This week-end I was thinking about the Tolkien exhibition that my friend Johan Vanhecke organized in Antwerp in 1992. I recall that there was a copy on display of a bookbinding by Philip Smith. Back then I thought it looked great, but did not in the least understand the value, importance and beauty of the object. Since then I have seen many custom bookbindings, custom slipcases, rebound Lord of the Rings editions and have very much grown in admiring them. In general I do prefer a clean original copy of The Lord of the Rings over a fine binding, but sometimes the quality of the binding can be so high that I cannot but love and admire the craft and result - and then I don't mention yet the smell. Some signed books or association copies just are in such a poor state that a nice binding can give them back the looks they deserve - especially if no costs are spared to make the result match the value of the book. Next to rebound editions there is however one level higher up and this is what I want to talk about: the amazing art of bookbinding. Learning the craft of bookbinding is in itself a great challenge, but sometimes there are true artist among the binders and these elevate the craft to a true form of art. They don't just create fine bindings but actually make book art!
Over the next days I'll talk about the amazing art of bookbinding, in a series of articles where I will first look at The Lord of the Rings and show some amazing book art. After that I'll show amazing copies of The Hobbit and I will end the week with The Silmarillion and related books. In this first article in the series I am obliged to start with the best art binder in the world, Philip Smith. He is one of today's most unusual and extraordinary bookbinders. Born in 1928, he combines unorthodox materials and approaches to his fine bookbindings, sometimes creating sculptural assemblages using multiple copies and volumes of books. His influence is far and wide: he's served as Past President of Designer Bookbinders (UK), written several important books and many articles on bookbinding, and lectured extensively around the world on bookbinding as an art form. He is most famous for his fine bindings of The Lord of the Rings and that is what we will be looking at in this first article.
The bookbindings by Philip Smith, the most beautiful copies of The Lord of the Rings in the world
When Philip Smith was asked to provide some bookbindings for a one-man exhibition at Ascona in Switzerland in 1970, he decided to create a unique centre-piece. Being a long time fan of The Lord of the Rings, Philip Smith felt that this complex psychological book could be the basis for a large art work - a Lord of the Rings book wall.
There was no prior example of a series of bindings where the design flowed across several covers and Philip Smith perceived that this concept could allow him freedom of expression and technique. He ordered six sets of unbound sheets of the 1968 edition from the publishers, George Allen & Unwin, and subsequently purchased the 1966 edition from a bookseller.
The bindings were subsequently exhibited at the Craftsman's Art Exhibition in May 1973. J.R.R. Tolkien visited the exhibition and saw the bindings and was very delighted. He commented to Philip Smith that at the age of eighty-one he could at last say what he liked and that indeed he liked Philips Smith's bindings very much. Tolkien even purchased a binding of The Lord of the Rings by Philip Smith at this exhibition and presented it as a gift to the Duke of Edinburgh. Philip Smith from his side stated he owes J.R.R. Tolkien an immense debt for the inspiration he gained from the reading of his works.
Next to this large book-wall, Philip Smith later created a smaller one that consisted of 6 deluxe editions. In total he made at least 54 bindings for The Lord of the Rings and made many bindings for other books like The Hobbit, The annotated Hobbit and The Silmarillion. During the creation of these bindings Philip Smith not only changed the art of bookbinding completely, but also invented 'Maril,' marble-inlaid leathers that got their name from the 'Silmarils' from tolkien's Silmarillion. By mixing scraps and fragments of leather parings and compressing them, a block or thick tile is created. Parings from the surfaces can be taken at different angles and used to produce configurations and textures to build up images along with conventional parings for onlays or inlays. The only thing I can say is that I love 'Maril' and that it looks fantastic!
There are many more copies that I would wish to show, but who knows I'll be updating this article in the future and add some more. As for now I believe you have a good feeling how Lord of the Rings copies rebound by Philip Smith look like and so tomorrow we will have a look at some other fine bindings.
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