A collection of rare books, many in unique bindings, goes under the hammer at the Bonhams Books and Manuscripts sale in London on March 16. Offered in 130 separate lots, these books were owned by bibliophile Denis Collins (1948-2015), who had commisioned many of the books to be bound by some of today's leading designer bookbinders, such as Susan Allix and Mark Cockram.
Handling the sale is Bonhams' book and manuscript valuer Simon Roberts, who sees the Collins items as a rarity in the auction world. "It is certainly very unusual for a major auction to have such a good selection of art bindings--it tends to be a retail-dominated world."
New York-based Abby Schoolman is a representative of contemporary art bookbinders (including Mark Cockram) and sees the auction as something of a sea-change in the marketplace. "This auction is particularly exciting because I believe it is the first time a big three auction house has featured a group of bindings by living art binders," Schoolman said. "All of these artists are very much alive and still working. You can commision them and buy their books from dealers. That is new."
"Other than the first twelve lots where the binder is also the author and illustrator, the contemporary binder is the headliner, not the illustrators or authors," Schoolman added. One such example is Mark Cockram's binding of the signed limited edition of The Tempest by Shakespeare, illustrated by Edmund Dulac. "If this were a typical illustrated books auction, this title would be catalogued under Dulac, the illustrator," Schoolman explained. "In an English literature auction, it might be listed under Shakespeare. Instead, the artist-binder is featured. It is extremely interesting and exciting to see."
Roberts offered further clarity into how the works were headlined: "Denis Collins was quite unusual in that many of the books were valuable even before he had the special bindings commissioned. For example, there are limited editions of works illustrated by Barbier, Dulac, and so on, and we have put them under a heading of the binder--some of Susan Allix's letters discuss at length how her bindings were inspired by the illustrator," he said, which offer insight into how the bindings developed to represent the work as a whole.
"Perhaps without intending to, this sale could be a step towards the renaissance of art binding," said Schoolman. "Bonhams is featuring these books, not burying them deep in the sale. From where I'm sitting, it's a good thing." Roberts agrees--"though we'll have to wait until the sale to see how much of a renewed interest there acutally is, it certainly feels as if the auction catalogue has captured people's imaginations--it makes a refreshing change to see genuinely unique objects in a book catalogue."
James Brockman's red goatskin binding for Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac.
Mark Cockram's flotage-dyed goatskin binding for The Tempest, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac.