papers, and the holograph manuscripts for Endymion, A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe. He spotted Shelley’s private notebook, and then he glanced over handwritten documents and letters of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Burns, and Charles Lamb. […] When the visitor thought he had seen all there was to see, he was brought into yet another room where “the richest jewels in this marble casket” repose, including the only known manuscript fragment to survive of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. […] “I do not believe that any one in England knows how many things that ought never to have left the country are contained in these few cubic yards of space in New York,” he wrote. “I do not know whether it was wonder or sorrow that I felt the more.” (ibid., 176-178)
I profess more wonder than sorrow, I admit.
Regarding the current exhibition, I must confess I am not very knowledgeable on the topic of book bindings. The complexity of this craft (and book making in general) is beautifully captured in Annie Tremmel Wilcox A Degree of Mastery, and so I intend to return to that volume before visiting the Morgan. I think I’ve mentioned the subject briefly in my posts on cheap books and the transition from leather bindings to cloth, but that’s about it. The British Library provides a neat little brochure on the subject, Understanding and Caring for Bookbindings. I shall leave you with this close-up of a magnificent specimen of the craft: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems bound in “deep blue goatskin, richly gilt to a floral mandorla pattern, with gilt and goffered edges, and with endleaves of Morris silk brocade ; signed and dated 1891. The delicate floral patterns, here using roses and tulips, are inspired by Morris designs but do not slavishly copy or follow them.”
About the binder:
Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, a lawyer by profession, took up binding in 1883 at the urging of Jane Burden Morris, Pre-Raphaelite muse and William Morris’s wife. Janey’s instincts were on the mark: Cobden-Sanderson proved to be not just a talented amateur but a highly skilled designer and gilder. His bindings set the mark for designer bookbinders for decades, his tools and layouts revolutionizing the aesthetic of fine bookbinding. This is one of his most attractive, balanced, and accomplished bindings.
Picture and text courtesy of the Morgan Library.