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This article is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Pictures from a Library
Beauty and Joy in the Tregaskis Collection of Bindings
Stella Halkyard


Mindful of the Keatesian maxim that a ‘thing of beauty is a joy for­ ever’, William Morris established the Kelmscott Press in 1891 to counteract what he saw as the shoddy ugliness of cheap books, manufac­tured by machines for mass markets. The purpose of the press was to produce objects that had ‘a definite claim to beauty, [whose] inks and papers would not deterio­rate over time, [and so] remain a joy forever’ (Nicholas Frankel). Early experiments with the bindings of books, however, caused Morris ‘lifelong discomfort’. Believing they should be ‘exceedingly plain, if not rough’, Kelmscott editions were not issued with ‘conventional’ leather bindings (Frankel). Instead, full vellum or Holland and linen on board were deemed ‘satisfactory’ protection in the short term. And the issue of permanent solutions was left to those who purchased, sold, and collected them.

While the ‘majority of Kelmscott books have never been rebound’ (Frankel), some notable exceptions exist. Take for example Morris’s translation of the thirteenth­-centu­ry French Romance The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane, which was issued by the press in December 1893. Over seventy copies of the edition were snapped up by the booksellers James and Mary Lee Tregaskis. These were then dis­patched to the world’s binders with the challenge for them to demonstrate the workmanship emblemat­ic of their craft in their corner of the world. One of the recipients even included Morris’s daughter, May.

Although some copies were lost in earthquakes and fires, almost the full complement returned safely to London where, in July 1894, they were displayed in the International Bookbinders exhibition in the Tregaskis’ shop in High Holborn. Far from plain or rough, a profu­sion of materials, styles and colours delighted the crowds who came to admire them, with the exquisite, embroidered Eastern bindings from Japan, China and India stealing the limelight, as in the example from the Balackashmi workshop in Chennai shown here. The show was a sensation, attracting visitors in numbers so huge they wore out the carpets. James and Mary’s faith in the power of book bindings to achieve beauty and inspire joy was vindicated but whether it could endure forever remained an open question.

In the meantime, Enriqueta Rylands was amassing books to fill the shelves of the library she was erecting in memory of her husband John (David Riley). Already a keen collector of Kelmscott editions, she bought all fifty-three publications of the press throughout the 1890s. So when the opportunity arose to acquire the Tregaskis bindings as a job lot she seized it, paying a sum of £450 (Brian Middleton). They therefore found a permanent home in a place where anyone from anywhere, now or in the future, can visit to enjoy their beauty, forever.



The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane, 1893, bound by the Balackashmi workshop in Chennai, 1894. (© The University of Manchester, 2022)

This article is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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