Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Leonard Smithers: Human Skin Binding

I've been perusing the catalogues of Leonard Smithers from the mid 1890s. He is best known, of course, for his championing of and profiting from the decadent writers and artists of the period and he is often referred to as a 'pornographer' for the number of then very elicit works which he kept in stock. From his catalogues however, it is very clear that this assessment misses an important fact about Smithers: he really knew about books. His knowledge was much broader than sometimes presented and he had a special fondness for early American books and fine binding.

Thus, item 391 on p.87 of his Catalogue No. 3 (September 1895), sums up both his interest in binding and his rather more risque side. Headed, 'Human Skin Binding' the entry reads like this:

"HOLBEIN (Hans). Dance of Death, illustrated with Old Borders engraved on wood, with Latin Sentences and English Quatrains selected by Anatole de Montaiglon. Paris, Tross, 1856, PRINTED THROUGHOUT ON CHINA PAPER, post 8vo, appropriately bound in HUMAN SKIN, with a double of maroon morocco, enriched with three MOST WEIRD DESIGNS, executed in MOSAIC COLOURED LEATHERS, the binding specially designed and executed by the celebrated RAPARLIER. £31 10s

Raparlier is the present acknowledged master of the Bibliopegistic Art in France, and has created an entirely new school, which in point of originality is worthy of the supremacy of his country in such matters. This example is one of his masterpieces, and in time to come will rank with the most famed productions of Clovis Eve, Padeloup, Derome, and Le Monnier. The front cover of the binding, in human skin, is inlaid in orange, red, brown, white, green, yellow, and purple leathers; the back cover, in human skin, is in red, brown, green, white, yellow and pink inlay; and the double in dark brown morocco shews a crimson inlaid Gallic devil, with a ghastly grin on its white skull, dancing and beating a yellow and white tambourine."

Human skin binding is not as rare as one might think, it has been practiced on and off for hundreds of years, often using the skin of criminals and often, as here, to bind books which might seem particularly appropriate. There is much more informed writing on the subject at the Fine Books Blog. What a shame Smithers's catalogue buget didn't run to colour reproduction!

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