The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 1
Feb 1985


To the Editor:

You always manage to include news in your newsletter which generate thought and commentary.

The fact that Mr. Fleming* has discovered a veritable gold mine in French art deco bindings and has developed a strong liking for them should cause us all to rejoice with him in his success and enthusiasm.

Any recognition of bookbinding as an art should be good for the designer binders and for bookbinding as a whole.

When, however, Mr. Fleming leaves the safe ground of doing business in his business and passes final judgements on artistry and creativity he steps on the thin ice of criticism:

He does so by using superlatives where positives would be adequate and does it by applying the superlatives to a period in time and a place on the map.

I wonder what our respected British colleagues might have to say about it, to name just one group of well-established artists, past and present and outside of France.

When one considers booksellers as arbiters of quality and taste in our field one has to realize that some are good, some are better than others, and some are just plain presumptuous. As a whole they naturally rank somewhat higher in their ability to judge designer bindings than most orthodontists do. They are also batter in this respect than most divorce- and bankruptcy lawyers. But when it comes to expressing strong feelings about design, artistry and creativity, bank vice presidents (and their wives) surpass them easily with their strong sense of finality and certainty. However, even they pale in comparison with the intellectual giants of the New York publishing world.

Pretty much everyone must be now have seen those advertising pictures of perfectly serious looking gentlemen, thoughtfully nibbling at their eyeglasses and uttering statements of profound wisdom about a very, very particular kind of books and their supposedly crafted bindings. If people who, by their trade or position and their access to print, feel authorized to emit famous last words about a subject, which they obviously do not understand well enough, they put the living art of bookbinding to more discomfort than this art deserves. We have a whole confused generation of seekers knocking at our doors. If good will, ambition and a somewhat fuzzy concept of an aim are their praiseworthy assets, then a lack of direction and the disability to see and think discriminately are the shortcomings of this group. I see no chance of educating the fine arts of seeing and thinking effectively as long as the abovementioned profound statements keep flowing from the lips of the "true" authorities.

Most of all, Paul Bonet was fortunate in not having to live and work with people suffering from hubbed spines and other such true marks of the infallible expert. His talents remain undisputed; and his place in the arts was made possible because he succeeded in working according to his three principles:

  1. Price. He did not wish to discuss am estimated price.
  2. Time of Delivery. He declined to work with deadlines.
  3. Design. He reserved the right to do his layouts entirely for himself and wished no interference.

These three principles considered, it is easy to understand why the work of the dead Bonet is now a desirable commodity although he may not have been all that much fun for collectors and booksellers during his lifetime.

* John F. Fleming, a rare book dealer who paid a record price at auction for a modern illustrated book with an art deco binding. The story is on the front page of the December issue of this Newsletter. Mr. Fleming is quoted as saying, "I think the French binders are the greatest in the world not only technically but artistically and creatively." He sells Bonet bindings for prices ranging from $3000 to $75,000.

Fritz Eberhardt
Harleysville, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

Readers of the recent British Library/British Leather Manufacturers Research Associatiom report on the Conservation of Bookbinding Leather will do well to consider certain methodological flaws in its testing methods before they apply its recommendations.

The authors of the report rejected the PIRA accelerated-aging test because in 1970 "the predictions based on the PIRA test as to the durability of the leathers were not consistently borne out by the appearance of the leather after 35 years storage... The PIRA test had wrongly graded one leather in three, which is unsatisfactory when using leather for archival purposes." (p. 9) Instead, they used a gas chamber test involving the combustion products of natural gas contaminated with sulfur dioxide. Although the authors say that "The [tests] that have given the most successful correlation between test conditions and the actual behavior of leather in a library environment have involved a gas chamber" (p. 12), their own gas chamber method clearly has not been subjected to a comparison with natural aging comparable in rigor and duration to that used on the PIRA test. Thus, the authors' use of the gas chamber represents a retreat from a method of moderate but known reliability to a test of unknown reliability.

Both the PIRA test and the gas-chamber test used in the report are based on the assumption that the major agent in the decay of leather is sulfuric acid derived from atmospheric sulfur dioxide. If this assumption is incomplete and other causes of deterioration were responsible for the failure of the PIRA test in one out of three cases, then the gas chamber test would fail in just those same cases. Photo-degradation is a clear case of this: it is plainly a major cause of decay in leather spines, and it plainly would not be accelerated in a darkened gas chamber.

If, on the other hand, the authors' gas-chamber method introduced some agent of deterioration not normally associated with bookbinding leathers, then the method might predict failure of the leather in cases where it would not fail in actual use. The wooden boards used as supports for the leather (p. 67) are possible sources of such contamination.

The preparation of a control series of bindings for long-term natural aging, like the series prepared in connection with the PIRA test, is an obvious and necessary precaution for a study of this importance. If the authors prepared such a control series they do not mention it anywhere in the report.

The study's evaluation of polymers for impregnation is particularly open to question. The accelerated aging test was chosen entirely on the basis of what was believed to work for leather. The authors give us no reason to believe that this test will predict the natural aging behavior of synthetic polymers, much less of polymer-leather systems. The polymers tested are specified by broad chemical type and by trade name, and significant differences are found between products of the same chemical type; yet the authors fail to remember that manufacturers have been known to change the formula of a product without changing its trade name. The authors admit that "no marked improvement in flex life was obtained with any of the polymers" (p. 38), although some polymers improved scuff resistance or acted as barriers to sulfur dioxide. In addition, the authors admit that "treatment of existing leather bindings by impregnating them with a polyurethane is not reversible" (p. 5), and proceed to justify the use of polyurethane by what can best be described as an attack on the principle of reversibility. In view of these facts, I feel that the authors are ill-advised in making impregnation with a specific proprietary polyurethane a major part of their general procedure for book conservation. In passing, the working conservator who wants to stay working would no doubt have appreciated tests done with ethanol rather than methanol as solvent.

The fundamental error of the report is that it relies completely on one method of accelerated aging, and has no controls on that method. Accelerated aging is at best a matter of informed guesswork; at worst it is worse than flipping a coin, since it gives the illusion without the substance of knowledge. The controls for one accelerated aging test are comparison with other accelerated aging tests and with natural age; the report avoids all such comparisons. For good or ill this will be the most influential study of the conservation of binding leather done in the last half century; yet its value is sapped by lack of controls on the testing methodology.

Tom Conroy
Berkeley, California

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