Posted: 2014-07-05 10:23
For most people, the title, Lawrence of Arabia '' ,conjures up a charismatic figure in Bedouin garb harassing Turks and blowing up their trains in World War I. However, Thomas Edward Lawrence who died eighty-eight years ago was a multi-faceted man. Not only was he a decorated soldier, skilful diplomat and dazzling writer, he could also make furniture, service his motorbike and maintain sparkling correspondence with numerous people of many levels: some famous and important, some humble and important to him. More to the point he was a enthusiast for finely produced books, their printing and binding. At the time of his death his library contained eight Kelmscott Press books.
Lawrence's most important book was , '' Seven Pillars of Wisdom '',his account of the Arab Revolt. Evidently, after losing his first manuscript he immediately re-wrote the account, finishing it in 1922. Totalling 400,000 words it was a lengthy work to say the least, and Lawrence had it printed by an Oxford newspaper in double column format, this first edition being just eight copies. He was persuaded to give, '' Seven Pillars.....'', wider circulation, and decided to produce a,' fine book ', an abridgement of the, ' Oxford Text ',. Two quality printers, Herbert Hodgson and Manning Pike, were engaged and Lawrence persuaded distinguished contemporary artists to provide first-rate illustrations. Particularly noteworthy, are Eric Kennington's portraits of Arabs. A total of 202 copies was produced, some to be offered at a price less than cost, some given away, one gift copy going to Winston Churchill who in Lawrence's view had made a, ' good fist ', of sorting out of post-war Middle East.....? (opinions are divided no doubt on this subject, taking into account recent events).
The relatively high cost of producing this private edition of, '' Seven Pillars...'',known as the, '' Subscriber's Edition '', was funded by publication of an abridgement entitled, '' Revolt in the Desert '',an instantaneous success in March 1927. Vyvyan Richards, Lawrence's friend of old, commented on the binding of, '' Seven Pillars...'':
'None but the best would do. I suppose there were about one hundred copies to go into fine clothes, and the best binders in London were marshalled and instructed - Sangorski and Sutcliffe, Macleish, Wood, Harrison, Best...They were given a free hand in decoration and in choice of the finest leather such as alum-cured, white pigskin....and rich, red native-dyed, Niger moroccos. Massive though the, '' Seven Pillars...'', is.....most of those bindings after hard use can be bent right back cover to cover unharmed.(...not a practice I would actively encourage JF). This was the traditional fine craftsmanship that appealed so strongly to him, as it had to William Morris ''.
A 1973 Design Binding by the now retired Alan Winstanley of Salisbury, United Kingdom. Covered in Alum-tawed pigskin with gilt-tooled, geometric onlays of green, black and red morocco. Winstanley was a former student of the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
One of the binders, Tom Harrison, in his, '' Bookbinding for Printers '' an article in a printing teaching handbook published in 1949, evinced a cautionary tale. He tells of the difficulties encountered in binding sixty of the books, each afforded a unique treatment:
'' When the sheets arrived they were in such a horrible jumble that I had to read the book to get a semblance of order into them, and then there were doubts and uncertainties. The text consisted of single leaves, four page sections, eights, sixteens and thirty-twos, and all sorts of insets. A good third of the book was plates on all manner of papers and by different processes with no margins for guarding. Plates had to be bled to text size and, in some instances, this could only be done by cutting away some of the lettering...(horrific!..JF).There were folded maps on flimsy paper to throw-out on all four sides when the book was in use. In short the book was almost an impossible task ''.
William McCance, an employee of the famous Gregynog Press visited binders on behalf of Lawrence in 1926 and left a notebook of the firms he visited, eleven in all. As Lawrence's cheques have surfaced in recent years we know that at least four were used; Best & Co., Sangorski and Sutcliffe, C. & C. McLeish and the Notary Binders. Others contacted were W.T. Wood, Riviere, Zaehnsdorf, Ramage & Co., de Coverley and Bumpus, the latter pair having been used for, '' Seven Pillars....''.
Impossible task or not, the binding was eventually complete and the books distributed. The result is one of the most desirable volumes of the 20th century, commanding a very high price at auction, now averaging £25,000 for an incomplete copy (one without all illustrations), significantly more for a complete volume, especially one with distinguished provenance.
'' Seven Pillars...'',was not the end of Lawrence's direct involvement with fine book production. Via a third party he was contacted by the eminent American book designer, Bruce Rogers who asked him to translate Homer's, '' Odyssey '', into English, Lawrence having had a classical education. Bound in black Niger, printed in slightly off-grey paper this book is regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century book production. Limited to 530 copies but has been reprinted more cheaply several times.
Even after his death, Lawrence's name remained associated with fine binding: his correspondence with H. S. Ede, leading art critic and writer;'' Secret Despatches from Arabia '', documents from the Arab Revolt; his book reviews, '' Men in Print '',and perhaps most important, his degree thesis, '' Crusader Castles '', published in two volumes.
All appeared in the decade after his death, produced by the Golden Cockerel Press at their highest quality, some in spite of wartime restrictions. The finest came from Corvinus Press, in particular the sumptuous, '' 1911 Diary '', a journal of Lawrence's travels on foot in Syria.
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Original article by Peter Metcalf (Society of Bookbinders Newsletter, August 2005).
Richards, Vyvyan: '' Book Production '', in T. E. Lawrence By His Friends edited by Lawrence, Jonathan Cape, London 1937.
Quoted in V. M. Thompson: '' Not a Suitable Hobby for an Airman '',Orchard Book, Oxford, 1087.
Knowles, Richard: '' Precious Caskets '', The Fleece Press, Huddersfield, 2003.